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Three concepts every dog guardian should know: counterconditioning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So… just to be clear…

… must reliably mean…

And it has to be in that order too.

Keira… THEN … Keanu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is counterconditioning contrived or fake?

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

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

So…

… will eventually become

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three concepts every dog owner should know: desensitisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me delineate those adjectives.

Careful.

Gradual.

Planned.

Systematic.

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

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

Let me outline those bits too.

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

If they are, you’re too close.

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

That’s the vital bit.

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

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

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

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

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

Because even if it worked, punishment simply suppresses behaviour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three concepts every dog guardian should know: habituation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

should we ignore our dogs’ bad behaviour?

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

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

But what’s the reasoning behind this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to ignoring it again.

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

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

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

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

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

Ignoring behaviour also has other side effects.

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

  1. It may cause behaviour to increase temporarily.

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

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

Ta-dah!

Well done!

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

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

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

3. Behaviour may turn aggressive.

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

4. Ignoring behaviour is frustrating

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

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

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

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

But mostly, it doesn’t work like that.

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

Basil Fawlty showing us an extinction protocol at work:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Help! My dog hates car journeys!

Many dogs do not like being in the car. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: Knowing better and doing better

Constraint, Consent and Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I grabbed his collar.

And he bit my hand.

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

It was the only time he bit me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I told myself there would be no next time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My God! My dog bit me again!”

“What were you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

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

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

Zoos also picked up on this trend:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They basically just shut down completely.

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

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

So your pinning a dog may seem to work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the crucial bit…

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

You ask and they consent.

It really is a request, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week: how to help dogs with car journeys.

understanding the culture of adoption

At the beginning of this series of posts, I took you through some ways that we view animals and how their roles are constructed depending on our cultural values.

As with so many cultural constructs, our views shift over time. The traditional way we saw dogs as utility animals, lab animals, clothing, flesh, entertainment or companions changes as we confer new roles on dogs. One of those new roles is the role of “rescue”.

Despite the fact that across the globe, unwanted animals from a variety of species are often construed as pests, that role is changing for stray dogs, largely driven in the West by post-industrial Anglo-Saxon views.

Although some of the stereotypes about dogs persist in relation to disease and behaviour, the very large number of dogs adopted each year shows that people’s views are changing. That so many introduce their dog as a “rescue” suggests this has some social capital. Capital that presidents and prime ministers have been keen to appropriate, if Macron and Johnson are indicators of this change. Perhaps I am cynical in thinking that presidents and prime ministers rehome dogs simply to improve their image, of course. But I don’t think it’s wrong to say that it is “fashionable” to rehome a dog. It’s also part of that culture to keep referring to the dog as a “rescue”, as Graham Norton does here:

Graham Norton isn’t the only celebrity to buy in to the “rescue” moniker. Many celebrities from Ellen DeGeneres and Jennifer Aniston to George Clooney and Kaley Cuoco have dogs they’ve acquired from a shelter. That’s certainly helping the shelter agenda.

It’s so acceptable to use the “rescue” badge, in fact, that people who buy dogs may refer to them as “rescues”, and some pet shops have rebranded themselves as “rescues”. I’m a member of a few breed-specific groups on social media and it’s not that rare at all to see people write that they “adopted” their dog at 8 weeks because the breeder or puppy farm was that awful… I make no comment on that. And I read yesterday of one English kennels rebranding themselves as a rescue centre to get around the newly-introduced “Lucy’s Law” prohibiting the sale of dogs via third parties. Clearly, being a rescue means something.

We know too that the kind of dog we acquire, and where we acquire it from says something about us to people, allowing them to make a quick decision about what type of person we are. Very possibly, some of that warmth dogs evoke is something we benefit from.

But what do our rehomed dogs say about us?

That was something I asked a number of people about through a series of semi-structured interviews that I used for my final dissertation for the International School of Canine Psychology and Behaviour.

What was clear is there are many reasons why people adopt. There are many different types of adopter. This is why it’s not as easy to see “rescue” dogs as some kind of badge of honour. Those multiple reasons for adoption also mean we can’t just see adopters as a homogenous group, say for instance like Liverpool football club fans, at least for that one symbol. In reality, where there may be high levels of similarity between people who buy Christian Louboutin shoes, or between people who go to Led Zeppelin concerts, there’s no single trait that unites adopters.

It’s not, therefore, a case of signalling our virtues, or of showing how compassionate we are. Sure, though, some people do that, and I want to write about that too. I think there’s an underlying narrative for many about creating a different way than buying from a pet shop or breeder, what Donna Haraway might call the process of “autremondialisation”, creating a new paradigm than the current economic model. But I don’t think that is true for all people who acquire or rehome a pet via a shelter.

One reason I think studies about length of stay and adoptability are so contradictory is that unlike so-called pure bred dogs, dogs we rehome are not subject to the same market forces. If we are indeed constructing a new way of thinking about dogs from the moment of acquisition, there’s every reason why our choices don’t conform to economic choices.

But it’s more complicated than that.

Take for instance the fact that small, young female dogs are likely to shoot out of the shelter… why is it that bichons, maltese, lhasa apso, yorkshire terriers and shi tzu aren’t more popular registered breeds? I mean the demand we get is ridiculous, yet they are fairly low down on France’s registered breed popularity lists.

In fact, the most popular registered breeds are all fairly big dogs. Australian shepherds, malinois, staffordshire bull terriers (the smallest of them), GSD and golden retrievers top France’s most popular list. The French bulldog, cavalier and chihuahua come in at 9th, 10th and 11th place though. Yorkshire terriers flag at 13th position, and the little shi tzu at 20th. Clearly there are different market factors at work for the pedigree market and for the market to rehome pedigree dogs. Like in many shelters, the breeds we get are popular ones to buy as puppies that have little “rehome-ability” and are socially stigmatised breeds that are then hard to adopt out into the community. But there’s no accounting for why large breeds are popular as pedigree puppies and are not at all adoptable once they get into a shelter.

One thing is true though: some people certainly rehome dogs in ways that are subject to market factors. They want a young dog, a popular pedigree breed, a female, a well-behaved dog. Research about market factors certainly explains their choices.

For me, that “market” divides into two: those who want a cheap second-hand dog of a type and don’t want to pay for it, or those who like a particular breed and want to source it ethically, if you will. The same way we might want a Michael Kors handbag and buy it from ebay. We might want the “label” without the price tag. On the other hand, we might want a Michael Kors handbag but not support the disposable fashion industry (do people dispose of Michael Kors handbags? Oh to understand THAT world!) so we might have a second-hand one for our conscience.

And shelters need to understand both of these customer bases. We definitely have plenty of “second-hand dog” buyers who are looking for a cheap dog, and we definitely have plenty of people who see rescue as an ethical way of sourcing a product. Both of these motivators are likely to respond to economic factors.

Others, and I find myself among this group, tend to go for certain types of dog, or even breeds, because it speaks to something deep inside of them. One of my interviewees described how she adopted elderly female hounds and it was clear that there were factors at work about this person’s compassion and caring for vulnerable, exploited females who’ve been used up and spat out by the system.

Another spoke of adopting a series of elderly lap dogs, which were not his type at all, and then spoke of his mother’s dementia and how lost she was in a nursing home. He certainly saw the connection between lost dogs who’d been used to a certain way of living, only to find themselves cast adrift by family at the end. Part of caring for elderly lhasa apsos was a way of doing something practical in lieu of caring, which made little difference to his mother. Displacement caring, if you will.

For me, I know why I find my heart breaking over malinois. Stigmatised as “security” dogs, they work long hours, live lonely lives, are vilified by the media, seen as temperamental and highly-strung “maligators” when in fact they are sweet, obedient dogs who may be a bit gung-ho in the name of loyalty but who end up “retired” and spat out by the system that should have valued their service, their skills and their blind loyalty. I mean I’m a spaniel girl at heart, yet something about the martyrdom of the malinois in France spoke to me. Especially those elderly ones who have given their whole life to being a utility item and then are discarded when they’re inconvenient. For some of us, I’m sure certain types or breeds of dog speak to our deep-seated need to care for ourselves, care for those we love or right a wrong that is equally true of types of people as it is for types of dog.

Other people aren’t fussed about the “label” their dog comes with.

I love these adopters. No matter what their dog looked like, they all described their dogs as gorgeous, handsome or beautiful. Some, in my opinion, were fairly homely and ordinary. One was eye-bogglingly mismatched in terms of proportions and despite having no hair to speak of on their rear end, the owner still described the dog as the most handsome dog they’d ever seen.

These adopters go into adoption with their eyes wide open, knowing they are looking for that individual connection. They see past breed and see the individual dog. For me, these tend to be the adoptions that work out, as the adopters choose a dog that suits their lifestyle. They are often charmed by their dogs and I found that interviewing this type of adopter, they were less likely to comment on behavioural difficulties or problems they’d experienced. I mean everything about their dogs was ace, in their eyes, even if they bit postal workers or waiters’ ankles.

I also found these adopters also had the highest correlation between their own personalities and the dogs they adopted. Because they didn’t come wanting a particular breed or type of dog (although they sometimes adopted breeds or types) and because they were looking for a dog that matched their life the best, those tended to be the dogs that they were highly satisfied with. They may introduce their dog as a “shelter” or “rescue” dog because they know their dog is a great ambassador for adoption, and that is just wonderful. Their need for external validation was low, but they are often keen to support shelters, and thus, for them, “rescue” is not a badge but about ambassadorship. They’re not proud of their own actions, necessarily, but they’re proud of their dog.

A large number of people are also really keen to take on complicated dogs. I love this adoption group lots too. They’re often people involved in volunteering already, but not always. They’re the kind of people who turn up at a shelter explaining they have the right environment for a dog and they have the capacity and motivation to do something about it. These are the adopters who say, “who’ve you got who’s been here a while?” or ask for your oldies, your sick dogs, your maniacs or your miscreants. I would say these are the ones where, when you dig a little deeper, you find them deeply involved in lots of altruistic actions, even having made a career out of it. They’re often in public sector work, from teaching to caring, social work to police work, armed forces or nursing.

The nicest part about talking to people like this is how matter of fact they are. Some are a little unprepared for whatever problems come up, but I never got a sense from talking to these adopters that they were doing it to be noble or to draw attention to themselves. Often, and if you are part of a shelter you’ll know this, these are the dogs who are rehomed and you barely hear from the new family again. They just get on with it. That makes it hard for us to know that things are okay, but what I found for these adopters is that their need for external validation was really low. These adopters may send you private messages because they know you had a long relationship with the dog, but you can see also how much work they’ve put in. They just get on with it.

The best thing about these adopters is that all they need from you when adopting is honesty about your dogs. Both those who choose a dog who matches their temperament (and may or may not be a “problem” dog) and those who take on more challenging companion animals, they aren’t phased by the “imperfections” of the dog.

I think all this has a vital and strong message for shelters.

You WILL have those adopters who want perfect pedigree pets, who are really just after a second-hand dog. They’ll be the ones who can’t tolerate problems and may return them straight away, just like they would with shoes that didn’t fit. And you may have dogs who’d fit their needs. Probably, the dogs you’ll have that’ll fit their needs won’t LOOK right for them, and they may go away empty handed. They’ll crack for a particular physique and return the dog when it doesn’t fit in with their life. But if you have a steady stream of young, small pedigree pups without specific needs, then good for you.

You’ll also have adopters who choose a dog who’s right for them, who may or may not be a breed or type, but who are looking for an adult dog because they want a dog who they can see fits into their lifestyle, even if that’s with a little work.

You’ll have, no doubt, those great adopters who will take on your tough-to-rehome dogs. I never fail to be astonished by (and a lot in love with) those people who fall in love with dogs that I feel are going to be impossible to rehome. These are the dogs I despair of ever finding a home for, and all the adopter wants to do is “something good”. Eyes wide open, purely for the joy of doing it.

The worst thing I think shelters can do is to try and force those tough-to-rehome dogs on people whose temperament and lifestyle doesn’t match the dog’s, or to let dogs go to a home when their temperaments don’t match, but the family have cracked for a particular physique. There is no point, from a shelter perspective, trying to make every dog marketable. That way, you end up with a series of impossible tests to weed out all but the most sociable, most well-adjusted dogs. And then what do you do with the rest?

It’s important for shelters as well to share flaws as well as virtues of their dogs, stopping thinking they’re “unadoptable”. There are lots of people happy to take on the odds and sods in life. Who relish the odds and sods. Who look forward to giving a little something back to a dog.

The hardest group of adopters for me are the ones who want to adopt as an ethical choice. That’s worse still when they want to make a badge out of the word “rescue”. One issue I have with this is that the owners never let the dog lose its “rescue” or “shelter” tag – if they lost that, then that would lose all the dog’s power as a symbol for them. For these people who may find themselves out of their depth with a truly difficult dog, the word “rescue” can become an excuse for problem behaviours that they don’t have the skill to deal with. For others who want the “rescue” label but end up simply rehoming a dog without any problems, there’s a certain sense that they have to work even harder for the social capital that they wanted their “rescue” dog to gain. That can give false impressions to people who do take on more challenging dogs.

“Oh, my rescue settled in straight away!”

Often, their dog is really just a dog in a second home. It can lead to other people then thinking it’s really easy to adopt certain dogs or certain types of dog. I know I spoke at length about adopting oldies with one participant and we laughed about the whole “oh, old dogs are so easy!” myth. I mean, they can be. Ralf was a dreamboat, as was Tobby. But bloody hell if you’re not prepared for what is essentially being a canine care home… pee, shit, vomit everywhere and dogs that seem to find a second childhood or won’t settle because they’re disoriented in a new home and they’re in pain.

It’s all very well to present adopting an oldie as noble, but it’s going to be profoundly difficult when you realise you’re a burning martyr for a cause you don’t truly understand. One of my poor clients had 7 months of sleepless nights and endless vet visits without so much as a whisper of support from the shelter for a dog who screamed most of the night. Nobility goes right out of the window when you’ve got a senior like that. If you want people to think, “Look how good they are”, you’re going to find that isn’t enough to keep you going at 4am when you’ve got a pensioner who has been pacing for 3 hours. But for many of my lovely friends who’ve taken on seniors, they’re at least prepared for a sleepless night. And you know what? A lot of them spend their nights on the sofa with the dogs, because they know how much they are prepared to adapt.

Of course, most adoptions are not like that, either. Despite the misconception that surrendered dogs or shelter dogs are badly behaved or have baggage (can we stop touting this myth please?) most dogs, in the right environment with people who understand them, settle really quickly.

Neither is it helpful for people to keep using the “rescue” label to talk about their dog when really they’ve just rehomed a very easy family companion. Sadly, because some people who use the “rescue” label are in need of external validation, they often post on social media and mythologise about their dogs’ histories, often inventing trauma narratives for them about how they lived, or making up reasons for current behaviour based on unknown assumptions of abuse or neglect.

I see this sometimes on social media – dogs whose stays are gradually exaggerated or owners who profess miracles have occurred. There are even rescue associations who make a meal out of the neglect and abuse cases, or who are using your anger to feed their ego. These adopters often befriend shelter staff on social media, tagging them in all their public posts, and from my experience, it can be very hard not to interfere with the narrative they create for the dog. For instance, for one dog, his stay went from 3 months to 2 years over a period of weeks as his new family discussed him, and I could see allegations of neglect and abuse alongside lots of mythologising about how bad the shelter must have been.

Luckily, these adopters are few and far between. Sadly, it can go another way and end up as animal collecting, hoarding or even Munchausen’s by proxy.

Even at its most mild, those who continually signal their ethics and virtues by way of public posts about their dogs can also have a detrimental effect on the adoption community too. #AdoptDontShop is one example of this behaviour at its worst. Taking on a dog – any dog, from any source – should be a responsible decision. When “rescue” is used as a label for virtue signalling, a badge of honour, it harms both the dogs and the adopters.

I mean I read this great article about why Adopt Don’t Shop is harmful, and as you can imagine, the comments on social media were eye-popping. Now, I am fully on board with stopping the exploitation of dogs. I think mixing up money with dogs has caused us all kinds of issues related to status, exploitation and oppression, but I think these are issues no different from a number of other issues in our relationships with animals, and unless we’re going to live a kind of wild and free life alongside dogs, and unless we accept that many dogs don’t really fit into an urban, motorised, restricted family life, we’re moving to a world in which we’ll be conservationists of wild dog populations rather than having dogs in homes. I’m not supporting puppy farming if I say that well-adjusted, healthy family dogs have to come from somewhere. I think Adopt Don’t Shop is so conflated by contradictory aims and behaviours that to use “rescue” as a way of guilting people into where they get a dog from is counter-productive and leads to more problems than it solves. I want the right dogs in the right homes, and with the best will in the world, if all dog owners in the west went “rescue”, there’d be a huge deficit of dogs within a year or so. And a very large number of people engaged in making round dogs fit in square peg lives. I don’t want anyone arriving at the shelter having been guilted into adoption. Come, sure, knowing that we no doubt have a dog for you somewhere, but don’t come because Sharon on Facebook made you feel that other ways of acquiring a dog were not ethical.

Ultimately, I think it’s impossible to group people who adopt together as being united by one belief system. There seem to be many reasons why people acquire shelter pets, and to dismiss it as virtue signalling or a kind of cult is to misunderstand human actions completely. But I think this is why, particularly in Northern and Western Europe, we need to step away from studies about adoptability based on economic models, because that isn’t what’s driving a lot of people to adopt. There’s still so much to be learned about our motivations to adopt a dog rather than buy one, but then there’s still a lot to be learned about why we like hanging around with other species full stop.

But for shelters thinking all dogs need to be perfect or trying to run shelters like shoe shops, I think that this runs the risk of misunderstanding the best clients of all: those who choose an individual dog who is right for them, regardless of age, gender, size or fur, and those who adopt because giving something back or putting right wrongs are part of who they are as people.

Next week I’m back to the real dog stuff and I’ll be looking at constraint, consent and choice.

obstacles to animal adoption: geography and culture

I read a very interesting chapter in Dog’s Best Friend by John Sorenson and Atsuko Matsuoka that really made me think. It was about a new shelter in Istanbul, and about both its appearance and its geographical position. It really made me think about how shelters look, about the word ‘shelter’ and how we talk about kennels where you can adopt a dog, and about why people find it so hard to adopt.

After all, LOADS of people say that they would adoptand then… buy a puppy from a breeder.

Why is that?

For me, I think there are many factors behind why people say and do different things, and some of it has to do with their perceptions of shelters.

I mean, let’s think about that word for a minute.

“Shelters” in France weren’t always “shelters”. In fact, some still aren’t. The word implies sanctuary, refuge and security. In fact, our shelter is called a “refuge” here in France. The idea of protection is as inherent in it as Societies for the Protection of Animals, or Humane Societies. But despite this word, what people think about kennels from which unowned dogs are rehomed, how those kennels look and what they sometimes do can mean that people are unwilling to buy into the idea that this is what “shelters” do.

In France, that’s not much different than the rest of Europe.

French law says this: stray companion animals are the responsibility of municipal authorities. They have an obligation to either keep the animal themselves for 8 days or pay another body to do so. For us, the municipal authorities club together, pay a subsidy to a syndicate, and the syndicate ask for tenders every two years, then awarding funds to the winning tender.

For the last six years, we’ve won the tender to run the pound services. The pound and the shelter are two different things. The pound is a legal entity designed to house unclaimed animals for a short term. The shelter is a charitable trust designed to protect animals. It’s not unusual to have both the pound and a shelter on site: lots of our local neighbours are the same.

Not all pounds, however, are invested in rehoming or in animal protection. Some run in a financially efficient way, meaning mass killing of surplus animals, just as pounds often have done in the past. Sadly for those of us invested in animal protection, that financial efficiency can mean they place better tenders. That in itself is an issue. But there are plenty of pounds who run on economic models and for whom animal protection is nothing but sentimentalism. That makes it hard for our own shelter to shed the image that pounds kill strays, because it’s hard for the public to know if you are or you aren’t. Even if you aren’t, there’s still suspicion about shelters in countries where there are mixed approaches.

Despite rehoming kennels and traditional pounds being driven by two very separate agendas, many people are understandably confused by these two approaches, which are very contradictory. One is in the business of saving animals’ lives. The other is in the business of managing overpopulation and stray populations. It’s not shades of black and white either. There’s a whole spectrum of grey in between with shelters who must euthanise for space and pounds who rehome, and thousands of variables in between.

All the legal nonsense and mutually exclusive goals aside, what pounds and/or shelters sometimes have to do is so against the ethos of animal protection that some people have a hard time trusting shelters. How can you profess to be saving animals’ lives and also extinguishing them? It leaves many shelters looking hypocritical to outsiders.

Where shelters are charged with population control it can really add to that hypocrisy. The ugly side to the function of pounds and/or shelters that can be so at odds with what we’re supposed to stand for that people don’t trust us not to be dog-catching killers intent on wiping out a species.

Peck’s Bad Boy

It doesn’t help that the laws in most countries permit the legal killing of unclaimed companion animals, thus meaning that even if YOU don’t use euthanasia as a way of managing over-population, other shelters may well do, and the general public have no idea if you or you don’t.

Horse Feathers – Marx Brothers

Mostly that picture is the same across Europe and Eurasia. A pound picks up roaming or stray animals (with varying frequency depending on local laws) and (mostly) keeps them for a period of time before killing them or rehoming them. So in countries with highly restricted dogs and high levels of ownership, that pound will be responsive to individual ‘stray’ animals, and in countries with infrequently restricted dogs and low levels of ownership, it’s probably related to times they become a nuisance or a health hazard. In countries where adoption is a culture, fewer dogs will be euthanised, and in countries where supply outstrips demand, more will be.

In very, very few countries or regions do laws forbid the killing of collected animals. The UK and the USA and France are not part of the countries where legislation forbids the euthanasia of unclaimed animals. Just to put that in perspective. A growing number of countries like Italy insist on rehoming, but not all.

The Mad Dog 1932

So the number one battle shelters face is that in most countries, despite our mantra of animal protection or humane society, we ARE killing dogs and cats. We might not like to. We might have very high live release rates and adoption rates – almost 100% if we can. But we still may kill some dogs and some cats. Even if we do that for medical necessity, we still do it.

It’s at odds with what we call ourselves. A shelter or refuge should be exactly that: protection.

And so, for better or worse, shelters are talked about as if they are prisons, as if they are extermination camps, as if they are death row. And some are.

People talk about concrete and bars when they talk about shelters. And they are right, on the whole. Even if you have pretty parks and glass instead of bars, or even if you have doors and wallpapered walls.

Ash – Refuge de l’Angoumois 2019

Now that image lingers. Most people don’t feel bad about leaving a dog in kennels for a holiday. We have a really nice kennels near us. The runs are bigger, it’s smaller, it’s cleaner. They have a heated bit. But it’s still the same as a shelter. Quieter and prettier, but still offering the exact same thing.

I mean we have nicer grassed areas and parks too – and nice places to walk.

Inouk – Refuge de l’Angoumois 2019

We even have some bigger park areas where dogs can let off a bit of steam or decompress.

Snow – Refuge de l’Angoumois 2019

Shelters ARE kennels. Some shelters are nicer than some kennels. Some kennels are an awful lot nicer than some shelters. Some have comfy beds and chairs and grass and heating and others don’t. In reality, it probably matters very little to a dog. But those perceptions matter hugely to people who adopt.

Now don’t get me wrong: our shelter is often a lot better a life for some of our dogs than they have ever known. I don’t want to give the impression that we’re not.

But we still LOOK like a dog prison.

And that is one battle we have to face.

We still face a huge battle, as most shelters do, between protecting animals and sometimes killing them. Even if that’s for medical reasons rather than over-population or behaviour. In fact, we know that, for the cats for example, bringing them to the shelter is a death sentence for some – hence our extensive foster system. The sad fact is that if you don’t have widespread immunity in the local population, and you transplant animals from one area to the other then boom, you’re mixing up sick animals with diseases from various communities with one another. I know that for some of our cats, for instance, simply bringing them from one isolated population has left them vulnerable to diseases from another. The same with all creatures, including people. Even if you may not mean to kill animals, sometimes by transplanting them to a shelter where they are exposed to other animals, that can be a death sentence anyway.

Intensive quarantines are the only way forward – but they can be enormously stressful for animals. We’ve had dogs arrived in French shelters with foreign microchips and no passport who we’ve legally been obliged to quarantine for 180 days! No wonder people consider shelters to be prisons.

I think one of the hardest things a shelter has to do is turn around public opinion of the communities around them, to have an open door policy and to overcome myths that we’re prisons and extermination camps, which make it very hard for people to want to visit. Many people just don’t know what happens behind those walls, and they’re afraid to ask. Rumours spread and they make people less likely to want to adopt. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of people who will adopt animals because the shelter kills them otherwise. That doesn’t help with the “big, bad shelter” image though.

Another thing that adds to that is how shelters LOOK. You know, walls and barriers and so on. We’re designed to keep dogs in. We have a 4m high fence and 2m gates. We LOOK like a prison.

That doesn’t make us the most welcoming-looking place in the world. And it also makes it hard for people who don’t come in to imagine what actually happens behind the walls. Those barriers to reduce noise and keep dogs in also keep people from seeing the good stuff going on. For all they know, we’re an extermination camp for dogs.

It doesn’t help that this is once what MOST pounds were. I mean, 19th Century New York, stray dogs were rounded up, put into cages and drowned in the river. No wonder rumours build up about what we’re doing behind those walls. For many “shelters”, this is what we still are.

So one of the tough things shelters have to do to battle public perceptions is get out there and open doors. If we truly want to be seen as protecting the legal and moral rights of companion animals, we bloody well better do that. If we’re in a country where the law allows us to kill surplus companion animals and we do differently, we bloody well better say so. And if we don’t, we need to be honest about that too. If we aren’t, or if we’re just quietly getting on with the daily business of protecting animals, we run the risk of being seen as inauthentic by our local communities. Only when they trust us will they adopt from us because they trust in us, share our values and believe in what we are doing.

This is hard though, walls and gates and prison-style kennels apart.

Another factor that Sorenson and Matsuoka’s book made clear was the geographical location of shelters and how that leaves many as physical outsiders, a physical “othering” no different than happens with some ghettoised human groups. Just as segregation does with human populations, this geographical distance creates more than just a physical barrier.

Take a look:

One local shelter is down at the end of an unpaved dirt track, trapped between the river, a high-speed train line and a motorway, surrounded by industrial estates. It’s fairly well signposted, but it is clearly an after-thought. Would you stop by for an Open Day or a public event? “Come on Karen. Let’s spend the afternoon by the High Speed train tracks.”

Thought not.

Isn’t is interesting, though, how the way shelter animals are valued in society mimic the places they are kept?

This is the same shelter so you can see it in relation to the rest of the city:

I mean you might as well say the animals there are the untouchables, the Dalit, the unclean. They are literally next to the water purification station. The sewage treatment plant. That’s a metaphor and a half, isn’t it? The place where our shit gets cleaned up.

One more, so you can see I’m not making this stuff up… literally in the middle of some woods. The grey strip on the bottom right is a runway for the local airport. I mean you don’t get more forgotten about.

I mean you can get some sense of how shelters are geographically outcast from this aerial map of the same shelter:

And us?

Sure, beautiful forested area with lots of space to walk our dogs… 1km from a waste sorting site, a dog food factory and various other stinky and unsavoury industries.

A forest owned by the National Forestry Commission who run hunts with dogs right on our doorstep every Friday from September to March. The same commission who we lease the land from, who pave our roads, who provide our fencing, and to whom we need to be bloody polite about the abuse of animal rights literally on our doorstep most weeks in case they decide we’re a nuisance and kick us out.

Some Fridays, it doesn’t half feel like ‘Know Your Place, You Bleeding Hearts’… I won’t tell you how many hunt dogs we get in. I think my point is clear enough.

You can also get a sense of how far out of the city we are:

Believe me, we are not well signposted. I’m forever giving out GPS coordinates and asking would-be adopters to use sat-nav.

Does anything say “untouchable” like the geographical position of a shelter?

Now don’t get me wrong: maybe nothing was meant by all of this. It’s sensible to have noisy, smelly places out of suburban or residential areas. Not In My Back Yard, right? Also it’s quieter for the animals too. It’s not all bad.

But that physical isolation causes two problems. The first is that it adds to the mystery surrounding what happens in shelters. Not easy for people to know what is going on when you have low volume traffic. I mean, it took me no time at all to see where the new McDonald’s was going in my town. I went there one time to meet a friend for coffee and I was seen by five people I know who were driving past. Everybody sees what’s going down at the McDo car park. But tough to do that with a shelter.

The second problem is it literally distances adopters from the animals. In a way, that’s fine, because if you want a dog or a cat, you’ll make the effort. But it makes it tough to get volunteers or even staff. Irregular bus services or public transport make it a nightmare to make good use of young people who might be the first step in changing the minds of a community.

That’s worse still for us here in France, as a large number of big towns and cities with nice suburban areas and plenty of great places dogs and cats could live… they don’t even have proper shelters. I mean we’re one of the largest shelters in France and … we serve an area with a below-average population density and a town that is the 171st largest in France. Bordeaux, by contrast, a much, much bigger city, has no shelter. I need not explain to you what happens to stray animals there.

But what that means is that all the lovely people of Bordeaux – and wealthy urban liberals tend to make really good adopters who buy into the ethos of shelters – would have to drive 2 hours or so to find themselves a shelter dog or cat. And if that shelter needs a homecheck? Wow do the logistics get tricky.

Where countries do have networks or franchises of shelters, which France does a little, that can ease things by moving dogs to places they’re more likely to be adopted. At the same time, it’s a crying shame a big old town like Bordeaux is just sitting there without any way to help out.

What does that mean for shelters?

The first thing is to consider your geographical location and your surroundings. Are town dumps and sewage plants linking your shelter with emotional responses of disgust and dirt? How far are you from the kind of residential areas that would suit your animals?

Once you work out that depressing picture, you can at least begin to combat it.

Now I’m not suggesting hauling arse into the city with a busload of shelter animals, though yes, some shelters do this, but it’s worthwhile thinking how you can market your dogs better and get them seen in the places they should be seen.

As a sensible animal lover who also knows the bite risk of taking live animals from one stressful environment to another, I’m more a fan of publicity stands with one or two bombproof demo dogs. I mean you can’t take all your animals up to the big city (we have around 400…) so chances are, your ‘customers’ will need to drive out anyway unless they want that exact dog or cat you’ve taken into town. Plus, if you’re good at online marketing and you have reached a good level of foot traffic as we have, our easily adoptable dogs are gone in hours or days, which leaves us in the unenviable position of trying to take our more complicated dogs into town. Not for me.

Social media definitely helps bridge the gap. Photos, videos, stories and posts all help people know what happens in your shelter and helps them arrive with animals in mind. You wouldn’t think there are shelters who aren’t on board with that yet, but I KNOW at least five local shelters where they have had to have some big arguments about whether to use social media at all or not.

For us in France, we’re behind the times.

We don’t have rich charities who can pay for social media teams like the UK does, or like some shelters in the US. It is very much a grassroots kind of thing. I mean “social media” for one of France’s largest shelters is basically a team of five volunteers. But it works.

That said, you have to go through some pretty uncomfortable periods where frustrated individuals berate you on Facebook at midnight because you wouldn’t let them adopt a St Bernard as they lived in a 10th floor apartment and work 8-6, or some heartbroken couple who share stories of their kitten who died of FIP shortly after adoption, unwittingly giving everyone the idea that all your animals are sick and diseased.

And if you kill dogs and cats for space… that can make some shelters very reticent to share their animals only to then have to explain “we killed this one for space” and face uproar in a community that don’t understand. People follow posts. They want to know what happened to Mabrouk or Mabelle. Heaven help you if you don’t have a good answer. Of course, we also know those shelters who work with the !!!!!THIS DOG WILL BE EUTHANISED TOMORROW AT 7AM IF NOBODY ADOPTS THEM!!!! and seem to be torn either between having no shame or being completely desperate. Or both.

What is important though is recognising the geographical problems you face as well as dealing with misconceptions about what you do.

It’s important to build up an authentic relationship both in real life and on social media with people who share your values and who will adopt from you time after time. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing people coming back again and again, becoming involved in a community. With so many shelters being geographically outcast, it’s vital to build a community who work by word of mouth. I mean, in my tiny hamlet, the number of dogs and cats from our shelter has gone from 0 to 9. I know I have two of those animals, but even so… as a friend said a few weeks ago, “you’d have to be bloody hard-hearted in our community NOT to have a shelter dog”.

That brings me to a final point.

You may do everything you can to open up your shelter to the world and people will still find it hard to cross the threshold.

Whether people believe you’re dog catchers out to kill all the dogs in the world, or whether they’re just not ready to face a wall of dogs who remind us of our failings as a species, some people are going to find it hard to cross your threshold even if they say they would adopt.

Shelters can make this easier by bringing dogs out of the shelter, using areas that have a more home-like feel or even using foster systems.

Foster systems, for me, are the future. We’re not there yet at our shelter because so much of our client base is – believe it or not – foot traffic. It’s changing, and we’re already changing for the cats, where most of our kittens are off-site. We’re happy to lose those “customers” who want to “buy” a kitten in 10 minutes. But we’re not there yet, and most of our dogs in foster are there for age or medical reasons. We’re yet to start using fosters for behavioural reasons or for other reasons. People still turn up at the shelter and expect to “buy” a dog in 30 minutes as if they are buying a pair of shoes. That’s one behaviour our cattery staff and volunteers have been really good at fighting. But we’re not there yet with the dogs.

It’s not just about getting out into the community. The truth is though that fosters – even short term ones – can be really good for dogs who need a stress break from the shelter. Gunter et al. (2019) found that temporary foster systems for short stays were as effective as you’d expect at reducing stress levels short term.

That said, not only are foster systems good for dogs, they can get the dogs into parts of the community shelters don’t normally touch. What wouldn’t I do to get shelter dogs in a foster network in Bordeaux? I daren’t bear to tell you. When foster dogs have lower cortisol levels and are more likely to cope with outings, that makes it easier to take them to public events. Mohan-Gibbons et al. (2014) found that foster programmes were a great way to get dogs to the places where they might be adopted and to break down the geographical barriers to adoption.

For me, shelters have a long way to go to move opinion from animal control. That’s made much harder because of the geographical location of many shelters. Foster programmes, social media and other outreach work can help shelters encourage more people to adopt. Opening our doors and engaging with the community may be the first way to achieve that.

Next week, in the final post in this series, I’ll be bringing the last posts all together to help shelters make the most impact in adopting out animals successfully.

Gunter, L. M., Feuerbacher, E. N., Gilchrist, R. ., Wynne, C. D. L. 2019. Evaluating the effects of a temporary fostering program on shelter dog welfare. PeerJ 7:e6620

Mohan-Gibbons, H., Weiss, E., Garrison, L. and Allison, M. 2014. Evaluation of a Novel Dog Adoption Program in Two US Communities. PLoS One 9(3): e91959.

Strays, rescues and shelter dogs

In the last two posts, I’ve been looking at how we view dogs as a social construct, and then how we view dogs who belong to a small group with a name of its own, known as a breed. Today I’m looking at how we view strays, rescues and shelter dogs, before, during and after their arrival at the shelter.

Most of the world’s dogs live unrestrained lives. With around 200m dogs in the handful of post-industrial, developed countries and another 800m or so in the rest of the world, it’s only in recent times that restraint and ownership have really come into their own. Some dogs living in some cities now have the misfortune to only be allowed in very, very specific places. If your landlord agrees, and the other tenants agree, and you keep your dog tethered on the street, and you have a dog park, your dog might have a tiny modicum of what we might consider freedom. Their rights to eat what they want, go where they want and reproduce with whichever dog takes their fancy are so very narrow that we now have to consider enrichment activities as if they are zoo or lab animals.

I make no judgement on that, by the way. It’s just a description of how some dogs live in the modern world.

Some countries don’t face problems with unrestrained populations. I am, by the way, going to leave ‘unowned’ populations until later because that’s different again. Unrestrained doesn’t mean unowned. The cocker up the road is a perfect example. You can spend your days at liberty without meaning you don’t have a name on your ID documents. He wanders about a quiet village to his heart’s content. Sure, he annoys all the other restrained dogs, but c’est la vie. Lots of things annoy restrained dogs.

Unrestrained dogs were fairly regular in my childhood, despite leads being more and more common. In British suburbia we did have dogs who took themselves off for a walk in the 70s. But most of the dogs on our street lived restrained lives, from the westie at number 1, the pair of chows who lived at number 17, the labrador next door, the collie at the end of the cul-de-sac and our own cocker spaniel. You can see one reason why on this photo…. cars. The invention of the automobile changed a lot for dogs.

Me, restrained, with dog, 1975

In the US, in Australia, in Japan, in France, in the UK, and in many other post-industrial societies, the gradual loss of freedom for our dogs has been an on-going process these past few decades. The wealthier the country (or even region) and the more urban it is, the less likely it is that unrestrained dogs will be tolerated.

We still get ‘stray’ dogs – owned dogs (whether identified or not) who are temporarily unrestrained. Whether they’ve escaped or got out or been let out… there have been times my own dogs have been stray. Temporarily unrestrained. But they don’t live in complete freedom.

We don’t have populations of dogs who live unrestrained, ownerless lives in north-western European countries. It’s why I always laugh about that stray dog myth going around about the Netherlands, that they have abolished their ‘stray dog’ population. No they haven’t. Any such country, where dogs live and are restrained, might accidentally face a sudden break for freedom. What they mean is that the Netherlands, like France, the UK, Germany and a large number of largely northern, largely western, European countries, don’t have dogs who live permanently unrestrained or ownerless lives. You know, Call of the Wild stuff. The Netherlands are certainly not the only country not to have dogs who live permanently unrestrained lives.

In a number of those countries, reducing unrestrained and unowned populations has also been linked to the (practical) eradication of rabies in dogs, like in France for instance. But remember too that a number of these countries who like to brag about their lack of dog problems and bemoan those in southern or eastern Europe (and the rest of the world) are small populations over vast terrains that are largely unsuitable for dogs to live in because there’s a) nothing to eat and b) nobody to mate with. Scandinavia just hasn’t faced the same issues Germany or France have.

In post-industrial countries with large, dense populations like Japan, France, Germany and the UK, we got there by extensive culling of dog populations, a move to bought dogs rather than found ones, and by the commodification of dogs in general. By turning them into property, giving them identification details, having licences and legal obligations, we’ve removed the majority of what were once unrestrained dogs or unowned dogs. We may get strays, but we do not have large populations of permanently unrestrained or unowned dogs. That didn’t come into being in glamorous ways where people suddenly started thinking differently about dogs’ freedom and ownership: it came by mass culling as well as legal and cultural change about restriction, sterilisation and ownership. Ironically, the cultures where we find it abhorrent that others kill stray dogs are ones where we had to cull a large number of dogs just to achieve that coveted status of being a ‘no kill’ country. And worse still, a lot of those cultures where we believe mass killings of dogs is unethical are ones who still practise it whilst at the same time demonising other nations that do. Tricky, this morality and ethics business.

How we currently deal with those who are temporarily unowned or unrestrained dogs in Europe depends on many things. In some countries like Italy, some dogs may languish in shelters as it is illegal to euthanise. In others, such as pre-2014 Denmark when legislation changed, if you wanted to shoot such a dog, you could. In countries like the UK and France, the futures of these dogs (and cats by the way) are shrouded in secrecy in many cases: moral outrage means that if shelters euthanise, they are subject to intense public scorn, and if they don’t, they may end up with dogs in kennels for a long time. In other countries like Spain, it varies region to region. In some countries, dogs and cats are killed on capture. In others, there is a legal delay of between 3-90 days before municipal authorities can kill unclaimed dogs and cats. What’s important to remember – the “gold standard” of 100% identified dogs with 100% accurate details, 100% restrained lives and as close to 100% reclaiming/rehoming if they are temporarily unowned – is a work in progress for most countries. That is easy in a country of one person. It is easy in a country with one dog. It is not so easy in a country of 80 million people and 8 million dogs.

Outside our very blinkered Northern/Western Europe paradigm, the picture changes. Dogs do live unrestrained lives.

“Unowned” dogs might not have one named owner, but they still might belong. Dogs like this might even have a number of humans that they consider sources of something useful – whether that’s a place to sleep, someone who feeds them or gives them water. The dogs, whether they are urban or rural, might be known as village dogs, pariah dogs, street dogs or so on. They, collectively, depend on us, collectively.

In some cultures, that’s accepted and encouraged. Nobody owns them and most people care for them in some way or another.

In others, dogs like this are seen as a nuisance, especially to us wealthy post-industrial tourists. Sometimes, dogs are seen as a nuisance due to over-population or failure of trap-neuter-release schemes. Other times, public policy changes as the country develops, and what had been a fairly benign relationship between communities and their dogs then becomes antagonistic as society tries to clean itself up to emulate Western European standards. Witness the mass round-up and slaughter of dogs in some cities before global events like the Olympics, for example. As societies move from a benign or tolerant approach to dogs, or even one where large populations are sporadically culled, into a world of new media where both unowned and/or unrestrained dogs are not tolerated by people in the west who impose their values on other countries both for having such dogs and for trying to deal with the problem, we then get a number of interventions.

Some of these interventions have been successful, such as trap-neuter-release schemes in Bali and other SE Asian countries. Others are less successful (and I’ll add this in very big capital letters is very much my OWN opinion and you’re very welcome to challenge me on it), by transplanting dogs who have lived permanently unrestrained and unowned lives into countries where they are then subject to fairly intense restraint. That’s not to say that dogs who’ve lived family lives in one geographical area can’t make great dogs in another, but in my opinion (let me stress that) we need to think carefully about the kind of lives we are offering to dogs who have come from living on the streets and whether it is fair to ask them to adapt. We Cultural Imperialists like to do such things – witness all the 19th and 20th century attempts to ‘domesticate’ indigenous peoples by displacing them into “civilised” places – and I think it’s worth an ethical conversation with ourselves about what consequences there are. As long as we’re having that conversation and we know it’s truly for the best for that animal as an individual, then I think we can live with that.

If you disagree with me, as well you might, ask yourself how we manage cats and how we think about cats. Cats are (and this is not my opinion) as worthy as dogs, but we humans feel peculiar about dogs in ways that would take 10 books and several encyclopedias to explain. I include myself in that, of course. But we don’t call cats “rescue” cats, we don’t fly thousands of miles to pick them up, and when I travelled through Morocco’s ports with a number of kitty friends, I did not think I should send them back to the UK as a solution. Thinking of things that way can sometimes shine a light on our own Western behaviour of transplanting populations of animals without consideration of their welfare. Of course, those decisions are easy to make when there are benevolent trap-neuter-release schemes and education programmes designed to help dogs stay in situ and help the public know how to have a relationship with these dogs, but it is not an easy decision when someone is sharing photos on Facebook of dogs in a pound who will be killed the next week if no home can be found. Ethics are great in theory, aren’t they?

A lot of it is about how we feel about unowned and unrestrained animals, though, as a culture.

James Serpell (2004) plotted animals (and dogs) on a graph of emotion vs usefulness.

I think this is a useful way of looking at dogs. At the same time, social psychologists were busy doing a similar thing showing how people thought about other people:

from Pocketbook – click the image for more

I don’t see these as different in many ways. We have dogs we admire, like service dogs and support dogs. They are useful (competent) and we like them, having warm feelings towards them. The effect that dogs have, by the way, transfers to humans and makes others more likely to talk to us if we’re in a wheelchair, get us a phone number or get them to be helpful. The role of certain types of dog as ice-breakers is pretty well established.

We have dogs who we don’t like so much but who are useful, like security dogs or guard dogs for example. If they seem biddable and friendly then we might feel more warmly about them. But otherwise, we tolerate them and are a bit scared of them. Unlike humans, they’re not competing with us, but they might pose a threat if we’re on the sharp end of their teeth if we’re taking drugs through airports or messing with explosives. In France, many French feel “cold” about working dogs like hunt dogs, even though the dogs are useful. It’s one of the problems we struggle with at adoption, as British, Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, Austrian and German adopters love our hounds, pointers, setters and spaniels, but convincing a French person (of a certain age) that they are family pets is another thing entirely.

For stray dogs, whether temporarily unrestrained and unowned, or permanently, we may feel contempt and loathing, or pity. It’s these feelings shelters may have to deal with, that people don’t feel the same about such dogs as they do about guide dogs. If they look sweet and we find them appealing, we’ll feel pity and if they look ‘cold’, we’ll find ourselves having a reaction on a purely emotional level to them that is one of disgust or scorn.

Ania 2020

You’ll see how this works. This is Ania. 13 years old and found as a stray. Do you have positive feelings of pity? A pang of ‘Aww?’ A sense of outrage on her behalf that this has befallen her? Do you feel sorry for her and feel like you want to intervene in her life? She’s not ‘useful’ – but she definitely makes us feel warm towards her.

If you don’t, I think you need to visit a cardiologist, pronto, and check out if you’ve got a cold lump of granite instead of beating living tissue in there, you stone cold beast.

Oural 2020

Then poor Oural here who looks scared… most people don’t have the same response to an ‘awww’ for him. If I add that he barks, that he growls (he doesn’t but if you came to the shelter, we have dogs who do) and that he’s suspicious of people, immediately all the warmth starts to drop… some people and cultures feel less warm about boy dogs (those puppy dog’s tails) and about dogs with pointy ears (seriously) and we start moving from pity to contempt.

Now of course we pick up on this when we ‘market’ shelter dogs. My bloody heart breaks when I see old dogs in shelters. But I know disgust vs pity is a fine line and based on personal views. Not everyone thinks an old dog is something lovely and it might well make you feel scorn or disgust rather than pity. But I know enough people adopt dogs they feel sorry for, and that’s why Ania here will find a home quicker than Eden

Eden 2020

Ania has that air of dejection that Eden lacks. Despite the fact this boy lived all his life chained up in a garage filled with rubbish, despite his similar age to Ania, despite even those floppy ears, we just don’t feel the same, especially when we visit him and our feelings of ‘awww’ fade as we realise he has a few ‘nuisance’ behaviours in kennels. Result: Ania will have a stay of days, and Eden has had a stay of years.

Our feelings about dogs in shelters are impaired also because of perceptions they aren’t good dogs. We might blame the dog, we might blame the former owner, we might blame the shelter experience itself. We might not even like that we feel this way, but we can’t ignore it. We might blame culture and our rational thoughts tell us pit bulls are not responsible for how they’ve been created whilst at the same time, our emotional systems are telling us that these dogs don’t merit the same response as a cocker spaniel. That’s borne out thousands of times on social media shares. Small, young female cocker spaniel? She’ll be shared thousands of times. Lummox of a muttley middle-aged male? He’ll be lucky to get a handful even though the first dog really doesn’t need your shares and the second is the one who really, really does.

For me, I think this is why studies about shelter dogs haven’t been able to agree as to whether temperament or looks are more appealing, and that they can’t find a single thing that dogs could do to make themselves more adoptable, behaviour-wise. I think it’s why fearful dogs will find a home more quickly than aggressive-looking ones, as even though both are about fear, a sad looking dog inspires our positive affects, and an angry-looking one doesn’t. If a dog makes you feel pity rather than loathing, you’ll adopt it. If you feel warm rather than cold, bam, you might as well put your name on the adoption contract.

Refuge de l’Angoumois 2020

Trouble is, other things are at work that affect whether we feel warm or cold towards dogs.

Pedigree is one of those things and it works in a variety of ways. Partly because of how we view breed dogs as “pure-bred” and say things along the lines that we know their heritage and their behaviour will be predictable, that then affects how we view other dogs. I think that’s why some pedigree/breed or type dogs will leave soonest. I think that’s why other breeds like bull terrier breeds (or even terriers themselves) will stay longer because pedigree isn’t always experienced positively for humans, and because we bring a shedload of prejudices with us. For us in France, our hounds are seen often as ‘useful’ but ‘cold’ – they’re seen as outdoor, untrainable dirty, loathsome dogs who won’t bond with humans. It’s categorically untrue, but the chance of a French person adopting a dog like Jaguar (below) is very, very low.

Jaguar 2020

In a shelter in France, he gets the contempt response, not the pity response. In Germany, where they don’t face such stigma, he’ll be gone in days. Especially where they know his story, which adds loads to his ability to make us feel sorry for him.

What we do know though is that dogs who’ve passed through a shelter or been rehomed are incredibly popular. There are a lot of warm and kind people out there who take on a dog they may not know much about or a dog who may have faced a lot of disruption. In France, by my estimates, at least 65000 dogs are rehomed every year and that makes them more popular than Aussie shepherds, Malinois, German Shepherds , staffies, Amstaffs and golden retrievers put together. The top 6 registered breeds in 2018 in France can’t compete with shelter dogs in popularity. I suspect that picture is duplicated in a number of other countries too.

There are differences, though. In the UK, for example, which has 9.9m dogs (estimated) to France’s 7.3m in a similar-sized population, our French shelter population is only the same size as the top two British breeds, the French bulldog and the labrador. These cultural facts make a difference: French people like “type” dogs, but breeds are clearly much, much less of a commodity here. In fact, four of the top six French breeds require registration to work (Malinois and GSD) or to avoid BSL (staffies and Amstaffs). You’ll see a number of yorkies or bichons for sure, but without paperwork to speak of. Work about your own national and regional demographics is vital if you want to understand what you’re up against as a shelter.

What else do we know about adoption trends from academic studies?

Surprisingly little, actually.

Most studies are done in the USA, Australia or the UK. Very little exists in Europe, and what I know of UK, German and French shelters is that there are enormous cultural differences. We need more studies about global shelter sizes, populations and trends. Until we understand demographics, we can’t compare countries or the specifics of particular systems. We can’t even compare ourselves with our neighbours.

We also know that the studies that have been undertaken fail to really show us anything in particular.

Most studies have focused on how dogs look or behave.

How dogs look has frequently been investigated as a factor behind why people choose a specific shelter dog, with variables such as size, coat length and colour, breed and age influencing adoption rates. I’ll just take you thought a handful…

Normando et al. (2006): young dogs adopted more quickly, gender not an issue

Posage et al. (1998): some breeds (terrier, toy, hound and non-sporting) are more successfully adopted. Light coat colours, small size and surrendered dogs from homes were also more popular.

Protopopova et al. (2012): breed type and small size determine length of stay.

Weiss et al. (2012): appearance in general was important for just 29% of dog adopters

Brown et al. (2013): young dogs and small dogs stay the shortest time in shelters. Coat colour and sex did not influence adopters. Guarding breeds stay longest. Giant breeds had the shortest stay. “Fighting” breeds were adopted surprisingly quickly.

Siettou et al. (2014): young dogs, small dogs, pedigree dogs and coat length affected speed of adoption.

Kay et al. (2018): age, coat colour and breed affect adoption rates.

Voslářová et al. (2019): coat colour influences length of stay and black dogs stay longest.

As you can see from this small selection of research about physical factors influencing length of stay, nobody agrees on everything. Sometimes things matter and other times they don’t. For us, small female bichons under two years of age will not stay long. Middle-aged big dogs of unknown heritage will stay an age (sorry Eden). Old dogs go quickly as long as they’re smallish and behave like old dogs.

Looking puppyish or like a juvenile also influences us, though studies were not carried out in a shelter (hence our love of squashed noses, oversized floppy ears and supersized bug eyes). Human coloured eyes might also influence our choices (like blue or honey-coloured eyes). Large eye size and inner brow movement have also been suggested to increase the appeal of dogs.

Despite this, decisions to adopt based on looks are clearly complex and no single factor studied has made us say “that’s the one!” Studies suggest that if a dog conforms to a certain type, they will be more easily adopted, but do not explain why results are often contradictory or complex.

We also have stereotypes about dogs in shelters which might not be true, like the black dog effect and do not address reasons why certain types of dog are over-represented in shelters in the first place.

Some shelters are following training programmes or enrichment programmes to increase adoptability by changing canine behaviour. A number of studies have shown that shelter staff and facilities may aid adoption. You know, nice spaces, helpful and knowledgeable staff. Even so, studies about in-shelter training or shelter enrichment programmes have shown inconsistent results and have failed to show a clear correlation with adoption rates. In-shelter research has mainly focused on how dogs can behave in ways more conducive to adoption such as lying down or engaging in play although a number of unpleasant behaviours such as jumping and mouthing were shown to be unimportant. Currently, the range of studies about behaviour have failed to demonstrate that teaching specific behaviours or changing the shelter environment would increase adoption. 

All that scientific research!

For me, why they’ve failed to find patterns is because we fall in love quickly and it depends on how we feel about the dog. Do we have warm feelings towards them? Because if we do, we’ll be more likely to adopt. I think about Flika and how I think I may have left her had she not had a nosebleed on my foot. My pity levels shot up. And then, when she was here, she reminded me of my old dog Tobby. Not so much in looks but in personality and even how she moved. Warm feelings go up again. Now I’ve got myself feeling all gooey about old malinois as a result of my experiences with them, I then fall in love with them over and over. No longer do I feel contempt for those who shout at me from behind the bars, I just feel love and pity. I think that’s why so many people arrive having just lost a dog, as they’re not exactly lookin for a replacement, but we’ve got al kinds of warm and gooey feelings left over and we want to help another dog – maybe not one too like our last, but we want to adopt a dog to care for it in the ways we may not have been able to do with our last. Look at how mine went: lost Ralf suddenly and fairly traumatically, took on a dog I felt very little for (Tobby) but who needed a home, who then made me feel squishy about malinois and made me unable to resist Mrs Knickers. Compare that to the long, slow losses of Tilly, Tobby and Amigo, and caring for them exhausted me so much I didn’t think I had it in me to do it again. Four ageing dogs in five years has zapped my abiity to cope and then I take a younger one.

These narratives that lie behind people’s reasons to adopt a dog are worth listening to, not least because I do not think all people take shelter dogs in a commodity-purchase kind of way. The studies conducted have seen dogs as a commodity (what sells best? How can we test the product variability?) or the shelter as a distribution point (how can we market better, do sales better, help our clients better?) and adopters as customers. Now I think there are no downsides to better marketing, sales and customer relations, don’t get me wrong, and some people do want a second-hand/cheap dog.

But many others are deeply affected by their feelings towards a dog that may be influenced by but not ruled by breed or size or age, colour or sex or coat length. That’s why shelters have adopters who say “I’d like a young female spaniel” and leave with an elderly male German shepherd. The heart wants what the heart wants. Such adopters do not bear up to quantitative studies. You ask them and they try to justify why they picked the dog, but they can’t really explain why the homeliest dogs you’ve ever seen is one they find handsome or cute and loveable. It’s why adopters fall in love with the misfits and the grumps and the ones who look like they’ve been stuck together wrong.

People do fall in love with all kinds of unpredictable dogs that leave you wondering what on earth was going on in their tiny brain.

What I think this says for shelters is yes, you can obey the rules of marketing once you know your own shelter demographics, but you’ll also need to fight prejudice and contempt for some of your dogs. Sometimes, that will be your own prejudice and contempt too. I’m not a Jack Russell fan, and I know I need to fight my own feelings about cuties like this boy:

Look 2020

That affects us all: shelter workers who present their own favourites and ignore the dogs they feel negatively about, as well as euthanasia policies, marketing policies and adoptions. Sometimes, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think it’s helpful for some of our dogs if we can move them to other shelters who don’t face the same stigma for certain types. We certainly make use of that to rehome our hounds.

I think it’s important to know that people may be governed by cultural preferences for dogs as a commodity, but that not everybody is. Every dog will have someone who makes them all gooey and some adopters are governed by very strong emotional affects like pity, love or empathy. I don’t think we should underestimate BOTH market factors that drive adoption of dogs-as-a-commodity, and emotional factors that drive adoption of others. Shelters definitely need their own data though, as it varies so very widely, but it’s worth understanding which of your client groups are driven by economical factors and which are driven by emotions. For some, a shelter dog is a cheap dog. For others, it’s the equivalent of ethical sourcing. In both, the shelter dog is a ‘second hand dog’ and whether that appeals to people for economy or ethics that’s worth understanding. However, a large number of people ARE driven by emotional affect to adopt a dog, and it’s worth bearing that in mind for dogs who fall into any of the studies’ “unhomeable” groups or if you don’t have a strong enough base of “ethical” buyers who are still driven by market forces but want an ethically-sourced dog. Someone out there somewhere WILL have warm feelings and knowing when to inspire pathos in your advertising and for which dogs is certainly a skill for shelters to consider. Woe betide you, however, if you as a shelter constantly go for the pity factor, as you’ll soon find yourself inspiring cold and incompetent feelings when people suss that this is what you’re up to. Save the emotional appeals for where they’re needed and your client base will trust your competence.

Next time, I’ll take you through prejudices and stereotypes that shelters themselves have to deal with and how they can do that.

Some of the studies mentioned:

Brown, W. P., Davidson, J. P. and Zuefle, M. E. (2013) Effects of phenotypic characteristics on the length of stay of dogs at two no-kill animal shelters. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 16 pp.2-18.

Fratkin, J. L. and Baker, S. C. (2013) The role of coat colour and ear shape on the perception of personality in dogs. Anthrozoös. 26, 25-133.

Kay, A., Coe, J. B., Young, I., Pearl, D. (2018) Factors influencing time to adoption for dogs in a provincial shelter system in Canada. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 21(4) 375-388.

Normando, S., Stefanini, C., Meers, L. et al. (2006) Some factors influencing the adoption of sheltered dogs. Anthrozoös. 19, 211-224.

Posage, J. M., Bartlett, P. C., Thomas, D. K. (1998) Determining factors for successful adoption of dogs from an animal shelter. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 213, 478-482.

Protopopova, A., Gilmour, A. J., Weiss, R. H. et al. (2012) The effects of social training and other factors on adoption success of shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 142, 61-68.

Siettou, C., Fraser, I. M. and Fraser, R. W. (2014) Investigating some of the factors that influence “consumer” choice when adopting a shelter dog in the United Kingdom.Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 17, 136-147.

Waller, B. M., Peirce, K., Caeiro, C. C. et al. (2013) Paedomorphic facial expressions give dogs a selective advantage. PLoS ONE. 8.

Weiss, E., Miller, K., Mohan-Gibbons, H. and Vela, C. (2012) Why did you choose this pet?: Adopters and pet selection preferences in five animal shelters in the United States. Animals. 2, 144-159

Voslářová, E., Zak, J., Večerek, V. and Bedanova, I. (2019) Coat color of shelter dogs and its role in dog adoption. Society and Animals. 27(1) 25-35.

A short, illustrated history of dog breeds And what they mean to us

In the last post, I was exploring some different ways to see the dog population in general and how that affects how society views and treats them. All of this was in my bid to understand why people acquire a dog from a shelter rather than from a breeder.

I mean, let’s face it… when we want a dog, we have two choices: a brand new baby one, or an adult one from somewhere else.

If we live in developed, post-industrial countries and we want a brand new baby one, we can choose one that comes with a dog breed or we can choose that doesn’t.

The same if we’re getting an adult one.

I want to dissect that choice we’ve got and really get to grips with the thinking underneath it – a binary thinking often so part of our culture that we don’t stop to question it.

Let’s talk about that word “pedigree” first. I’m not going to use it myself because it has notions of class and being “pure” or somehow better than a “mutt” or a “mongrel”. If anything, I like the slightly cute “Heinz 57” to describe dogs who don’t conform to a type, but that is arse-backwards because so-called pedigrees came out of the Heinz dogs, not the other way around. It’s like saying “mixed race”. Well, they’re just not. It’s not a definition for a dog that looks like this:

Big Boy – Refuge de l’Angoumois 2020

It’s not like we had 400 different breeds of dog and “mutts” came out of them. We had mutts. Some were good at jobs. We specialised for jobs, like terriers and lapdogs and sighthounds and shepherds and livestock guardians. And breeds came out of them.

Mutt is such an ugly word anyway. Merriam Webster’s first definition is “a stupid person”. You can see why I’m not okay with this, even if it is an American definition.

They’re not “mongrels” either. Merriam Webster says: “being offspring produced by parents of different races, breeds, species, or genera” – well, “mongrel dogs” existed way before different breeds.

I could go “woke” and call them “unique”, but they’re as unique as every other dog on the planet (or other animal). I don’t think we’re at the point where we can reclaim these words either, as various other pejorative terms have been.

I have real trouble finding a non-judgemental word to describe the huge population of dogs who don’t have a type. So I’m just going to call them “dogs” and I’ll add a word to help you know when I mean a dog who isn’t. I might have said “unknown heritage” but I say that knowing you may well know their heritage. All those words are troublesome and are a result, no doubt, of some quite ugly 19th century social trends that I’m not so comfortable with. We need better words. Most cats do not have this problem and nobody cares apart from a few cat fanciers.

I’m using “type” here to mean dogs who look like a breed, without any pedigree papers. Dogs who did jobs, largely. I will use “breed” for any of those 400 (more?) types of dog who require you to have a list of their grandparents, and who in all likelihood, you probably need to pay for. I will not call them inbred mutants or pure-bred as both of those are imbued with meaning I don’t want to convey. I don’t want you to finish reading here, though, and think I’m anti-breed. It’s far more nuanced than a simple “pro” or “con”. Besides, having had two true pedigree dogs, two “type” dogs who were pedigree in all but evidence and four dogs who had no such claim to a name, you can see how complex it is for me. That said, in France, we don’t tend to get so many that don’t have some breed genes in there, simply because of the balance of dogs of no clear breed vs breed dogs.

Most likely, our first specialisations happened thousands of years ago, dividing dogs into hunting dogs and guarding dogs. Those guarding dogs may well have even helped domesticate humans. How mad is that? Civilisation as we know it, that sedentary city-building, crop-growing species we’ve become, might only have been possible with guardian breeds to help us domesticate other species which then meant we could stop moving around so much. Madness. Nobody knows for sure how or why humans domesticated dogs, whether dogs domesticated themselves or whether they actually domesticated us, and no one theory is better than any other. But those ancient guardian dogs who now give us Aidis, Akbash, Carpathians, Kangals and Kuchis may well have been among the oldest “types”. But essentially, long ago, they were all just dogs.

Dagestan – photo by Ruslan Bodnarchuk

What I love about archaeological dog stuff is that even really great archaeologists mostly only know proto-dog bones from young wolf bones because they were buried near humans. Dogs have long since meant something to us.

Their first use as a status symbol was probably not unlike having a very good spear or axe: it conferred elevated status upon you because your dogs helped you be better than other people at stuff. Your dog’s progeny (and maybe yours too) became meaningful because you were better at that stuff. If you had more sheep alive at the end of the year because you had five particularly good guardian dogs, both your economic and social status would improve as a result.

Bakhtier Shepherd Iran. Photographer Unknown.

The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all had their role in shaping the destiny of the dog, not least dogs of war, house guardians, hunters and shepherds. Varro gives us quite a lot of description in his Rerum rusticarum libri tres. I’m sure when he was talking about shepherd dogs, though, he meant livestock guardians rather than herding dogs – a specialism that probably came later.

Cave Canem mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii.

From those early days, we specialised and specialised. In the UK (and henceforth affecting its New World colonies who continued some habits but not others as a kind of double-fingered salute to their erstwhile Imperial overlords) dog ownership was based on exclusivity: you had to have a certain amount of cash in the 11th century if you wanted to own a dog. Hounds became associated with the aristocracy, particularly greyhounds. Although in other parts of Europe, greyhounds were banned altogether as unsportsmanlike, so good were they at their job. Thus, the galgo, podenco and various other Iberian sighthounds continue to be used to work in those countries, compared to others like France and Germany who thought it was just bloody unfair. Sporting dogs implied money and leisure-time. Poaching dogs implied criminality.

Prince James Francis Edward Stuart; Princess Louisa Maria Theresa Stuart
by Nicolas de Largillière 1695

Don’t know about you, but I see two rich kids and their greyhound just kicking back, and some kind of general dog on the right in the shadows. There’s a metaphor for you.

In the homes of the aristocracy, a lady might keep a ‘small popie’ (I just love that phrase… a small ladys popie) as a lapdog. Laps only exist if you get to sit down, so that tells you a lot about that. By the way, some men gave them to their wives as a chastity belt alarm… were the small popie to be put down and left so that you could engage in a little “how’s your father”, well they were supposed to yap to let everyone know.

Henrietta Anne, Duchess of Orléans – circa 1665 – 1670

I mean, that looks like a small ladys popie to me. I don’t know about you. You can see he is ready to bite anyone who looks like he might want to get up to a bit of hanky-panky with his small lady.

Nothing so much as a genealogy for any of those dogs, though.

Shakespeare tells us a lot about dogs, as does John Caius with his De Canibus Britannicis written in 1570 about all kinds of dogs. Collies make an appearance, not as a breed, of course, but as a type. Greyhounds, bloodhounds, harriers, spaniels, setters, shepherds, water dogs, mastiffs, and all manner of other dogs make it into his book, including a number of others such as the Tumbler (who tricked rabbits into capture) and spaniels known as Comforters, a name I like very much. His final category is about “Curres of the mungrell and rascall sort”, which shows how deep-seated our negative views about dogs go. “Mingled with sundry sortes”, responsible for their own reproductive choices, including perhaps with bears and foxes according to the author, Caius didn’t have a particularly positive view of them. He may well have founded a college in Cambridge, but biology hadn’t quite hit its stride yet, clearly. Breedist prejudice, yes. Biology, no.

Written genealogies start on both sides of the channel in the 17th century as the Agrarian Revolution takes interest in improving livestock quality across the farming world. Aristocratic hounds were the first to get their genealogies, but plenty of other domesticated animals kept them company.

I mean, this seventeenth century dog does not look unlike a Brittany spaniel. Mabelle at our shelter is almost the spitting image.

Unknown Man – Unknown Artist – mid C17th Britain
Mabelle – Refuge de l’Angoumois France 2020

Right down to the freckles, the dudley nose, the ginger ears and eye patches, the central white band, the amber eyes…

But there were spanielly looking dogs right in there with greyhound looking dogs in art as early as the fourteenth century. There’s a Mabelle right underneath the horse if I’m not mistaken.

The Vision of St Eustachius – Pisanello

As revolutions took place and the Enlightenment spread across Europe and its New World colonies – or its former ones – dog ownership rules relaxed and the nouveaux riches and the new bourgeoisie took up dog keeping too. Leisure time became an actual thing through the Industrial Revolution, and gundog breeds in particular started to find a place for the aspiring gentleman. Indoors, the small ladys popie became a middle-class pastime of its own: hobby breeding. To be fair, hobby breeding and “fancying” other animals from pigeons to rabbits was also hugely popular with blokes too. What else are you going to do with a little time on your hands? Leisure time, time itself and weekends were practically invented in the Victorian Age and when you have time and leisure and weekends, why not start hen fancying in your spare time?

It tied in with other ideas too: the “improvement” of the race. “Pure” bloodlines didn’t just affect domesticated animals, as eugenicists found a society ripe for their ideas. Kennel clubs, “pedigrees” and the likes find their founding dates at such times all over the globe. Line-breeding and in-breeding, closed stud books and other bleak forms of artificial selection all found a home in the 19th century. Now anyone could have a dog, well, let’s bloody well interfere with nature as much as we can.

To be honest, though, if you spend an hour or two drifting through the National Portrait Gallery’s “pet dog” section, all the landed gentry seem to have far more indiscriminate dogs of unknown heritage far, far more than they have anything we’d know as a “breed”. Class, as many writers point out, was largely an invention of the middle classes. Dogs in paintings were a symbol of a different sort: loyalty and blind adoration.

Thomas Wentworth circa 1633

As you see here, I’m pretty sure this isn’t a dog that has survived as a “breed” and the aristocratic Earl of Strafford didn’t seem to care much about that, as long as the dog was looking at him with blind devotion. For me, I don’t think it was particularly the toffs who cared about breeds, and for many countries with early kennel clubs, they were republics filled with the nouveaux riches, where their own human pedigree was not a barrier to success. Ironic indeed that the Americans and French in their republican spirit of égalité should have become quite so fixated on what breeds said about them. The humble dog-of-no-known-type would have been a much better symbol if you ask me.

Who had what dogs really became a huge thing in the Victorian times. Bull baiting, badger baiting, ratting and betting were the province of either the criminal underclass or the working man. I hear talk of bull terriers of various nationalities being Nanny dogs, which is largely nonsense. I mean there’s an awful lot of mythologising goes on about pedigree dog breeds. That’s especially from fairly knowledgeable dog people who should know better. I even saw a French behaviourist I respect very much classing huskies and pharoah dogs as ‘ancient breeds’. The pharoah dog’s myths are pretty evident on their wikipedia page: ‘From DNA analysis based solely on the genes of the Gray Wolf, a recent theory arose that the breed may have been recreated in more recent times from combinations of other breeds. However, popular belief holds that this breed is descended from the Tesem, one of the ancient Egyptian hunting dogs based on the similarities between the breed and well documented images of dogs and descriptive writings found on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs.’

Mythologising at work.

Still, a lot of what went into a breed MAY have had a long working history. I think that’s why, even in show lines, you get very stereotypical behaviours.

The trouble starts when dog breeds are appropriated by one group or another.

Take the German Shepherd for instance. Lots of mythologising about that breed, for sure. I’ve had experts in the field who may even work their dogs telling me about how the GSD worked 200 years ago. Ahhhh.

But as we see in the 20th century, sometimes the GSD has been appropriated as the symbol of white supremacy, not least in Nazi Germany where ‘pure’ blood wasn’t just for humans, and the GSD served as a perfect metaphor for strong German blood, but also in South Africa and Zimbabwe later as a symbol of white oppression of black majorities. Blondi’s appropriation by Hitler is just one symbol of how human cultures can use a dog breed in a rather ugly way. Even where they were not used by the police, they were often used by white landowners to protect their land.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback has a similarly ugly use: originally an African landrace dog used for hunting, it still carries the name of a colonial past and its genes reveal a closeness to Great Danes brought in by Europeans, then appropriated by white landowners. The boerboel has a similar heritage, bred for one purpose: to protect the homestead.

If you thought that the delightful hybrid wolf-dog escaped such ugly connections, a symbol of freedom, the call of the wild, think again. Wolf-hybrids were bred specifically in South Africa to track insurgents. Huskies, Malamutes, Saarloos, Czech Wolf Dogs and so on may have that rugged look that says you love hiking in mountains, but their purchase by dog trainers who use heavily aversive training methods says that Man’s Desire to Master Nature is not quite dead yet either.

It’s not all about white male supremacy, I promise. But it doesn’t get much prettier.

I’m from the working class north, a land of flat caps, whippets, miners and pies. Does anything say Working Class North better than pigeon fancying and a whippet?

Dog fighting and bull or bear baiting have mostly died a death, largely due to middle-class outrage (if you want to read some nice analysis of this, check out Hal Herzog and Jessica Pierce) but the dogs associated with them still find themselves appropriated by what Stuart Harding calls hypermasculinised disenfranchised young men. Pit bulls, staffies, bull terriers and the likes have a long history of association with men operating on the fringes of society. Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist may be well-known for his English Bull Terrier Bullseye, although Dickens referred to his dog as a “white shaggy dog” and no mention is made of a terrier at all. Breaking the stereotype about owners of bull breeds is one of the biggest battles shelters face on behalf of dogs who are 99% exactly the same as other dogs and who don’t care about stereotypes and your human prejudices thank you very much.

Dogs have a long history of being appropriated to represent race, gender, status, class, nationality and much more. Does anything say white working class English bloke like an English Bulldog? Does anything say, as Ricky Gervais brings up in his snippet in Humanity, elderly homosexual other than a miniature poodle? Does anything say middle-class white suburban girl like an English cocker spaniel of non-working lines?

The author and her spaniel

Last time I was at the hairdresser’s, I know a rare occurrence, i picked up some Home Style kind of magazines to remind myself how other people live. Nothing but cavachons, maltipoos, labradoodles and dachshunds mentioned in the biographies of those mud-free, hair-free homes. Not a real mutt among them, and I flicked through at least five magazines.

You may laugh or may be offended, but these stereotypes affect dogs every day. I did have the man who wanted me to add ‘cross’ on a pedigree poodle’s paperwork, so afraid of the ribbing people would give him if he picked up a poodle at the shelter. How many people walk around a shelter smiling and turning up their nose at a bull breed or dog of unknown provenance?

If you want to join the world of agility and really succeed, are you getting a Jack Russell or an Aussie shepherd or a collie? Are you even allowed to go to an agility meeting if you don’t have a ponytail and lady bits? I joke, of course, and you’ll no doubt find me 50 examples of men doing agility with their dobies, but I did watch an awful lot of videos of agility trials before I allowed myself to make that statement. Yes, there were men and there were ladies without ponytails and without collies or Aussie shepherds. But I didn’t need to keep a tally.

And if you fancy a little mondioring, French ring, schutzhund or the likes, are you doing it with a spaniel? Are you male or female? Let’s be honest, it’s a sport dominated by people with penises with a penchant for a buzzcut and a doberman, shepherd or rottweiler. I see a few young women with ponytails who like camouflage far more than is normal, and then the odd non-camouflage woman who breaks the mould, perhaps just to show that she can. I love those obstinate creatures like myself who refuse to be bound by stereotypes and at least force me to question them.

The connection between race, gender, age, class, status, place, pastime, nationality and so much more is so deeply part of what we think about dogs that it can be impossible sometimes to step back and ask questions of our choices.

For those of us who work in shelters, in rescue or in breed-specific rehoming, we fight these stereotypes every day on behalf of less popular types or breeds. We currently have four German Shepherds, five Malinois, two Beauceron, eight American staffordshires, two cane corso, six German Shorthaired Pointers, two breton spaniels and a whole number of breeds who are not popular for one reason or another. You can imagine the scrap when a bichon lands, however.

And for our so-called mixed-race dogs, who may very well be a product of two or three predominant breeds, or a happy mélange of nothing in particular, what do THEY say about the people who adopt them? That was mostly what I wanted to know when I started my studies. Are they nothing more than a badge of honour that says how very virtuous we are?

Amigo, the last berger d’Arcadie

That, however, is a topic for another post entirely!

If you want to know more, you’ll find these books really interesting:

Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. (2016) What is a dog?

Derr, M. (2011) How the dog became the dog

Mills, D. and Westgarth, C. (2016) Dog bites: a multidisciplinary approach

Miklosi, M. (2015) Dog behaviour, evolution and cognition

Ritvo, H. (1987) The Animal Estate: The English and other creatures in the Victorian age