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read the dog, read the owner

What makes us pick a dog? Why this dog? What is it that makes us just click? Why do we have a preference for spaniels or poms or beagles or German Shepherds?

Once, long ago, a fledgling idea crossed my mind that led me to pick a name for the stuff I was doing. Woof Like To Meet. A matching service for people looking for a shelter dog.

I like to think that a part of me knew then that some dogs just appeal to us more than others. In reality, I’m just explaining a choice I made 6 years ago because it was cute.

But it became a bit of a sport. What dog would people go for? Could you look at a person and know what kind of dog they’d pick? Anyone involved in shelter adoptions and relinquishments will know what I’m talking about.

It comes down to stereotypes and prejudices more than anything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with Identikit guys who’ve had their pit-bull seized. You know. I wish one day they’d NOT conform to that type. I can spot who’s likely to pick out a poodle at fifty paces.

I remember watching Ricky Gervais handing out jobs for dogs and laughing at the stereotype about miniature poodles being carried around by elderly homosexuals. Except in France, that’s not true at all. Your average poodle owner would be an wealthy, elderly widow who lives in town and whose children had bought her a poodle for company after the death of their father. We get one or two surrenders of apricot poodles from time to time and they’re always like that. Mainly because their owners go into nursing homes or die themselves and the children don’t want the dog. Of course we don’t get apricot poodles from middle-aged gentlemen who might not die quite so quickly. I really need better demographics than my own narrow observations. There may well be a large number of poodles living out lives doing canicross and dock-diving and search and rescue who don’t end up in rescue. Better data is always needed before you start judging dogs and their owners.

Having just finished my dissertation for my Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour from the International School of Canine Behaviour and Psychology (sorry for the humblebrag!) I decided to focus my analysis on why people pick certain dogs. Be that types, breeds, looks or labels. I’ll be publishing this series of articles in relation to that, and the next five posts or so will be exploring my findings. But what makes us pair up elderly homosexuals or les mamies veuves with poodles? What makes that happen?

What do dogs say about us? Do we pick them to say stuff about us? Do people really pick dogs who look like them? Do we pick out dogs that share our temperament? Are they just a way of saying to people, “Hey look! I own a Turkish Piebald Leaping Dog. Look how unique I am!”

That’s what I wanted to know.

And, more specifically, what does a former stray who’s spent time in a shelter, say about us? Are they really nothing more of declaring what saintly people we are?

In order to find out, I read a lot of studies and I carried out some interviews. Some of the stuff I read was so interesting I needed to share it with you. I hope that it’ll be useful for shelters too, by the time I wend my way around to explaining that.

Sociologists and anthropologists who’ve focused in on human-animal relations say animals have socially constructed meaning.

What I think that means is that the label we give them is a short-hand way of saying how we view them and how we treat them.

Writers like Arluke and Sanders, Hal Herzog, Jessica Pierce, Peter Singer, Nik Taylor, Samantha Hurn and Marge DeMello have explored those socially-constructed labels for animals: lab animal, livestock, food, clothing, entertainment, weapon, pest, companion animal…. how we label animals then affects the moral and legal rights they have. It affects how we view them and how we think about them, as well as how we use them and even how we kill them.

Those writers look mostly at all animals and big categories. I just wanted to think about dogs. I liked thinking about other animals, sure, and it was interesting and complex. Like why we eat cows and hate snakes and love dogs, but if you eat snakes, hate dogs and love cows, you’re weird – or worse still if you eat dogs, hate cows and love snakes.

It just struck me that we use dogs in so very many, many ways. More than most other animals.

Maybe that’s because they are hugely successful as a land mammal species. 1 billion dogs, estimated, potter about this planet of ours. The number of pedigree dogs is surprisingly small and keeping dogs of named breed is inextricably tied up with development and wealth.

But how we think about and use dogs covers so many categories. I wished those authors would write in as much detail just about dogs.

Dogs are food in some countries. In fact it wasn’t so long ago that we in the West wouldn’t have had to look quite as far to find dogs bred for the plate. It tends to cause outrage and disgust in quite a few societies who really don’t have to look too far into the past to find the same.

Like this Belle Epoque butcher in Paris, for instance.

And dogs, as we know, are used in laboratories. We at the Refuge de l’Angoumois work with Association GRAAL to rehome beagles who’ve been used in labs. I guess, after the great apes and monkeys, our moral outrage about dogs in labs is next on the list.

We also use dogs as breeding livestock on farms, just as we might breed pigs and cows, sometimes to consume in some cultures, and sometimes as a commodity in others. Puppy mills or usines à chiot make money off the back of this commodity just like we might off any other livestock animal.

Dogs are clothing: I don’t have to tell you where some of the fur trimmings come from on festive hats or gloves. It’s not just for Cruella de Ville.

Then we start to specialise. Dogs are entertainment, be that in dog fighting rings and racetracks or on the screen.

Dogs are weapons, whether legally held or illegally. From disarming terrorists or guarding a building on the one hand to their use in drugs rings to protect stashes, cash and dealers.

Dogs are tools to help us turn spits, to drag sleds, to hunt other species, to keep down pests, to protect our sheep. Some are even named after this function. Retriever. Pointer. Shepherd. Terrier.

Dogs are prosthetics, acting as eyes, ears and hands. Some of them do that officially, and others just freelance. They’re a literal extension of ourselves.

Dogs are a commodity, a brand we choose like washing powder or soup. They’re even used to market other commodities like cars, toilet paper or paint.

Dogs are metaphors that help us explain that someone is ugly or sexually promiscuous, or in the dog house. They are artistic and literary symbols that help us understand class angst (like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights) or social standing.

Dogs are companion animals, even family members. They can be closer to us than many of our friends or family.

And the category I’m most interested in is ‘dog as pest or nuisance’. Because for a long time, that’s what ownerless stray dogs were. Out of their ‘normal’ geographical space and out of their ‘normal’ relationship with humans, dogs considered as pests are the strays shelters are charged with rehoming. Some, of course, are strays. That implies ownership. I don’t see a pigeon and say “man, the problem round here is all the stray pigeons”. It means you have a place you’re supposed to be and it also means your movement is restricted because of some strange thing called culture. Others are ‘village’ dogs, implying they’re communal property but nobody really takes ownership of them. Some are street dogs, as if they’ve never had a place within the family. We sometimes use the word feral, but feral dogs don’t really exist. Feral means a return to pre-domesticated status, and dogs, as far as we know, don’t have the ability to turn back into the long-dead ancestral wolf they once were. We use feral differently of course. But even then, there are few dogs who could live completely outside human spheres, untouched by human behaviour.

Our track record with other species ‘out of place’ isn’t good. Nuisance animals are often killed in the most brutal and inhumane of ways. Where lab dogs and companion dogs have very strict laws about who can kill them and how, dogs who are pests are often killed in the least efficient and most violent ways.

Like the turn-of-the-century dogs who made it onto the table, we Western countries don’t have to look too far into our own pasts to find the ugly canine skeletons in our closets.

Partly, this is tied up with disease management, particularly of rabies. There is a correlation between evolution of welfare laws and decreases in rabies. But New York used to round up strays, pack them into cages and drown them in the river not so very long ago. ‘Shelters’ are a modern notion: in the past (and very often in the present) they were simply a holding pen for dogs awaiting death. In many places, seeing a pack of stray dogs inspires the same feeling of disgust and fear as seeing rats. Strychnine, electrocution, drowning, gassing and shooting are commonly-used methods of killing such dogs, just as they are with any number of other species considered pests (even humans, much to our global shame).

Two dogs show me how little stray or ownerless dogs were valued not so long ago. One is Laika, the first dog in space. A Russian stray, being sent on a death mission into outer space has somehow glossed over the fact that Laika probably wouldn’t have been used in such a way if she was Khrushchev’s pedigree pup. The second dog is actually a group of dogs. In the sixties and seventies, psychologist Martin Seligman and his team used stray mutts to experiment on to teach us about learned helplessness. That involved electrocuting dogs until their muscles gave out in some cases. Though these ‘harms’ to ownerless dogs are far from rare, and in many ways are arguably less unethical than slow starvation or any other way of reducing stray dog populations, for me, they are strong symbols of just how recently ownerless dogs were outside what we in the west might classify as acceptable.

Why all this interesting yet seemingly theoretical musing is of interest to me is because it affects how we see shelter dogs, and that affects their adoptability. A pedigree dog (or at least one that conforms to type) will often, more easily, walk out of the shelter in days if it’s a breed that society approves of. Society still sees dogs of no known ancestry as ‘mutts’, ‘mongrels’, words we use to suggest impure, imperfect. Words that express our disgust in ways that we don’t feel about ‘mutt’ cats or hamsters. Even writers who take issue with being called the owner of a dog or with the word pet are happy to use the term “pure-bred”. In fact, I’m so conscious of this that instead of referring to my boy Heston as a mutt (12.5% GSD, 12.5% cocker spaniel, 12.5% labrador, 12.5% ‘other’, 50% groenendael) I call him a groenendael cross – largely because he kind of looks a bit like that and I can get away with it.

To be fair, France (the country our shelter is based in) has a high proportion of “type” dogs who look like an identifiable breed. Largely that’s based on a long working history with dogs and then quite a lot of breed-fancying from the 1870s onwards, briefly bottle-necking in WWI before continuing freely since then. We don’t have many dogs whose heritage isn’t immediately visible.

Flika looks like an elderly malinois because, largely (87.5%) that’s what she is. Apart from the 12.5% of her that says Great Grandad was a German Shepherd. Oops.

Few dogs look like mixed up muttleys in our shelter; they look like pointers, setters, terriers, shepherds, labradors, American staffordshires, breton spaniels, dogue d’argentin and so on.

But that tells you a lot about this pursuit of ‘purebred’ – those words that euphemistically gloss over the genetic manipulation, inbreeding and reproductive control that is fashionable.

When we in the west want a dog, we have 1 billion dogs to choose from. The ones we choose speak volumes about us, about our culture and about our social backgrounds. We eliminate a few million pedigree dogs from our choice list if we choose a former stray of unknown heritage. We eliminate a good few more if we choose to adopt in our own country rather than abroad – by my estimates, France has some 112,000 stray dogs available every year, most of whom are more ‘type’ than ‘breed’.

Dogs in shelters (and shelters themselves) still suffer from the stigma and stereotyping of how we label them. For many, a shelter animal or even one from a breed-specific rescue association is unthinkable. We’d prefer to adopt a puppy in the hopes that we can mould it effectively to our lives rather than choose an adult dog of no known heritage. The fact that 112,000 other people perhaps thought the same about the dog who ended up in the shelter escapes us. We may have the best intentions – like the people who ring me up and ask if we have any bichon frise, preferably female, of less than 6 months of age – because we might reject that awfully economic way of acquiring a family member by going to a breeder.

Because of the way we categorise dogs, we have an awful long way to go to overcome shelter stereotypes. British shelters are not filled with greyhounds, staffies and Jack Russells. French shelters aren’t all filled with hounds. Romanian dogs aren’t all ‘streeties’ without valid passports. Most European shelters do try to rehome rather than euthanise. Dogs in shelters don’t have behavioural problems. But shedding that ‘disgust’ and ‘contempt’ lip curl and sneer about shelter dogs (much, much more than shelter cats who don’t suffer from the same stereotypical labelling) is a vital role for shelters to undertake. We may have stopped serving dogs for dinner or drowning strays in rivers (on the whole) but the stigma attached to having once been classified as a pest still sticks to many of our dogs.

Shelter dogs have a tough role too because many of them will have been seen as something else before. They may have lived completely beyond human reach, responsible for their own lives and reproduction. That is rare in France. They may have been treasured family pets. They may have been in a lab. They may have been rescued from the dog meat trade. They may have been a weapon or entertainment or ex-puppy-mill breeding stock. Shelter dogs often carry more than one label, more than one understanding of how humans treat them. Sometimes, we leave the shelter label on there too. How many of us know a ‘rescue ex-racing greyhound’ or a ‘rescued puppy mill dog’? They often carry those labels through life forever.

As I come to the end of this piece about how our social categories of dogs affect them, I thought I would mention their use as a symbol. That is where I’m going on the next article… an exploration of how certain breeds or types of dog have been used as a symbol in many ways. Despite many people’s thoughts that shelter dogs may be a way of signalling how holy, how virtuous or how ethical we are, none of my research found that. What I did find was that although people may arrive at shelters asking for young female bichons (and heaven knows we have plenty of calls if we have any) people view shelter dogs (and definitely those shelter dogs of undefined ancestry) differently than we view pedigree dogs.

In the next post, I’ll be taking you through why I think agility classes are filled with women of a certain age, why a guy asked if I could put ‘cross’ after ‘poodle’ on a pedigree dog’s registration details and why the pit bull has become the avatar of choice for certain disenfranchised young urban men. It all brings me back to what one of my study’s participants said: “read the dog, read the owner.”

If you’re looking for some interesting reading, try:

Horowitz, A. (2019) Our dogs, ourselves.

Herzog, H. (2010) Some we love, some we hate, some we eat.

McHugh, S. (2004) Dog.

Pierce, J. (2017) Run, Spot, Run.

Sorenson, J. and Matsuoka, A. (2019). Dog’s best friend? Rethinking canid-human relations.

overcoming frustration when seeing another animal

In a previous post, I explored barrier frustration and barrier aggression so that you could get to grips with why your dog becomes a barking furball of craziness whenever they see another dog if they’re unable to get to them. Today, I’m only focusing on dogs who’d like to greet (not eat) another animal, particularly those dogs who can’t seem to handle it when they can’t go running up to say hi. You know, like the black dog in the photo above.

You know these dogs. I’m sure one or two of you own them!

These are the dogs who go nuts when they see another dog. You know, you’re blithely walking along and suddenly your Bernese Mountain dog almost pulls you off your feet. Just as you grab the lead in time, they’re barking like maniacs, pulling, frenzied and drooling.

“Sorry!” you shout and you make a mental list of another place you just can’t take your dog.

Or you know that your dog is 99% friendly, but they’re big and strong, plus they look like Cujo on steroids when you’ve got the lead on them and they see another animal. So you just let them off lead because it’s easier than trying to hold on to them, it’s less embarrassing and most of the time it works out, even if the other dog (cat, horse, cow … add the animal of your choice!)

You know these dogs. I’m sure you’ve seen a car with a frantic maniac of fur barking in the back seat, practically eating the window to get out and say hi.

I’m not, by the way, talking about dogs who want to chase or attack other animals. They just want to say hi!

It always makes me laugh as I remember seeing another trainer’s video of her doing great work in a busy park with her spaniel, then along comes a huge German shepherd, off lead of course, followed by a plump Northern lady. “Don’t worry!” she says. “He’s friendly. He just wants to say hi!”

My worst nightmare.

You see, i know why that lady had her dog off lead… because he’ll have been too strong on it and too frustrated if he didn’t get to gallop up to every other dog in the whole wide world and “say hi!”

So instead, she lets him do what he wants, regardless of whether that’s acceptable to other dogs. For my three that’ll depend. Flika is whimsical. If she thinks you’re polite, she’s fine. Heston is a bit full on Tarzan but he’s a sticking plaster dog himself (rip it off and get it over with kind of greetings). Lidy will bite your dog in the face without even checking to see if he’s a real dog or not first. We’re working on it. Quite clearly, i am a responsible person and she’s muzzled in public and never off lead, but let’s be clear – in those situations, SHE’s not the one doing the bad stuff.

Greeting every single other dog is a bad habit. It’s false ‘dogness’. Dogs literally don’t do this in street groups or in village groups. They don’t do it when working. Guide dogs don’t do it. Search-and-Rescue dogs don’t clock off to say hi to a Pomeranian over the hill. Your trusty Grand Pyrenees doesn’t desert his sheep brethren to go say hi to the collie on the next farm. We encourage it, in my opinion, with puppy socialisation, where we teach young dogs that you get to meet 100% of the dogs you see and 100% of the time it’ll be super cool good fun. We encourage it with our ‘say hi!’ behaviour and our innate desire to socialise with other dog people (and more importantly, their dogs). We do it because we’re all Ricky Gervais at heart and we all think dogs in our community are as much ‘our’ dogs as their owners. We make a bee-line for dogs when we’re dog people because we’re all slightly nuts. I mean, if you’ve ever seen me with a strange Belgian shepherd you know I have to practically blindfold myself not to ogle them, go in for a massive cuddle and end up giving them a kiss on their great, bemused, nose. You know, that bit right above their great, bemused bitey old mouth.

Let’s face it. Dogs, like humans, are a social species. In fact, few species (any?) are more social than humans. Yet do we go down the street kissing everyone we meet? Saying hi to everyone? If a strange bloke said ‘hi’ to me in passing, I might get the Mace out. If he slipped me the tongue, you’d need to muzzle me, let alone my dog.

Yet this is what I think we’ve taught our dogs to do. We teach them “hey dude, you get to meet hundreds of dogs, stick your nose up their arse, maybe hump them a bit, chase them round and round, it’s going to be great.” We go on social walkies and we “socialise” them and we take them to our friends’ houses or dog parks.

And then we go to a park and WE know that our dogs won’t be welcome to do that so we try to put them on the lead and our dog goes bananas.

You see, THEY don’t understand the rules. They don’t know that in real life, you don’t get to say hi to 100% of dogs. In fact, you probably won’t say hi to any dogs. Sometimes, I’m going to take you to the vet, and I’m going to make a decision that the pointer in the corner might not like to say hi, so I’m going to sit with you and ask you not to engage with a dog 2m away. You might be in a room with 10 other dogs and not be allowed to say hi to any of them. Just like people on the morning train, you’re going to be sandwiched in and I’m going to expect you not to acknowledge any of them, especially the one who smells of pee and seems to be in the middle of some kind of mental breakdown.

And that goes for cats, horses and cows too, dude.

Teaching a dog who thinks it’s 100% respectable to say hi to every moving thing is not easy if they’ve not grasped that fundamental concept that most of the moving beings that we will see, we not only don’t have the right to say hi to, we don’t need to say hi to them either. A dog who feels the need to say hi to every other thing with a nose is a dog with a pathological behaviour that is going to spill out in frustration. Hence the low level whining that turns into a bark (reminds me of a time I was observing a lesson in school and one 16 year old lumpen teenage ne’er-do-well spent most of the lesson trying to attract the attention of his friend, a certain Mr Gibbons, by whispering “Gibbons… Gibbons… Gibbons…” in a crescendo, not understanding that Mr Gibbons could see I had my beady eye on the pair of them) Low level whispering that turned into coughs and other big behaviours to attract attention… just like our dogs do. The lumpen teenager knew full well it was inappropriate to have a conversation across the class with your mate but dogs don’t understand those strange social and cultural customs we do.

What you need is two-fold. The first is to teach your dog how to cope with frustration. Like toddlers, some dogs don’t understand how to cope with frustration. Teaching concepts like patience, disengagement and tenacity are really useful. Food toys, games like flirt poles, programmes like Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed, Fenzi Academy focus games and all manner of other great programmes can help you with that.

The second thing is a carefully planned habituation and gradual desensitisation programme. This is where you make a plan like the one I did here about chasing and you work through set-ups to prepare your dog to cope. In the meantime, no more dogs/cats/horses/goats until you’re ready.

Like all things, you need to start at the most easy level. Dogs, we know, can see 400m away. Some even 900m. Plus they have a nose. They KNOW there are dogs, even if they can’t see them. That’s why you might need a behaviourist as a critical friend to help you read your dog so that you know when he’s alert but able to disengage.

You also need to make a plan. I usually use a 6-month SMART plan. That in 6 months, I expect my dog to be able to wait in the vet with 6 dogs and pay them no mind.

And then I work back from that goal. In 3 months, I think that’ll look like being in a Sports Hall sized room with one other boring dog over 50m away and pay them no mind.

In 12 weeks, that might look like being 100m away from three or four boring walking dogs when we’re outside and paying them no mind.

In 6 weeks, that might work back to being 200m away from a boring dog who’s in sight for 5 seconds and paying them no mind.

In 3 weeks, I want to be 400m away from a boring dog who’s in sight for 3 seconds and paying them no mind.

In 10 days, I want to be 600m away from a boring dog who’s in sight for 2 seconds and paying them no mind.

In 5 days, 800m from a boring dog who’s in sight for 1 second.

You can see there are lots of goals I’ve not put in there, like the length your dog will see the other dogs for, raising the excitement level and number of the dogs and so on and so on. I didn’t want to bore the pants off you with my over-zealous goal-mapping. Confession: former marathon runner. This is how I trained. Dullsville.

But be mindful of the 3Ds… Distance, duration and difficulty. When you decrease distance, make sure you decrease duration and difficulty too.

You’re going to need an irregular but fairly frequent supply of animals and you want them in view. I like to be able to control the sightlines, as you’ll see from my post about chasing stuff, so I think of that set up a lot. I’m a big fan of big box pet stores… big car parks, I can be right at the back and set up screens using parked cars if necessary. I’m also a fan of sitting outside vet surgeries at a distance if you can find that space. They have a steady stream of clientele. Groomers, doggie day cares, dog parks, people parks and shelters are also great places as long as you are far enough away and your dog is under threshold. Please get yourself a copy of Grisha Stewart’s BAT 2.0 if you haven’t already: this is essentially that.

When you have a clear plan, you need also a taught behaviour. Often, dogs start to fixate in the absence of other guidance from you.

I don’t mean “Stop that!”

That is not guidance from you. Guidance from you is a thing to do instead.

I mean a behaviour you want them to do instead. Some people play engage/disengage, or ask for a look at me! I play “Where’s the dog?” (I do this with dog-aggressive dogs too – a bit like Where’s Wally?) which is just my cute version of “Look at that!”

Lidy is a big fan of Where’s the Dog? and we do it with a U-turn as what’s reinforcing for her is to create distance between her and the dog. But if your dog’s problem is frustration, that’s not necessary. Really, you just want them to get used to dogs being about who they don’t have the right or the need to interact with – I want them to be able to walk through a dog show like I do – saying hi to if I know people but ignoring virtually everyone else.

Normally, I try and give the dog a replacement behaviour that has the same function and reinforcement. So Lidy wants space and is reinforced by security. You can’t do that with frustrated greeters. They want to decrease distance and be rewarded with a new dog friend. All I’m doing is teaching them, “sorry dude… not on lead!” or “not unless we say so!” – so what you are doing is inoculating them, little by little, against frustration. You’re using very small amounts of tolerable frustration to get them used to it.

Now some may say that this isn’t what they want for their dog. Their dog shouldn’t have to get used to frustration. They might even think that this is not “Force Free” or “Purely Positive” training. Frustration is an unpleasant state and our dogs should not have to feel it.

The trouble with this view is that it’s so massively ego-centric, and not even thinking of the dog’s welfare. Flika likes to chase cars. One day she will get biffed in the face by one and I will cry. I don’t let her chase cars. She also likes to chase cows. One day one will kick her i the head and I will cry. I don’t let her play with cows. I understand that it’s frustrating; I want her to feel as minimally frustrated as possible. But I have a responsibility to other beings, including those dogs like Lidy who find it an affront to their very being to have some great lummoxing dog race up to say hi, and to those cats, cows, horses and other creatures.

Life has its frustrations.

I do like to teach other behaviours too.

I do a “Let’s go!” as well. It’s lucky I did when Heston and Flika ran into a bunch of over-excited cani-cross dogs on Sunday.

I don’t use a clicker – just a word. Less to manage. You don’t need a clicker if you feel it’s cumbersome or if you haven’t used one before.

But the thing to remember is that practice makes perfect. Don’t expect your dog to control themselves if you haven’t trained them to. I was never so glad I’d done this stuff as the day someone brought their goat to the vet. Having the best behaved dog in the vet made me so proud, especially when I know how full on he can be. Most importantly, the goat didn’t have a dog whose intentions he had no idea about. Your dog isn’t just frustrated themselves: they make you embarrassed or upset or angry, and they turn other dogs into the Lidys of the world: over-reacting to any acknowledgement whatsoever by stabbing them in the stomach.

Set a time-table, sit down and write your goals. Plan your set-up zones, be prepared and remember, if it’s frustrating for you, it’s frustrating for your dog too. On the other hand, you don’t want to risk your dog becoming antisocial, so teach them how to greet nicely too. Jean Donaldson’s book Fight! has some excellent guidance on that. And yes, I mean on-lead greetings as well as off-lead ones. My dog needs to be versatile to cope with what life throws at them.

So don’t feel like you have nowhere to go with this, or don’t feel you need to use punishment (fastest way to turn frustration into fear and aggression). Use a harness and a long line, learn how to read your dog’s body language and keep an eye on their behaviours. Forgive yourself (and your dog) the occasional mistake or slip-up and remember that you can do it. Go back to basics and work up through your plan again. It’s boring, it’s meticulous. It’s Dullsville, but it works 100%.

HELPING YOUR NEW DOG SETTLE IN

TLDR; it’s all about adaptation and compromise – from you!

I make little apology for the sparsity of posts recently. I’m trying to finish off an 18-month learning journey about dogs and their humans culminating in a 10,000 word dissertation on shelter dogs. And just because I don’t do things by half, I adopted a new dog in December.

Say hi to Lidy, number 3 Belgian Shepherd in the WLTM household.

I planned on taking Lidy way back in September. So why did it take me 12 weeks to get around to it? A lot of it comes down to psychology.

Our actions are underpinned by two things: capacity and motivation according to psychologist Fritz Heider. He said capacity was ability + environment, and motivation was intention + exertion. Well, I had the intention and maybe the ability, but the environment needed a bit of exertion.

The reason for that is that I have two other dogs with some complex needs of their own. The first is 15-year-old Flika, who has separation anxiety, is destructive if left alone and who is set in her ways of wake up – breakfast – nap – walk – lie outside in garden pretending to guard it – refuge – dinner – sleep.

I knew that Lidy and Flika would never be able to live together. Flika is generally tolerant of about 70% of dogs but Lidy would attack any female dog without even asking questions. Worse still, she’ll sometimes seem fine but then ‘bam’ – and I’m not talking a common-or-garden scrap where no blood is spilt, I’m talking a fight that would end up with dogs staying at the vets and needing multiple stitches for multiple wounds. Killer queens indeed.

So that needed me to build a Lidy garden and have separate sleeping arrangements, to fix doors and fit locks, to set up airlocks. I always remember in The Others, Nicole Kidman talked about having two locked doors between her and the scary stuff. That’s what I needed. Dog trainer Michael Shikashio, an aggression expert, talks about two levels of security. Baby gates and secure locks, tables across doors. Sounds extreme, I know, but let me just be clear, Miss Butter Wouldn’t Melt who has just arrived has complex behaviours often involving her teeth.

She is very lucky we have each other. Having worked with her for such a long time, I know all her problem spots and she has ways to tell me shit is about to hit the fan, but being muzzled on a lead in the street is not the same as living with the bitches from hell 24/7

You’d think it’d get easier with lovely handsome Heston.

And it kind of is okay – and it will be okay – but Lidy has predatory behaviours around dogs having a fit (nearly dug her way out to get a beagle who was having a fit outside her kennel) and Heston has epilepsy. Mostly it’s when he’s sleeping and it’s well-managed, but Lidy will never, ever be unsecured in a room where Heston is sleeping so I needed to set up the environment to allow that, as well. Also, following his starting on medication, he was one of that small number of dogs on phenobarbital who go nuts. He decided that every time I left, I was going for a walk, and became a crazed dementor. The house would be wrecked when I returned. That also needed addressing, unless I intended to spend the next 7 years taking him everywhere with me (I do this mostly with Flika – it’s not fun, believe me!)

When maligator genes conspire with a limited learning experience when growing up, when you’ve got extreme predatory behaviours, dog-dog aggression with all female dogs, fear-based “bite first and ask questions later” biting behaviours, dog-to-dog aggression with 90% of all other dogs, stranger danger, redirected biting from frustration, possessive aggression, protective aggression and territorial aggression, you’ve not only got to have the right environment but also the ability to both manage it and minimise it. Excuse all the labels, I just wanted to show that it’s not just some randomly easy adoption where the dog just turns up and goes to sleep in their new bed. Dynamite with a laser beam, Miss Malou.

The first thing I needed was ABILITY.

That’s a lot about what my clients need. They’ve never encountered anything like the problem they’re dealing with, or their strategies for dealing with it in the past aren’t working any more. A lot of the time, they just need to know more. They have the INTENTION and they are prepared for a little EXERTION.

In fact, when working with clients, one of the first things I ask is how much they intend to keep the dog. And if they can’t see anything good, or it’ll be impossible to give them the capacity as quickly as they need it, then their intentions will never turn into actions. If they’ll never have the environment or they aren’t prepared to put in any effort, it’s not worth it either. The only way I can help is to write them a good adoption advert and pray for the best. Love doesn’t conquer all, I’m afraid.

So when first shelter dog arrived here and had a massive scrap with Heston, I needed the ability. I had the intention and was prepared for the effort. One crash course in behaviour and Amigo and Heston lived peaceably for the next four years, following their very rocky first four months.

And that’s what I hope my blogs do – give you a little bit more of the ability and the capacity.

So when Miss Maligator 2019 arrived here that took all of my ability. No matter how much you know a dog before you take it on, you can’t predict everything. I didn’t predict that she also would have some anxiety related to me leaving her. Cue three dogs who can’t be left for various reasons, and two who only want to be with you. Multiple moving parts always make for more interesting problems, don’t you find?

That meant a lot of training about how to be on their own. It meant suspending absences and getting in dog sitters. It meant taking it easy until they were ready to be left for longer. It meant being respectful of their needs and not just saying “oh they’ll cope” when they clearly weren’t. I had to compromise and adapt. Now I’ve got one who accepts she has to be on her own all night (and it kind of breaks my heart to hear her playing by herself, or crying if she’s startled but the only time she’ll sleep with me is after Heston and Flika are gone). I learned that she hates being outside but is calm inside. I videoed everything obsessively when I wasn’t here. I moved from her accepting that doors close between us to accepting my absence for a couple of hours. I learned that sometimes there’s a mess, but it’s easy to clean up.

It took a lot of engineering. I use food toys daily. I spent a lot of money on chews. I cried at the pharmaceutical bill, as I had two dogs in Adaptil collars, Pet Remedy plug-ins, Anxitane, Zylkene, Valerian and melatonin plus usual medications for arthritis and epilepsy. I went through my body weight in paté and spreadable meat pastes. I bought a lot of new toys and feeders, from Nose-its to Kong Wobblers to lickimats to snufflemats. An occupied dog is a dog who’s not resorting to other behaviours. That was the EXERTION bit. And management to stop wars…

Those are things I never needed before. And they’re things I need less and less as time goes on. As long as I can get out of the door, Heston seems to remember I go out without him from time to time. as long as Lidy has stuff to keep her busy and she gets a couple of hours cuddle time with me in the morning and evening, she is coping with what are, no doubt, very hard periods where she can’t see me or get to me. A lot of this was just having the capacity. That’s where trainers can be invaluable.

But it takes effort. There are no magic bullets. No remedy I bought stopped Flika chewing through doors. No remedy I bought helped Lidy stop her compulsive circling in the garden. And new problems rear their heads. Lidy hates gunshot and lightning, fireworks and loud noises. That means I will need a solution for those stormy nights. It takes planning and a calm head. There are times I can’t tell you about where I thought “I can’t do this!” with three filthy dogs and the washing machine running all day. I can’t even think to the future, about needing to move to a smaller house and how I’ll cope with that, let alone trying to put the house on the market. Those are bridges I’ll cross when I get to them. But they’re bridges I know are coming.

Ultimately, you may take on an easy pooch who settles down in minutes and is part of the family in days. You may take on a dog who seems like the dream companion only for all of these behaviours to emerge in the weeks that follow an adoption. You may take on a dog who you know is going to be a bit of a handful. So many of us do. It’s testament to our ability that we create environments to suit our dogs, often involving a lot of exertion or expense. But our dogs cope better for it. Before you adopt a dog, though, think about your ability and your environment. What have you the capacity for? On what are you prepared to compromise?

And, as one of the lovely people I interviewed about shelter dogs reminded me… she was out walking him at 6am when he first arrived. No more lazy lie-ins, so she thought. 6 months in and both she and the dog were still in bed at 11am. Dogs will follow your lead, but if you adapt to their needs first and give them time to meet you in the middle, you’ll find you are both adapting by the end.

You can’t plan for everything. I’d planned for a jumper, a digger, a fence smasher. I’d planned for a bird chaser and a lizard catcher, a dog with complex pathologies. I’d not planned for a girl who cried when I left and ran round in circles barking. But you can plan for a lot of stuff and anticipate problems dogs might have. A bit of ingenuity is often all that’s needed (no more laptop research at 5am for me… I’m in bed with Lidy Malou reading books on my Kindle and Flika is happily working her way through a Kong instead of shouting for me and Heston is wherever he’s happiest).

But if you choose a relationship with a dog – be they a pedigree puppy from Crufts’ lines or a hoary old one-eyed shepherd from a shelter, know that it will fall on you to compromise if you want your dog to settle. You may hate it and think your levels of effort or expenditure will always need to be the same, but they won’t. You’ll get there as long as you plan for it to take some time. 5 weeks in and it’s not been all smooth sailing (not least the fact I’d locked Lidy’s room from the inside, snapped the door handle off the main house door and had dead-bolted the outside door from the inside too) but those days when I thought “I can’t do this!” are further between.

What absolutely won’t work, though, is expecting the dog to compromise and adapt to you without a single real concession on your part.

Just remember, if you have adopted a new dog, don’t just think that time and love are all that are needed. Your own capacity is vital. Don’t be embarrassed to contact a trainer or behaviourist if you feel like you don’t know how to move forward, even if you really want to. There are many good networks of trainers, from the Pet Professional Guild to the Pet Dog Trainers’ networks (Europe and the UK). If you’re based in the UK, the Association of Into Dogs can also help you locate someone near to you. Six years ago, when Amigo joined me, I had no concept of how I could ever move forward. None of us know everything. I’m still excitedly finding my own ability.

Be mindful that anyone who suggests coercive methods has not got your dog’s welfare at heart; anyone who suggests there are quick fixes needs you to make a quick exit. That said, from my perspective, I think 5 weeks is a reasonable “quick fix” and i know I haven’t spent more than I would have on a kid’s birthday party! Coming back to my own research, what was abundantly clear was that the most straightforward adoptions are the ones where the humans had insanely low expectations and were incredibly flexible. As I said, adaptation and compromise may well be needed, but if this is what you really want, then I suspect that you’ll find your motivation in there somewhere.

Mands for dogs

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

Definitely read her original before you go any further!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if I reinforce it, those mands increase.

Let’s play, Monkey.

A mand can be an invitation, as this is.

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

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

Help, Monkey. My tupperware is stuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HELP! MY DOG BARKS ALL THE TIME!

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

Isn’t that right, Flika?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if she falls asleep on duty!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above all, avoid punishment.

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

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

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

Building resilience

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

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

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

Physically, at least.

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

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

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

You can see resilience in action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so easy to work with a dog on those.

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

Simply Psychology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But success or failure is an immediate thing.

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

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

What makes Flika bark?

The increasing noise of planes in the sky.

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

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

What makes Heston bark?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on resilience, I promise!

EDIT: if you’re interested in more information about fear and anxiety, there’s a great podcast with Hannah Branigan and her guest Dr Chris Pachel, who talks in the same distinctions I do and has some answers and ideas about anxiety too. Listen to it here


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

tellement méchant

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are plenty of flaws in the system.

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

The vet wrote collie x for Heston.

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

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

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

For most dogs, that doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That way, you can avoid all kinds of problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess that tells you all you need to know.

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

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

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

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

Dog problems: car chasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what ARE you supposed to do?

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

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

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

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

Set up zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set-up solutions – things to consider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main things to remember are:

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

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

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

Barrier Frustration and Barrier Aggression

You may well have seen this video doing the rounds

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

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

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

It doesn’t end there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What your frustrated dogs need:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What your aggressive dogs need:

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

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

Kikopup with a great lead handling video

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

Some other posts that may help

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