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Dog Training secrets #1

Dog Training Secrets #1: there are no magic bullets.

You want to make money? Market a product for dogs that claims to solve problems instantly. By the time you get caught out, you’ll have made your money and be sitting at a bar surrounded by palm trees somewhere much warmer and less muddy than you are now. Better still, design five products and sell them a couple of years apart from each other. Pay a world-class marketing team and your job is done. Sit back and watch the profits roll in. Warning: this is not a job for you if you are at all afflicted by a conscience or any sense of shame.

It seems that everyone on social media these days is after the magic bullet, the panacea, the cure-all, for their dogs’ behaviour.

The Quick Fix is everything.

You’d have thought we’d be wise to snake-oil salesmen by now, but it seems Barnum was right when he said there’s a sucker born every minute – if he said it at all. And we all know fools and their money are soon parted.

Sometimes, we’ve sat back and watched our dog’s problems develop over months if not years. We’ve let them grow and grow. Perhaps we tried to ignore them and that made things worse. Those problems fester and metastasize. Sometimes, that’s just because life got in the way. Jobs got busy. Kids took priority. Pandemics ran rampant. One day, we wake up and we find that the itty bitty problem we had months ago is now a colossal beast and our dog’s behaviour is seriously impacting everyone else’s well-being, including their own.

Most of my calls and contacts come from people who can’t live with problems any more. Maybe they thought the problem would work its way out eventually. Rex would stop jumping up on guests, surely, when arthritis set in? Rover would stop barking like mental at the neighbours playing football, surely, by the time deafness and blindness took over? Lacey would stop biting people if we took her to a café, surely, by the time all her teeth fall out?

The trouble is that this is not what happens. Dogs don’t grow out of problems. They grow into them. They get better at the behaviour. They can do it for longer. They specialise. They do it in ways that get results more quickly.

For whatever reason, the behaviour works. Like an ugly and unwanted weed, it flourishes. It sends down roots that make it hard to unseat. It sends out shoots. It blossoms. It sets seed and raises a family. By the time clients get in touch with trainers, what they often present us with is an enormous triffid of a behaviour that is swallowing up all their energy.

What the snake-oil salesmen promise is a scorched earth approach to those problematic behavioural weeds. Burn it. Zap it. Concrete on top of it.

The trouble is that, like DDT, some of these promises are dangerous. Some of them destroy everything else too. You know… the important stuff like trust and friendship, choice and agency. Others don’t work. The fields around me are lurid orange right now and smell like burning rubber. I wouldn’t mind, but whatever this vile stuff is designed to kill seems to be effective for about five weeks. That’s what a lot of these Quick Fixes you can buy from any number of companies do. They work for a while and then the problems come back with a vengeance. Not only that, you’re left with a nagging feeling that what you’re doing isn’t good or right, but if the company says lurid orange rubber-smelling herbicide is what works, they must know?

And sometimes, the behaviour is resistant to those promised cures to all problems. Sure, it might work for a short while, only to find new ways to spread, to mutate, to find a way to flourish.

Anything in the dog world that promises you instant results is a bit like all those other ‘instant’ products we fall for, so reliably and so credulously. Great abs in 8 minutes a day. Five kilos weight loss in a month. Quick house sales. Immediate happiness. A better job in two weeks. If the aim is improvement, someone somewhere is making a profit out of the gullible fools who want instant success. You buy in. It fails. You leave 0 stars on their feedback and the company bosses cry into their margaritas in Tobago.

The truth is that we want a magic bullet. We want jumping up to stop immediately. We want our dog to instantly stop barking at the post van. We want our dog to stop pulling on the lead right this very minute and never pull again.

The reality is that there are no magic bullets. Hard work, repetition, creating good habits, building foundations, they all take time.

After all, the problem didn’t usually happen overnight. It’s not going to disappear overnight either.

So what can we do, other than give in?

In her book Plenty in Life is Free, Kathy Sdao talks about something she calls SMART x 50.

SMART simply means, see, mark and reward training. In other words, every time you see the behaviour you want instead, mark it (say ‘good!’ or ‘yes!’ or use a clicker) and reward.

She tells us to reward our dog fifty times every day for doing something useful or cute. If you have heard Kathy speak, you’ll know right away that’s her speaking. I’d settle for rewarding them for anything they’re doing better. Remember: rewards can be anything the dog finds valuable at that moment in time. That could be food, toys, praise (if your dog finds it rewarding at that moment) petting (likewise) or even functional rewards like being able to move forward on a walk. You are not advised to use fifty sirloin steaks. But small cubes would be just marvellous.

I do a lot of my own dog training this way. I don’t even know what they’ll do well that day. I’m just ready to mark and reward it when I see it.

Mostly, my dogs have it nailed good behaviour in the home, car and the garden. They stop barking when I ask and bark hardly at all any more. They’re patient and calm. They don’t stress when I’m getting food out. If I say “tea time!” they trot into the kitchen and they hang about quietly and unobtrusively when I’m doing my bit. They travel perfectly. They sit waiting for me if I need to nip into a shop. They’re happy to be groomed and have nails trimmed and take all the tablets I throw at them. I still reward them for ignoring the various comings and goings of my neighbour and his joyfully barky pointer. They are the least amount of effort of any dog ever born and I get to be the laziest dog trainer that was ever born.

Walks are different. Heston likes chasing stuff and he also has previous where it comes to barking at joggers, hikers or cyclists. He’s still prone to pull from time to time towards powerful smells. Lidy seems to divide things into ‘Can I kill it?’ and ‘Can I eat it?’. I’m not massively sure it’s a division as such. There seems to be a lot of crossover. But when my little firestarter first arrived after three years in the shelter, she had a lot of previous. If it moved, it needed to be dealt with. Her pulling was shocking. She walked like a small velociraptor on a lead randomly pouncing on things in bushes.

For a year, I walked her by herself. Frankly, she was pretty manageable as long as nothing surprising happened like we saw an unpredictable crow or a random cat. Then, when my old girl died, Lidy and Heston got walked together.

That first walk in new territory with the two of them terrified me. I forgot how sensitive Lidy is to novel stimuli and environments and how long she takes to acclimitise. I joke about her behaviour but in all seriousness, there are moments where I know that it’s taking everything I’ve ever learned to give her some quality of life without jeopardising the lives of other animals or risking injury to any humans she comes across. She pulled constantly for 4km. Less velociraptor and more Tyrannosaurus Rex. If we’d have come across anybody or anything, I ran the risk of losing control of her completely.

Behaviour like this doesn’t have a magic pill to cure it. I could have thrown everything that’s ever been claimed as a magic pill at her arousal levels and it still wouldn’t have been enough.

So where do you start, when it’s all wrong?

It reminded me of that saying: ‘how do you eat an elephant?’

‘One mouthful at a time.’

How do you solve what seems to be an insurmountable problem?

One small step at a time.

Kathy Sdao’s SMART x 50 is how we’ve been doing it.

If she pulled less, ‘good!’ and treat.

If she gave me eye contact, ‘good!’ and treat.

If she did a u-turn when I asked, ‘good!’ and treat.

We did other stuff too. I don’t want to make it sound as simple as all that.

But most dogs are not as complicated as all that.

And simply through that ‘one mouthful at a time’ approach, I think I’ve managed to at least eat a good bit of that elephant.

There are other tips too. Setting your dog up for success where they can do little but succeed is one of those things. Eliminating as much of the unpredictable while you embed new behaviours is another. Cherry picking the very best of what the very best trainers have to offer is another. We have a bank of five core skills that we practise every day.

This weekend was tough. Saturday was miserable. There were hunters literally everywhere and by the time I found a sensible place to walk without getting shot at in mistake for a boar, we’d been in the car for almost thirty minutes. Between the floods and the hunters, we’re a bit stuck. We got out. We played a few games. I used up some of those 50 rewards simply by playing some games and helping everyone chill out (including me).

And then… a muscular guy clad entirely in black lycra came running up to us. Not jogging. Like a serious, hardened runner. In terms of PREDATOR level of threat, this is surpassed only by a team of muscular guys clad entirely in black lycra running at you. We got out the way, we played some more games, I watched Lidy. Every time she watched him without anything more worrisome than a stare, I marked it and fed her from my hand at my side. If she went back to watching him, I said ‘yes’ and gave her her treat. Watching was fine. Lunging and leaping and grabbing and flopping about like a great white shark on a fishing line are not fine. That would have been my failure to work at a safe distance. We had watching and deciding and marking and rewarding. All was well.

Needless to say, a lot of my rewards got used up on that jogger. And that was fine.

As if this weekend couldn’t have been more challenging, yesterday, we saw two deer leap across the road. To be fair, they participated in my set-up perfectly. They were just far enough away to keep her under threshold and just in view for a lovely, narrow time so I could reward copiously without having to deal with watching them for 5 whole minutes.

This time, we played ‘get it!’ and ‘catch!’. The first allows her to visually track a moving treat. This is kind of like playing a cheap fair shooting game compared to going after big game, if that’s what floats your boat. No, it’s not the same. But it’s better than no shooting at all. I’m pretty sure Lidy would be one of those individuals posing proudly with some giraffe she’d killed. Here I am asking her to have a go at a fairground shooting gallery. ‘Get it!’ is the only way at that moment that she’ll get to chase and catch anything.

The second, ‘catch!’ allows ‘grab-bite’ behaviours on a moving target. Again, not in the same league but at least it’s catering to the same bits of her reward system and answering those primitive needs.

So it’s not just about SMART x 50.

It’s about how and when and where you use those rewards. You can use them to encourage focus by getting the dog to come back to you for the food or toy. You can use them to meet primal needs of being a dog, namely chasing and grabbing stuff for Miss Maligator 2015. You can use them to disrupt visual locking and fixing on a target (which is what I did) or you can use them to disrupt olfactory locking and fixing on a target. The latter is what I do with Heston when he’s nose-down-tail-up in a scent. What do I want? To disrupt the lock and fix on the scent. Throwing him a treat to find in the grass can do that, and caters to his olfactory needs. Or disrupting and rewarding from my hand is a good way if his tracking is in danger of pulling me into a bush.

By rewarding the behaviours we want to see little by little, day by day, we get so see unwanted behaviours die out. We’re starving those weeds of anything nourishing. No, it doesn’t happen overnight. No, it’s not a magic bullet.

Well, not one that works in 24 hours.

Over 12 weeks, sure.

Now we’re 12 weeks into Lidy’s SMART x 50 outdoor training and I’ve bags more focus and less arousal. She listens more and recalls more. She pulls much less, sometimes going several hundred metres without a tight lead, and she almost never lunges. Because her arousal levels are lower, she’s less predatory. She’s less likely to pounce on birds in the bushes, or mice in the hedgerows. She’s stopped alerting on distant cars and vans. Is she ready for the next steps? Sure.

The question then arises about where we stop. It’s not my aim that Lidy becomes super docile and passive, that she copes with Venetian costume parades and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Chasing the impossible would be an exercise in frustration and futility. I just want to know we can go for walks and she will cope. Next up is livestock, because they’re much more of a challenge for us and our walks are severely limited because she seems pretty willing to show me you can eat a full cow in one sitting despite my telling her it’s one mouthful at a time.

Variety is not just the spice of life. Variety in behaviour gives us something we can capture and nurture. But I can’t do that if I find myself treatless and unprepared. The worst behaviours are those that never vary. But as Lidy demonstrates, even if you can pull at one constant pressure for 4km, there’s still hope. The thing is, it’s never one constant pressure, not really. Where we have variety, we have the potential to coax evolution. And if we can do that, we might find that our weeds turn out to be flowers after all. Capture that variety when it’s at its best, and you might find that Death By A Thousand Cuts is more effective at killing off problem behaviours than some Magic Bullet anyway.

You don’t have to have a specific goal in mind. My lovely, perfect Mr Heston is lovely and perfect. I’m just rewarding him for the lovely stuff he does. With Lidy, I dd have a specific goal in mind. I wanted her to learn to walk, not trot (and heaven forbid anything faster!) on lead. I wanted her to check in with me unprompted. So every time she walked a couple of paces on a slack lead, I said ‘good!’ and gave her a treat. Every time she checked in, I said ‘good!’ and we moved forward to sniff the bushes. Now, walking is what we do, and checking in if we want to go sniff is also what we do.

So tomorrow morning, pick up your treat bag and count out your treats for the day. Every time you catch your dog doing something you like, mark it and reward it. What gets rewarded gets repeated. Very soon, those great behaviours will be default behaviours because it’s ‘just’ what we do now.

Running interference: how a team approach can help solve canine behaviour problems

Run interference (phrase):
American football:
move in such a way as to cause interference
intervene on someone’s behalf, typically so as to protect them from distraction or annoyance.

One of the toughest stages of training can be proofing, where you put your training to the test. You know the score: you’ve done the groundwork and the drills. You know it’s important to gradually reintroduce your dog to the situation that caused trouble in carefully planned and managed steps.

And then… Life gets in the way.

Let’s take some really common problem behaviours and look at where they can run into teething troubles.

1. You’ve been working with your dog to stop them barking at people who arrive at the property.

2. You’ve been working with your dog to stop them jumping up on guests or on people out on walks.

3. You’ve been working really hard on your dog’s recall.

4. You’ve been working to stop your dog chasing _______________ (fill in the blank!).

5. You’ve been working on loose leash walking skills with your 50kg dog who you’ve switched to a harness after years of trying to control him with prong collars and shock collars, but you’re not confident enough yet to take him out in places he might lunge.

6. You’ve been working hard to help your dog cope in the vet surgery but they still get a bit overwhelmed by the noise and the other animals.

7. You’ve been working with your reactive dog to stop them lunging and barking at other dogs.

8. You’re rehabilitating a dog with serious aggression issues.

We can all find our best laid plans going massively astray the first time something goes wrong and our dog resorts to their previous problem behaviour.

You know how it goes. You’ve spent 6 weeks teaching them a new behaviour, controlling and managing the situation so they don’t get to practise their old behaviour. You think you’ve got it cracked when BAM, right out of the blue, your worst nightmare rears its ugly head and your dog goes right back to jumping, barking, chasing, ignoring you, pulling on the lea, lunging or fence fighting.

What you need is someone to run interference for you! Someone to take out all the people who threaten to derail you. Someone who can block any distractions and stop them so that you can get on with what you’re doing.

None of you are old enough to remember the days when self-propelling machines needed men with flags to walk in front of you, I’m sure. You have probably heard of these apocryphal tales, however. What you need is a red-flag-waving person to help you out.

Why you need a team mate to help out with dog training
Having someone to navigate the obstacles and give out warnings is ideal before you take off on your own

Having a team-mate to run interference when you’re training your dog can be so helpful. This is someone who’s read the game plan and knows your aims. They know how you intend to carry it out. They know your plays and your purpose. They know you’re trying to stop your whirling dervish pointer from headbutting everyone they see when they’re running off lead. They know you’re trying to turn your whistle training into rock solid recall. And this is as true for serious misdemeanors as it is for the things most of us just try to cope with: serious fearfulness, reactivity or aggression when out in public.

The purpose of this team-mate on the pitch is to clear your path and help manage the environment so you can reach your goal. They’re going to work with you in the same way in real life too. They’re going to stop any potential obstacle derailing your progress so that you can reach your dream goal, be that the dog who keeps all four feet on the ground or the dog who can cope with off-lead dogs romping around without feeling the need to tear their face off.

Let’s take each scenario and see how a team player might help you out.

The alert barker

You may well be implementing the plan from the previous post and your dog may be coping admirably with things that pass by or make noise outside the house, be they tractors, pedestrians or neighbourhood dogs. But what happens when those threats stop outside and ring the bell? Under normal circumstances for planned visitors you may well be controlling visitors by putting the dog in another room with a few food toys. What happens though when some random Tuesday lunchtime, a guy stops to ask if you want your roof tiles cleaning or your paving re-laying? If you’ve not yet moved on to pairing up the doorbell or a knock with the good stuff, having someone who can step in and keep playing games with the dog while you go out and deal with the uninvited guest is a good way to deal with it. Either you send them out to deal with the unwelcome and unplanned arrival while you play games, or you go out while they play games, if they know what you’ve been doing. You can keep your dogs at a distance and they can deal with what needs dealing with.

Use your team mate to ring the bell and knock at the door when your dog’s got used to the ‘thank you – retreat – treat’ protocol from last week. A few trials a day and you’ll have a dog who lets you know someone’s at the door, but who stops barking when you ask.

And if you’re home alone or live alone? A Manners Minder or automatic treat dispenser that you’ve introduced your dog to well before the event can be set to a variable rate of spitting treats out. You can go out and your dog can keep getting paid while you’re not there.

Got more than one dog and suspect a war would break out? Separate them with gates and give them all something to keep them busy while you go out to deal with the inconsiderate sod. And then ask your mates to drop around at scheduled times to play knock-a-door-run so that you can practise ‘thank you – retreat – treat’ with your dogs in carefully planned trials so that when a carpet salesman finally drops round, you’ll be all ready for them.

The over-enthusiastic welcome committee

For dogs who jump up in the house, having a team mate who can welcome guests in while you keep control of the dog to stop them practising is really useful in those early days. Your team mate should be able to explain to your guests that they’re not to give the dog any attention for jumping, but if the dog does a shoulder touch, a hand touch or a high five, then they can say ‘hi!’

While you make sure your dog is able to cope with the drama of new people, your team mate can make sure the new people are able to cope with the excitement of seeing a dog. A spare pair of eyes to stop your guests saying ‘oh good boy! hi!’ and accidentally reinforcing the jumping up won’t go amiss. I find that where things go awry, it’s when we’re overwhelmed, trying to look after our own dog, family and home and we’re not able to adequately manage all the complex pieces. Having someone who can take the dog to another room, play with them a little while you sort everything out and then bring the dog out when energies are lower is another way a team mate can really help you out.

And if you’ve no-one to run interference? Put the dog away with treats until energies have calmed down so that you don’t risk your guests inadvertently reinforcing your dog for jumping all over them.

Proofing your recall

You know the drill. You’ve worked on recall in your home, in the garden, in empty supermarket car parks, in closed fields and with a dropped long lead on quiet, clear walks. You’re gearing yourself up for the real tests when you take your dog to your favourite place, they race off before you and by the time you get round the corner, they’re frolicking with harassing a flock of sheep. Having someone who can go out five minutes before you on your exact walk and then send you a message with an all-clear is really helpful. It also gives you time to put your dog back on the lead should something happen.

Last week, I was working with a young gun-dog who has been charging up to people on walks and had knocked one of them over by jumping all over them. If there had just been someone running interference beforehand who could have been five minutes ahead and said ‘there’s people coming!’, the guardian could have put the dog on the lead way before the dog saw the wildly exciting new friends that he just had to jump on. The trouble was that the dog’s recall was great in most circumstances, but as soon as he saw anyone out on a walk, his recall failed completely. A team mate would definitely help with control and management here.

The diehard chaser

Most of the pedigree and mix-breed dogs in Western countries have been bred to chase to some degree, with the exception of a handful of lapdogs and livestock guardian breeds. From sight and scent hounds to gundogs, cattle dogs, herding dogs to terriers and bull terriers, chase behaviours have been selected for over many generations. This can be really tough if you’re proofing a recall or even if you’re walking a large dog on a lead. I still remember the time four dogs dragged me on my arse through a cowfield…

Having someone to go on ahead and let you know if there are deer, boar, livestock, ducks or wild-roaming joggers, hunters or cyclists can be a great way to make sure you’re not exposed to any unpleasant surprises and trying to live down a ‘Fenton!’ moment while your labrador rampages through the park chasing deer and heavily reinforcing themselves in the process.

The partially reformed lunger

Maybe you read my post about retractable leads a few weeks back and you’ve decided harnesses are the way forward. You’ve got yourself a great new lead, a solid harness and you’re weaning yourself off using a choke, shock or prong collar because you know it’s bad for your dog and it’s probably not even controlling them very much any more if they’re dyed-in-the-wool pullers. Maybe you weigh 60kg and you’re walking a dog who’s only just a little less than you. Perhaps you’ve got two smaller dogs who add up to some hefty tension.

Having a team mate to walk with you is ideal. Pulling can be socially contagious – it can be a bit of a competition to be the husky at the front. And it can be hard to walk two or more dogs and do some real training with both of them. It’s almost as bad if you’ve got a great dog who knows the ropes and one who needs a bit of work. It’s nigh on impossible to train two or more dogs simultaneously so if you need some one-to-one time, a friend is always welcome.

Maybe you’ve done loads of work and they’re almost perfect except they lose their mind on one tiny but essential part of the walk… having a friend to help with another lead is so useful. I know there have been times at the shelter where we’ve got a dog who’s mostly great but who struggles to get out of the shelter grounds because it’s stressful. If you’re trying to manage 45kg of German Shepherd, having a friend to help you on the tough bit means you can put down all your aversive tools which weren’t working anyway. Sometimes, it’s just because it’s muddy and slippy that you need a helping hand. It might only be for 100m or so, but if that means you can get rid of the heavy weaponry, then it’s well worth it.

The not-quite-ready-for-the-vets dog

Maybe you’ve got a dog who you’ve been working so hard to desensitise to the vets, but that heady combination of other dogs, cats, smells, vets, chemicals, barking, squealing, grabby hands and long waits in tiny waiting rooms is likely to set them back six months in progress, having a team mate to run interference is just the ticket. You can stay in the car and do nice stuff with the dog. They can be your substitute in the surgery until your time is ready, and then can act as a great team mate running interference would do – keep their eye out for the old lady who really doesn’t have a good grip on her poodle – avert the very large mastiff-with-attitude standing in the corner and make sure you can get in and out without drama. Not only that, they can help you in the surgery so you can talk to the vet, help manipulate the dog and keep running counter-conditioning while you get the vital information and have grown-up conversations. Perhaps your vets take the dog from you… the same thing is true. Having a friend to run interference can be a dream way of getting into the surgery without subjecting your dog to the miscreants hanging around in there. Your team mate is your wing-person, helping you navigate the complex obstacle course with a cool head. By the end, all they might be doing is humming Mission Impossible music with your dog who had no idea what the bodyguard was for, but if it stops you having a bad experience in a delicate and fragile stage of your progress, all well and good.

The almost-reformed reactive rover

So you’ve been working through a programme to help your dog cope with reactivity. You’re just about ready to go and spend your first five minutes proofing it in the toughest conditions: outside the dog park or at the cani-cross rendezvous site. It’s Murphy’s law that someone won’t have control of their overly-social Donald Trump of a dog who races over to subject your girl to a bit of light humping and who sets you back to square one in your training. A team mate can either take your dog and walk away while you occupy the offender, or you can walk off leaving them to do the same. Given that you will need to practise in some challenging conditions before you are truly able to say your dog can cope, knowing you can do so without derailing everything you’ve done is a true gift.

Truly effective rehabilitation

When you’re working with a dog who has bitten a member of the public or another dog, even if it was only a nip or a grab, it can be nerve-wracking to take them out in public. So what are you supposed to do? Keep them in forever? One of the hardest things to do is build up really positive experiences and make sure you’re keeping people and their animals safe. A team mate who goes out before you, runs interference with stray dogs and wandering humans, who acts as your spotter and your guide, who can help you work through the awkward bits, well, they’re invaluable. Of course, you may have had to use them as a stooge too at the beginning, so that your dog gets used to them. But if your dog is such a risk that they’d bite any person they see, then you definitely, definitely will need some friends who can act as a stooge so that you can control what they do, how they move and where they go. It’s no use trying to rehab your dog using unsuspecting members of the public. That’s a huge liability.

You may, of course, have partners, parents, adult children, neighbours or friends who are willing to help out. If not, don’t worry. There’s an army of professionals who can help you, from dog walkers and trainers to behaviour consultants. I can’t tell you how useful it is to pay a dog walker a tenner to let you know their schedule so you can follow them around for half an hour every day and desensitise your dog in a low risk situation. There are many professionals who might help out if you bung them a bit of cash. Maybe you know exactly what you need to do. Maybe you’ve been working with a great behaviour consultant and you just need some people to practise on who don’t charge quite so much.

In any case, find yourself a team mate. They won’t just inspire you and challenge you, but they’ll also enable you to bridge the gap between ‘nearly!’ and ‘touchdown!’

How to put a stop to alert and alarm barking

Many of our dogs are typical ‘watch dogs’, whether they’re a huge Pyrenean Mountain dog or a tiny Lhasa Apso. If you’ve got a dog who drives you nuts by barking at every pedestrian, cyclist, jogger, car or truck that passes your house, or who barks in the garden in response to all the other dogs in the neighbourhood barking, read on and find out a really simple way to put an end to your dog barking to alert you to everything outside the door that offends them.

Why dogs alert bark

The simple fact is that most dogs on the whole bark much, much more than wolves, which gives us a clue that their barking has served a purpose. Indeed, many of the earliest recorded accounts of dogs include stories about dogs who were kept to alert the home-owner to potential intruders. The watch dog was probably one of the earliest roles dogs played in our lives.

Today, the simple fact is that many dogs can’t distinguish between an intruder and a passer-by. It becomes a superstition for many dogs that they feel they need to bark in order to make the offensive stuff outside the door or gate leave. They don’t realise that it’s not their barking that has made the offensive individual go away, but that they went away anyhow and they always intended to.

Recently, a big family and business moved into the house across the road from me. They also have a very noisy dog who likes to bark every time the cars pull up. The dog is outside most of the day and it’s easy to tell when people are coming and going.

The problem is that my dogs also like to bark at cars that pull up and also bark at dogs who are barking in the neighbourhood. You can imagine what a challenge it could have been for my dogs to cope with vans coming and going all day and with their dog barking every time they do.

So how do we stop this?

Step 1: identify triggers

Make a list of all the things that make your dog bark. Take a sample over 72 hours. Note how long they bark for and what they’re barking at. Even if you don’t know precisely what, because you can’t hear what they are, make sure that they’re reacting to things outside the property, not inside. Recognise patterns and also recognise the most challenging parts of your dogs’ day. For me, that was early morning and lunchtime. The triggers were generally neighbourhood noise which is worsened as people come and go. The post van is also a challenge. Note whether those things are visual or auditory.

Step 2: remove perches and vantage points

Many of our dogs use the backs of sofas or even coffee tables to stand on to keep an eye on the outside world. Who knows – they may even think that’s their job!

Your first job is to make it more difficult for your dog to see out of the window, to stand on couches or tables to look out, and to block up their access points. Move your couches, use screens, add stick-on filters, put plants in strategic places or even relocate to another room in the house temporarily. All these are temporary measures until you have things under control. Don’t worry – you can put your couch back in its rightful spot in a few weeks.

If your dogs are very sensitive to noise, you might even want to make sure you can give them a sound-proofed space with some inoffensive ambient music at busy times. But be careful you aren’t just adding to their problems by making it difficult for them to rest.

Remove vantage points and viewpoints outside too if your dogs bark at things beyond the property line.

Gates like this are perfect for encouraging barkers. If you want to have a fighting chance, it’s important to block off those vantage points. Here, some bamboo panels would be an easy solution, as long as we remember to block off the space around the solid panels too.

Step 3: give them something to do at critical times

My neighbour goes out to work at anywhere between 7.36 and 7.47. I know because his dog goes nuts. It’s winter and he also leaves his van warming up for ten minutes, so it tends to be a prolonged barking session just outside my window until he’s gone.

At 7.30, we have our breakfast. The dogs have Kongs, a bit of Classic FM, some highly offensive (to me) but highly valuable dog swag and a snuffle mat. At 7.50, we’re finishing up our breakfasts. Not a bark to be had.

Now I could give my dogs their breakfast at 7am and spend 10 minutes telling them to shut up at 7.36. I could give them a bowl at 7.30 and spend 10 minutes telling them to shut up at 7.36. If my dogs notice the comings and goings (they do) they’re more invested in eating breakfast than barking. Don’t make it easy for your dogs to bark at the most difficult times simply because they’ve nothing else to do. What stops me curtain twitching and cursing my neighbours? Occupation. What stops my dogs waiting around for stuff to happen? Occupation.

Step 4: prepare yourself to put an off-switch on your dog’s barking

It’s not realistic to expect your dogs never to bark. They’re dogs. Also, if you have a burglar, a bit of barking probably wouldn’t go amiss. But we can’t easily teach our dogs to distinguish between intruders and passers-by. All we really want is our dogs to stop when we ask and perhaps to start barking less frequently. After all, that’s probably why we tell them so many times to stop!

To prepare yourself for the off-switch, you need some high-value treats, preferably freeze-dried. It’s no good using fresh meat or cheese unless you have a cooler, because you need to keep the treats to hand. But you want high value treats – not just big brand floury biscuits. Your dogs will stop so much more quickly if you make it worth their while.

Step 5: cache your treats away from the scene of the crime

My dogs like to bark near the window in the living room, since that is closest to the road. I store my treats in a jar on the mantelpiece which is on the opposite side of the room. This has two purposes. One is to establish clear patterns about what happens when they need to bark. The other is to move them away from the window and create distance. Yes, it’s annoying to get up every time to go there myself. No, it’s not more annoying than yelling at them to stop barking for ten minutes. Look at it this way: you don’t have to get up off the couch and give them a treat, you get to move and get some exercise in return for their immediate silence.

Step 6: thank your dog and mean it

The next time your dog barks because something offensive to them is happening outside, with your most sincere and well-meant, heart-felt gratefulness, thank them!

Say, “Thank you! You are the best dog in the whole of the universe!”.

Say, “Well done, you magnificent creature!’

Say, “Good job, my loyal and most excellent bodyguard!”

Tell them they are wonderful and give them a treat away from the scene of the crime. Really mean it. Remember they save your from burglars, intruders, debt collectors, vagrants, hobos, would-be marauders, insurrectionists, odd-bods, religious acolytes, ne’er-do-wells, anarchists, miscreants, errant SWAT teams, hired assassins and warmongers on a daily basis. Thank them and feed them. They do not know you are not Halle Berry in John Wick and they are not Belgian Malinois. As far as they are concerned, you are their most valuable asset and they are the Best Guardians in the Known Universe.

Don’t worry the first ten times or so if they don’t stop instantly, or if they keep popping back to have the final say. Thank them anyway, sincerely, and from the bottom of your heart.

Remember, too, that the higher value your treats (at least at first), the more surprising this will be and the more amazing your results will be.

Feed for the entirety of the time the offensive thing is in radius of the house or garden. It’s better to use five or six treats and go slightly longer than the intruder is in range than hope that one will do.

Make sure you pick a phrase and use it every single time, like ‘thank you!’ or ‘good job!’

This phrase will become your off-switch. It tells the dogs they don’t need to bark any more and they’ve done what they were designed to do. They can bark, and as soon as you say the magic phrase, all is well. Partly, this is about your response to the scary stuff. If you’re silly and relaxed, your emotions will be as contagious as your previous hostility and anger. You can of course say, ‘Stop!’ or ‘That’s enough!’ but most of us have tried that already. Also, they don’t tend to be filled with nascent pride that our fierce dog has actually, for once in their life, followed our directions.

Step 7: add in some other stuff to stretch out the treats

You can ask your dog to ‘get it!’, to find the treat, to ‘watch!’ or play slow treats, where you’re practising impulse control. This way, you can spend two or three minutes with only a handful of treats. Keep them moving and busy, rather than asking them to sit for five minutes while a man chainsaws trees outside your home. Being still in the face of threat is hard. Keep your dogs busy and occupied until the offensive individual or machine has well and truly gone.

Step 8: practise until your dogs are 100% reliable

When your dogs are completely reliable, when you know you could say ‘thank you!’ and they would stop instantly, then you’ve cracked it. Would you put money on being able to say ‘Well done!’ during a work zoom call and your dogs stopping barking straight away? If not, you’ve got a bit of work to do yet.

You’ll find by this time that they are less sensitive to noise because you’ve also been getting them used to the noise or the offensive passer-by and pairing it up with good stuff. But never cheat your dog before they get to reliability. If there is a scary noise or intruder, ALWAYS thank them and ALWAYS give them a treat. Do this every time they bark. It’s a 100% thing. If you’re in and they alert, bark or otherwise notice something outside, then you give them a treat until you’d put money on them running straight to the treat spot when you tell them how magnificent they are.

Step 9: add in praise or petting occasionally

When your dogs are 100% reliable, you can swap in the simple ‘Thank you!’ or ‘Good job!’ or ‘Well done!’ without a treat. Your cue to stop will have been learned as a conditioned reinforcer: praise. You can add a game if you like. You can give them a bit of petting or attention. Start varying what good stuff happens when they’re quiet when you ask. Start with the minor offences, where it’s a slight growl or a head looking towards the window.

Never phase out the treats completely. Remember that the stuff outside your window or your gate IS a threat to your dog if that’s what they think it is. If you stop the treats, expect the behaviour to return. Keeping an occasional treat every so often, even going back to 100% treats for stopping barking for a short while, can help keep it fresh and exciting. You may find that barking drops off so much that you can keep to 100% treats. I do, simply because barking is so extremely rare that it’s a small price to pay for the quiet. If I get through 10 treats a month, it’s been a crazy week. That’s down from 10 treats an hour. I’m happy with that.

Step 10: thank the smaller behaviours

So what do you do if you hear or see something?

If you see your dog look but not bark, thank them and give them a treat. If you hear them growl, thank them and give them a treat. If they were resting and they open their eyes slightly, thank them and give them a treat. Switch in the praise and petting if you barely get a reaction. What you are doing is shaping smaller behaviours so they don’t need to bark to tell you several SWAT soldiers are rappelling down your house front and you’re going to have to take your diamond stash to the safe room.

So, in essence:

When there are offensive things outside:
* say ‘Thanks!’
* go get the dog a treat away from the gate, door or window
* keep giving the treats until the offensive things go away
* repeat until it’s a well-established habit.

In this video, my friend pulls up to drop something off. Neither of my dogs bark. I wanted them to. I even ask them, ‘Who’s there?’ hoping one of them will. They don’t even then. That’s how good this technique is. There really is someone outside — my girl looks at the window on the right a few times, but not a bark was uttered between the pair.

Lidy, the malinois, notices the car door opening and the car running. Heston, the groenendael cross, is still my huge fanfare barker and even he doesn’t utter a peep. He doesn’t even look out of the window. I videoed it for you because I’ve been trying to catch them barking for 3 days and they haven’t barked once. There have been multiple disturbances of cars, vans, dogs barking, cyclists parked up outside chatting, post vans, the kid over the road playing kick-ball against the side of their house, gunshots, hunters, hunt dogs and even fire sirens. And I’ve waited. This was the one moment where I thought I would get some lovely barking. I got none. Heston looked out of the window and looked at me. We went to the mantelpiece anyway because it’s always worthwhile topping up with the challenging moments. We play until my friend leaves. Then the treats are gone.

If you are worried that your dogs will start barking to get treats, I’m happy to say this activity does not work like this. Because the dog only barks when there is something to bark at (and you can, by the way, do this if you suspect the dog hears something you don’t) then they only do it then.

Please note: this activity is not suitable for dogs who are barking AT you to get your attention or if they ever bark at you for food. It’s also not suitable if people are going to come into your home, though it may work in the same way. You can also do this with doorbells or if your dog barks when the phone rings.

So if your dog is alert barking, it’s well worth trying this simple technique to reduce the number of times they bark, and how much they bark as well as putting their silence on cue. It’s made my life much more bearable, especially as noise has increased outside my home. And I like to hope it has made my dogs’ lives more bearable too because I’m not yelling at them to stop or hoping they’ll just stop of their own accord.

I’ve got an exciting new book out for dog trainers. If you’re interested in working more efficiently, more effectively and with less coercion, I wrote this to get you thinking! Available on Amazon in paperback and ebook.

When should I use an Extendable Lead?

If there is one piece of kit that I wish I saw less of, it would be an extendable lead. These leads, which retract into a plastic handle and are sometimes controlled by a ‘stop’ button that stops the lead spooling in or out are mired in controversy.

Perhaps the question is more in line with when we shouldn’t use an extendable lead.

When shouldn’t you use an extendable lead?

  1. If your dog pulls at all. Extendable leads exert a constant low-level pressure. This habituates a dog to pulling and teaches them that walking with a lead means accepting a low level of pressure. You will never be able to teach your dog to walk without pulling if they don’t understand that to move forward, they need to move without putting any pressure on the lead.
  2. If your dog ever chases or is likely to chase things in the environment. These leads can spool out incredibly quickly and the longer the lead, the more momentum your dog can build up. They can very easily whip the lead out of your hand before you’ve even had time to react.
  3. If you are ever passively supervising your dog on a walk. By this, I mean you check your phone, you watch the birds, you’re talking to a friend, you’re looking at the path. Walking a dog on an extendable lead means constantly and actively supervising your dog. If you don’t do this, the split second you take your attention away from your dog becomes a potential moment when your dog can spool out the lead without you being aware and can potentially end up in trouble.
  4. If you are ever closer to bicycles, pedestrians, other animals and moving machinery than the maximum length of the lead. It is very easy for any dog on a retractable lead to end up cutting in front of a car, a bicycle or racing up to another dog and getting in a fight. You are reliant on the ‘stop’ button to stop the lead spooling out. If this fails, you are left without any way to prevent your dog getting into trouble and potentially causing injury to others without having to attempt to grab the very thin retractable cord.
  5. If you don’t walk your dog with every single piece of skin covered, particularly lower arms, hands and legs. Or, if you walk around other humans who haven’t covered all skin. Or, if you walk around other animals who have exposed skin. You don’t even need to risk grabbing the thin cord to cause yourself injury. Friction burns and abrasions caused by the retractable cord are well documented. A simple search engine image search for injuries caused by retractable leads should be enough to put you off for life. Don’t look if you haven’t got a strong stomach.
  6. If you walk your dog with a neck collar. The potential for your dog to build up a head of steam and either rip the handle out of your hands or cause injuries like whiplash are enormous.
  7. If you walk your dog with a front-clipping harness. The potential for that cord to cut your dog’s legs or shoulders is significant. Also, front-clipping harnesses are designed for flat leads , not the semi-constant pressure of an extendable lead.
  8. If you use a choke or prong collar. Both of these are designed for a quick jerk or yank, known by people who use these collars as a ‘correction’. You can’t ‘correct’ a dog when you can’t exert immediate pressure. The pressure from an extendable lead is at a semi-constant if the dog never reaches the end of the lead or you never press the ‘stop’ button. That habituates your dog to a semi-constant, mild pressure and habituates them to the aversive that should be stopping them pulling. Instead of becoming deterrent, it means the dog gets used to a semi-constant level of pressure. Ironically, the pressure of a retractable lead, even pressed stop or at the end of the spool is not enough to put true pressure on the choke or prong so that they function as they should, unless the dog runs into them and builds up a head of steam. The added choke or prong worsens the likelihood of damage in this case. Chokes and prongs were not designed to be used with retractable leads. You might as well not use the choke or prong.
  9. Head halters. Again, for the same reason. The extendable lead puts a constant pressure on the dog. These are aversive in the first place unless the dog has been habituated to them over a period of time, so adding a low level of pressure to them makes them even more aversive. And like chokes and prongs, using them with a retractable lead never allows you to put pressure on the head halter properly, unless the dog builds up momentum. The risk of injury to your dog in such circumstances is huge.
  10. If you ever walk more than one dog.
  11. If you will ever be in a situation where you might need to grab the lead to stop your dog getting into bother.
  12. If your dog eats things they find in the street, such as other animals’ feces or discarded food as you don’t have the control to be able to stop them or pull them away if necessary.
  13. If your dog is at all fearful, as the likelihood you will not be able to control the lead if they spook is significant.
  14. If your dog is at all aggressive or likely to bark, growl, lunge, grab or bite another human or animal.
  15. If you can’t get your dog’s attention when you call them. Whenever you call them. If you’ve got a dog who hoovers up smells or fixates on things in the distance, then a retractable lead is not the tool you want in a battle with the environment for your dog’s attention.
  16. If your dog is a puppy. An extendable lead should not be the first lead you introduce your dog to. It is not a training tool. All it teaches is the young dog to get used to constant pressure on the lead and that they can go wherever they want if they pull.
  17. If your dog has any problem with recall. If you ever lose your dog to the environment, then an extendable lead is not for you. Even if you are very vigilant, if you can’t always get your dog’s attention when you call, then an extendable lead is a liability.

The only time I’d ever use a retractable lead is with a dog under 5kg or so who can walk perfectly on lead and never spools out the cord so that the lead bit is always loose. I’d have to be actively supervising the dog, make sure I’m not around other humans, moving machines or other animals and know that my dog is 100% unlikely to want to interact with them, or anything around them. In such cases, I might as well get a flat lead.

It begs the question as to why people use extendable leads. I think the answer is that they want to give their dogs more freedom to interact with the world and allow their dog to run a little or trot, keep their own pace. Ironically, these are two very good reasons not to use them. Dogs who follow smells or who run on the lead are dogs who can easily build up momentum and end up jerking the lead out of their guardian’s hand.

They are also not good leads for moving to off-lead work. If I’ve been working on recall with a dog, then I’ll often include a ‘trailing lead’ moment where the dog is free but they’re still trailing a lead so that I can intervene if necessary. We sometimes do this when we’ve introduced dogs in the shelter too, as we are less likely to risk a bite if the dogs get into a fight and we can use the leads to control the dogs a little better if we need to by picking up the lead again. Using a dropped lead is often a really good way to move to independence with dogs who have a history of chasing, of not paying attention, or of fearful or aggressive. You can’t do that with a retractable lead.

As you can see, then, barely any single good reason why an extendable lead is the right choice. I accept there may always be exceptions. Normally, I’m fairly relaxed about the kit my clients turn up with bar the heavy artillery like choke chains or prong collars, but I am never okay with an extendable lead. It’s the one time I’ll always swap it out for something more reliable. That said, nobody’s dog is having sessions with me because they’re super obedient. However, all that’s done is made me even more conscious of the problems extendable leads cause and give me all the more reason never to use them.

In the next post, I’ll talk you through using a long flat lead, so that you can work safely with the 17 different kind of dogs who shouldn’t be using an extendable lead. They can carry some of the same risks if you’re not careful with them. And in the post after that, I’ll be looking at ways to teach your dog to walk without pulling.

Is my dog protecting me?

Along with separation anxiety, protective behaviour is the one behaviour that guardians most often contact me to say their dog is exhibiting where I often think this self-diagnosis has been made in error.

Much as I hate labels, many guardians mistake certain aggressive behaviours as motived by a desire to protect them. Some of those include territorial behaviours, a high degree of suspicious behaviour concerning unfamiliar dogs and humans, or resource guarding. In the past, vets and behaviourists may also have labelled these behaviours as dominance too. So today, I want to iron out the wrinkles, to clean up the confusion and tidy up the misunderstandings.

Usually, clients will tell me their dog is behaving aggressively or their dog is reactive when out on a walk. They tell me they stopped to talk to a neighbour and their dog barked at or lunged at the neighbour when the neighbour came up to shake hands. They tell me that an off-lead dog ran up to them in the park and their dog attacked the off-lead dog. They tell me that a cyclist went past and the dog bit them. Sometimes they tell me that their dog bit someone who came into the house or garden, even if they’d been invited in. Or they tell me that their dog growls at anyone who approaches them when the dog is sitting with them in the home.

Very often in these scenarios, guardians tell me that the dog was just protecting them. Like separation anxiety, an umbrella diagnosis for a lot of behaviours, emotions and motivations, I want more information first before I agree. Invariably, however, I arrive at a different conclusion. Is your dog really protecting you, or is something else going on?

Protective aggression is usually something I end up ruling out all together. Largely because protective behaviour is very different from the behaviour the guardian is describing. Although I don’t like labels, certain behaviours also require certain treatment plans – and that may include veterinary treatments or behavioural medication – and it matters what the dog is doing. After all, you don’t treat a sore throat with stomach medication. It would be completely ineffective, unless the sore throat was caused by acid reflux. Likewise, treating territorial, guarding or aggressive behaviour towards strangers as if it is protective behaviour is very likely to be as ineffective as treating most sore throats with Gaviscon.

Many dogs have been specifically bred for protection. Mainland European herding dogs from the Great Northern European plains were bred to work to not only keep the flock together, but to work in unfenced multi-purpose agricultural land. The predecessors of German shepherds, Belgian shepherds, Briards, Berger de Picardie, Beauceron, Dutch shepherds and some Italian herding dogs were bred to keep the flock together, keep the flock off crops and also to protect the flock from predators – both animal and human. Sometimes we call this the ‘living fence’ where the dog seems to act like a fence keeping the flock in, keeping them in situ and protecting them from threat, just as a fence would do. Some German shepherd owners erroneously attribute the ‘living fence’ notion to this manufactured modern breed, when in fact it is a behaviour we see in many other northern European flatland dogs, particularly the berger de Beauce and the berger de Brie. Being able to keep the flock together is a key aspect of this behaviour, and that means a certain level of independence – as the dogs may be left without the shepherd – but also a degree of stranger danger. Anything that approaches the dog is seen as a threat. It is little wonder that German shepherds, Dutch shepherds, French shepherds and Belgian shepherds are most often seen as guard dogs. They’re very different from the British herding dogs like the collie, and the herding dogs of the English-speaking diaspora in Australia, New Zealand and the USA.

Another group of more ancient working dogs also have strong instincts for flock guardianship, albeit without the herding tendencies: the livestock guardian breeds and mastiffs. From the Caucasus, through Asia Minor, into Eastern and Southern Europe, where there are mountains, there are livestock guardian breeds and mastiffs. Since there are few crops in these areas, you don’t need dogs who can also act as a living fence, keeping sheep from grazing on unfenced crops, but you do need dogs who can keep the wolves away and protect the flock in the absence of a human. All the big guardian breeds fall into this group, from the Akbash and Anatolian shepherd, the Carpathian shepherd and the Mioritic to the Maremma, the Pyrenean mountain dog, the Portuguese Estrela mountain dogs and the Spanish mastins, these dogs can often be found in European mountain areas along with an accompanying sign to remind hikers to leave the dogs to their flocks and not to make any approaches. Many of these breeds are also making their way into the Western world, where guardians are troubled by behaviours they don’t understand and that are out of place in urban areas, but that the dogs resort to particularly in times of stress when they’re more likely to revert to their ‘default’ settings and inbuilt behaviours rather than relying on learned experience. Recent work has shown that livestock guardian breeds like these are actually less motivated by territorial behaviour than they are by protective behaviour. In other words, they are bonded to the sheep and have imprinted on them. This behaviour, from a very early age, makes them very protective of their flock, seeing them as kin.

It’s less unusual therefore to see protective behaviours from these dogs than it is from other dogs. And of course other dogs can be protective. All dogs are born knowing how to be a dog. Just in these two different types of dog we have selected for very particular behaviours that careful socialisation should address. What I would typically expect to see from dogs in this category would be that ‘suspicious until they know you; loyal when you’re a friend’ kind of behaviours. It’s not unusual for shepherd and livestock guardian owners to report that their dogs have problems with arrivals and departures from the group, and with strangers. Certainly, my own reprobate Belgians are highly suspicious of people and dogs until they know them. And then, they’re your very best friend and would guard you with their life. I always think of them of dog versions of the Robot in Lost in Space: “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”

So protective behaviour for these kind of dogs would include aggressive reactions towards strangers and generally biddable behaviour with people and animals they know. It’s often directed towards strangers who they perceive as a threat. However, these dogs would also be fairly biddable away from their flock. The true test of protective behaviour for me is if the dog is friendly when they’re not with their flock or family. Or that their reactions are much milder, at least. If the dog is as aggressive or reactive with strangers as they are when they’re on their own, it’s not protective behaviour, is it? They’ve nothing to protect. And most dogs, in my experience, are as aggressive or reactive on their own as they are when they’re with their humans or animal companions. My dogs are not protecting me: they’re as wary of strangers when they’re alone as they are when they’re with me. And stranger danger is very different than protective behaviour.

Protective behaviour:
* Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a stranger approaches the dog who is with their guardian or another family member/animal. This would intensify the closer the threat comes to the guardian, family member or family animal.
* The dog does not behave in this way (or much more mildly) when the guardian, family member or family animal is not present.
* The context is always in the presence of the guardian, family member or family animal, whether on familiar or unfamiliar territory.
* The purpose of the behaviour is to keep threats away from a protected target.
* Rule out stranger-related behaviours, sexual behaviours (where the dog is protecting a dog of the opposite sex from same-sex dogs), territorial behaviours, resource guarding.
* Treatment would include desensitisation and counter-conditioning as well as taught behaviours such as a down-stay. Treatment will always focus on the dog-guardian pair. There would be little point in training the dog without the guarded family member present.

There may also be hyper-attachment to the guardian, family member or other animal in my experience, and the dog may not cope well without their presence. Remember that this behaviour may not be seen in isolation: it may be that the dog also presents other behaviours too. You can be both territorial and protective!

Stranger-related behaviours:
* Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a strange human or dog approaches whether out in public, on home ground, whether in the company or the guardian or whether alone.
* The dog consistently behaves in this way with strange humans and dogs despite removal from territory, removal from resources and removal from familiar humans and dogs.
* The context is consistent every time strange people or dogs approach.
* The purpose is to stop the approach of unfamiliar animals or humans.
* Rule out protective behaviour, territorial behaviour and resource guarding.
* Treatment would include desensitisation and counter-conditioning as well as taught behaviours such as automatic u-turns, games such as “Look at That!” and working both with the guardian present and when the dog is alone. Treat and Train machines which dispense treats and remote training would be possible treatments for dogs who are uncomfortable with all strangers. Treatment will focus on both the dog alone and the dog with their guardian.

There may, of course, be dogs whose behaviour is intensified when the guardian is present or when they are on ‘home’ territory.

Territorial behaviour:
* Behaviour exhibited would be barking, growling, lunges, air snapping, bites when a strange human or dog approaches a space considered by the dog to be their territory ie home ground, whether fenced or not, cars, homes, dog parks, familiar walks.
* The dog behaves consistently whether the guardian is present or not, but only on familiar ground
* The dog is friendly and approachable (or more so) away from the territory.
* The dog may be friendly and approachable if they arrive last to new territory that is already populated by unfamiliar humans or dogs, but may behave aggressively toward newcomers who arrive after them.
*The context is always on territory that is considered their own, whether that is because they are resident or because they have spent some time there, even if only very briefly. The behaviour is also only evident when a threat approaches, such as an unfamiliar dog or human.
*The purpose is to protect the territory, not the people or dogs within it, though it may well be intensified by the presence of people or other dogs.
* The behaviour may intensify if doors, gates and other barriers are introduced. Where physical barriers are not in evidence to demarcate the edges of territory, the dog may be less likely to intensify behaviour around the edge of the territory.
* Treatment would include desensitisation and counterconditioning on the territory, but may also include behaviours using remote devices and things like Treat and Trains where the guardian is not present.
* Rule out protective behaviour, stranger-directed behaviour and resource guarding.

Although the jury is still out as to whether dogs truly mark territory with pheromones in the same way as other canids do, it may be that these dogs are more likely to investigate urine and fecal matter left by other animals, and to overmark by urinating or defecating on top, and sometimes by scratching using hind paws to indicate where scent has been left. Dogs who are territorial may also often seem to spend more time investigating the perimeter when arriving at a new space, where other dogs are less likely to do so and may spend more time away from the perimeter. They may also leave well-defined tracks around the perimeter. I’d certainly be expecting to see other behaviours that suggest the dog is very aware of the boundaries to territory, such as marking around the edges or patrolling. The dog may also position themselves at entrance points if a physical boundary is evident.

Behaviours may be intensified by the presence of familiar humans or other animals. It may also be intensified by the presence of valued items. For instance, it’s not unusual for a dog to ‘claim’ territory in a kitchen or sleeping area from other dogs in the house, but the behaviour is less territorial and more about the presence of valued food items or sleeping spaces than it is about the territory itself per se.

As I said, it’s more typical to see certain breeds arrive as clients with these behaviours. For my own dogs, Heston my Belgian shepherd mix is pretty territorial. He is fine if we meet people off site (well, he’s a little nervous as he wasn’t socialised as well as he should have been – definitely my fault!) but he is not protective of me. He’d behave the same whether I was present or not. Lidy my Malinois is not particularly territorial, but she does not like strangers approaching her, wherever she is. You can see why I’d see myself as a protected guardian if I didn’t know for sure that a) Heston would bark at anyone who approached his territory whether I was there or not and b) Lidy would behave aggressively towards anyone who approached her, home ground or not, whether I was there or not. Because we only see the behaviour when we’re there, and because we’re self-centred little monkeys, we often think it is our presence that is causing the behaviour when in fact, it’s definitely a higher order skill to be more bothered about protecting others than it is about protecting yourself. All that said about guardian dogs and guard dogs, the most extreme case of protective aggression I’ve ever seen is a griffon vendéen… so it’s important not to dismiss protective behaviours just because the dog isn’t a doberman or a rottweiler or a malinois.

So often, when guardians tell me the dog was protecting them, I think that the dog actually felt completely unprotected by the human and was acting to protect themselves since their guardian failed to pick up on their discomfort around people or other dogs that they consider to be a threat. There are two factors that also play into it: the dog was often on the lead and therefore unable to get away from the threat since they were secured to their guardian, or the incident happened at an entrance point to the garden or home.

Let’s move on to another kind of behaviour that is often diagnosed by guardians as protective: resource guarding.

Other than these rustic dogs, lapdogs can also be protective of their guardian, particularly in the home and particularly when they’re on couches or under the feet of their guardians. It can be tempting to call this behaviour protective aggression, but often the dogs who show it also show other behaviours in other circumstances away from the guardian.

Resource-guarding behaviour:
* Behaviour exhibited includes barking, growling, lunges, snapping and biting both familiar and unfamiliar humans, dogs and other animals who approach an object.
* The context is always in the presence of a valued resource. Be mindful of the fact that human beliefs about value are not the same as those of dogs: dogs can guard the most innocuous of items. Most likely, however, are dogs who guard resting spaces (like beds and couches) who guard toys (or items considered toys) food or water bowls (and may only guard things they actually don’t want to eat at that time) and also may guard you as a resource if you are petting them. The target is more often a familiar dog or human simply because it’s more likely to happen in the home as resting spaces and food are not generally available on walks.
* The purpose is to prevent valued items or contact being taken from them.
* Treatment is particularly specific depending on what is being guarded. Desensitisation and counterconditioning are important, but taught skills like ‘drop’ or ‘trade’ may be useful for toys, but would be unhelpful for dogs who guard their beds from others.
* Rule out protective behaviour, territorial behaviour, stranger-related behaviour.

In my experience, dogs who guard items tend to be fairly anxious dogs on the whole and it’s rare to find those who only guard one item. Tilly, my little guardy cocker spaniel, didn’t just guard me if I was petting her (she had no interest in guarding me if I wasn’t sitting next to her) but she also guarded food items, toys and space. She’d even guard them from me at first. She also had stranger-related behaviour, and you can see how I could construe this as Tilly not liking other dogs and people approaching me when in fact what she was doing was feeling unprotected and vulnerable. The behaviour disappeared when I did not put her into vulnerable positions.

It’s worth noting that we don’t get to decide on the value of the resource. Lidy guarded a piece of dry pasta from me yesterday and then ate it with a most disgusted look, yet she will happily relinquish a sausage if I ask…. like I said, we don’t get to choose, the dog does. She has never guarded anything from me before.

It is also worth noting about what is appropriate and what is not. A friend shared a super video on Facebook the other day. Her gorgeous little Amstaff was in a preferred bed and an older hound was approaching, barking and moving in and out, trying to dislodge the interloper. The Amstaff did absolutely nothing, but it was clear the hound was very upset by the dog squatting his bed. That is appropriate behaviour. Good management followed, where the guardian asked the Amstaff to vacate the spot (which is right next to the fire… hence why it is so valued!) and he did so happily. He got a snuggly blanket and a hot water bottle next to his guardian and the hound got his preferred spot next to the fire. What is not appropriate, however, is a dog on vigil in their bed who growls every time another dog moves.

The same is true to a degree for all the behaviours I’ve described. It’s normal for many dogs not to appreciate strangers – so many of them have been specifically bred to be suspicious of unfamiliar humans. It’s normal for dogs to be territorial. If you lock your doors and you put up fences, you too are territorial, and that is pretty normal for a human too. And it’s normal for some breeds of dog to need to be taught that it’s okay for strangers to approach their flock – even if that flock is human. It’s also normal to protect stuff from those villains of the home who might intend to interrupt your petting session, who might intend to steal your spot by the fire, or who might come and stick their head in your bowl. Like my friend, it’s up to us as humans to understand where tensions are likely to rise and to manage those situations.

Whilst it’s normal, it is not something we need to accept. Sometimes it is something we cannot accept if the behaviour is injurious to others or to ourselves. And whilst you will see desensitisation and counterconditioning as part of all treatment plans, to deal with the emotional aspects of how dogs feel about threat, that will differ depending on what the context of the behaviour is and what its purpose is. For instance, this morning, I was desensitising Lidy around cows. That isn’t going to do anything to help her with her stranger-related aggression. It’s for that reason that we do need to be specific about what the context and purpose of the behaviour is, as well as the underlying emotion, because if we don’t, we’re back to treating sore throats with Gaviscon again.

It can be very difficult to work out what exactly is going on, particularly if you have no idea what your dog would do if you weren’t there. I suppose most people who tell me their dog bit someone because the dog was protecting them are just equating their presence with the bite, without realising the dog would have done the same had they been there or not. In any case, if you’re unsure, since all of these behaviours risk escalation if you do not address them, it’s vital you find a qualified and experienced behaviour consultant to help you out. They’ll help you through management, support you with training plans and offer you solutions that should keep everybody safe and help you address your dog’s difficulties. They should also be able to offer you an insight into what your dog is doing, and why. You don’t have to live with these behaviours and in many ways, they can mean our dogs lead much smaller lives if we don’t address them.

Keep Them Moving: Two games to help your dog cope in the real world

If you’ve got a dog who is reactive to everything, one of the most challenging things can be things moving up from behind, things moving alongside and things coming head on. In my experience, head on is worst, if only because it gives the dog time to decide that they don’t like whatever is coming towards them. If that’s someone walking towards you and your dog catches sight of them over 500m away, it can take them five minutes to get to you, especially if you’re battling a dog who is pulling on the lead. Now the bit that’s like high school mathematics: even if you’re moving towards them and they’re moving towards you, it could take you 3 minutes to get past each other: 3 minutes in which your dog is deciding that this is going to be terrible. Or, deciding that this is going to be wonderful target practice for a bit of “Catch the Monkey” or “Catch the Machine”. 3 minutes of you feeling anxious and passing that anxiety down the line.

I’m a fan of avoiding triggering situations whilst we’re learning to cope, but I’m also a fan of teaching dogs incrementally how to cope. If you’ve not already read about habituation, desensitisation and counterconditioning, working below threshold and using L-turns and U-turns, you might want to do a little reading beforehand. You can also polish up your desensitisation and counterconditioning. Whilst you can avoid some triggers most of your dog’s life, it does not make for a full life. The more contact that you are likely to have with triggers that set off behaviour, the more vital it is that you train your dog how to cope with them.

One thing I’ve become very conscious of on walks is that Lidy is a visual scanner, constantly on the lookout for stuff to a) chase and kill b) chase and kill and c) chase and kill. I notice a lot of my clients’ reactive dogs like this too: constantly scanning the environment. It’s as true for reactive dogs or anxious dogs as it is for chasey dogs. They walk with their head up, constantly on alert. I find it’s very apparent with anxious dogs. Some of them spend their entire walk in visual surveillance mode.

Heston has his nose to the floor, and he’s a much more refined nose: Lidy’s telling me there’s squirrels, weasels, mountain goats and camels right here, right now, and Heston is telling her to cool her jets. She can’t seem to decide if scent is 2 minutes old or 10 days old, if it belongs to something 10 miles away or in the next bush. He’s so much more discerning: he’ll only alert if it’s close and if it’s recent, though it interests him if it’s older scent. A nose down dog is a great dog to manage. There have been many times when Heston has had his nose to the ground and I’ve managed to keep it that way whilst a hare, deer or boar shot past.

Flika was a dissector of smells. She’d have to stop and give it a very thorough investigation:

That’s not to say she spent her whole walk like that. Put a cow or a car in the scene and she’d go back to visual scanning.

Heston likes to quest: that process where they’re looking for a scent but they haven’t really got it quite yet – quite often running and ‘hoovering’ up that scent until they find the freshest. Tail up, head down, trot, canter or gallop. Visual scanning is only for when scents are really strong and you need to use your eyes because the thing is SO close.

And the Problem Child, she’s a visual scanner. The sod.

In my experience, dogs who are visual scanners are absolute sods for being really sensitive to the environment, to environmental change and for literally having more time to go over threshold. Nose down dogs, like it or not, can often be tricked. There have been many times when I’ve been able to fake out Flika or Heston simply because I saw what they were busy smelling. We’ve avoided all kinds of hare, boar, deer and dogs that way. I’m very conscious of dogs who are visually scanning the environment the whole time – they’re more likely to exhibit reactive behaviour or chasing behaviours in my experience.

You can’t fake out a visual scanner. They’ve seen it before you have. By scanning visually, they were literally waiting for things to move.

And I think visual scanning has something to do with anxious dogs’ feelings too. If you don’t feel safe enough to stick your nose to the floor and enjoy your walk, if you’re spending all your walks waiting to be pounced upon, then you’re going to find it less appealing to get your nose down and get on with being a dog.

Some dogs also need to be re-taught that it’s fine to get your nose down and sniff and investigate. So many dogs are taught to walk on a very short lead and never engage with the environment. We teach them to be visual like us, and don’t allow them to be dogs. I hate it when dogs aren’t allowed to use their primary tool of information gathering: their nose. So the activities I’m about to propose also help dogs re-engage with the world using their nose. When we forbid our dogs in gathering information in the best way they can – via their nose – we’re also limiting their understanding of the world in which we’ve placed them.

A final thing is about the appearance of dogs who are visually scanning and who have their nose down in terms of the threat level they pose to other animals, especially to other dogs. The visual scan often seems to set other reactive dogs off. Head up behaviour is instantly scary (and one reason I don’t like using fake dogs or stuffed dogs) whereas head down behaviour, whether you see it as appeasement behaviour, displacement behaviour or a calming signal, gives a very different impression. I’ve seen this so many times where I’ve encouraged my dog to stick their nose to the ground and the other dog has stopped posturing too.

A pose like this, then, can come across as quite hostile to other dogs, especially if the dog is stopped, if their mouth is closed and if they’ve got widely spread back legs.

This, on the other hand, says “not interested in you” and “just doing dog stuff.

A final reason I prefer nose down behaviours to visual scanning. It’s also why I’m not a fan of stopping still with dogs and asking them to stand. So very many reasons a ‘nose down’ is good and why it’s good to keep dogs moving.

So how do we teach our dogs ‘nose down’ behaviours? I use two techniques. The first is a game of ‘Find it!’ and the second is a Pattern Game from Leslie McDevitt called ‘1-2-3-drop!’. The first is ideal for when you’ve got something coming up from behind, if you need to move your dog quickly past or away, or if you’re moving quickly past something. The second is good when you need to be first, when you’re coming up to something, when you’re approaching a blind corner or bend.

Like everything, you need to start these easy and you need to start in a safe place. Start in the kitchen, in the garden, in the driveway.

Find it!

Start by practising at home and in the garden.

Do it so many times that as soon as you say, ‘Ready?’, your dog looks back at you and they’re ready to go hunting. Start with small throws, a metre or so, with big, smelly treats on flat ground. Graduate in complexity until you’re a pot shot over 5m or so with small treats in foliage.

If you’ve got a reactive dog, they should be on the lead in all cases until they can cope. Yes, the lead may well be playing into reactivity, but if your dog is reacting to humans, dogs, other animals or machinery, the last thing you want is them learning that aggression and charging in works. It’s the quickest way to turn reactive behaviour to aggressive behaviour.

If you’re using a longer lead than 5m, your dog has a lot of room to get into trouble. I don’t recommend longer leads until your dog can cope with everything at 5m. At the same time, if you’ve got less than a 2m lead, this isn’t really giving your dog lots of capacity to make good choices themselves. For this reason, a 2m, 3m or 5m fixed flat lead is your friend. Heston has 10m because he can cope. Lidy has 2m because she cannot. So your throwing precision needs to be as long as the lead.

‘Find it!’ is very easy. You just throw a treat in front of you about the length of the lead and tell the dog to find it! You move them forward. You can also do it moving very quickly if you’re very near the target, so if I’ve got Heston on a 10m lead, I shorten it so he has a couple of metres, throw big treats and move him forward quickly. If the target is a long way away OR they suddenly sneaked up and I need to keep my dog’s head down for longer, then a really slow ‘Find it!’ with a handful of treats into deeper foliage can also keep them busy longer. It’s a great management tool. There have been times we’ve diverted behind a bit of a screen and we’ve played a few rounds of ‘Find it!’ on the spot to keep them busy.

But you can also use ‘Find it!’ for when they see the scary or fun thing coming but have not yet reacted. They’re under threshold, still listening to you. So many people at this point ask their dog for a sit, then wait… wait… wait… maybe ask for ‘Watch me!’… and the dog is losing their patience, concentration and capacity to cope by the time the target gets closer.

I see so many problems caused by asking the dog to be static and to passively accept/cope with scary stuff or stuff they’d like to chase, especially if the target remains in their field of vision for several minutes. I needn’t tell you about the time Heston and I had to watch a whole wild boar family run across the horizon, crossing several empty fields. It must have taken them 10 minutes. How calm do you think Heston was by the end? Static behaviour like a sit or a down-stay is a tough ask when there’s moving things and you can’t chase them or run at them or run away.

‘Find it!’ keeps the dog moving forward, nose down, eyes focused on a target.

You can use it for emergency avoidance. Like I do when I spot a hare in the distance and I don’t want to cope with a very frustrated Heston.

And you can use it for counterconditioning. This is not distracting the dog, like avoiding. This is waiting for the dog to see the target, then using that as a cue to play ‘Find it!’. This process is much more conscious and is called operant counterconditioning. It’s a much less passive process, and for that I’m a big fan.

Think of it this way:

counterconditioning: scary thing appears > give dog food.

The purpose of this is to change the dog’s emotional response to the scary stuff. It doesn’t change the dog’s behaviour. It changes their feelings. You don’t need to mark behaviour in counterconditioning, because it doesn’t even matter what the dog does. Just as long as they’re accepting food, then it’s working to make them feel better about the scary stuff.

operant counterconditioning: scary thing appears > dog sees scary thing and does not react > guardian marks the behaviour with a ‘yes!’ or a ‘good!’ and then tosses the food and initiates a game of ‘Find it!’.

The purpose of this is to shape behaviour. It will also change their feelings, because ‘scary thing’ = ‘food’, just like in the counterconditioning bit. But it also reinforces non-reactive behaviour. It reinforces calmness. It shapes it from a small moment of non-reactivity into something much longer. Operant counterconditioning is the gold standard of reactive dog training.

There are lots of operant counterconditioning processes you can use.

You could reinforce check ins, where a dog sees the trigger, looks back at you and you reinforce with food. You could do this with a cue, like seeing your dog see the trigger, then asking them to ‘Watch!’ or ‘Check in!’ or you could just shape it naturally without a cue. My dogs (even the Problem Child) do this when they see a car. I don’t cue them. They look back at me and come back, sit down and we have snacks. The car cues that behaviour. That’s a gold standard because I don’t even have to pay attention to what the dog is even doing. They tell me. I can forget about the cars and they automatically come back to me and get out of the road.

You could reinforce u-turns, where the dog sees the trigger, turns back to you and you reinforce by moving in the opposite direction from the target. In a way, the car check ins are a bit like this. One dog I worked with used to see a dog and turn back, then we’d get out of the way and go and have snacks. It was much better than holding on to 40kg of air snapping, teeth clacking German shepherd trying his best to navigate bouncy labradors in the best way he knew how.

You could reinforce hand touches, where the dog sees (or senses in my case) a trigger, turns back to you and touches your hand so that you can engage with them or work with them. Lidy does this. When she’s feeling uncomfortable or a bit bitey, she touches my hand and we play games until she’s ready to cope again. Again, better than holding on to 20kg of pocket rocket maligator trying to take a chunk out of someone’s shopping bags.

Leslie McDevitt, the queen of these procedures, introduced us to “Look at that!” – and you know from my last post why I like this cued behaviour. Unlike auto check-ins or the engage/disengage game (where you reinforce disengaging behaviour), this cues the dog for a predictable turn of events. So I say, “Where’s the Dog?” and Lidy scans the environment for a dog. When she sees it, she comes back to me for food. It turns scary stimuli into a game. If I say “Where’s Fred?” it prepares her for a person. Because it’s cued behaviour (i.e. you ask for it), the dog is prepared for what they are going to see. The world becomes predictable. If you want to read up on why predictability is great for anxious dogs, then you’ll enjoy my previous post.

You can see why counterconditioning is a step up from using ‘Find it!’ to just avoid the dog seeing a trigger. It actually starts to change their feelings. And you can see why operant counterconditioning is a step up from counterconditioning, because you can shape behaviour, not just change feelings.

You’ll also see that I deliberately only mentioned scary triggers for counterconditioning and operant counterconditioning. There’s a reason for that. Safety and predictability are the key reinforcers for an anxious dog. Food is an added bonus. Safety, predictability and food are NOT reinforcing for a dog who wants to chase stuff. Walking Lidy through town near humans and she is very much in need of safety, predictability and food; she often performs hand touches to access them.

How many times did Miss Predation 2015 hand touch me today on our woodland walk?

How many times did she engage with me without cuing?


A big, fat zero.

Because… chasing… chasing… stuff to maybe chase and smell and chase and bite and smell and bite and eat.

Can you use food with dogs with strong predatory behaviours? Not at first, no. Chasing is the number 1 fun. Nothing you can offer (and no punishment you can inflict) is as fun as chasing. This is why desensitisation is a better friend. Heston today recalled for a food treat when we saw a deer. That took 8 years to achieve, lovely readers. 8 years. To be fair, I’ve only really been trying for 5 of those 8. We’ve been gradually picking off things he likes to chase, one by one, and working on them. Here he is, not fussed by cows. The other week, the cows were right at the fence line and one stuck her head through. He ignored her. She was just there. She might as well have been a leaf on the bush or a crazy piece of grass. When he was 10 weeks old, he barked at cows non-stop. We did a lot of desensitisation and now frisky, frolicking cows can do their business right up by a very flimsy barbed wire fence and my dog is ‘meh!’

That is also true for horses, for sheep, for goats, for chickens (we’re revisiting cats!) and for all manner of game birds. A pheasant in the bush didn’t get a reaction yesterday. Nor a fat little partridge. Ducks, the same. We picked off each one and we worked on desensitisation. This from a dog who once chased swallows for 30 minutes in a field. Part of it is just being older and not having the same thrill. He’s much less bothered by squirrels, weasels, badgers and rabbits since they have very good evasive techniques. His big thrills were running stuff on open ground: hare, deer, boar. But we cope with them these days. Desensitisation is a part of that. But what is vital is that we meet those ‘chase’ needs. That means a bit of a dopamine hit, a bit of hunting, a bit of running, a bit of chasing. ‘Find it!’, lame as it is, is a loose approximation of this. No, it is never going to compete if your dog is sensitive to things that move – Lidy is a long way from even coping with smells and sounds, let alone seeing moving things – but when you couple it with desensitisation and you practise often, then you’ve got something that can meet a little of that need.


This is one of Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games as well. Here, you start counting, ‘1… 2…. 3…’ and then you drop a treat on the floor. Instead of tossing it in front of you, you drop it at your feet or slightly behind. Immediately you’ve dropped it, you start walking forward and start counting again. The dog is then trying to catch up with you and you’re able to use yourself as a bit of a screen as well as keep their head down. It’s more regular than ‘Find it!’ and the treat is easier to find. I usually use something pretty visible and this is not a routine that involves them hunting or looking for the treat, just putting their head down.

Like ‘Find it!’ you can use the rhythm to go quickly or to go slowly. I find as well that I can use it to slow the dog down a little, instead of a military pace with a drop every second or so, I can drag the ‘1-2-3’ out over 6 seconds, slow paces and then speed up as we get nearer, or bring their energy down by starting quickly and then slowing down.

It is so simple, it’s insane.

I find it fairly hypnotic and Lidy clearly enjoys it when she’s feeling a bit antsy, as she’ll often hand touch and then we go into 1-2-3-drop. It puts our dogs in a positive frame of mind and gives them something predictable, something routine. The key part of desensitisation that can be really hard to achieve is working around triggers in a relaxed state. No relaxation, no desensitisation. As you can see from the Youtube video of me working through these around a cow field with Heston, his body language is relaxed, he’s loose, he’s engaged with me, he’s not fussed about the cows. Full disclosure: Heston could walk off lead past frisky bulls and not bat an eyelid, so the video is just about practising ‘Find it!’ and ‘1-2-3-drop’ as a cold trial so that when I need it, it’s as automatic as breathing.

You can, by the way, put subtitles on as I’ve added commentary about what I’m doing as we go.

Once you’ve got a really automatic recall for ‘Ready?… Find it!’ and for the ‘1’ in ‘1-2-3-drop!’ then you can start to practise in more challenging conditions.

Scenario 1

This scenario is what I call The Drive-By. In this scenario, not unlike the one I have here, using ‘1-2-3-drop’ on approach keeps your dog slightly behind and trying to catch up, so they’re focused on you as the moving target, and on a routine they have practised hundreds of times as you walk past a static or slowly moving target. Just a reminder: you don’t want these games to become a predictor of scary or interesting stuff in the environment, so make sure you always have a few cold trials at other points on the walk too. Just as you pass the last of the sheep (or horses, children in a playground, revving motorbikes or whatever it may be) switch to ‘find it!’ to high-tail it out of there. At all times, YOU are between the dog and the trigger. You are also moving at all times. It’s often in the absence of any other routine that a dog will resort to inbuilt dog stuff like chasing or reactivity, so this fills the void when your dog needs a crutch to lean on.

Scenario 2

This scenario is one I call The Blind Bend. I am absolutely not a fan of reactive or chasey dogs going round blind corners first. All hell can break loose. Whilst I’m also not a fan of frog-marching dogs, or them needing to be 2 paces behind at all times, I insist on a bit of corner management.

One real-life example is just up the lane where the video was made. The house opens directly onto the street and the owners often leave the door open. Their dog usually lies in the doorway (because… dog!) and I’ve had a few hairy and narrow escapes when the door has been open and the dog has come flying out. The dog isn’t actively looking for trouble, but if the door is open, we don’t go past the front of the house. I could easily also take the left turn and move away, but the safest is a U-turn. So we play ‘1-2-3-drop’ on all blind corners, and I often encourage corner sniffing too. Corners are usually good spots for marking – cats, foxes, dogs, whatever you like… corners are often smelly. Encouraging a dog to get information by sniffing means I can get information by looking. Again, the dog should be furthest from the target or potential trouble, and ready to U-turn if necessary. We practise on literally every corner on our walk and if I have the slightest doubt, I always go round first.

Scenario 3

This is my High Noon scenario, where your dog is walking up to a trigger they feel is dangerous or interesting to chase. Instead of gunslinging, looking for screens, u-turning if not and l-turning if you’ve got a suitable screen, you can either play ‘Find it!’ on the spot until the trigger goes past, or you can practise some other behaviour at a distance. I might have a few games of ‘Look at That!’ if we’re safe. This is the toughest of all the scenarios, particularly if the dog has had visual confirmation of incoming threat for the last 5 minutes or so.

We can certainly feel we should try to wrestle our dog past the trigger. I don’t know what it is about human beings that we prefer High Noon to taking two minutes to step off the battlefield and wait for the enemy to walk on by.

Scenario 4

The final scenario is Misaligned Stars. For whatever reason, you’re walking into the equivalent of a trigger minefield. Sure, you could get past the sheep, dodge the oncoming trigger and cope if there’s a loose dog, but unless you feel incredibly lucky, you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s really worth it. We u-turn. We pick another walk. Simple as that. I might end up 10 minutes longer on the walk as a result, but nobody will have had a meltdown.

‘Find it!’ and ‘1-2-3-drop’ are not magic. They work through repetition in easy places until it’s an automatic response. They provide a structure for you to work at a safe distance and even provide a structure for you to work a little further into that safety bubble without incident. A busy dog will be much more able to cope with triggers all around them. If you’re interested in learning and education, there’s some interesting information about cognitive load in the classroom – basically, our problem-solving capabilities are less when we have to do more work. Giving explicit step-by-step guidance reduces the difficulty of the task and makes it much more easy the learner will accomplish it. Transferring actions to procedural memory (our muscle memory if you like) takes the pressure off. These two activities help dogs’ muscle memory take over the cognitive load, so that they can cope with managing two things at once – in this case, walking to heel and coping with scary or exciting triggers. Putting loose-leash walking to simple patterns like ‘Find it!’ and ‘1-2-3-drop’ means that this routine muscle behaviour, automatic and simple to perform, polished to perfection, means that the dog won’t struggle quite so much to cope with the complicated stuff. In theory, at least.

And if nothing else, it helps you manage the dog in relation to the position of the trigger.

As you can see from this video, nose down, moving past…

The cows aren’t at all near (about 50m) but even my one-eyed sixteen-year-old girl could have seen these (and would have reacted to them when I first adopted her, aged 14) so don’t overlook the distance you may need to work at, but don’t feel like it’s hopeless.

You may feel like you’re going to have to do this with every single trigger and it will take you a gazillion months, but in reality, once dogs realise what we’re up to, then they begin to generalise much more quickly. Sure, it took me 4 weeks to work around cows, but it didn’t take me 4 for sheep, chickens, cats, horses, goats and the other animals we come across in the neighbourhood. The aim is to make these triggers no more and no less a part of the landscape than the trees and the water butts and the bushes and the fence posts.

So if you have a reactive dog, start teaching these skills now. Start easy, start simply, start without the trigger near you at all. And then, very gradually, up your game. After all, if a one-eyed old lady can learn not to chase and not to lunge, then I’m pretty sure there’s hope for us all.

In memory of Miss Flika

30.05.04 – 28.09.20

May we all live as joyfully as you

Creating Predictability and Certainty for Anxious dogs

Global lockdowns, decreased road traffic and non-existent air traffic meant that for many of our dogs, March 2020 to June 2020 were peaceful times. I know for many anxious dogs, it was a break from the daily grind. It wasn’t a surprise then to find my books filling up with anxious dogs post-lockdown. It seems strange now to think back to those times without traffic and planes disturbing the peace.

For anxious dogs who returned to normality post-lockdown, it seems to have hit them really hard. The only equivalents I can really give are where you give something up and then find you can’t cope with the levels of whatever you used to do.

For example, I gave up drinking alcohol little by little over the last fifteen years or so. It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t something I purposely quit. I just started drinking less. Now, half a glass of wine makes me sick, beer bloats me in ways I don’t want to describe to you and even half a glass of cider makes me hugely inappropriate.

It’s the same with many things I’ve quit the habit of in the last few years. I used to always wear perfume. Five or six squirts every day. Wrists, neck, clothes. I had so many different bottles and I was never without. Now, I can’t even tolerate the slightest spritz – it seems to follow me all day and give me a headache.

And don’t get me started on traffic and city life!

Like the proverbial frogs in hot water, we habituate to noise, smells, experiences, tastes and even our daily activities. Take us out of the water for a while and we find it impossible to tolerate when we’re immersed once more.

And I think this is what happened for a good number of dogs. Add more regular walks, anxious guardians, families off work, changing routines, people at home more and a beautiful spring, and it’s not a surprise to me that our dogs found it difficult to tolerate what they’d previously habituated to in the past. For our anxious dogs, I think this was particularly marked.

In the past few months or so, there’s definitely been something in the air about the use of predictable routines and objects in dogs’ lives. First, it was a little-shared study in by Joke Monteny and Cristel Moons in Animals back in January: A Treatment Plan for Dogs (Canis familiaris) That Show Impaired Social Functioning towards Their Owners.

The paper is very nice, discussing the effects of modifying the environment and lowering stress in dogs who are reactive to their guardian’s behaviour. I read it nodding sagely at the parts that informed guardians about thresholds and low level behaviours. They used Dr Kendal Shepherd’s excellent Ladder of Aggression that I shared a couple of posts ago:

So far, very straightforward. Recognise the lower level stress signals and notice how your dog is feeling. That’s always my starting point with anxious dogs.

Then they suggest education, and explanation, giving reasons for the dog’s behaviour, explaining things from the dog’s point of view. Yes, yes. Always good. The paper’s authors suggest going back through the guardian’s behaviours to explain to clients what the dog is doing at each point, and the effect of their behaviour on the dog.

They go to explain how to manage the environment and avoid stress, as well as avoiding punishment.

Finally, just when I was thinking they’re simply describing a very simple procedure, some 2500 words in, they hit me with two descriptions. One is something they call The Predictability Game. The second is something they call a safety cue.

The predictability games are great. They tie in to lots of other things I do with the guardians of anxious dogs, from Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games to Chirag Patel’s Counting Game. As Leslie McDevitt often says, they teach the dog rules and predictable patterns. It doesn’t matter what is going on in the world around us, the dog and I are involved in a relationship, we’re doing stuff. We’ve got our routine. We’re undertaking easy, fun, reliable, predictable, reinforcing activities that normalise the unpredictable and help dogs cope. I’ve been doing a few of these with a couple of clients, and one said to me this morning that their dog has become more affectionate and more relaxed as a result. The dog knows the routine. It brings safety. The dog isn’t spending all day scanning the environment for threat and they trust their human to keep them safe. For me, I’ve used these hugely with Lidy – she comes out like Kato in a Pink Panther movie, attacking everything on site. Pattern Games are our crutch for when the world gets tough. We go back to our really simple ‘one – two – three – drop’ food game. We play ‘ping pong’ where she shuttles back and forward for treats. I use these to vary the pace and to bring down her energy levels and to provide a reliable routine. I also love them because they’re moving games. So many trainers ask dogs for stillness when threats are approaching, especially when the dog is on the leash, and it’s just creating a lot of problems because the dog has nothing else to do. So they go back to relying on predictable behaviours like barking that get them what they need – safety.

That tied in to listening to Leslie on Hannah Branigan’s great Drinking from the Toilet podcast, where again, they were talking about predictability and routine. I highly recommend this episode if you haven’t already listened to it. I’m on my fifth time through and still it’s giving me more. You can find the podcast here.

I’ve also used Chirag Patel’s Counting Game for the same kind of purpose. To be honest, I don’t think it matters what you do with your dog as long as the dog enjoys it, it’s not adding to their cognitive load by being too difficult and it’s getting the nose down and breaking up the dog’s visual scanning of the environment. When I say “one – two – three” my dogs are back with me, no matter what, because what I’m about to ask will be easy and it will be routines we’ve practised a thousand times in a very large number of situations.

I find that this just builds up so neatly to Leslie’s ‘up-down’ game and to ‘ping pong’.

So the Monteny and Moon study really reassured me that this was a useful kind of approach to take.

But it got better. These safety cues. I mean, this was something I had to go away and sleep on, then come back and get my head into again.

So for Monteny and Moon, a safety cue is “a novel item for the dog without any previous association”. They give the example of a mat, and I think that is genius for a number of reasons, not least because it’s portable and you’ll be able to work with it in a variety of places. The process they explain involves working to create an association between positive experiences/lack of stress and the mat. So you’d start in a quiet environment where you are still and the dog is calm, where you’re not likely to be disrupted by television noise, music, doorbells, people arriving or other dogs. And you just sit whilst the dog does something fun. So you might give them a chew or a lickimat and just let them get on with it. If your dog is fearful around you, you do absolutely nothing other than give them a cue to announce the arrival of the mat, like “here’s your mat!” and give them a toy, puzzle, chew or food game and go and sit down. You do absolutely nothing. You don’t make sudden movements, you don’t play noisy games on your phone. You just sit.

This happens over a few times (and I’d vary the games/chews/puzzles so that the mat is the announcer of good stuff, not the toy or chew or whatever) and you need to do five trials where you can see the dog relaxes within five minutes of the mat going down.

Then the mat gets picked up and put away until next time. What you want is a positive association with the mat, so that just like Linus in Peanuts it comes to signify something pleasant and can induce a state of relaxation. To finish, throw a couple of treats away from the mat, say something like “mat time’s over!” and put the mat away.

If you use the mat often enough and gradually enough, it comes to help your systematic desensitisation. If you remember, that relaxed state is vital for desensitising a dog to things, so the “safety cue” is a way of inducing relaxation and calm.

Now I know objects can be a great talisman for dogs. For instance, for one very territorial dog I worked with, whoever had his bowl did not get barked at. If you arrive with a bowl, you are a welcome guest, whoever you are. It doesn’t make the dog feel better about YOU until later, but it does not evoke the kind of barking and aggression they were getting without it. Same thing in shelters for people who arrive with leashes or other recognisable “goodies”. It can also work the other way too. You may remember my saying about my dog Amigo who had quite clearly been trained with a fly swatter. Seeing him trembling to see one on a table told me all I needed to know. So these kind of items with a positive or negative association can induce emotional states such as relaxation (and fear, unfortunately, if they aren’t used correctly).

So I chewed this study over for weeks as its implications sank in.

When Hannah mentioned “certainty anchors” very briefly on her podcast, though, it sent me on a bit of a search to find out what she meant.

So a certainty anchor is exactly this: a learned process in which we use predictable factors as a crutch to cope with the unpredictable. Not unlike Monteny and Moon’s ‘safety cues’. Now in another life, I was involved in change leadership and working with organisations involved in a change agenda. Sometimes, we call this the Red Queen hypothesis, that we’ve got to always keep moving just to keep up. A kind of use-it-or-lose-it mantra. What I learned from my 4 years in consultancy was that some people find it hard to change.

We started with a really simple game – one I still play in group classes. The presenter pairs you up and asks you to stand back to back. You then have 30 seconds to make 5 changes. Then you turn back and your partner has to work out what you changed. The first time, invariably, people take things off. Sweaters, earrings, bracelets, watches, glasses. It’s fairly liberating. That kind of change I think we can all deal with – removing the extraneous. Nobody, by the way, ever removes the essentials. Interesting. I’m sure there’s something profound in that.

Then, without prior warning, the presenter tells you to turn your backs again and change 5 more things. Now people start to use the environment to pick things up. They pick up cups, binders, stand on chairs, put pens in their hair. I think generally speaking people do that too – abandon the extraneous and then add on new things.

Finally, once more without warning, the presenter asks you to do it again. Now this is where it gets fun. People get creative. People are liberated. I’ve seen shirts come off, or shoes. I’ve seen people make impromptu hats out of bags. I’ve seen them fashion earrings from pens.

But two things also happen. As soon as the presenter tells you the game is over, invariably, people change back everything to how it was. That says a lot about habit. And the second things is that people usually have a few things they’d never do. Like remove a wedding ring or change the finger they’re wearing it on. We don’t change our core values.

So all this is interesting, but out of four years’ work, if you ask me what I learned is that adults will invariably groan and shut down any time any change is proposed, even if it removes work from them. I also know they go back to default as soon as the pressure is off unless the change was wanted and it came from within. Change is hard, even for humans who seem to be one of Nature’s most adaptable species.

Change, at a biological level, is threat. Mice and rats who’ve been habituated to a new environment for five days are more likely to survive when a predator is then introduced, compared to mice and rats in a novel environment. Novelty is not good, especially when we’re under threat.

So this is where certainty anchors or safety cues come in. Author Jonathan Fields in his book Uncertainty says rituals help ground us. They help us find equilibrium. He says they’re powerful as tools in ways to help us deal with uncertainty and anxiety. It adds something known and reliable to your life at times of change. Their consistency is the crucial element – that we can deal with the cognitive load of change without it throwing us off balance. They’re a bedrock or foundation that allow our brain time to process the other things. Fields says these ‘anchors’ secure us and help us cope during times of stress and change. He also says that when we have these, we are then able to take risks. They give us some control over the uncontrollable. They build structure and build practices that allow us to cope in constantly changing circumstances.

Now for anxious dogs, we know that predictability and certainty help them cope. Routine, ritual and predictable patterns help them cope with the uncertainty of everyday life. They free up brain bandwidth.

Chirag Patel’s latest Domesticated Manners presentation makes good use of those anchors… the items in a dog’s life like bowls or blankets. I highly recommend everyone watches the whole video. If you’re just a beginner, it’s easy to follow, but for those of us who like the subtleties, there’s so much going on underneath the hood there that I watched that at least twice too.

Now a lot of these things are about props. Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games are about routines. For dogs who are anxious, I’d argue that both of these things are essential. But I think there is one more element.


More precisely, our relationship and interactions with our dogs.

Now most of you will know my journey with Miss Lidy, my reprobate shepherd. About four years ago, I made her a promise. I promised that I would keep her life predictable. That I would be predictable. I didn’t say I’d become her certainty anchor, because I didn’t know such words then. I didn’t say I was her safety cue for the same reason. But I wanted her to know that when she was with me, none of the scary stuff would happen. Her voice would be heard and respected. She’d no longer have to rely on her teeth. I would be her routine and her regularity. I would always be 100% reliable. Our relationship would be based on consistency and safety.

Much of her first ten months here with me has been about the small routines of an ordinary life. It’s been about restoring predictability. It’s been about creating routines that we both abide by that help us both cope when the unpredictable happens. Sometimes, unpredictable things happen, but I’d like to hope that she knows that as long as she is with me, I am her certainty anchor and that I can generate for her those feelings of safety and security. If you’re well-versed in attachment theory, no doubt you’re reading this thinking about how we can be a secure base for our dogs, and I think that is exactly what I try to provide for her.

If we have anxious dogs, creating routine, regularity and structure can help us for those times of change. They help us cope. They may well be crutches, but nobody said the only way to live is to be completely self-reliant.

So what can we do to help foster a sense of predictability and build that foundation onto which change can be built?

First is to think about our daily patterns. That means regular times and sometimes even regular walks. That means being routine and teaching dogs patterns to cope when things change. I’m heavily reliant and massively indebted to Leslie McDevitt on that score, but I also use a lot of Deb Jones’s focus games from Fenzi Dog Sports Academy for exactly the same purpose.

Second is to teach a safety cue. Work on building up an association with a mat or an item like a toy. I do a lot of freework as well with anxious dogs, and having reliable, known toys and surfaces in there can also help dogs have an environmental base to explore the novel items in the activity.

Third, and perhaps most crucially for me, is to build up your relationship so that it becomes the safety cue, the certainty anchor. I’m sure you have friends or family members who act in that role for you – 100% reliable, you know you can trust them instinctively and completely. When you have that, you realise that you’ll always have that solidity from which to explore, to experiment, to try out the new. Of course, we need to make sure we’re fostering independence too – Lidy panics if she can’t find me in the garden once she’s spent her time exploring – and that’s something I’m conscious of too. All that remains to say about that is to make sure that we have a solid range of certainty anchors, including ones from within. Some of what we can do with anxious dogs is certainly help them know how to cope on their own and find their own anchors. Sadly, when I see ritualised or compulsive behaviours, I often see dogs who are using those in order to cope. Finding pleasurable, functional and productive behaviours that help dogs cope is part and parcel of overcoming anxiety.

Anti-Anxiety Aids for Dogs

On Facebook, I’ve been running a short series on helping our anxious or fearful dogs cope with stressful events. This post brings all of those posts together in one simple, easy guide.

What prompted the posts was the opening of the hunt season in France. Sunday mornings are often a key day and different regions also operate other days during the week where different kinds of hunting are permitted. The best place to check for these if you live in France is your local ONF (Office National des Fôrets) in your department. They usually have a guide to hunt seasons.

Suffice to say this is not a pro- or anti-hunt post. The guidance in here is as useful for people with roadworks, noisy neighbours, fireworks or storms. It’s also useful for dogs who suffer when they are left alone, who have social fears, phobias or find it difficult to cope with change.

The opening of the hunt season is going to be a shock to the system for our dogs in the countryside though, especially after 6 months of calm and the first 8 weeks of lockdown, so if you also have regular days where your dog will need to cope with a lot of noise, make sure you use it as an opportunity to do something fun AND safe. It’s a great day to stay in and do some work in the garden or in the home.

If you have a dog who is struggling to cope, there are a number of things you can try. Pet Remedy and various other diffusers such as Adaptil contain things that can help your dog calm, like valerian (Pet Remedy) and dog appeasing pheromones (like Adaptil and Feliway, also, for cats). You could also try things like Zylkene, Adaptil tablets, NutraCalm, YuCalm or Anxitane. Any number of nutraceuticals and scents or pheromones might be able to help our dogs. Remember also that they might need extra Omega oils and B vitamins to help their brain function at optimal levels. It really is very individual to the dog, but some of these should help in the short term and you can seek your vet’s advice if you need anything more.

If it is very noisy, you may find things like pressure wraps and massage also help your dog cope.

Blocking some of the noise out can also help. Playing classical music or reggae has been shown to help dogs de-stress in shelter environments, but only if used temporarily, so you might want to consider putting on some Bach or some Bob Marley at a level that won’t stress your dog out. Calming and soothing words also make a difference for some dogs, so reading the latest blockbuster to them can also reduce their stress (and yours). Make sure you also play it when there’s no noises to block out – it’s not unknown for dogs to form associations between you putting on music and then loud noises starting.

Of course, our dogs pick up on our anxiety too, so if you feel like you’re contributing to your dog’s emotions, take some time today to relax a little (in amid the gunfire!) and play YOUR favourite music at a gentle level or read a book, do some yoga, try some tai chi, get some breathing techniques to help you relax.

You can also pair up the gunshots or loud sporadic noises with food or toys. Have a little time with chews, with stuffed bones, with Kongs, with snuffle mats, with pickpockets and even a pile of laundry with a handful of treats in. Make it a pleasant and soothing experience as best you can.

Even if your dog isn’t usually sensitive, this can help.

Remember too to keep your dogs secure. Fearful dogs can take flight very easily at times when there are more noises than usual, and it’s really important you keep them safe. Keep doors and windows shut and locked. If you take them out in the garden, be vigilant and supervise them actively. Keep walks to quieter times like lunchtime or dinner time and keep your dog on the lead. If there are hunts in your area, use a long lead (3m – 10m) even if you normally let your dogs run free. Even if they aren’t nervous and they just like a chase, there’s a lot of animals being displaced from their usual places of safety and they’ll be making their way into unfamiliar territory at speed. The last thing they need is your off-lead, out-of-control spaniel joining in. The risks are very high that your dog will get injured or lost, or that they may accidentally get shot.

Remember, you can’t reinforce fear, so if your dog needs attention, they can have it. If they need safety, let them choose where they feel safe. If a trainer tells you otherwise, or expects your dog to ‘just get over it’, find a better trainer. Remember also to be safe. If your dog is cowering or fearful, frozen to the spot or even shaking, be careful of touching them or grabbing them even if you are moving them to safety – it’s a quick way to a bite.


First, we’ll look at a very common remedy that vets in France recommend: Zylkene. This is also available for cats in France too. I know I write lots about our dogs, but don’t forget noisy, busy or stressful times can be just as traumatic for cats, and you will need to think about them too.

Zylkene is a food-based supplement manufactured by Vetoquinol, a French veterinary medicine company. Its active ingredient is Alpha casozepine. This is a peptide derived from milk protein and is believed to work with GABA in the brain. GABA is associated with hypersensitivity, hyperactivity, hyperexcitability and hypervigilance. One of the first studies carried out by French veterinary behaviourist Claude Beata in 2007 showed that, alongside behaviour modification, Zylkene was as efficient as other pharmaceuticals at reducing anxiety.

Zylkene is often given as a remedy for anxiety from situational change, from new homes to car trips, new guardians, loud noises, grooming, additions to the family, storms, vet trips and hospitalisation. Because it is a food supplement, there is a very low risk of overdose, and so studies recommend vets try Zylkene before anything else. In studies (Beata et al. 2007), it has been shown to be as efficient as prescription drugs such as Seleligine (Anipryl/Selgian) and it’s always useful to try first because if it is as effective and has fewer potential side-effects, then it’s worth a try. Remember, this study showed that behaviour modification must also be part of the plan. That means doing things specifically to change behaviour, rather than just hoping a pill will function on its own.

There is little evidence to say whether Zylkene is effective in the short term or in the long term. Where studies exist and have shown a reduction in anxiety, they have been medium- to long-term studies. You may need to think about Zylkene doses daily over at least a six to eight-week period. It may work best with dogs who have other signs of hyper-reactive behaviours in general. For instance, it works best with Flika, my ancient hyperactive old malinois, but not with Lidy, who is mostly (contrary to popular belief!) fairly laid back unless her environment changes. It’s worth having a conversation with your vet about dosage if you don’t see a change in your dog’s behaviour before moving on to prescription pharmaceuticals. Remember, you can also safely use Zylkene as part of a layered package of remedies, though you will need to check with a vet before starting.

Before you start, it is a very good idea to get an idea of your dog’s behaviour by making a chart. It can be very difficult to tell if any change is being made, and why that change is. For instance, I noted a 10 minute period, filming it and counting how many times Flika got up and lay down again, how many times she paced, and how fast. Then it was easy to see that this changed at another period when she had taken Zylkene, and then to see the effects again without. Because the change was relatively small – she barked less, panted less, paced less and moved less, but around a 15% reduction in each – it’s easy to think that it might not be working, when in fact there had been some abatement in activity.

Despite its popularity, there are actually very few studies about Zylkene, so don’t feel disheartened if it does not give you the results you were expecting. Studies have also included behaviour modification or other dietary supplements, so it’s hard to say for sure what the effect is. The studies that do exist have design flaws that make it difficult to know exactly what was making a difference, so we still have a lot to learn about this over-the-counter remedy.

1. Beata, C. et al. (2007) Effects of alpha-casozepine (Zylkene) versus selegiline hydrochloride (Selgian, Anipryl) on anxiety disorders in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research, 2 (5), pp. 175-183

2. Buckley, L. A. (2017) Is Alpha-casozepine Efficacious at Reducing Anxiety in Dogs? Veterinary Evidence, 2 (3).

3. Gupta, R. C., Srivastava, A. and Lall, R. eds. (2019) Nutraceuticals in Veterinary Medicine. Springer.

3. Kato, M. et al. (2012) Effects of prescription diet on dealing with stressful situations and performance of anxiety-related behaviors in privately owned anxious dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 7 (1), pp. 21-26

4. Palestrini, C. et al (2010) Efficacy of a diet containing caseinate hydrolysate on signs of stress in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 5 (6), pp. 309-317

Adaptil collars and diffusers

Adaptil is made by Ceva, another French company, this time based in Libourne. Their global products include many household names for veterinary treatment, including Selgian, which may also be used for some similar abnormal behaviours in dogs.

Adaptil is an over-the-counter plug-in or collar. The plug-in is useful if your dog is in one place when they are anxious or fearful, such as in the home, where a collar like Lidy’s can be more useful on the move. Remember, just like pills, dogs can’t choose to get away from the collar, so the plug-in might be your first stop. Then, if the dog finds it offensive, they can move away.

Adaptil, like its sister product Feliway for cats, is a pheromone-based product. The principle by which it works is to release artificial odours that replicate those of a mother dog. It can be a useful addition for when puppies move to their home and Ceva recommend it for puppies who are struggling to be left alone during the night, to prevent separation-related distress and also to help them cope with loud noises. It may also have a use in puppy socialisation classes. Veterinary behaviourist and researcher Daniel Mills, and his group at the University of Lincoln, have done some studies into the efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) products, as have French veterinary behaviourists Emmanuel Gaultier and Patrick Pageat. Mills et al. (2006) shows that DAP products worked to relieve distress in a veterinary clinic setting. Sheppard and Mills (2003) also showed that DAP products could be effective in helping dogs cope with fireworks. Landsberg et al. 2015) showed that DAP collars could be useful in reducing anxious and fearful behaviour during thunderstorms. Dogs were less anxious and chose to hide more rather than freezing during storms when wearing a DAP collar than when they were not. This perhaps shows that they may be better able to cope and make good choices during noisy events.

However, like Zylkene, not all studies are published, and there have been questions over the efficacy of Adaptil. Some trials have shown that DAP is as effective as prescription pharmaceuticals (Gaultier et al. 2005; Gaultier et al. 2008). Again, it’s another product to test and see whether it makes a difference. It really does seem to be very much about the individual dog.

For Lidy, it reduces her night-time pacing significantly and also her pacing during gunfire in the hunting season. It also helps her cope with storms. The best test for me is the change in her behaviour that I noticed when the collars were coming to the end of their life-span and her pacing and distress vocalisation would increase once more.

Like Zylkene, it may be that Adaptil is best in use with other products and because it is a very low risk product, it’s worth trying and layering in with other things. Adaptil also make a tablet, which is discussed below.

When talking about risk, it’s really important for people whose dogs have distress behaviours around doors or dogs who jump that you choose the plug-in rather than the collar, since dogs can easily and quickly hang themselves. This collar is of no more risk than any other collar, but it’s something to bear in mind if your dog jumps up at door handles or has a risk of catching themselves on it. Since it may be used outside the home for reducing kennelling distress, distress during veterinary visits, car journeys, separation, fireworks and gunshot, it’s worthwhile remembering that panicking dogs must be safe too.

Landsberg et al (2015) recommend arranging the environment to minimise exposure to noises, such as keeping dogs inside. Playing music would be another way to minimise noise exposure in the home as long as the dog accepts it and is not further stressed. They also highlight the role we play in our dogs’ anxieties – not that dogs’ fears, anxieties or phobias can be “reinforced” by us, but that our own behaviour impacts on the dog’s level of stress. So taking some calming breaths, reading a good book aloud, sticking on a bit of Handel and trying an Adaptil plug-in or collar might be a great combination for some dogs.


Gaultier, E., Bonnafous, L., Bougrat, L. et al (2005) Comparison of the efficacy of a synthetic dog-appeasing pheromone with clomipramine for the treatment of separation-related disorders in dogs. The Veterinary Record 156, pp. 533–538

Gaultier, E., Bonnafous, L., Vienet-Legue, D. et al (2008) Efficacy of dog-appeasing pheromone in reducing stress associated with social isolation in newly adopted puppies. The Veterinary Record 163, pp. 73–80

Landsberg, G. M., Beck, A., Lopez, A. et al (2015) Dog-appeasing pheromone collars reduce sound-induced fear and anxiety in beagle dogs: a placebo-controlled study. Veterinary Record.

Mills DS, Ramos D, Gandia Estelles M et al (2006) A triple blind
placebo-controlled investigation into the assessment of the effect of dog appeasing pheromone (DAP) on anxiety related behavior on problem dogs in the veterinary clinic. Appl Anim Behav Sci

Sheppard G, Mills DS (2003) Evaluation of dog-appeasing pheromone as a potential treatment for dogs fearful of fireworks. Vet Rec 152:432–436

Anxitane / L-theanine

Anxitane is produced by another French company, Virbac. It’s not a particular surprise to anyone who regularly visits a French pharmacy to know that the French are ever so slightly obsessed with herbal remedies and with nutraceuticals. Parapharmacies are filled with a number of products for all manner of mental and physical complaints.

Anxitane is their only product aimed at canine behaviour, although they also make an anti-stress product for cats. The active ingredient in Anxitane is L-theanine, derived from tea. L-theanine is an amino acid and has been shown in randomised control trials in humans to reduce heart rate and symptoms of anxiety without causing drowsiness. It’s also been demonstrated to improve focus. L-theanine is also found in products like Solliquin. You’ll also see L-theanine frequently as an ingredient in blended products.

You always knew a cup of tea was the solution to all life’s woes – this just works on the same principle.

So far, studies about the efficacy of L-theanine have been small, with usually under 20 dogs. Other studies have been funded by the manufacturers themselves or behaviours have been owner-reported rather than videoed and coded externally. The role of bias and placebo effects can’t therefore be ruled out. In general, the studies on L-theanine have been less robust than those for Zylkene and for Adaptil. That is not to say it is inefficient or does not work. As we know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. One trial explored the effects of L-theanine in conjunction with behaviour therapy versus the effects of therapy alone (Michelazzi et al. 2015) and took cortisol readings during the trial. They noted a reduction in stereotypical stress behaviours and phobic behaviours. L-theanine is believed to work with GABA and glutamate at a neural level. All three – Zylkene, Adaptil and Anxitane – are manufactured products meaning their active ingredients are tested and assured, as opposed to other products which are not, and are very much more ‘hit and miss’ in terms of quality and levels of active ingredients. Like the other products, branded L-theanine has also fewer risks in overdose than other pharmalogical products, and so it is an option that many caregivers may wish to consider before trialling pharmaceuticals, in discussion with your vet.


Araujo, J.A., de Rivera, C., Ethier, J.L., et al. (2010) ANXITANE tablets reduce fear of human beings in a laboratory model of anxiety-related disorders. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 5, pp.268-275.

Kimura, K., Ozeki, M., Juneja, L. R. et al. (2007) L-theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biological Psychology 74 pp. 39-45

Michelazzi, M., Berteselli, G.V., Minero, M. et al (2009) Effectiveness of L-theanine and behavioral therapy in the treatment of noise phobias in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research 5 pp. 34-35

Michelazzi, M., Berteselli, G. V., Talamonti, Z. et al (2015) Efficacy of L-Theanine in the treatment of noise phobias in dogs: preliminary results. Veterinaria 29(2) 

Blended products

So far, we’ve looked at products with a single ingredient. Now, we look at blends of ingredients in over-the-counter tablets that might help out your anxious dog if they’re in need of a boost.

We start by looking at a UK product. Sadly, this isn’t available easily outside of the UK, but it’s interesting to consider the ingredients and their use. Nutracalm is a product from Nutravet. They manufacture nutraceuticals to supply as over-the-counter remedies for dogs, cats and horses.

Nutracalm contains an ingredient we looked at yesterday, L-theanine, which is the active ingredient in Anxitane. It also contains L–tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid involved in the production of serotonin and melatonin, as well as in the way B vitamins are absorbed – essential for healthy brain function. Whilst chemists are not sure exactly how modern antidepressants work, many stop serotonin being reabsorbed and recycled in the brain, meaning there is more of it floating about helping us feel calmer and less anxious. Tryptophan is usually available through diet, and you can find specialist diets aimed at boosting serotonin in dogs.

With all changes that we make to our dogs, I would advise a degree of caution, so run any changes by your vet first, especially if your dog is on medication, if they have heart, liver or kidney problems, or if they are prone to gastrointestinal problems. What we do to our bodies is not without consequence, but many of the consequences only show up many weeks or months later.

Nutracalm also contains GABA, working on the same systems as L-theanine and alpha casozepine. GABA levels help regulate activity levels and also contribute to a feeling of wellbeing. It helps dogs in particular who are showing nervous or anxious behaviours. Benzodiazepine drugs work on GABA pathways, and so supplementing with GABA may lead to anti-anxiety effects, just without the side-effects and drowsiness associated with these prescription pharmaceuticals.

The final two active ingredients in Nutracalm are passionflower extract and B vitamins. B vitamins are essential for the function of the brain, and passionflower has a long history in herbal medicine as having a calming effect.

In theory, then, Nutracalm has something to boost dopamine and give us back an interest in life, something to boost tryptophan and serotonin, GABA which is involved in management of anxiety, and a couple of added extras in passionflower and B vitamins. Unlike Zylkene or Anxitane, which only have one active ingredient, this has five.

Other supplements such as YuCalm, manufactured by YuMove who are part of the UK-based Lintbells family, also contain their own blends. YuCalm is available in France and for those of us with dogs with arthritis, we may already be familiar with YuMove. YuCalm is also a blended product. It contains L-theanine, lemon balm and fish protein hydrolysate. Not unlike Zylkene which also contains a hydrolysate from cow’s milk, YuCalm is working in the same way. Landsberg et al (2015) demonstrated that fish protein hydrolysates had some efficacy in reducing anxious reactions in dogs. Adaptil tablets also contain a blend of GABA, L-tryptophan, L-theanine and B vitamins, not unlike NutraCalm, so you can find lots of products on the market that work with blends. Since all the blends are proprietary, there will be variations, and just because one does not work, it does not mean the others will not. Other products like CaniRelax also contain lemon balm, passionflower and eschscholtzia extract that also may have a calming effect. CaniZen contains valerian, passionflower, eschscholtzia extract, brewer’s yeast and minerals. Ananxvia and Animigo Calming Aid are two others. These last four French products contain herbal extracts, sometimes with additional minerals or vitamins, to help boost a dog’s natural emotional resilience.

You’ll find then a number of blended products on the market, containing various proprietary blends of L-tryptophan, L-theanine, GABA, passionflower, fish protein hydrolysate, lemonbalm, brewers yeast, B vitamins, valerian, essential minerals and eschscholtzia. These are less well-trialled than the products mentioned earlier, but at the same time, it would also be difficult to isolate the effects resulting from each individual product.

Still, these products have all been demonstrated in some trials, be they on humans or on other animals, to have some calming effects, and so lack of trialling shouldn’t stop you from picking up a couple to try out. NutraCalm, YuCalm and Adaptil tablets would be my starting point, perhaps even adding in one or two other products to layer them. Of course, they do start to become really expensive then, and so it’s worthwhile doing a quick check to make sure what’s making a difference. For instance, I like to try 7 days on and 7 days off, then 7 days back on again, making a note of anxious reactions during that time with a simple tally. If I can’t see much of a difference, I’ll probably try a different tack. Although it certainly won’t hurt dogs to have supplements and nutraceuticals, there’s no point giving them a very expensive cocktail of products if it’s making minimal difference to their quality of life.

Gupta, R. C., Srivastava, A. and Lall, R. (2019) Nutraceuticals in Veterinary Medicine. Springer.

Herbal supplements

I confess I have a healthy (?!) skepticism about herbal remedies. I know a good few millionnaires who got rich off selling diet pills, herbal remedies and CBD oil from their spare bedroom, and whose sales pages are littered with negative reviews that don’t seem to stop the money rolling in. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and I am too knowledgeable about the profit to be made from untested, ineffective and poor-quality remedies to be able to endorse them wholeheartedly.

At the same time, I know there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in my philosophy, that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Ayurvedic medicine, indigenous medicines, eastern approaches to healing and even our own “old wives’ tales” often prove to have something to them. Take willow and foxglove as two very simple examples. Aspirin and Digoxin are just two examples of how the so-called myths and ‘woo-woo’ medicine found a place in Western drugs markets.

So there’s that.

And with those two provisos out of the way, we’re going to take a quick look at some herbal remedies that might just be able to help your dog cope during stressful events. As with everything, run things by your vet first. Some products, like St John’s Wort, are contraindicated with other medications.

Gingko Biloba is the first product we’ll look at. One study, Reichling et al (2006) showed a reduction in anxiety related to geriatric conditions, activating GABA and reducing anxiety in generalised anxiety disorders.

St John’s Wort has a long history of use with mild depression and anxiety, and this is also a herbal supplement you might wish to try if your dog is otherwise generally depressed or not enjoying life very much. If you’ve noticed dips in your dog’s curiosity or interest, their engagement in the world, St John’s Wort is believed to function in similar ways to modern antidepressant drugs. In fact, sometimes St John’s Wort is contraindicated in use with such products, so definitely one to run by your vet before trialling (Sarris et al. 2009)

Valerian is another herbal remedy that may also reduce the effects of stress. It’s one I trialled with Heston here when it was clear his epilepsy was linked to stress. As with all herbal remedies, it is worth doing a really thorough investigation of behaviours over a period, withdrawing the treatment and then doing the same analysis before reinstating it. That way, you can measure the effects of any herbal remedies on behaviour in a slightly more rigorous way than just a general impression.

Products such as Pet Remedy have been put through some small clinical trials and include extracts of valerian among other herbal extracts. Now Pet Remedy is one I keep on board for personal use, and I use both the spray (on myself) and the diffuser. Lidy is certainly much more relaxed during stressful events when the Pet Remedy diffuser is plugged in.

I also use it as a kind of talisman scent, by which I mean that I use it to anchor anxious dogs, by pairing it up with calm times over a period of weeks, and then gradually transferring the scent to more challenging or difficult events. I was thinking this morning of how much the various perfumes and aftershaves of my paternal grandparents was a smell that could calm me, how the smell of coconut suncream immediately relaxes me and how the smell of ripe damsons transports me right back to a place in my childhood on my maternal family’s smallholding. Smell is such a powerful, powerful tool to evoke feelings that if we use it right and we pair it up carefully, over a long period of time, it is bound to be much more salient to dogs with their supersized olfactory bulbs. I know we need to use it carefully because essential oils are a bit of a punch in the nose for dogs, and I know myself that too strong odours can be really headache-inducing, but if supermarkets can make us buy more by wafting the smell of bread, and estate agents can sell more houses by roasting coffee beans in the kitchen during viewings, then I don’t think we should overlook this very powerful tool with our dogs. Ultimately, as long as we offer our dogs the choice when using odour, and we know they can move away if they want, then it’s definitely worth a trial. It’s much less invasive or intrusive to start with smell than it is to start with giving the dog something to ingest, and so these can be the gentlest approaches. But just because they’re gentle doesn’t mean they’re not effective. If you know a smell that can transport you instantly into calmness and a feeling of safety, then you know just how powerful this might be with dogs whose sense of smell is so much better than ours.


Reichling, J., Frater-Schröder, M., Herzog, K. et al (2006) Reduction of behavioral disturbances in elderly dogs supplemented with astandardized Ginkgo leaf extract. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd 148(5) pp.257–263

Sarris, J. and Kavanagh, D.J. (2009) Kava and St. John’s Wort: current evidence for use in mood and anxiety disorders. J Altern Complement Med 15(8) pp. 827–836

joggers and dogs

** and walkers, runners, cyclists, skateboarders and people on scooters too

The universe conspires, sometimes, to put themes into my head. A message from a friend of a friend asking about jogging, writing up a case study about territorial aggression and an accidental encounter with a jogger kind of all came together.

We risen apes, we humans, we hairless bipeds, we monkeys, we’re different than dogs. There’s a surprise. Our nearest living relatives are chimpanzees and bonobos, and up until around 13000 years ago, we lived in similar sized social groups to our genetic cousins. Mostly, that was about small social groups of up to 20 people who lived together, stayed together and occasionally split up for foraging or reproduction, then to come back together again.

Madness. 13000 years ago and that was our mode of living.

But then we changed. Our human brains had already been evolving. Part of that evolution meant handling bigger groups of up to 130 or so. We started to form clans. Mostly we’d live apart, but we’d come back together for special occasions. That meant greeting people you mostly already knew. You were kin. Your old Aunt Edna had married some bloke from the village over the big hill and you might only see her 4 times a year at special events. But you knew her. And you knew that bloke too.

Even when we moved into autonomous villages with bigger populations – and bearing in mind most of the world’s population weren’t doing that even 7500 years ago – you still knew most people. Friends of friends. Relations of Relations. If you were born in the UK or Ireland even 2500 years ago, you probably still lived a life in a village where you knew everyone.

Bring on the change to city states and nations, great cities of Ur and Jericho and Nineveh, and you’ve not a chance. You have to handle living with people you don’t know. Lots of them. And that’s so hard we needed to invent laws and religions and consciences and social codes and all sorts just to be able to handle how hard it is to live with loads of people you’re not related to.

And at that point, we moved out of mammal territory, right into the Anthropocene – the Age of Man. We leave our mammal relatives and codes behind and within a geological blink of an eye, we forget a lot of what we once knew until we’re really fighting for our lives.

With all our social codes, we forgot how hard it is to split up (fission) from the group and to come together (fusion). Most mammalian species do not do this. Not repeatedly and definitely not with big numbers. Another thing happened too. With farmers doing all the agricultural work and the rich keeping hunting for themselves, we forgot what it felt like to be a predator. We forgot how easily the world around us spooks. We grew up around cats and dogs and goats and sheep and we forgot that it is not normal for the lamb to lie down with the lion.

We forgot.

7500 years and we forgot what it feels like to be a predator.

We forgot how delicately you need to move towards things in order to catch them. We forgot how to sneak, to hide, to move slowly, to pounce. We forgot what happens when you take your idiot Uncle Kevin (married to Aunt Edna over the hill) out on a group hunt, he sometimes charges at a deer and spooks it and the game is over. No supper for you, thanks Uncle Kevin. Clumsy oaf.

We also forgot how every single thing outside our direct social group is a threat. We forgot how it is to be suspicious of everyone but the 20 people you know. We forgot how it feels when someone of your own species runs at you.

We’re unlike every other mammalian species in that respect and we forgot how it all operates out there in the big wide world.

The San bush people in Africa classify the animal world in three ways: edible, threat and non-edible/harmless. I like to think animals might classify other animals in the same way. Can I eat you? Will you kill me? Do you taste bad and you’re no threat to me? Are you prey / predator / other? I wonder if dogs work in the same way? Can I eat you? Will you kill me? Or are you nothing of interest?

Well, we remember when we’re around other species under pressure that they think of us as predators. We don’t expect to walk into the rainforest and be greeted by gorillas saying, “Welcome! Snacks at 5. Drinks on the terrace before supper!” We don’t expect to run through fields and blithely expect all the sheep to continue merrily eating their way across.

Run at a bull and you’d be the least surprised person at the planet if the bull dipped his head, lowered his horns and ran at you like the pure-blooded predator you are. THEN, you’ll remember your 4 million years of hominid existence, that innate knowledge will awaken from the depths of your subconscious mind, and remember that, outside your own species, pretty much everything else on this planet thinks of you as a threat.

There is not a walker or a jogger alive who doesn’t know how a bull might feel if we ran at it. Just because you’re a prey species doesn’t mean you don’t fight back. And just because you’re a predator doesn’t mean other predators don’t scare you. Don’t make me remind you of how we feel as a species about sharks and man-killing tigers.

So we know that we can’t run at bulls, lions, tigers, leopards, rams, billygoats, gorillas, bears, wolves and chimpanzees, pigeons, wasps’ nests or even angry swans. We know this stuff. We spend all our time fretting about being eaten by sharks instead of bitten by mosquitoes – one of which is thousands of times more likely to cause us serious injury or kill us. We know if we run through Trafalgar Square, we’ll set the pigeons flying. We don’t expect animals to say, “Yeah, bud? Nice run? How’s your heart rate”

Yet we come to dogs (and also cats I think) and expect them to play by human rules when they are an animal. An animal who lives with us, sure, but an animal who is 100% animal and hasn’t forgot that stuff running at you probably means to kill you. It’s sitting there in their primeval memory waiting to pop out when you startle them. It even comes back to you too when a dog charges at you. Suddenly, your primitive old ape brain says “Run!” and you do. Exactly the same for dogs. Except we are so very, very human-centred that even though that dog might startle and scare US, we can’t possibly comprehend that we just might have done the same to them. Talk about a need for empathy….

Dogs ARE different than bulls in that they are much more used to our human ways, interlopers as they are between the animal world and the human one. Many dogs will blithely accept your sweatpants and your yoga pants, your neon trainers and your waterbottle obsession.

What about the times they don’t? Part of it comes down to poor socialisation and lack of exposure. For dogs who aren’t taught that people do insane things like cycling, jogging and walking with weapons (aka walking poles) then they just haven’t learned that people might do such crazy things. Then, woe betide both of you if you startle them the first time they learn about such things. My dog Heston is like that. We have literally seen three joggers in a year. People just don’t run at us. Normally we see no joggers in a year, but lockdown put paid to that.

Some of it, even with very well socialised dogs who are used to jogging, scooters, cyclists and pram pushers, is about the startle response.

The startle response is that primitive mechanism that takes over when predators run at us, too, or scary big edible things that could kill us, like bulls. We still have one. So do dogs. Don’t tell me, if you are a jogger or a cyclist, or even a walker that you have never come up behind someone and given them a bit of a shock. Unless you are very bad at jogging and you pant like you’re in the process of dying, you’ve probably made at least one person jump, right?

The startle response is heavily implicated in fear learning, which is the best and most successful learning of all. Take that, Hamlet. It wasn’t your fault I couldn’t memorise more of you for my A levels and that practically all of you has vacated my head (or at least all the neural pathways have died). It was just because I wasn’t afraid. The tiny amygdala takes over with fear learning sending very loud and immediate messages to the hypothalamus which controls all sorts of things, but most importantly the fight-or-flight response. Nothing controls the hypothalamus like the amygdala. The amygdala says “run!” and the hypothalamus doesn’t even ask how fast. It just says, “Yes, Chief!”

So there’s that.

Whilst the lovely, rational, sensible, evolved (and very small) neocortex of a dog is explaining that it’s nothing to be afraid of and humans don’t mean to kill them, the amygdala has already tripped the fight-or-flight response.

Fear learning has been so crucial to mammalian existence these last 50 million years that our lovely brains have made it the best learning of all learning. It’s why PTSD is so bloody hard to overcome and why scary experiences are so much more powerful than everything else. Like I’m here desperately trying to remember facts for an assessment and my brain is going, “Do you remember that time when that tramp ran out of the barn at you all?”

When fear has been involved in learning (and we’ve survived – fairly crucial) then we are sensitised to the same stuff happening again.

That’s often what happens with dogs. Especially youngish dogs who had never experienced a jogger before. The first one might have startled you and frightened you, and then you spend the rest of your walks for the next year thinking a jogger might leap out at you.

And you joggers with your lovely silent shoes and your headphones and your lycra that makes no sound and your efficient breathing and your bloody great speediness… if you haven’t made at least one person jump that you’ve run up behind, you’re probably just not trying hard enough.

So when a startle response is involved, then it’s very likely the next time a dog hears someone come running up behind him, he’ll go straight into angry defensive behaviour. And if it happens often enough, they’ll start listening out for you. This is especially likely if the dog is on a lead or the dog is on their territory or the dog is near their human. All three take that flight-or-fight response and rule out the ‘flight’ bit. Whether territorial behaviour or the lead or even the emotional bond they have with their guardian, it’s strong enough to make ‘fight’ the only option.

The problem is the whole “running towards”. Just as we can’t understand (and I count my former marathon-running self in here) that dogs might be as startled as we are, and afraid, we also can’t understand that we might actually slow down. It’s like it doesn’t cross our tiny minds to slow down any. In fact, if anything, we speed up to get past quicker.

Because that helps as much as pouring oil on flames.

Whether you sneak up from behind, or you come barreling in head first, you’re still an apex predator running at something much smaller than you who doesn’t have the faintest idea that you’re just trying to lose a few pounds before Christmas. Chimpanzees, and let me be clear on this, do not go running unless, you guessed it, they’re after something. Wolves might track and pace, but you see them running directly at you and you’re probably a deer that needs to think about bolting right about now.

So first let’s have a little empathy and understanding for the species around us that haven’t yet got their head around the whole recreational aspect of human behaviour. Understanding why dogs sometimes react badly to people running or moving, especially towards them, is to begin to understand why you might get into trouble.

Second, know how to deal with it when you do.

I’m going to get absolutely serious for a moment. If you continue to run at a dog who is already alarmed, do not be astonished if you get bitten. If you walk too close with sticks and weapons and you just keep approaching, with a smarmy, self-righteous “right of way” thought in your head, you’re very likely to get bitten at some point. Just as you’d be likely to get head-butted by a goat or gored by a bull.

And yet you still do it.

Yesterday, I saw a guy running straight down the road at us. I’m going to stop saying ‘towards’ as that’s a very human word. I knew he was jogging. He was wearing lycra. Clue number 1.

This is what a dog might see…

Yep. You are Pennywise the Clown just running right as us.

Now I try to be a good citizen and I know dogs and joggers. I try to get out of the way, but that means literally stepping into a cornfield and not as much distance as I’d like. Joggers and cyclists are often moving so fast that they don’t give dog time to get out of the way.

Does the guy slow down? No. Does he move over in the slightest? No.

Now he’s a nice guy and he’s a neighbour who obviously thinks jogging is a good way to pass a Saturday. So be it. But I’m the one trying to manage animals and I’m the one changing MY behaviour.

So I say this with kindness, but I’m serious. Change your behaviour and stop selfishly fixating on your run or on keeping up your pace. So you slow to a walk for five minutes – or, heaven forbid, you jog on the spot a little. It won’t kill you.

Instead of sticking to your guns and thinking about you and your run, shift your thinking just a little and it’ll be easier for everyone.

That said, I do understand what it is like to run through a dog’s territory, to run past people with dogs on leads and how scary it can be if you feel like you’re not safe.

So now I’m going to give you some tips as to what you can do, what you could do and what you might do in three different situations if you feel a dog might attack you if you are running or walking. These three situations include off-leash dogs who are running at you and look like they might attack, dogs on home turf whether they are fenced in or not, and moving past people who have got their dogs on a lead.

First. Dogs on leads.

Dogs on leads have nowhere to go. They are literally attached to someone who often doesn’t even realise that their dog can’t cope. Not every guardian will take their dog into a maize field so you don’t have to slow down. Dogs on leads can’t run away and so out of fight or flight, that dog has one option as you approach. Slowing down might take the threat off, but even walking towards an alarmed dog risks a bite, so the best thing to do is find somewhere to screen yourself from them and wait for them to pass. Stop by a tree and do some jogging on the spot. Take it as a moment to pop onto the other side of a parked car and do some burpees or full bastards if you don’t want your heart rate to drop. Don’t do those, of course, if you haven’t seen a doctor recently or if the people and dogs are passing at that moment. Burpees are WAY more alarming than joggers. The main thing is not to continue on that trajectory directly towards them if the dog is already barking and alarmed. Change your route temporarily. Take five minutes to do some on the spot. As soon as you are out of sight, the dog will relax.

This excellent guide from Dr Kendal Shepherd gives you signs to watch for. If you see a dog slow down or stiffen, good chance it will escalate if you keep running towards them. If they’re barking or growling and you keep going, then snapping, snarling or lunging will likely be next. Don’t think that once you’re past, you’re safe. Plenty of joggers get nipped on their backside and plenty of cyclists find their bikes get bitten on the rear tyre.

Under no circumstance run within the distance of the lead and the owner’s arm and the dog’s mouth. If the lead is 2m and the owner’s arm is 1m and the dog’s head is 25cm, then know you need to be at least 4m away at all times, and probably more since they could lunge. If you absolutely have to run past (and really, do you?) a dog who is already standing like an enraged Cujo, make as much space as you possibly can.

It is absolutely possible for you NOT to continue your jog for 2 minutes. It is absolutely possible for you to let them pass.

Want more? Don’t eyeball the dog (you wouldn’t eyeball a bull… tell me you wouldn’t eyeball a bull!) keep your gaze averted, body at 45° from the dog, be slow and still and wait until they’re at least 10m past you until you move again.

And once you’ve passed, say thanks. That dog owner standing in a ditch with two big German shepherds has put a lot of work into getting them like that. They’re also stopping so you can pass. It’s just rude to keep going as if you don’t even give a stuff. Yesterday, my neighbour was very chatty and decided to stop 5m on the other side and jog on the spot. Don’t do that either. A simple thank you and a smile from both sides would be just lovely. Remember that 13000 years we’ve just had as a species? It was engaged in learning this.

Second scenario. Dogs in yards that aren’t attached or may come over a fence to get you… don’t think that you’ll be able to run up to them and just run past. You are literally threatening their territory. You don’t stop being a threat just because the dog is behind you.

Beautifully trained attack dog here, but ALL dogs can do this and if you carry on running, your motion sets off all kinds of other primitive hardwired patterns. If you’re running up to what a dog considers his territory, you don’t get to have property law discussions about where the boundaries are. Like it or not, we bred dogs to be territorial because our ancestors thought that would be kind of cool some 5000 years ago. We purpose-bred some dogs for that exact behaviour. If you lock your house to guard it from intruders and would take offence at people traipsing through your garden, please don’t judge a dog for guarding his home from intruders.

If you really feel that the dog is escalating in behaviour, slow down and back off. Don’t turn your back on the dog, but know that the dog is unlikely to come off his or her terrain if you’re no longer advancing. I know one or two dogs who might come over property lines but most dogs will make very big and noisy displays if you are coming towards their property (the same if you run at them) and they just want you to stop. When you do, then they don’t need to keep doing it any more. Territorial behaviour is about a threat to their territory, and once you stop being a threat, then the behaviour subsides. If that means you have to get your phone out and choose another route, so be it. It may save you from a very nasty situation.

By and large, the situations I deal with where dogs have bitten or tried to bite joggers, walkers or cyclists have been because you’re near their territory or they’re on the lead and the human attached to the other end didn’t read the situation well enough to keep you and their dog safe. Or you got much closer than they could have anticipated and can’t manage their dog. Some – very rare – dogs are also protective of their guardians and might issue a silent bite as you pass. The situations you should be most able to cope with as a jogger are dogs on leads, dogs not secured in gardens and dogs who are with guardians. But you may still be worried about loose dogs running at you if you are running. Round here, it’s kind of rare, but go 300 miles further south and you may find the formidable Chien de Montagnes des Pyrénées or Pyrenean Mountain Dog also known as the Patou. These dogs who look like polar bears got busy with golden retrievers are there to protect the flock from wolves, bears and men. You’ll often see signs that they are working, and information about dealing with them.

What is says is essentially this:

* Do a U-turn or make a very wide arc. The same is true with a loose dog who doesn’t seem to have a human attached.

* Don’t scream, shout, flap about or panic.

* Don’t wave a stick at the dog or a walking pole – it’s an act of aggression.

* Likewise with throwing things.

* If you run away or towards, both actions will likely incite the dog to engage with you.

* Don’t stare at the dog.

* Turn slightly away, continue slowly, staying calm and passive.

In the thousands of dogs picked up by our pound every year, all loose, the only time they bite is if they are approached and someone is trying to restrain them. That also doesn’t happen very often. Loose dogs, off territory, without owners, in full daylight (don’t jog in the dark like I used to – that’s just silly) are not likely to be that bothered by you if you don’t bother them. Slow down, turn away, stop running and arc away from the dog if you absolutely have to pass them.

Sadly in my work with dogs, I do know dogs who’ve bitten both joggers and cyclists. It’s usually that rare combination of circumstance: the owner was coming out of the house with the dog and the jogger was just there… the owner came round a corner and found themselves face-to-face with a cyclist. Sometimes, it’s stupidity on behalf of naive owners who get a rude wake-up call because their dog isn’t as capable as they think they are. Other times, it’s because joggers have determinedly tried to run too close to dogs. One jogger I know got bitten because he ran through a group of people walking their dogs on a social activity. I don’t do victim blaming but I struggle to think of many dogs that I’d 100% trust to have a stranger run less than a metre from them.

You may think about carrying deterrents like airhorns or pepper spray, a spare lead or whatever, but I’d advise you not to. If you’re thinking like this, you’re thinking of running too close to dogs still when really you should be aiming to understand that it’s your behaviour that’s triggering the dog and that small changes for a few minutes will reduce your risk to zero in most cases. This is not to say that you’re giving in to dogs who should have been better socialised or should have had better breeders or whose owners are idiots for thinking a walk around joggers and cyclists is something their dog can cope with. See the dog as an angry bull and you’re probably going to find it a lot easier to remember what to do.

Hopefully that helps. It’s not to say joggers are demons or that dogs are bad, just that life is what it is and we all need to live harmoniously. I’m a big fan of both joggers and dogs. But I know how scared you both are of each other.

And if you’re a dog guardian reading this and you know your dog can’t cope with moving people or machines, get in touch with a qualified trainer.

Improving your desensitisation and counterconditioning

In the last few posts, I’ve been taking you through some of the training methods I use most with clients: desensitisation and counterconditioning in particular. Where there are emotional undercurrents behind the behaviour, if you don’t address them, your very best training programme in the world will fail. This is why these two skills underpin everything I do.

These two techniques – especially together – are particularly useful for dogs who are excited, fearful or aggressive. If you’ve got a chaser, a worrier or a warrior, you can no doubt put gradual desensitisation to work and add a little counterconditioning where appropriate to give things a boost.

But there are ways you can sharpen your planning and make sure your dog stays in that cool learning zone without flooding them. When you have this final piece of the puzzle down and it’s really tight, you are set up for success.

Today, we’re all about stimulus gradients!

Fancy ridiculous psychology term for a super-useful concept that will help you with your desensitisation and counterconditioning programmes.

Stimulus just means any kind of environmental thing that sets your dog off, whatever that may be.

A trigger, if you will. A cue. A thing in the world that says, “Hey, you there! Feel this amazing feeling now!”

Kind of like me when I hear the sound of an ice-cream van or the smell of sun-cream, and I feel all wonderful and summery. Or like when I feel the solemn cool air of a church or old building and I get all serious and contemplative. That kind of stuff. Chanel Number 5 making me ache to give my grandma a hug, or the smell of fresh coffee that puts me in a positive frame of mind to get on with work.

Those things are stimuli.

A gradient, then, is just a factor that determines its difficulty or easiness to cope with. For example, sun-cream makes me feel nice, but it doesn’t really compel me to do anything with that floaty-light summer feeling. If it made me so yearn for the sun that within seconds of smelling it, I booked a holiday, then that would be pretty difficult to cope with. And expensive.

It’s kind of important to understand the emotional undercurrent behind canine behaviour, but not always. That’s not what’s at stake here. I don’t really care whether the stimulus makes them feel excited, aggressive, predatory or fearful, I just care how much of it they need to be exposed to before walking them becomes like an exercise in wrestling greased pigs. I don’t even need to know what they would do if they could get to the trigger. I never know what Flika would do for instance with a field of cows, because, guess what, I never let her in a field of cows.

I mean, you know gradients, right? Those graphs from school on an incline?

Slopes, if you will.

Most people get the idea that we need to expose our dogs to stuff, and I’ve practically no client at all who has ever said to me that they haven’t already tried getting the dog used to whatever they find scary or fun or annoying.

“Tried that,” they say. “Didn’t work.”

Mostly that goes back to the fact that their dog is waaaay over threshold (see last week’s post here if you haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about) or that they are exposing their dog to far too much stuff for far too long or far too close.

Or, we were just getting it and our dogs were coping-coping-coping only for us to get far too near and boom, we’ve lost the dog to the thrill of the chase or a need to protect themselves.

Those triggers usually come in four main flavours for dogs: stuff that excites me, stuff that frightens me, stuff I want to chase and stuff that annoys me. BIG crossover between stuff that frightens me and stuff that annoys me, too. I’m just going to call that category “Stuff I Hate”.

Generally speaking, for my three, I can generally divide up their triggers into Stuff I Want To Chase, Stuff That Excites Me or Stuff I Hate.

When we think about our dogs, we can think about stuff they can see that triggers an emotional response to chase, like chickens, sheep and cows do. Or like joggers, scooters, bikes and cars might. We can so think about things they can hear, like planes and thunder. We can think about things they can smell – a world that is so potent for dogs and so insignificant and puny for humans that we’re seriously in danger of massively underestimating how something smells to our dogs. Smell is everything. We put visual stuff first but stuff they can smell is much more likely to signal the proximity of those triggers.

We should also include other experiences that our individual dogs find unpleasant like being trapped, being confined, being restrained or loneliness too.

Flika is a hot mess of sixteen-year-old one-eyed neurotic chaser. I’ll refrain from sharing my theories about that here, but if stuff moves, she’s got the Way of the Shepherd: control the moving stuff, s’il vous plaît. And the more anxious she gets, the more she needs to control the moving stuff around her.

Heston is way easier and truth be told, his triggers have come and gone in his life. He’s way less bothered about stuff than he was. Chasing – well, we got past a loose flock of chickens the other day without raising our pulses, but cats set him off these days, although he lived with cats and was well socialised with all my kitten fosters over the years. Hares, yes; rabbits, no. Deer, definitely yes. It’s all about the thrill of the chase across open ground for him. He reminds me that what once did not trigger behaviours may come to, and also that dogs may get used to certain things other than others. I don’t know why he’s okay with chickens and not cats – he grew up with both and I’ve had cats in his life much more recently that he never showed an inclination to chase. He’s a very empathic dog and was always very sensitive to the kittens I had here.

And he’s still not always able to cope with people who run at him. Fair enough. Scary things.

Ah, Lidy, where to start? She is nothing but a hot mess of hair triggers. The firstlings of her mind are the firstlings of her mouth, to misquote Macbeth. There’s a reason she’s here with me and not with some unsuspecting member of the public. Chasing is good. Everything from flies and lizards upwards is good to chase. And where Heston just enjoys the thrill of the chase, Lidy enjoys the thrill of the kill. So there’s that.

Then she has stuff that makes her scared. She’s on a bite-first, ask-questions-later kind of protocol. Other predators – whether they’re people or bigger dogs – scare the bejesus out of her, but she’ll fight to the death if necessary.

She’s not a fan of storms, but she habituated to gunshots and road noises and people outside the gate. She’s also less sensitive to loneliness and time alone too.

So when you’re thinking of what sets your reactive dog off, think multisensory, and start with smell. Then sounds. Then sights. Think about experiences and feelings too. Don’t get too trapped by thinking of what once triggered your dog’s emotional responses as those things may have changed.

If you like, you can categorise it as “stuff to chase” and “stuff I hate” but sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.

A stimulus gradient is the most essential part of a desensitisation programme where you’re gradually exposing your dog to those things that trigger an emotional reaction. You’re absolutely aiming to start at a point where your dog notices the thing, but where you can still get their attention. That magical threshold. But it’s not hard…. well, depending on the sense they’re using. Nose down, tail up is definitely a smell worth investigating. But this…

… generally means “I’ve spotted it.” It also means “I’m fine with it at that distance.”

Tongue out, mouth open, body still means “I’m not going to do anything about it just yet.”

Do I need to be bothered? Not quite yet. Mouth closed, eyes focused and Heston and Lidy are in “deciding” mode.

This is the point I want to work at. Deciding phase. Thinking is still happening but give it a second, should said thing come any closer, I might not be able to get their attention any more.

Useful if you’ve got a dog who thinks with their mouth closed. Tilly usually had her mouth closed, which was not helpful at all. She had a little ear twitch and eyebrow crinkle. That was her deciding face. Know your dog’s deciding face and you’ll get to know how near is acceptable. The fewer the body parts involved in “deciding”, generally speaking the better I find it. When the whole body is involved and you’ve got a lot of energy involved in keeping them away from the trigger, then you’ve got a problem, Houston. The first thing to do though is understand your dog’s body language and make sure you’re not working too far over threshold.

Trainers usually work in two main ways around triggers: using distance and using duration. They increase the distance your dog is at related to the trigger, and then gradually decrease it. Or they start with very small amounts and then gradually increase.

But it can be so much more subtle than that, and for my mind, the more we’re aware of those subtleties, the less likely we are to write these two processes off as inefficient.

Of course we understand the basics. We understand that you need to start with the smallest amount of the thing (and yes, that includes scent).

We know that dogs don’t generalise well and we need to teach them to do what we ask of them in more and more challenging circumstances. Like if I do one lesson of loose leash walking, I’m not expecting my dog to get it straight away. Or to be able to do it in the middle of a Venetian carnival. Start small and easy, work up through multiple trials to the big stuff. We know this.

We know how to do it. Start with the smallest dose possible for your dog that the dog notices but is not showing whole body emotional responses to (like nose to tail kind of reactions). Keep under that threshold. And gradually move up that difficulty/exposure gradient without too steep an increase. That’s basically it. It’s not complex. Slow and steady wins the day.

You can see that in this link here. I massively encourage you to watch this marvellous video not least because it wasn’t an option to work under threshold with the dog, although I would say the dog isn’t massively lost in an emotional whirlwind there. Worthwhile reading the description in the post too. Really useful.

Here, the guy is working closer and closer at proximity.

You can also add another gradient: duration. That means you’re gradually exposing your dog to longer and longer periods where they can see or smell or hear their triggers.

A stimulus gradient is not just about working from low doses to high doses. There are so many ways you can alter the difficulty of the trigger. I’m going to run with my Keira Knightley example to explain. And then Miss Flika with her car chasing.

  1. Frequency and Rate. How often do I see the po-faced one, especially in a given period? Maybe I’d cope with once in a month, but five times a day would be too much. Fifty times in an hour would be intolerable. We can decrease the frequency or rate our dogs see their triggers for if that makes it easier. For instance, if I’m working with cars for Flika, I may only do one or two views in a day. And then I can build up to seeing lots of cars. One or two on a walk would be fine. Fifteen and I think she’d meet her limit. A steady stream and I might as well give up and go home.
  2. Duration. How long am I exposed to Keira? I could perhaps cope with an accidental flash of her in a Chanel printed advert if someone turns the page really quickly, but 2 hours of Anna Karenina and I’d be a gibbering wreck. And a weekend movie festival of all her most Serious Acting? Waaay beyond my skills right now. This works for dogs too – how long is a dog is exposed to things for. So you can start at the easy side of the scale. Flika can cope with short bursts of cars that come and go, but asking her to cope with really long arrivals and really long departures is just too much. When I started working with Lidy on people, the people were in view for literally a second. Then two. Then four. Then eight. When you take something the dog would like to chase, you work around that thing for a really short time at first, like the time a hare shot across the path. It was so fast, Heston was all “Was it?”. Bit different than twenty wild boar running up a 400m pathway in view for at least four minutes. A millisecond is low down on that sliding scale. You just build up to more challenging durations. But don’t push it, I will say. Coping with people for an hour when you’re not a people-friendly kind of a dog runs the risk of trigger stacking and pushing dogs over the edge.
  3. Interresponse time. How long between the Keiras? Back-to-back Keira-thon? Not in my lifetime. Sometimes having longer periods between seeing our triggers can give us time to get over them. Say for instance I’m on a walk with Flika and we see a car, then we have 60 minutes without one, that’s easier to cope with for her than seeing two cars with a minute break. If you know about trigger stacking, then you understand why that break is useful from a neurotransmitter and hormonal point of view, but it’s another gradient I can mess with. Building up to a minute between cars might be something we’re working on if brief intervals between occurrences are the problem. Like Heston. He tends to cope with a steady stream of neighbourhood noises, but when the gap between them is too small, he’s not truly finished coping with the last one yet.
  4. Response latency. How long between seeing Keira, assuming she stays at a steady distance and level of wooden-faced acting before I’m gritting my teeth and itching for the remote? How long between seeing the car, steady in the distance, and Flika starting to pull on the lead? This is another gradient I can work on – creating longer and longer gaps between seeing, smelling or hearing a trigger and then acting on it.
  5. Magnitude. How much po-faced Keira can I cope with? I can cope with less intense acting from Ms K, such as Bend it Like Beckham but the more she dials up the Acting and Serious Face, the less I can cope with it. The same for dogs. Lidy is really, really impossible with cats. Desensitising her to the smell of them is a start. Visuals are too much. I might have had to do this with Keira if the smell of her Chanel set me off before I’d even seen her. Work with scent if you need to. So I’ve got a slept-on set of cat blankets for Lidy. I can alter the intensity by: using blankets that have been in the same room as a cat for a minute > using blankets that have been in the same room as a cat for ten minutes > using blankets that have been in the same room as a cat for an hour > using blankets that have touched the cat for a single stroke > using blankets that have been slept on briefly > using blankets that have been slept on for longer > using blankets that have been slept on repeatedly.

    I can also alter the intensity of a smell by leaving blankets longer before using them. I’ve some I’ve left out for a week. Others are fresh from the cat.

    You can use intensity to start at lesser intensities with sounds (like starting on a programme for thunder or fireworks) and with smells, like the example above, and also with visual triggers too. It’s not so easy to find a hare who is willing to sleep on a blanket for 10 minutes just to desensitise a dog, and some of the synthetic prey scents that are used in the gundog world are too synthetic for Heston for example. The synthetic hare smells were not interesting to him. But you may also find dogs who need the real life sounds rather than synthetic ones on a laptop or phone (or ones created by humans compared to real sounds). For instance, Heston knows the difference between manufactured sounds of dogs barking and real dogs barking for real on my laptop. Only your dog will be able to tell you.

    Making the intensity of the sight, sound or scent less is a very easy way to start at the lowest point of the gradient.
  6. Proximity. How close am I to Ms Knightley? I might be able to stomach being 500m away in a drive-in movie, but unable to cope with sitting on the front row at the National whilst she plays Portia. We use this all the time in training programmes. How far are you away from the scary/exciting thing? Distance is your friend. I’ve written about this at length here, so I’m not going to labour the point, but I always start with the baseline that my sixteen-year-old one-eyed girl can see a car 350m away and for some dogs, working at a proximity of 750m – 900m may be necessary at first. Most humans understand gradual exposure to scary/exciting stuff really well. What we don’t understand is the distance we might need to work at to start with. I find a lot of my clients have already started these kind of things and instinctively know “ok, my dog is fine at this distance, but as soon as we get here, they snap!”. It’s about understanding the nuances of those earlier signs in many cases and also about working further back. Most of my clients’ dogs are okay up to about 20 – 50m but some need to work further back if the other stimulus gradients are at the steep end. That’s to say if they’re too intense, if they’re too fast or slow to approach and disappear, if they’re too frequent, if the rate is too high etc.
  7. The topography of the trigger. How’s it moving? For Keira, if I see her suck her cheeks in and gawp, that sets my teeth on edge. I can feel my buttocks clench and my fists curl. The more she looks like Munch’s The Scream, the worse it is. So smiling is easier than pouting. That’s true of dogs too. Lidy can cope with dogs who ignore her. Can’t cope at all with dogs who posture – you know, who stand there looking all hard eyeballing her. So if dogs are eyeballing her, I want to make sure the other gradients are really mild – the dog is really far away, that it’s a really brief exposure. I saw this in the vet yesterday with Flika and a very statuesque streetie from Guadaloupe. Every time Flika looked at the dog, the dog growled. When we can see that slow behaviours or inoffensive behaviours are acceptable but fast or more challenging behaviours like hard postures or direct stares are an issue, then we can mess with that gradient too. Lidy copes with squatting humans. If you’re low, you’re okay. Stand up and WHAT the absolute Devil are you Doing?!! I think I’ve had at least twenty dogs on my books who couldn’t stand people looking at them. So work with that. Not looking at all > slight look vaguely towards > more direct looking > head turned towards, eyes shut > head turned towards, eyes lowered… You get the picture. Build up to the body language that your dog finds a challenge. Like a lot of dogs are okay with cats until those beggars move. So you want to start with still cats and then slow moving cats and then … (and always, always put the cat first – if it’s not okay for the cat, it’s not acceptable to use them as a training trigger).
  8. Locus. Where am I most likely to react to Ms Keira? If it’s easier to cope with her in the home than in a movie cinema, start there. Similarly, dogs can be very sensitive to do with place – they know when you’re turning up the road to the vet. So start far away from where you normally see the behaviour and get gradually closer to the scene of the crime.

So when you’re thinking of your dog’s problems, those triggers (or even your own!) it’s often easy to think about what sets it off. It’s not just about distance or duration.

If we’re just thinking about how near stuff is to us or how long we’re asking dogs to cope with it, we might be missing a trick.

Imagine fireworks, for instance. Sure, I can get far away and I can try with firework sounds on tape for very short periods. But I could also try having fewer fireworks on the tape at first, and building up to more in the same timespan, having progressively shorter gaps between the fireworks on the tape, having less loud fireworks on the tapes and building up to the screamers, or considering what specific type of firework sets my dog off. Thinking about subtleties of stimulus and planning a careful and gradual gradient

In the final post in this series, I’ll talk you through how all these posts fit together to give you everything you need to help your dog problems – be it pulling on the lead, reacting to the doorbell or barking at construction workers outside your dog.