Reduce Your dog’s fear of Strangers in one simple step

Working with dogs who are afraid of humans can be tough. Sometimes we may find our dogs are aggressive towards unfamiliar people, barking and lunging at them. Sometimes our dogs may well have bitten guests, groomers or vets.

Other times, our dogs may well be very fearful around new people, be they people we meet on walks or people who come to the home. Perhaps they try to make some space, lick their lips or cower away from anyone who approaches them.

If we work in kennels or a shelter, we may find that certain dogs are aggressive or fearful with employees, making it hard to care for them.

Even if our dogs are simply more agitated than they are normally around visitors, perhaps approaching them or fussing them for attention, it can also be a sign that our dogs feel uncomfortable with strangers. Just because they seem really friendly, it doesn’t mean that a dog who is jumping up or harassing guests is actually any more comfortable with unfamiliar people than a dog who is growling or flinching.

We may well have labelled our dogs ‘reactive’, for those sensitive, shy souls who we hope wouldn’t ever bite but who still make a lot of noise around people they don’t know.

The most straightforward programme to work with dogs who are afraid of strangers will include two compulsory elements and a third option for those who are really struggling to cope.

The first compulsory element will be management. We need to make sure our dogs aren’t habitually running into people when they’re unable to cope, simply because most of the time, they end up practising the behaviour over and over. Management means making sure we don’t put our dogs in situations they can’t cope with. It means avoiding busy places like cafés and shopping centres until we’ve put in a lot of ground work and it means not hoping for the best. It might mean setting up a safe place in our home, in our garden or making sure our dog is safe on walks. I’m managing my stranger danger dog right now: we’re taking early morning walks, using doors and making sure the neighbouring gardens are empty when we’re outside. Management may be all you need.

But management doesn’t really treat behaviour. For that, we need a behaviour modification programme. In fact, I said this was a compulsory element and I’ll correct that to say that, if I’ve got a dog in a sensitive fear period, if I’ve got a dog who’s unwell, if I’ve got a dog who is old, or if I really haven’t got the time to dedicate to training, then management may take all the weight. However, management for the rest of a young, healthy dog’s life is not just restricting them to the smallest life they could possibly live, it may also be depriving them of future friends, of contact and of being a functional member of a social species. Management will undoubtedly fail in the course of a young dog’s life, which is why, for most dogs, it’s just not enough.

Behaviour modification programmes may have many elements, but the main retraining will fall into two main approaches: changing the dog’s emotional response to unfamiliar people and giving them some skills to help cope. This is where, depending on the level of your dog’s problems, a well-qualified trainer or behaviour consultant can really help. Not only will they give you the benefit of many years’ tips and tricks, but they should also make the whole process more efficient and also more effective. That, in turn, improves the welfare of your dog. It doesn’t really need saying that we need to do this thoughtfully, kindly and systematically. Flooding a dog by overwhelming them until they shut down, or suppressing both emotional expression and behaviour through punishment such as choke chains, prong collars, shock collars or slip leads are methods that are doomed to failure. Not only that, they fail to take into account the dog’s view of the world and these approaches dismiss their feelings recklessly and insensitively. What you do with your dog to help them cope is very much dependent on what works for both the dog and their guardian. That said, no matter the dog and no matter the guardian, punishment and flooding are both methods that no good trainer will need to use. There are plenty of safe, reliable and efficient methods that don’t cause harm to our dogs and risk the health of people they come into contact with.

Medication may be the third strand of a programme, dependent on your dog’s needs and your vet’s recommendations. There are also many nutraceuticals and herbal remedies that may help your dog cope if they are anxious around strangers. My dog Lidy is not generally an anxious dog, so the vet has never felt that anti-anxiety medication would be necessary, although she does have moments when she’s afraid. That’s normal and adaptive. She didn’t understand all the cheering she could hear following the goals in football matches, and she doesn’t understand thunder. But generally speaking, she wouldn’t benefit from medications to lower her anxiety. Feeling afraid or uncertain following various changes in the environment is normal and adaptive if we’re not sure what’s going on and it scares us. When our dog does not adapt to scary stuff, or when they have an extremely strong reaction to things in the world around them, panicking even when they can’t see, hear or smell things they’re afraid of – those would be times that seeing a veterinarian would be a sensible precaution. In part, this is not least because noise phobias can be related to underlying musculoskeletal pain, and it may be that, especially if your dog’s fears have got worse gradually over a period of time, or if they suddenly changed, then a health check is always vital.

One thing that can be really difficult is when we need to interact with people. Lidy has mastered the fine art of coping with people who don’t interact with her. She’s watched men with diggers. She’s come across picnickers in the forest. She’s kept her beady eye on the people in the supermarket car park. We’re fine with people we don’t know. I protect her from their unwanted attentions, and absolutely everybody has been amazing about leaving her alone.

What is hard is moving from non-contact strangers to contact. It can be very hard for dogs to learn that people are not scary, and progress can be glacially slow. I worked with a lovely setter a couple of weeks ago, and it took two hours before the dog was really relaxed around me. And I’m a professional who keeps my hands to myself.

As you know, asking strangers to give your dog food can really backfire. If your dog approaches, your dog is drawn into the space of someone they perhaps feel uncomfortable with, and when the food runs out or the energy changes, you may find that your dog reverts to aggressive, fearful or reactive behaviour.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Suzanne Clothier’s Treat and Retreat and I have a couple of other protocols I designed myself so that I can approach dogs when I need to. I mean, when you’re in a shelter, needs must. Treat and Retreat is surprisingly easy and also insanely effective. However, I can’t ask people to play Treat and Retreat with my dog.

Lidy had a vet appointment just before we came away to make sure she’d had her wormer and to check her health. Can you imagine, in a very busy, noisy vet surgery asking if your vet will play Treat and Retreat with your dog for ten minutes or so? You’d have to run them through what it was… then pass them some treats in the hopes that they could manage it… give them a bit of coaching to get it right… manage your dog… hope that the vet nurse didn’t walk in…

Yet there is one thing that you can use to help your dog cope with humans. An item that has a magical power, if you will.

Some dogs in shelter kennels have a really hard time with all the staff passing. One day, I noticed that one dog was an absolute lamb for the guy who brought him his dinner. The volunteer who turned up with the lead got the best reception. Yet this dog regularly threw himself, barking and lunging, at his kennel gates in a display so terrifying you’d have had no doubt it would have ended in a horrible way if he’d got out.

Turning up the next day with a bowl in my hand, I got the same reception. When I walked past later, I got the same response as the day before – a real telling off to move out of his space. Bowl = cute ‘yck-yck-yck’ behaviour and a lovely sit with a charming smile. Lead = delighted ‘whoo whoo’ behaviour and some joyful dancing. Nothing = barked at and lunged at from behind the gate. Eventually, because I took him out often, that lead transferred its magical power to me and the dog was as pleased to see me as he was with the lead.

The process by which this happened is not new. If you’re a trainer, you’ll know that this is Pavlov at work. Instead of bells, we’ve got bowls. It’s pure magic at work. However they feel about the food or the object, then that’s how they come to feel about the person holding it. It does work the other way, too, by the way. Not just for dogs either. Working with New Caledonian crows who are captured and then studied before being released, the researchers soon learned that the crows remembered who’d captured them and attacked them in the enclosure. It was so bad that they had to send novel researchers in who had no connection to the initial capture.

In shelters and in kennels, you can really use this power to help fearful or aggressive dogs out. When there are objects like these which have a magical power to bring out an emotional response, you can use them to make the shelter world routine and to help dogs (and cats) overcome their fears of strange kennel workers.

The word I use for these magical items is a talisman.

A talisman, an object thought to have magical powers, brings good luck. Our talisman in this example doesn’t bring good luck. It brings good science. Any object can take on magical powers to elicit responses from your dog. Bowls, harnesses and leads are common ones for us in the home. Some of us resort to saying W-A-L-K-I-E-S because even the word walk takes on magical properties. Actions like putting shoes on can cause immense excitement. Weird confession: the second time I go to the toilet in the day gets my dogs excited. Walks come next. Brushing my teeth makes my dogs excited. Brushing my hair makes my dogs excited. No, they’re not just excited by my occasional attempts at personal hygiene. Putting on my boots brings them to near delirium. Picking my keys up? Same. Putting my bag in the car? Utter ecstasy.

It’s not just objects like bowls, boots and leads. Nor is it just actions like picking up keys. Dogs respond to noises. Words like ‘walkies’ and tea can bring out the most giddy puppy in the most sedate pensioner. My alarm goes off at 6am and 6pm to give my boy Heston his medication. That invariably means Good Stuff At The Fridge. What do my dogs do when the alarm goes off? Get excited and run to the fridge. My mum’s been using the magical power of noise to announce herself to Lidy as she arrives, so that by the time she gets to the room, Lidy’s already dribbling with delight.

You think it’s just visual stuff, noises and words?

Don’t overlook the dog’s biggest and most powerful sense – smell. In shelters, it’s very easy to use smell to help dogs learn who new people are. Using zoopharmacognosy scents or even pairing up items of worn clothing from kennel workers can be one way to link smell with food or walks. One of my clients had adopted a sweet little girl who was very dog-aggressive. Unfortunately, her daughter was coming to live with her and she had a dog. We thought things would be okay, but to shorten the odds, we paired up the other dog’s bedding with food. The first day, we just put some treats inside a blanket that we’d wiped over the other dog. The next, a blanket we’d wiped over the other dog’s feet and interesting bits. If you don’t know what’s an interesting bit to a dog, pick off bits that’d normally make us cringe. Then we had a blanket the dog had slept on for an hour. Next, a blanket he’d slept on for the afternoon… you get the picture. When the dog finally arrived, we kept them separate for a few days, then we set up a meet and greet that was very carefully staged using walks and neutral spaces. When we came to introduce the dogs, she already knew all there was to smell about him, and she also knew that the smell of him meant fresh roasted chicken. Sure, we did a bit of work at a distance and we continued to take it easy, but pairing up smells with good stuff can be an amazing way to help your dog progress.

Even people can be a talisman. If your dog associates the presence of another person (or even of you!) with good stuff, then you can use them as a talisman to predict the arrival of good stuff, but also to predict safety and how events will unfold.

A talisman can be a word, then. It can be a smell. It can be a sound. It can be an object. It means, ‘when this thing is present, good stuff happens.’

It is a way for your dog to know that, in the presence of that magical item, it’s nothing but good stuff. It’s reliable. It’s predictable. It leads to more good stuff. I also use mats very often for exactly this. The mat comes out and good stuff will happen.

What you want is a full ‘whoo hoo!’ to whatever object you choose. Ironically, you can do this with virtually any neutral item. I get a whoo hoo when we see the muzzle. What you want, though, is a talisman that you can pass to the other person. Whoever carries the thing has the magical power.

I use a paté pot with treats and paté in it. Whoever holds the paté pot is magical. When I took Lidy in for her wormer, the vet was holding the paté pot. Lidy didn’t lunge. She didn’t growl or freeze. No hackles went up. No tail went between her legs. She trotted up to the vet, sat at her feet and was A Very Good Girl.

Aww, how lovely, you’re thinking. Surely this Lidy that she is describing had some mild worries about people. Not so. Lidy is more than capable of some very frightening behaviour.

Now when we have all the time, it’s great to take it. My mum has gradually been getting to know Lidy for a few minutes a day. When the Mother is here, nothing but good stuff happens. Meals, walks, snacks. She announces her presence so Lidy isn’t taken by surprise. And Lidy chose to approach her for cuddles. Don’t get me wrong: we’re not up to the point where I’ll be letting Lidy off-lead just yet, or hoping she’ll cope in moments of tension. This stuff works and it is just fine.

But I don’t have 7 days to go live in my vet’s house and ask her to do these things with the dog. So passing her the magical talisman meant that – just for that short period of time – the vet had a magical charm. Of course, I’m still relying on management (Lidy had two leads on and she was muzzled) and modification (I’ve spent a lot of time charging that paté pot let me tell you!). But, for the five minutes in the surgery, the presence of the paté pot meant that good stuff was assured.

Anything can become a talisman. In fact, you can make use of the super powers of having several work together. It needn’t even mean that the stranger is going to give out food. It simply means that the stranger is safe. It’s a transferable icon that means there is nothing to worry about and predictable things will unroll. Our paté pot is easy. It means paté. But we can also ask people to use words or ask for specific behaviours. When unfamiliar humans can ask for a behaviour like ‘spin’ and the dog knows it will lead to predictable results – the world really is your oyster.

Some final thoughts about the object you choose. The first is that it should be portable and fairly small so you can take it with you and your dog will know what is about to happen. It should also be unusual. You can of course hand a dog bowl over to your vet although it may be confusing – eating from bowls tends to happen in predictable places. Our paté pot comes out at regular intervals. On walks. In car parks. Just for fun. It’s small. It’s portable. It is very well charged. By that, I mean that paté and treats have come out of that pot at least a couple of times a day since as far back as I can remember. I don’t overdo it. And I try to keep lots of surprising things going on. Sometimes it might contain a piece of liver or kidney, a bit of black pudding, a piece of salmon, a bit of cheese. It’s always massively yummy human-grade food. I usually ask for a behaviour with it too, like hand touch.

Talismans come from the Arabic verb meaning ‘to complete’ or ‘to perform a rite’. A talisman that you use with your dog can be just the same. The talisman will be produced. The dog will be asked for a behaviour. The dog will do the behaviour. Treats will rain from the sky. Magic will happen.

I use a talisman frequently to make the world predictable for the dogs I work with. It helps them understand how the world operates. When we know what’s going on, we don’t have anything to be afraid of. It makes for confident dogs who understand the world.

I don’t place all my faith in them, and certainly not for long. But they form a central role in helping the dogs I work with move to interaction with humans when I need to do that a little more quickly than the dog would like. As I said… growling at the vet one visit, sitting for a wormer at the next. That’s not a speed I like to work at because it’s a speed that has been coerced unnaturally.

But if needs must… a talisman can work wonders. It can also, if used properly, form a bridge in building relationships of a longer duration.

Understanding the power of objects, sounds and smells can also help shelter managers ensure kennel safety. Imagine knowing that you could go into a block of kennels, say ‘Hi dogs!’ and be greeted by lots of wagging tails because they know that ‘hi dogs!’ always means snack time! It ensures safety for new kennel workers if they can pick up items with which dogs are familiar. They may not know you, but they know the routine. Certainly, having Lidy’s little green harness on display when I was away from the shelter meant anyone who approached her kennel with it must certainly be a friend because they were carrying the Magical Harness of Joy. Lidy knew what that harness meant and what it rituals it predicted. If you know much about Pavlovian conditioning, you’ll also know that it doesn’t take many pairings at all for an association to be formed. What you have then is a baton that can be passed from staff member to staff member and can be used to help dogs understand the world around them.

Unlike asking strangers to give your dogs food from their hand and risking a nasty bite when the dog realises they’re closer than they wanted to be, the talisman can be used at a distance, even behind fences or guards, or when your dog is on lead. Food, if that’s what the talisman predicts (mine do) can be given by the guardian or dropped and moved away from. Quite often, as I did with my vet, they might do the feeding (well, giving of wormers) and then I’ll move the dog away and feed them before returning again so that dogs who are startled by movement aren’t suddenly thrust into a situation where things were okay while the person was still but all bets are off when they move away. I’ve seen a few butt bites in those situations, so it’s well worth moving your dog away before the person starts to move.

Used well, Pavlovian conditioning can go a huge way to helping our dogs make sense of the world around them. A talisman tells the dog that they are safe and predictable events will occur. We try so hard to tell our dogs using words that they don’t understand. Why not use the objects that they have faith in to really make a difference?

The Biggest Risks Following a Dog Bite

One of the first things my clients want to know when their dog has bitten is whether it will happen again. It’s one of those impossible questions because there’s no answer that will put an end to people’s worries and there’s definitely no accurate answer.

A risk assessment definitely helps. I designed one I use with my clients to help them understand what is serious and what’s not. It’s easy for me to say that I don’t think their dog will bite again when as far as they’re concerned, Tricky Woo the Shih Tzu is now an unknown entity. But it is never easy for me to say, when there haven’t been any bite incidents, that I think if nothing changes for the dog, then the dog will find it increasingly difficult not to resort to using their teeth. Why is it that those of us whose dogs have bitten are frightened it will happen again, and those of us whose dog might be a huge risk are convinced it won’t happen in the first place?

A lot of it comes down to human psychology.

As you may have read about in Dog: Thinking Fast and Slow, humans have many cognitive biases. One of these is a negativity bias. We think that things are unlikely to improve and we don’t expect a positive outcome. That way of thinking can make it very difficult for us to put dog bites behind us and move on. Most of my clients go through a period where they completely lose trust in the dog and don’t know if they can go on living with an animal that they’re concerned is a ticking time bomb. I feel a little like this living with Lidy. New situations are always concerning and I’m probably much more cautious than I need to be. So many times, her behaviour has said that she’s well and truly moved on from her darkest days. She’s moved on. Maybe. I haven’t.

That’s the first stage I think we go through when we care for a dog who has bitten. Will they do it again? How can I trust them again? We lose all faith in them and in ourselves. We become overly cautious, even sometimes opting to rehome or euthanise our dog simply because we can’t trust them again after a bite, despite the fact we trusted them before. I don’t think there are many of my clients who don’t worry incessantly. And where the bite has been directed at someone in the family, it somehow becomes so much worse. Not least if we’re living together all day long. I never, ever feel judgemental if a client says they can’t live any longer with their companion, even if the risk assessment suggests a positive outcome. We live a life of blind trust before the bite, and then a land of constant worry after.

So why do we live in this land of blind trust before the bite? Even perhaps following one or two incidents?

The joy of human thinking also means we have a default optimism bias. I know. An optimism bias and a negativity bias. What fun! Who dreamed up these brains of ours?!

In reality, both have an evolutionary function. A negativity bias keeps us in place. It keeps us safe. It makes us risk averse. I’ve just spent three weeks on the move, in new locations, in new homes. Every walk goes back to being a walk into the unknown. Strangers are dangerous and change is bad. In experiments where mice were moved from one habitat to another, those who’d been there five days before predators were introduced were much more likely to survive than those who’d just been transplanted. In the real world, change can kill you.

And an optimism bias stops us dwelling so much on past experiences that we can’t move forward and we become crippled by anxiety. In fact, when we lose our optimism, it can cause us all sorts of problems.

I find some people to be very blasé about the risks posed by their dog. This is not really their fault. That delightful optimism bias carries us through, sometimes even past plausible deniability that our dog has a problem. I know many people whose dogs are repeat offenders, but because the bite hasn’t been bad enough yet, they continue with blind optimism. I’m there hearing stories about people who take incredible risks with their dog. It’s not that the dog is dangerous. They aren’t. It’s just that people take incredible risks with their dog simply because nothing bad has happened yet. On our way up north, I stopped off for a leg stretch with my dogs. We’re on lead. Lidy is muzzled. It’s quiet. I don’t, for one minute, expect there to be off-lead dogs at a motorway services when there’s 130kph traffic thundering past only 10m away. Guess what? We turn a corner and a guy is there with an unsupervised off-lead aggressive dog (he really was…) who charged at us all. No recall. No apology. Things ended okay – his dog took one look at Heston and changed his mind. But not only could there have been a horrible fight, his dog could easily have ended up getting squashed by traffic. I guess the jetski and the unsupervised toddler that the guy had with him said a bit about his view on life – and I guess the two leads and the muzzle and the deliberate choice of a very quiet services says a lot about mine. I expect perfect storms. He doesn’t.

I’ll tell you something else too. Instead of sighing with relief and realising what a lucky escape he had, he’ll do the same thing again in the future.

I don’t blame people for this, either. Even if I’m explaining until I’m blue in the face that their dog is a risk. This is not just for dogs who bite, but even dogs who jump up on people or who have poor recall. Nothing Bad Yet is a dangerous state. I’ve lived in it, with dogs I’ve taken risks with myself, even over simple things like not securing them properly in the car or letting them off lead when I shouldn’t.

We put the dog in situations they can’t cope with, and boom, you’re then dealing with a negativity bias and wondering how you’ll ever recover. Once bitten, twice shy. Literally.

Take the dog that was in before Lidy and me on one of our vet visits. I say ‘visit’ and I run it like a military operation. At this visit, there was a a teenage labrador in for routine vaccinations. There were lots of stress signals I could see but were ignored by the guardian. As soon as the vet walked in, the dog started lunging, barking, snapping. That dog was a big dog and the guardian had him on an extendable lead. Luckily, the vet was risk averse. That’s the optimism bias at work in the guardian, though. It doesn’t cross our tiny minds that our dogs might actually, one day, inevitably, bite someone if we keep doing what we’re doing. Lidy got to be the best dog in the vet surgery simply because I’d planned to keep people safe from her.

I walked in and Lidy’s muzzled, on two leads. I’ve checked her harness, but also have a lead clipped on her collar. I’ve checked the clasp on the muzzle and secured it. I have paté. I’ve booked us in at a very special time (just after the vets open – so we don’t get trapped on a day when there are five or six overnight emergencies being brought in, and before things get too busy with queues). I went in first, leaving Lidy secured in the car. I scope the surgery. I check for problems. I let the assistant know I’m there. She tells me to go straight on through into the vet consulting room so I don’t have to hang around trying to be polite to people with cats when my dog is having a meltdown. That’s the negativity bias at work. Plan for the worst. In the end, she did a tiny growl and went back to eating paté.

So what is the biggest problem for our dogs after they’ve bitten?


We are.

It happens with those perfect storms, when we think we’re safe.

The problem about the brain making quick decisions is that it quickly reverts to the optimism bias even if you live in a carefully risk assessed world, especially if nothing’s happened for a while.

I always tell my clients: ‘Watch out for the day when you think your dog is better… it’s inevitably followed by the dog reminding you that they are not’.

That’s not just some silly fatalistic view. It’s not a case that the dog knows we’ve let our guard down. It’s just a case that we have let our guard down and usually that means we’re not as careful with risks.

What happens when we think our dog is better is that we drop our negativity bias and re-find the optimism bias once more. We become risk takers. We put our dogs in situations they can’t cope with and – boom – they remind us that we took one too many risks. It’s usually the day after we start feeling relaxed.

It also happens when we’re stressed and when we’ve five hundred things on our mind. This is me too. I do sometimes think Lidy is ‘better’ and then she reminds me she’s not. But most of the mistakes come when I’m stressed.

Our rational brain is the one that makes all the plans and security arrangements. Baby gates? Check. Hook and eye lock on the door? Check. Sliding lock? Check. Secure buckles on harness? Check. Secure clip on lead? Check. Muzzle to hand? Check.

And then, when we’re stressed, we forget all of that.

Take me three weeks ago. Unexpected change in house moving date. Got a few bits and pieces to move out. What do I do? I let Lidy ‘supervise’ moving tables and she can’t cope. All I needed to have done was put her behind the sodding baby gate for two minutes. That’s all. Two minutes.

We ditch our rational mind’s probability and possibility risk assessments and safety measures when we’re stressed and even doing something that I’ve done a hundred times then becomes something I forgot to do.

At the end of the day, she coped much better than she could have done and I’m here reminding myself that under stress, the best laid plans of dog trainers and guardians go astray. That is the biggest risk post-bite. That we’ll think they’re over it or that we make hasty choices when we’re stressed.

What I would say to my clients is this: know your dog. Do the risk assessments. Keep them safe, if you have even the slightest doubt. If you don’t have doubts, then you’re probably stressed or walking into another bite situation. Watch the flashpoints where there’s excitement and little control. Watch the hotspots where dogs come in contact with people or dogs they’ve targeted before. Be risk averse and have double, triple or even quadruple safety protocols in place. Then make those protocols so automatic that you could do them in your sleep.

They say insanity is doing the same thing you always did and expecting different results. Well, in that case, there’s a distinct loss of rationality – if not sanity – when we’re under pressure and I promise you that you too will fall foul of taking your eye off that proverbial ball. In your moments of rationality, put every safety measure into place and practice routinely and predictably. I secure Lidy in the car on every single journey – as I should, mind – as I know the one time I’m stressed, I’ll forget. I want it to be so automatic that I do it on autopilot. Our brain’s autopilot system is pretty efficient as long as you’ve practised something long enough. I didn’t forget how to drive my car during that unexpected move, although I did have to very consciously remind myself to stick to the speed limits, which I never have to do under normal circumstances. Autopilot is good for dogs and their guardians. Safety checks and security measures are the perfect things to have on autopilot.

So when guardians ask me if their dog will bite again, whether it was just a perfect storm, I say I don’t know. I don’t. I do know that dogs with a bite history will repeat that behaviour when we stop paying as much attention to safety as we were, and that we’ll revert to our own stress behaviour patterns when we’re under fire, just as they will. We spend our lives thinking ‘only’ in a perfect storm – and yet perfect storms happen so much more frequently than we’d expect.

If we can take anything from this, it’s the need to always stick to your safety and management routines, and never let your guard down because you think your dog will cope. Why did I let my crazy malinois supervise furniture removals? Just because in the heat of the moment, it seemed like she would be okay and she’d cope.

I got lucky.

And relying on luck means one day our luck will run out.

Make sure you rely on good management habits for the days when perfect storms hit, and stick to those procedures even if you think it’ll be okay.

That way, I’m sure we’d have fewer ‘repeat offenders’ and fewer guardians who regret the day they took the eye off the management.

The Right Tool For The Job: desensitisation, counterconditioning or training?

I’m going to apologise straight away that this post is technical, rather than one for the average guardian. It’s mainly based in some very rich and interesting discussions I’ve had with other dog trainers and behaviour consultants in the last couple of weeks.

The question, as always, is rooted around picking the right training method for the dog (and the guardian!). I’m finding more and more that although all individuals learn in the same ways, some ways we can train are singular precision tools rather than a Swiss Army Knife that can do a lot of things, but none of them particularly well.

I’ve been posting a lot recently about dogs who growl, bark, lunge, snarl, snap and even attempt to bite unfamiliar people either when they visit the property or when we’re out in the street on a walk. Today I’m going to keep my focus on that. I seem to go through trends where I get a run of dogs who exhibit the same type of behaviour. The behaviour I’ve mentioned here, I refer to as ‘Stranger Danger’. as a shortcut This post is going to focus on that single, very specific behaviour. Dogs barking and lunging, snapping and snarling at members of the public. This is a perennial problem for the dogs I work with.

The decisions about which tool to use to change this behaviour is a much broader discussion, however, that is as relevant to many other situations where we might be engaged in changing emotional responses to the world. I just wanted a handy example. I can’t think theory without the actual practical bits. It’s only when I can see it in concrete reality that abstraction makes sense to me. So Stranger Danger dogs it is.

Stranger Danger is not just about barking or lunging at unfamiliar people in the street. It can also be a fearful reaction, with the dog freezing or cowering when people approach, and then turn to barking or even biting. I even see it with dogs that people assume are super-social – often gundogs – and what I see are dogs who manically feel the need to assuage and befriend everyone present to diffuse threat. All of these behaviours – even though we might class one dog as aggressive, another as fearful or panicking, another shut down and another as a social butterfly, these can all be rooted in fear of unfamiliar people. All the teenage dogs jumping up on guests can be just as much about Stranger Danger as barking and lunging can… just another way of expressing nervousness around new people.

Does it matter how you modify this behaviour? Is training bespoke or does one-size-fit all? Are there really different methods that might be more fitting?

All my training programmes consist of three elements.

The first is management. Whatever problem the dog has, it’s our obligation as guardians, caregivers or trainers to make sure everyone is safe. It’s not normal for dogs to treat all people outside the home as if they’re dangerous, armed robbers. Nor is it normal for them to be so afraid that they shut down completely. And no, it’s not normal for them to be so needful to make contact that they’re screaming behind a baby gate and then jumping all over guests when they’re finally allowed to make contact. We have to make sure the unfamiliar people are safe, and we need to make sure our dogs are safe. Not to do so is a legal issue on the one hand and a welfare issue on the other.

That means leads, muzzles, distance, security, barriers. Yes, even for the ‘friendly’ dogs. No person – especially not a dog trainer – should be put into a position where they can be harmed. A dog can’t bite strangers if they’re on two leads, muzzled, behind a secure fence. Nor can they knock Nana over in a frantic bid to modulate their anxiety by leaping all over her.

So management is the first strand. That might include distracting the dog. It might include avoiding the situations they struggle in. It might involve securing the dog. Management is fine. It’s not a treatment, but it’s fine. Plenty of dogs, including my own, go through various parts of life being managed. It’s not lazy. It’s just life and priorities. Sometimes, we might do more management than other times.

Behaviour modification is the next strand. Behaviour modification essentially means putting into place a programme to change the dog’s emotions or behaviour. This is what most of this post will be about. Behaviour modification is a fairly limited toolbox in reality, with about a hundred variations on a theme. Good trainers have specialist methods and can adapt the variations to best meet the needs of the animal and their guardian.

Less effective practitioners will have a much less broad range of tools. If you’ve only got a hammer, you’ve got to treat everything you come across as if it’s a nail.

Behaviour modification will include skills in habituating animals to new things in the environment, working with them to take the sting out of stuff they’re already reactive to, changing their emotions, teaching them new behaviours. It can include training, of course.

The third strand won’t be appropriate for every dog. That strand is medication, changes of diet or the use of nutraceuticals. Not all dogs will need this, but if they do it makes behaviour modification destined to fail without it. Or, if not destined to fail, it certainly makes it much harder and much longer to see progress.

So today I want to focus on that second strand, and about how I make my decisions about which behaviour modification tool to use when working with dogs who have a heightened sense of Stranger Danger.

Basically the tools I have available are:

  • Desensitisation: exposing the relaxed dog to the scary thing at levels that don’t elicit a response, and gradually exposing them to more and more of the scary thing.

    The key elements of desensitisation are pairing a relaxed state with low doses of the scary stuff. In human therapy terms, desensitisation is often called exposure therapy. According to Domjan (2015) exposure therapies are ‘extinction procedure[s] in which the participants are exposed to cues that elicit fear in the absence of the unconditioned stimuli’ (p. 246). In the lab, this would mean presenting the conditioned cue without the shock. In reality, this means presenting the conditioned cue – in this case, the scary humans – without the unpleasant emotions and without other unpleasant factors like yanking, jerking or reprimanding the dog. If you want to get technical, Domjan seems to be intimating that desensitisation is actually an extinction protocol. Extinction perhaps being very different than a counterconditioning protocol at a neural level, though we don’t know enough to say this for sure.

    Chance (2014) explores how systematic desensitisation is the process by which a conditioned stimulus is paired up with a state of relaxation (p. 98) While it doesn’t help that there are not agreed definitions of these processes, I take desensitisation to mean the pairing of a conditioned stimulus – the scary person- at levels that do not elicit a behavioural response – with a state of relaxation. This is how it was conceived by its progenitor Joseph Wolpe.

    As such, desensitisation is a subset of counterconditioning. There’s an unresolved tension, of course, with how Domjan defines exposure therapies. You can see why: to Domjan, they are not a pairing procedure; to Wolpe, the scary stuff being paired with a positive emotional state is pivotal.

    To my mind, desensitisation processes are not aided by food or other positive stimuli except relaxation, and this is going to become an important part of discussions that follow. I take the same line as Wolpe does. After all, he named it. To my mind, and she may completely disagree, but Grisha Stewart’s Behaviour Adjustment Training is a desensitisation technique in part. Multiple, careful exposures when the dog is in a relaxed frame of mind.
  • Counterconditioning: this is often lumped in with desensitisation, but desensitisation is a subset of counterconditioning if you subscribe to Wolpe’s definition: it is a counterconditioning process in itself.

    Chance says that counterconditioning is an exposure process to reverse the effects of previous conditioning (p. 394). I think this definition is a bit weak though, not least from a neuroscientific perspective. I know, I know… picking and choosing which definitions I like. I’ll discuss why later, but essentially, I quibble with the idea of reversal and I also think counterconditioning in the animal training world has come to mean something a little different: the pairing of the scary person with food. It’s not unlearning. Counterconditioning is definitely not unlearning.

    I don’t think trainers always understand the difference between desensitisation and counterconditioning. This is not helped by very poor quality examples in very popular dog trainer textbooks. Only this weekend, I read a post from a well-respected animal researcher in which she called ‘DS/CC’ a process. Well, no. It’s two processes for me, and it’s those differences I want to discuss today. For Domjan, they’re two processes: respondent extinction and counterconditioning. For Chance, they are two processes: pairing scary stuff with positive emotional states compared to the reversal of learning.

    Whether you agree with the definitions or not, this is how I define the two in relation to Stranger Danger: where desensitisation is pairing up an emotional state of relaxation or safety with the scary people in progressively more challenging circumstances, counterconditioning is pairing up scary stuff with physical unconditioned stimuli, most often food or toys.

    The aim of counterconditioning, then, is that the scary thing comes to predict the arrival of the good stuff. If we’re talking trainer terms, then Jean Donaldson’s ‘Bar is Open – Bar is Closed’ is the most well-known example of counterconditioning.
  • Operant training: basically operant training requires the dog to behave voluntarily and this is the bit that’s open to consequences. This is Skinner and his pigeons. It’s typical dog trainer territory. Sit – get a biscuit. There are ways we can use operant training to make sure dogs are distractable in the face of the scary stuff, to teach them another behaviour they can do instead, to watch us, to check in with us, to stand between our legs if people go past, to do a u-turn, to ‘Look At That!’ … This is where we’re using food to shape behaviour and we can give cues like ‘Watch!’ or ‘Let’s go!’ to get the dog to move.

    We can even use a thing called operant counterconditioning which not only changes the dog’s emotional response but also gives them a behaviour to do instead. When I do Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games with my dogs, or I use Deb Jones’ Focus Games, these can either be used to distract and keep the dog busy in the presence of scary stuff, or they can be even used as a way to help the dog cope with the scary stuff.

    Operant training might not necessarily involve cues, clickers or marker words but we often think of it with a cue, a behaviour, a marker and a reinforcer like food. It needn’t be this four-part structure, however. Simply speaking, behaviour and reinforcer is as much as we need. If I play the engage-disengage game with my dogs, for instance, where I reinforce looking away, that is uncued operant training.

These three tools are basically the ingredients of most programmes to help dogs deal with scary people. In one blend or another, they’re mostly what people are using. In order to think about some of the inherent problems of each tool, it’s going to be really important to separate counterconditioning from desensitisation. Of course, you are full on board with the knowledge that Pavlov and Skinner are sitting on both your shoulders when you’re training and you can’t do one without a bit of the other unless you’re engaging in some very restrictive training, but I do think there are techniques that are MORE Pavlov than Skinner, and vice versa. They’re a sliding scale. Some protocols are more heavily dominated by either Pavlovian processes or by Skinnerian ones.

Desensitisation and counterconditioning are not, however, one single process.

Desensitisation is a subset of counterconditioning using a careful, systematic, gradual stimulus gradient of the scary stimulus paired with a state of relaxation or safety. It’s not the stimulus gradient itself. Some people think it’s about the systematic and gradual bit. It is, but that’s only half of it. It’s the relaxation bit that is being associated with the stimulus that it is the key component for me.

For the purpose of this post, it’s going to be really important to remember that they are distinct processes. Desensitisation wouldn’t involve food, for example. Where there is food, you may also be pairing up with a state of relaxation, but that’d be counterconditioning. Where there is a stimulus gradient, you may be using counterconditioning. If you’re using desensitisation, there will most likely a stimulus gradient. Confusing, I know. For the moment, I think the best way to describe it is to think of the DS bit as being foodless, and the CC bit having food (or other positive stimulus).

Now recently, I’ve had a lot of discussions about the role of counterconditioning or even the role of teaching dogs operant things like ‘Look At That!’. Which are best for the dog and their guardian?

I firstly want to say there is sometimes a bit of confusion over them. I’ve heard of very prominent professionals saying counterconditioning isn’t even a thing, that it’s not even possible. It is. It absolutely is. Thousands of animals have gone through fear conditioning with foot shocks in the lab to prove it is, so let’s not breed deliberate ignorance. In itself, therapies to counteract PTSD are counterconditioning, so let’s not just write off a load of actual science by spouting nonsense.

What is true is we don’t know much about the neural mechanisms by which counterconditioning works exactly. Yet. That said, we are pushing the boundaries of our understanding all the time. There is evidence from applied psychology about respondent extinction that suggests it might be more a case of reconsolidation of fear memories (see Brain & Behavior by Garrett and Hough 2017 for a primer and for cornerstone research) – we’re actually over-writing neural networks during a period of malleability. Maybe. Perhaps when we undertake counterconditioning, we’re just learning exceptions to the initial rule formed by our first learning experiences.

What we also know is that initial learning – the original conditioning – forms a type of rule about the world and also a strong neural connection that, in the case of fear conditioning, is designed to keep us safe, and that forgetting is not what is going on. If you think counterconditioning is about causing ‘forgetting’, it’s time to get your cognitive psychology books out and read the chapters on forgetting. Counterconditioning is not ‘un-learning’. This is why I have problems with Chance’s definition.

But we are probably rewriting that rule about the world with a load of exceptions as we go through counterconditioning procedures (including desensitisation). We may also, at a neural level, be weakening the neural pathways and building new ones. We’re learning exceptions.

Another thing that I’ve heard recently is that counterconditioning doesn’t work because it makes animals more sensitive to the trigger. Say for instance you have a dog who is afraid of scary people and you do Jean Donaldson’s ‘Bar is open – Bar is closed’ game when the scary person comes into sight, where scary thing appears, the bar opens and food rains from the sky, and then the bar closes and food stops the moment the scary thing is out of sight. Some people say that this is sensitising the dog to the trigger. You can see their logic, I guess. In their view, it makes the dog look for scary people.

The trouble is that this naive psychology is not accurate. Sure, if counterconditioning is done badly, then you might make the dog more reactive to the scary stuff. What you’re probably doing is flooding the dog and seeing an extinction burst though. What they’re doing is not counterconditioning. This view about it sensitising the animal is also not evidenced in the lab, however, where counterconditioning with food has been much more effective than simple extinction procedures. Food does help. Their claim that sensitisation happens is not borne out in science.

What trainers who say counterconditioning sensitises the dog probably mean is that the use of food makes the dog actively look for the conditioned cue – in this case, the scary human – because of the food that will inevitably happen when they see the scary person. I think what they are actually referring to is an attention and salience process, not a sensitisation process. They’re different psychology chapters from forgetting or from fear conditioning and counterconditioning. They’re different processes. What I think they mean when they say the dog becomes more sensitive to the trigger is that the scary stuff is becoming more salient. I guess what people who think it can sensitise dogs to a stimulus are really saying is that they think the addition of food can make a stimulus more noticeable. It’s about attention and valence.

To a degree, I think this idea that food might make the scary people more salient might hold some truth. I certainly see it with some dogs. I know dogs who, upon seeing the conditioned cue – the scary human – look back to their guardians, salivating at the thought of the sausage that is about to materialise. If you’re waiting for a payday that’s dependent on a cue, then you’re going to look for the cue. That is evident. From my own anecdotal experience, I think this is sometimes true. I think the food can also hinder the process if it comes to dominate the process. I’ve known dogs who are so fixated on the sausage potential that they barely notice the scary stuff.

Here, counterconditioning fails because the dog is barely aware of the scary stimulus. Sometimes, that’s fine. Distraction is a useful tool. I’ve certainly used it a million times. But distraction involves no learning. If I truly want the dog to feel differently about the scary human, distraction will get in the way. Today, I stopped at a breaker’s yard to drop off some parts and Lidy barked and lunged at the guy who came to carry the box. Later, we stopped at the supermarket and I picked up some sausages because I’m that type of guardian. When I opened the packet, a lady walked past much closer than the guy had been in the breaker’s yard. Lidy didn’t even notice. It was all about the anticipation of the sausage. On the other hand, though, we always have sausages at the supermarket. The sausages simply overshadowed everything else. I think, if you’re doing counterconditioning on every excursion, you might get a dog who’s fixated on the sausages. Make sure you secrete them carefully, I’d say, and you probably won’t have this overshadowing.

This problem is as equally true for dogs who are working operantly – trick training or obedience training in public, if you will – where the patterns and the routines and the food stop them engaging with the scary human. I’ve known dogs who were so lost in a ‘Watch me!’ that they failed to even notice the scary stuff go by. Again… fine, if distraction is your aim. If the dog isn’t noticing the stuff because you’re involved in your own routines, then it’s not really doing anything by way of learning. This can be amazing if your dog builds up such a trust in you that they only have to look at you and work with you to feel safe, but that’s about your relationship, not about the world. However if you only engage in operant training when scary stuff happens, then I think that also may end up making the scary stuff more salient. Counterconditioning, because the very nature of it is to only do it when the scary stuff is present, runs an ever bigger risk of forming links in your dog’s mind that make the situation more salient than not.

So perhaps, then, counterconditioning may make things more salient, especially at first. I don’t know. That’s just my experience. I do find those dogs who are highly fixated on the food lose that sensitivity the more they do. I think it’s sometimes a phase you work through with some dogs: ‘Look! There’s the stuff! Where’s my goodies?’ But I don’t think it is a bad thing. What you have then is a dog who is ready to switch to operant cues. When a dog notices the person and then looks back for a sausage, well, then you can ask them to do something else. I wait for this moment, rather than trying to avoid it.

Does the food increase the level of arousal in general? Maybe. I think this is mostly true in dogs where the scary stuff was already salient, though.

For instance, I work with a lot of car-chasing dogs, and I’ve been the guardian of one too. Sometimes, where I’ve paired the car up with food, I never had a moment where I thought with Flika that she was ‘noticing’ cars to get food. Or, even, that she was more sensitive to the presence of cars. Her level of ‘noticing’ cars neither diminished nor increased. Her reactions decreased, though, for sure. They weren’t more salient, but she shouted at them less and chased them less.

However, for my non-car-reactive boy Heston who walked with her, HE certainly knew that cars meant the bar was open when cars came by and HE came to expect food. In other words, cars didn’t become more salient for Flika, but they sure did for my boy who had no previous interest in cars in eight years of his life. Before, cars were a non-thing to him, as innocuous and meaningless to him as trees, bushes and benches. In fact, if I were to imagine him loose in a road, he’d be surprised to find cars around him. What I was doing was conditioning a neutral stimulus, with him.

The level of initial reaction and salience, as well as the usual frequency of reaction informs my choice of counterconditioning as a tool. If the dog is already having a huge reaction to the scary stuff, well, counterconditioning can’t make it more salient. It was already 100% salient. Cars were 100% salient to Flika. If there was a car, she noticed it. Counterconditioning – adding food when she noticed a car – couldn’t make it more salient. The mechanic was 100% salient to Lidy. Adding food when she saw him couldn’t make him more salient.

But, if the dog is not reacting 100% of the time, or the reactions are fairly mild, then if I add food, I may run the risk that I’m actually conditioning a dog to the stimulus by making the pairing of stimulus > food more strong. For instance, in Pavlov’s famous experiment, when the white coat guys came in the room, pairing them up with food 100% of the time will have made the white-coated assistants more salient. That’s what happened to Heston with cars. The food that inevitably arrived for Flika (and him by default) increased the attention he paid to cars.

So if the dog is not reacting 100% of the time, or even 50% of the time, then I may not choose pairing the stimulus up with food because I may actually be conditioning them, rather than counterconditioning them. I’m creating an association rather than changing their emotional response to the stuff.

Because I’m still wrangling with this in my head, here’s another example. Lidy very occasionally alerts to large birds walking in fields. So if she sees a crow, very occasionally, she’ll start to stalk it. That happens probably once in twenty times. Now if I open the bar on crows, well, I’m making crows more meaningful than they currently are. I can see why, if I start adding food when she alerts on a crow, she may start noticing crows more.

In this case, where the reaction is mild or occasional, I’ll probably choose desensitisation alone. Pairing up a relaxed state with low doses of the stuff. I did this with Heston when he was a pup and barked at cows. We walked at a distance with a few very slow cows in our sight for a short period. Gradually we increased the length of time we were around cows, the friskiness of the cows and we decreased the distance to cows. When a cow recently stuck her head through the hedge, Heston didn’t even notice. They were a non-thing. It might as well have been a part of the bush or a curious flower. Cows don’t trip his neural connections of things that are worth noticing. They are just part of the fabric of our environment. Now.

What I’m getting at, I think, is that the aim of desensitisation is to lead to habituation. It’s to help animals return to a state of neutrality. Repeated exposures at low doses and we get used to things. Does the addition of food in counterconditioning actually make the stimulus more salient? I’d argue it may, if the dog wasn’t always finding it salient in the first place.

So that’s my first decision: is this dog reacting to the stimulus often enough where we need to countercondition them and change their emotional response? Or am I aiming for neutrality and habituation?

For example, Lidy’s reaction to people was so extreme that respondent counterconditioning – bar is open, bar is closed – and operant counterconditioning – Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That game – didn’t have the risk of making the scary people more salient. They were already salient. If she noticed them, she reacted to them. Also, given the severity of her reactions and the length of time she had practised the behaviour, coupled with poor breeding of an already sensitive breed of dog, and an extreme lack of appropriate socialisation, and a highly-traumatic single event in her adolescence and I’d like to put money on the fact scary humans are always going to be salient. If you have a pathological fear of zombies or clowns, I’d say they’re probably going to be salient to you compared to other things. You might say, ‘Hey, there’s a clown!’ and have a milder reaction, but those clowns are never likely to become a non-thing, I’d argue.

So if the scary stuff is never going to be a non-thing, then why not add food? Why not countercondition or train around them? You can’t make them more salient. You might as well make the scary clown a cue that ice cream will shortly arrive.

The irony is that from time to time, I do wonder if scary humans and scary dogs are becoming non-things for Lidy. I was prepared for a lifetime of salience. I was happy with Look At That rather than BAT. I was happy with her cuing me for a u-turn if she needed one. I was happy to scaffold her and give her a support structure of pattern games and focus games if it got too much for her. Yet there are more and more frequent times when she clearly notices the people but they are non-things, not worth paying any attention to, and she’ll go back to sniffing the grass or walking or even showing her best sass moves off. We walked past people in the woods the other week without treats, cues, scaffolds, patterns, worries or reactions. They were a non-thing. The problem with desensitisation if it is an extinction protocol as Domjan suggests, is that extinction is weak and faulty process open to renewal and recovery where the initial behaviour comes back with friends.

I guess what I mean to say by this is that there are times for a more pure, foodless desensitisation process where you’re just ‘being’ around stuff at low doses. There are dogs for whom this is all they need. I worked with a pointer last Tuesday and adding food to the mix was just not necessary. He just needed a carefully scaffolded exposure process.

This has a lot to do with his guardians, who were not clicker people whatsoever, and I mean that kindly and without judgement. Their timing was lousy. It was massively complicated. The food got in the way. She was trying to hold a lead and get food out and she was all thumbs. So I may choose a technique depending on the guardian’s skills.

I may also choose desensitisation over food-based techniques with dogs who have a long history of life without humans and where they have been responsible for making their own judgements. Flika was one of these dogs – she wasn’t used to relying on a human to make decisions. I did choose a food approach for her because her car chasing was reliable and extreme. She’d had 14 years of making patently bad decisions around cars. But if the dog would, under normal circumstances, make a good choice, then desensitisation is great. It goes without saying that severe aggression is not a good choice the dog has been making. The pointer was another of these dogs. Given the lives of pointers in France, it’s likely he’d largely been left to his own devices and been responsible for his own decisions. Counterconditioning and operant conditioning are guardian-controlled processes. Desensitisation is not, other than putting the dog in the right place at the right time at the right distance for the right length of time. Thus, for independent dogs or dogs who have been responsible for all the decisions in their past, desensitisation may be the more suitable procedure.

Besides the guardian’s natural aptitudes and the dog’s learning history, I also think about the severity of the behaviour and the salience of the scary stuff. That might make me lean towards a food-based method one the one hand, or avoid it on the other.

Breed fits in here too, as well as temperament and individual traits. I find malinois need a lot of structure and scaffolding. Gundogs and shepherd dogs seem to benefit more from the bond that food will give to the guardian more than other breeds. Independent breeds may struggle to profit from food-based methods of counterconditioning or operant training, but I find the gundogs and shepherds need more direction. If I didn’t direct Flika or Lidy, I’m pretty sure they’d fill in the gap with some vastly inappropriate shepherd behaviour. But that depends on the dog, their history and on you.

It also depends on the dog’s appetites, behaviour and preferences. I do love a dog who can take food in public, but if I’ve got to teach that as a skill before I even do any work because the dog won’t eat in public, then desensitisation may be the tool I’m looking for. Likewise for food-obsessed dogs. If I had good food on my person, I was the only salient thing in the whole world to my cocker spaniel. Once she heelwalked for 5km. We could have walked over glass and fire and she’d have emerged wondering why her paws were in such a mess. Food overshadowed everything.

What I’d conclude by saying is that it’s helpful to think of desensitisation and counterconditioning as distinct processes – one with food and one without. Other than that, they have the same rules: small doses, breaks between sessions, clean set-ups, positive experiences, finishing on a win. If Heston gets a bit shouty around stuff, I’m desensitisation all the way. His phenobarbital/steroids combo is so potent in terms of his appetite that he wouldn’t notice the scary stuff anymore. With Lidy, I’m counterconditioning and operant training all the way. Leaving her to make her own choices will mean she’ll probably end up lunging, barking and attempting to grab the offender. Many of my clients are that kind of dog: they need the structure or their behaviour is so severed that they’re unlikely to make better choices.

There have been many interesting conversations which, while they might not address this topic overtly, address it in passing somehow. Much of my thinking here was kind of intuitive until I listened to Sarah Stremming’s Lemonade Conference slot. Initially, I had a reaction to it and thought leaving out the counterconditioning bit was certainly not going to help the majority of dogs I work with. But then I thought there was a lot of wisdom in her thoughts about just working around scary stimuli, in just the same way that Leslie McDevitt’s materials work with dogs who benefit from the structure of training. Here, the scary stimuli are nothing more than environmental chatter. I’ve also benefited hugely from reflecting on Grisha Stewart’s BAT procedures, where I’ve known dogs who needed more structure than it offered and had a long history of making dangerous choices. In reality, I do a little Grisha Stewart, a little Leslie McDevitt, a little Jean Donaldson – and in implicit levels dependent on the dog, their age, their history, their personality, their reaction strength and likelihood, the salience of triggers and the capabilities of the guardian. I do think we need to be mindful, however, that using unconditioned stimuli of a positive valence (food!) may be working on a different neural network based on reward learning, and in that case, it’s going to trump desensitisation hands down. Suffice to say – sometimes I use food and sometimes I do not, and it depends on a lot of things.

I’d like to thank Sonia, Ryan and the DoGenius students for making me formulate these thoughts into some kind of conscious and explicit process rather than just unconscious and intuitive practice. We all get better through reflection and discussion.

If you want the cutting edge on respondent extinction, by the way, our DoGenius extinction course should be right up your street. So many of the nuances get missed and it’s vital that we understand them so that we’re keeping those tools sharp. Only then can we make the most difference for our learners. There are three hours of lectures that cover the most up-to-date research. Definitely worth purchasing if you want to know more.

Two Places Not To take A Dog Who is Afraid of People

* At least until they’re really well and truly ready for it…

One comment that strikes the fear of God into me when I hear people talking about their new rescue dog is “I’ve been taking him to the market to socialise him.”

This is closely followed by my fear of comments saying, “I’ve been taking him to cafés to socialise him.”

What this generally means is that the new guardians have noticed that their dog is a little wary of people and they’ve decided to do something to show their dog that there’s nothing to be afraid of. We don’t even think to try to socialise a dog who’s already social.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

We’d all very much like a dog like this splendid guy and we think that exposure to markets and cafés will help them. The trouble is that nobody says they’re talking a relaxed and friendly dog like this to market to ‘socialise’ them.

Worse is when I hear this comment within days of arrival, when the dog is no doubt still adjusting to their new life. Sadly, it often happens with dogs who’ve been adopted into a world that asks them to make a huge cultural shift, like being adopted from an isolated rural working life into a life of sociable, urban, retired people who want a dog who’s a companion rather than a tool.

I know these actions are well meant. I know every single guardian who’s ever embarked on taking their dog to a market or a café is trying to help their dog. However, there are two fundamental misconceptions that could lead to a deterioration in behaviour, or, worse, a bite.

The First Misconception

The first misconception is that we can ‘socialise’ an adult dog. Sorry. That boat has largely sailed around the 14-week mark. What you are doing is remedial socialisation. Or, at least, that’s what you’re hoping for. You’re hoping to fill in the early learning gaps that have left your dog feeling less than confident around humans.

Like any corrective event, you’re working against initial learning which is always and without question the most profound learning. There’s even some debate about whether we can actually ‘unlearn’ what we already know. So you’re not just hoping to teach your dog, you are trying to ‘unlearn’ and ‘reteach’.

Our early learning is arguably the learning which sets the rules. Either we learn that people are lots and lots of fun, and not scary at all, or we learn that people are scary. We might also learn very little about people – and that hurts our dog’s development too. Very often when people tell me their dog is scared of children, it’s more that their dog has never met children.

What we know about learning is that the first experiences probably define the rules. That dog in the photo? His initial experiences between 6-14 weeks will have been that people are harmless and even kind of fun. I don’t even need to know this dog to know that’s what he’ll have learned.

Everything after those first experiences – including remedial learning – is about learning exceptions.

So you’ve got a dog who, for whatever reason, either doesn’t understand people or is afraid of people. That’s their rule. People are scary. If you keep taking them to places which are scary, that’s just confirming the rule they already understand. Yep. Those people. They’re scary too. And, if you’re their guardian, if you keep putting them in scary situations, well, people are still scary and now you’re not very trustworthy either.

I’d argue that every single carefully-constructed positive social experience where we’re consciously, carefully, thoughtfully exposing them to their triggers is where the animal is learning, “People are scary. Okay, not that person.”

“People are scary. Okay, not them.”

“People are scary except those ones. Okay, not them, either.”

Notice that I said every single positive social experience. If it’s a bad experience – even just because the dog feels afraid – then it just confirms the rule.

“I was right after all! People are scary!”

Don’t forget either that for some breeds or mixes of dogs, their innate, default position – the one they have before they’re even born – is that people are scary. If you’ve a fancy for dogs whose kennel club breed standard says things like “aloof” or “loyal”, if they’re the kind of breed that people say, “Oh he’s lovely when you get to know him!” then they’re often bringing a preset package of suspicion into the mix. Any dog bred for protective qualities – from small lapdogs up to big livestock guardian dogs – comes with that default setting too. Early and appropriate socialisation before 14 weeks just helps them modulate how scary they think strangers are.

When we do remedial socialisation, we have one aim: to help dogs feel relaxed around humans. We’re aiming for hundreds (yes, really!) of experiences where they’re learning, “Okay, not that one… okay, not that one… okay, not that one…

There will be days when you’ll wonder if they’ve fully generalised that new rule. People are not scary. One day – maybe six months in, maybe a year, maybe two – you’ll wonder if they’ve got it. Maybe, just maybe, they’ve finally learned that 8 billion people are not scary and you won’t have to introduce them to each and every one of them in a carefully controlled and constructed ways.

“Wonderful!” you’ll think. “They’ve got it!”

On those days, I practically guarantee that the very next day, your dog will remind you that the rule is SCARY and there are a limited number of acceptable exceptions.

Make no mistake about it, we’re unlikely to turn our spooky dog into a social butterfly. That dog in the photo? Well, your dog is probably never going to look like he does. Sorry about that.

That’s the first misconception: we’re not socialising our dogs. Our adult dogs are not being socialised when we take them to market. You don’t need to treat your adult dog (or your puppy) to a ticklist of situations. I hate those ticklists. I especially hate ticklists that circulate on social media. You know – the ones that say to go to a café, a bus station, a train station, a supermarket, the town dump, a church service, a wedding service, a funeral. If you’re going to a funeral, make sure you go to ones with people in black. Take them to a mosque and a temple and a synagogue and make sure they’re used to a djellaba and a burnous and a person in harem pants. Neither initial experiences of humans nor remedial experiences are a check list.

If we get lucky with our pups and they’re used to it, you’ll be able to take your dogs to scary social events and they’ll be blasé about stilt walkers and fire-eaters and dagger throwers, clowns, apothecaries and knights in shining armour. What we’re aiming for is a dog whose general rule is that people are weird, and harmless but not scary and their exception of, ‘Ok, not that one… he was harmful and scary!’ doesn’t become the general rule.

With a dog whose general rule is either that they find people scary or they don’t know people at all, we’re working against the current. At best then, what we’re hoping for is remedial education that helps them find many exceptions to rules they’ve already learned.

The Second Misconception

The second misconception people make in trying to solve fearfulness by going to busy venues relates to the hope that dogs will learn people are great if we fully immerse them in such situations. What usually happens is the dog is flooded. You can read about flooding here. Because they’re on the lead and because we’re often in places where there aren’t many places to escape because there are small alleyways, tables, stands, people and so on, the dog is subjected to an inescapable situation. They are unable to get away.

Because they are unable to get away, we’ve effectively removed their ability to escape. That means we’ve left them with few options. One is to become obsequiously and obnoxiously friendly. I know. You’re thinking this is a good thing. I see it as a coping mechanism used by a lot of dogs whose guardians think that the dog is really sociable. Another option is to just shut down. There’s a difference between dogs who’ve chosen freezing as an option compared to having given up, but if you’ve ever been under the beady eye of a teacher looking for a volunteer and you’ve chosen stillness in the hopes that they’ll not notice you or pick on you, then you’ve used freezing yourself as a behaviour choice under duress. Other dogs get restless and fidgety. They move more, seem agitated and seem to be looking for comfort more. I notice these dogs panting a lot or offering quite a lot of behaviours to get their guardian’s attention. Other dogs shut down or cower. They try to make themselves as small as possible.

And yes, of course, there are the dogs who growl, bark, snarl, lunge, snap or bite. That’s sometimes the only solution we leave our dogs with. Sadly, I know a lot of dogs who’ve felt the need to do this when grabby hands approach, and let me tell you, it’s one form of learning you don’t want your dogs to become familiar with.

It’s invariably those people who say, “Oh dogs just love me!” who crowd our dogs, shove their hands into the dog’s face and then end up getting a warning bite. Never take your dog to a place of professed dog lovers. Take them around professionals who see dogs all day every day and won’t even try to pet your dog. Or take them around people who are not interested in dogs at all. But don’t take them to see your friends who tell you that all dogs love them or that they just love dogs. Those people will try to grab your dog. I know. I am that person. I have to physically restrain myself. It takes a lot of willpower.

I find as well that some people say, “Oh, market works for me! My dog copes better with people up close and lots of them than they do with one or two people on the horizon.”

What is generally happening in these circumstances is that the dog is absolutely not okay with people but because there are people everywhere, they’ve no choice but to kind of suck it up. The problem is that this often leads to a dog shutting down, seeming to cope, trigger stacking and then having a bit of a meltdown when something pushes them over the edge. I see these dogs slinking around markets being ‘socialised’ by guardians who unfortunately don’t realise that their dog is one step away from that meltdown.

Believing in full immersion for ‘treatment’ is the second misconception. It’s really important that we understand this is not therapeutic but is very likely to go wrong. Even human therapies from fears, with adults who can sign up with informed consent to conquer fears and phobias do not work on full immersion. Full immersion is what we see on fictional crime shows where the villain is a therapist gone wrong. It’s what we see on news reports about practitioners who’ve been struck off. It’s the worst practice from the past – practices that now make us sick to our stomach to realise what we made people endure in the hopes of ‘curing’ them. We shouldn’t be doing it with animals who don’t understand what is happening to them. Throwing them in at the deep end is no way to teach them how to swim.

What to do instead

If you’ve got a dog who’s skittish around people and you really want to make a difference, there are a few simple tips to help you.

The first is to choose a place where you can control what people are doing and how close they will come. I’m a big fan of working right at the very back of supermarket car parks where there’s regular comings-and-goings, and starting at a quiet time. That only works, of course, if your dog is okay with cars coming and going, and with things like trolleys. Often, dogs who have limited experiences of humans have limited experiences of other things too, which can make it more complicated. Industrial estates are also great. People who are working, who are often in yards or busy doing stuff aren’t going to drop their stuff and come to see you.

The weather is also your friend if your dog is happy in the rain. Get your coat on and go out in the rain and I guarantee there’ll be fewer people and nobody will want to stop to pet your dog, especially if you’re at a distance.

I’m a fan of using natural see-through or see-over barriers other than fences. Fences can be okay, but sometimes they can cause more problems than they resolve. Roads and rivers are great. If your dog is okay with moving traffic, having a busy-ish road between you and a bunch of people can be an easy solution. For instance, one local supermarket has a busy road leading into it and a barren bit of wild, empty space opposite. We go and work on there. People don’t tend to cross that busy road and nobody wants to come into a dirty bit of unkempt green space. Another favourite is a playground just on the opposite bank of a river. We can see the children, but they’d have to get through a very wide river to come and pet us. Industrial estates, docks, ports and warehouses can also be great. Wherever people are doing a job and in a nice, secure area, you’re very able to go and do a bit of stealth training at a distance.

When I know an area really well, I’ll also stalk local hikers and ramblers groups. When you know they’ll all be meeting up at 8.30 and setting off at 9am from a particular car park or train station, you’ve got a very good timetable for when there are going to be people at a distance and you can work a good distance away from them. That’s especially true if you can put a road or river between them and you as well. I keep an eye on the ramblers’ groups and go and do a bit of work at a safe distance from their meeting venue. If your dog is happy and comfortable, you can even follow them a little way for increased exposure. In general, though, I work on the principle that five minutes is actually more than enough. Finish on a win and never be tempted to push it too far.

What I’m aiming for is for my dog to see people loads and loads of times without any single thing happening. Nobody approaches them. Nobody tries to touch them. Nobody crowds them. Nobody is ever nearer than at least 20m (more if necessary). My eyes pop when people are within a metre of loads of bare legs in shorts at a summer market, hoping their dog is socialising. Even more joyous are those bare legs in among loads of tables and dropped food morsels in a café. I once watched a lady trying to ‘socialise’ her Tervuren at a street market where the dog was grabbing people’s bags and lunging at passers-by. Well-meaning but not educative, that’s for sure.

No cafés. No bare legs. No grabby hands. No people who think dogs love them. No markets. Not for fearful adult dogs. Not even quiet cafés and quiet markets.

All these scenarios are what I call Final Boss level.

You know in conflict video games where you start fighting the easy villains? You’re cutting your teeth on those who are easy to defeat. As you go on through each level of the game, the villains get harder and harder. But you’ve got better and better. In each prior level, you’ve learned skills that help you beat the baddies on the levels that lie ahead. Final boss level is the ultimate challenge. The Goliaths to your David.

If you haven’t done all the levels before, you’re going to be chopped into tiny morsels before you’ve found out how to even wave your sword about. Game over.

But as you’ve gone through the game, you’ve got so good that the villains on level 1 are out for the count within a few swift strokes.

Markets and cafés are Final Boss level for a fearful dog.

Plan out your challenges. Start with something so easy you know your dog will ace it. 1 person for 1 second at 200m.

And as you increase your levels, keep two of the factors the same while you make the third more challenging. 2 people for 1 second at 200m. 2 people for 2 seconds at 200m.

Keep it so easy that you’d put money on your dog winning the challenge.

Will they be able to do 200 people for 30 minutes at 1 metre eventually? Maybe, if you put enough of the right work in. I accidentally ended up with one of my dogs in the middle of a Venetian carnival parade complete with cloaked plague doctors. Life definitely gets in the way of best laid plans! My dog is a bit fearful of people, but he coped. We’d done a lot of work to get to that point.

But when your dog is ready for it, medieval carnivals with bands, stilt walkers, musicians, acrobats and flamethrowers are not beyond their grasp. It’s just… they’re Final Boss level and your dog hasn’t passed level 1 yet. And, as far as dogs are concerned, markets are no different than medieval carnivals. They’re just as wild, unpredictable, foreign, bizarre, frightening and potentially dangerous. Just because we understand markets are safe doesn’t mean dogs do.

But do we start with the Venetian carnival parades complete with cloaked plague doctors?

Not if we want our dogs to cope.

Many people want to know how long it will take to go from scared to social. It’s impossible to say how long that will take, but one thing is for sure – it won’t happen in a couple of weeks.

In general, I work with dogs for 5-10 minutes every couple of days. We rest. We have time to reconsolidate our understanding of things. We play. We sleep. We keep it short and sweet and we always finish on a win. Depending on the severity of the behaviour, most dogs seem to get there within three to six months. Some are helped enormously by medication alongside that programme. If you think it will take longer than six months, even if you make sure there are no great leaps between each level, then I’d say asking the vet if there’s anything you can do to help and considering nutraceuticals if not pharmaceuticals should definitely be something to think about.

But it all depends. I don’t have time to do this with my own dogs. We do a lot of stealth and accidental training. It’s slower, but that’s fine. I don’t have a need for my dogs to cope with Mardi Gras in Rio. I don’t want to take them to cafés and I don’t ever want to walk them through a market.

It also depends on the dog and what you’re doing with them. Some dogs have such holes in their socialisation, they’ve practised behaviour for so long, they’re breeds who are especially suspicious of trainers. They’re the kind of dog I do a lot of scaffolding around and a lot of support. Other dogs, like one of mine, don’t need that same support and it can backfire, accidentally sensitising them or making the people significant. Just as an example, my boy is not car-sensitive at all. He’s lived on a main road all his life and we walk around cars all the time. They’re just not even salient things to him. They’re as insignificant as stones. But my old girl Flika was sensitive to cars. There was some quite embarrassing behaviour from a senior girl. Once, she ran off and got in a tractor to my unparalleled shame. So we did a bit of work around them. But because my boy was always with us when we did, he paired those cars up with the fact we’d stop, play games, do stuff, eat things… and soon he came to anticipate those cars when he never had before. They were always a source of delight, because treats came out, but nevertheless, there was a turn of the head and a brightening of the eyes that said, “Hey, did you see that?”

This, though, is a post of its own and for that reason I’ll be discussing what kind of training I might do with different kinds of dogs in the next post.

Because there are so many subtleties, however, it’s primordial you work with a good trainer who can help you through. If you need someone to coach you or to give you a few tips about how to help your dog master each level, a trainer can definitely help you with that! Having good intentions is amazing. With the right know-how, you can make a real difference to the quality of your dog’s life and broaden their horizons in a safe and nonthreatening way.

But my dog’s not treat-oriented!

There are many times when I’ve started working with a new client and they’ve told me their dog is not treat-motivated. They won’t eat outside, they won’t take treats. Last week, I had a client say exactly the same.

“I don’t know how we’re going to do any work. She doesn’t take treats!”

Lots of guardians want to know what to do in this case. They want to know if there other magical ways of working that we can use instead?

Some dogs, it is true, are very toy-oriented. For those dogs, it’s easy to sub in a toy instead. The problem is that for many dogs, even their best toy won’t work in the ways their guardians want it to: to build behaviour change.

Not only that, toys can be counter-productive, depending on what you’re doing and depending on your dog. It also may depend on the dog’s age, as dogs get less toy-oriented as they get older. Personally, I love dogs who’ll work for food, and they’ll work for toys, and they’ll work for an enthusiastic ‘What a good dog!’ and a bit of massage and for functional reinforcers. I like my dogs to have a very wide repertoire of stuff I can keep in our toolkit so I’ve got the right tool to build the behaviour I want to see. Toys are great for feeling good, for building up energy levels, for building relationships. They aren’t good for calming dogs down. So if you want calm behaviours, you’re going to have to have a dog who has got a lot of self-control if you’re using toys.

Now of course, that’s possible. But if you’re excited anyway, adding a toy to the mix isn’t going to make it easy on the dog to calm down. That is some high-grade control.

And we’re so human that we can’t steer ourselves away from the fact our words are just not that interesting to a dog. I mean my dogs do seem to like ‘What a great dog!’ but I don’t have to guess if they like steak.

Invariably, ‘dogs who are not treat-oriented’ are dogs who’ve got problem behaviours outside the home, where you’d really like them to be treat-oriented. You know – dogs who pull, dogs who don’t have recall, dogs who frighten old ladies by barking… If you didn’t have a problem, you wouldn’t care that your dog was not interested in food outside the home.

So what is the problem?

#1 Using low grade food

A very high proportion of guardians who say their dog isn’t treat oriented are using packets of ‘treats’ they picked up from the dog food shelf in the supermarket. Following an accidental taste test, I can confirm that these taste worse than actual dog biscuits. They taste of flour. They’re mealy, chewy, boring versions of Jacobs’ Cream Crackers. Now I love a cream cracker. With stuff on it. Naked cracker? Not so much. Three of them? Pass me a glass of water, please.

A surprising number of humans are also touchy about their dog getting ‘human’ stuff. It’s odd, because ‘human’ stuff is very subjective. I’m a vegan living in rural France. Brains, innards, kidneys, livers, veal, goat, horse, rabbit, duck, paté, tripe, blood sausage, heart and even something called andouillette, which is made with the lower end of the colon and smells like it too. Much of what your average French person considers delectable would turn the stomachs of other nations. ‘Human’ food is a cultural concept that we need to ditch if we want our dogs to find food valuable.

So often, I find that dogs who I’ve been told are ‘not treat oriented’ are actually highly motivated to work for food – when that food is great food. This is by far and away the biggest error I find guardians making – expecting floury baked biscuits with a long shelf life to be as good as something from the refrigerator.

#2 Not having an eating habit

Another reason people tell me their dog isn’t treat motivated is that in fact, their dog is very set in habits determined by their humans. They’re just not used to eating on the move. If we’ve got very set meal times, then we may find our dogs struggling to eat beyond the bowl. They’re not used to snacking. They’re certainly not used to snacking outside the house.

I know how this is. I grew up in the 1970s when eating in the streets in the UK was disapproved of by my grandparents. If you ate outside, you had tablecloths and silverware and goblets (I kid you not) and salt and pepper in Tupperware. And you ate at lunchtime. With cutlery.

Rural France still works on these principles. Sure, people eat on the trot, but traditional supermarkets are empty at lunch time and if you try to get something to eat at 1.30 from a rural restaurant, good luck to you. I know I certainly didn’t snack in the same ways as I do now, or eat on the move.

Having an ‘any place, any time’ dog who has the habit of eating in public is a behaviour you can teach, a habit you can cultivate. If you want your dog to sit and eat treats in the vet, don’t leave it to chance and hope they will. You can start by using the bowl less. I’m not a fan of immediately switching to ‘any place, any time’ with lots of enrichment toys. My nana is in a nursing home and I know how important food rituals are and how stressful they can be when they are disrupted. I don’t want my dogs to be anxious because they don’t know when the next meal will arrive.

Nor do I want dogs who have never had to forage or rummage to have to switch. We have a number of dogs at the shelter who find it impossible to eat outside their normal routine after surrender – simply because they’ve been hand-fed or they expect food at particular times. Some dogs just aren’t even used to a bowl. We have to accept if we’ve got a dog who we’ve turned into a slave to routine that it’ll be stressful to disrupt that. Also, I don’t believe every single thing we eat should be difficult to access or we should have to work for. The relief of just being able to eat is not to be sniffed at.

However, if you’ve got dogs who’ve never taken a treat from you, or who don’t know what food toys are, then a little less in the bowl and a little more in toys can be a start. Then work from there.

Dogs who can eat any place and any time are a gift to train. Just seen a deer? If you can eat, great. In the vet? Great if you can take food. Stressful experience? If you are able to eat, then training can happen.

But we don’t get ‘any place, any time’ dogs without building that skill.

Also, and this is really important, habits are born when we are young. The same goes for our palate. If dogs aren’t exposed to a lot of food when young, you might not be offering them things they find appealing. Sure, this is going to be true for carrots and banana if your dog was a strictly meat kind of puppy, but that can also be true for tastes and textures we would expect dogs to just like, such as steak. There are also dogs who like to savour the good stuff and it is possible to have food that dogs want to enjoy. One of mine enjoys smelling novel foods offered to her and will often go away and eat new things slowly, even if they’re very full of meaty goodness. It’s always worth ruling out problems with the things your dog has been exposed to in their life. I even know dogs who were punished for begging or stealing ‘human’ food who are then frightened by human food. One of my guys was like this: stale baguette was terrifying!

#3 Being in a state of stress

The mammalian body is built with two systems: voluntary actions and involuntary actions. The involuntary bit is split into two: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous system. Remember back in high school biology where you learned about homeostasis? The Rest-and-Digest mode? That’s the parasympathetic bit. And Fight-or-Flight mode? That’s the sympathetic bit. Now it’s not like one works and the other stops – more of a sliding scale, but, as Robert Sapolsky says, if you’re a zebra and you’re being chased by a lion, you aren’t thinking of digesting your lunch or where your next meal will come from.

Fight-or-flight mode (well, it’s more complicated than that, but let’s stick with simple for now) can mean you’re in chronic stress – like some of the dogs in our shelter – or can mean acute stress. Dogs in states of acute stress tend not to be eaters. If your dog can normally eat food but when they’re faced with a scary clown, they won’t take a treat, that tells you that your dog’s body is in a state of acute stress. Conversely, chronic stress can affect our appetite. Some people stop eating; others eat more. Fat me is stressed me. I self-medicate with food when chronically stressed. Other people lose their appetite. So you may find your dog snatching and even eating more in chronic stress, but again, if your dog normally has a fairly healthy appetite, then you may be asking too much of them and you may need to put a bit of distance in there before your dog feels interested again in food.

Stress isn’t all bad. Homeostasis, Rest-and-Digest, can be interrupted when we having mating opportunities, when we’re engaged in social activity or when we are on the hunt. Doing exciting things can make us lose our appetite.

Many dogs hit the outside world with the fervor of a kid let loose in a free theme park. It’s all so much fun. It’s all so much more interesting than sleeping on the sofa or hanging around on the patio. Many of us struggle with our dogs because we’re battling with a very stimulating outside world and our dog has no history of focusing on us or eating at such a time, and it also goes against what they’re actually interested in doing. The good thing is that food can be interesting to smell and taste. Theme parks also have busy food stands. There’s no reason an excited dog can’t also enjoy the odd hot dog. That said, if you’re asking for complex behaviours, don’t be surprised if they just can’t do very much. Today, I cued Lidy to ‘touch’ three times. It was too much. I chucked her a treat and said ‘Find it!’ and she could manage that. Touching my hand with her nose was too big an ask. Eating, however, was not.

What happens when we ask for a simpler behaviour is that the dog often then re-engages with us. I asked for a hand touch again straight after and got one. If one thing is too hard, go easy and then build up to the hard thing in progressive stages.

#4 Being sick or feeling unwell

Many guardians fail to recognise that their dog is too stressed to eat and confuse that with not being food oriented. Sadly, they may also fail to do the same with a dog who is getting older or is not well. This can even happen on medication. Some medications upset stomachs, and it’s not a surprise if the dog doesn’t feel like performing for you in return for a snack. If your dog used to be food oriented but isn’t any more, this might be a good time for a check up.

This can also affect their preference for treats. If your dog is refusing one texture of treat, it’s worthwhile trying with another. And just as dogs might not be able to do complex behaviours, I sometimes find that this involves eating itself. The more complex the eating (harder, longer, less appetising chews) can be refused where they’ll still opt for easier eating. If in doubt, I go with potted meat mixed in with gravy so that it doesn’t even involve much chewing.

Of course, if you’re old and your teeth hurt or you don’t want to do what you’re being asked because it’s painful, then you might refuse food too. I see a lot of dogs asked to sit who just feel uncomfortable doing it. Sit is one behaviour I never ask for. My dogs can and do sit, and they do so of their own volition, but I don’t ask for it. We may also need to think about whether our dog is refusing because they don’t want to do the behaviour that leads to the treat. This is never because they’re stubborn. I’d be checking #1-3 first.

A sore mouth, throat, tummy, gut or bum can also lead to a dog who might not eat when they have in the past. Even ear issues can be worsened if you’re asked to chew. Not sure if you’ve ever tried to eat when you’ve got a headache or earache – it’s not the best. Hormonal issues can also play into this, so if got a dog who’s suddenly stopped eating or has gradually lost their appetite, it’s worth mentioning it to your vet.

#5 They’re not hungry

I scoff at this because… dogs… but then I’ve never lived with tiny dogs. Most of my dogs have been 25kg or more and there was always room for a snack. But I should not scoff. I do understand the plight of people who live with tiny dogs whose stomachs are smaller than your average cat’s and who don’t find eating very interesting. One of my lovely friends has a bichon who weighs 5kg. His appetite is poor at the best of times. Tiny morsels of very soft cat food are about the only thing he’ll work for, and only for a short time. Sensitive, small dogs may be more likely to suffer from a full stomach or no real desire to eat. I totally get that. I think we have to use every morsel we can (without putting them under pressure to eat) and keep training to an essentials-only routine.

I can’t say I’ve experienced this one myself, but I’m assured it happens.

#6 You’re asking too much

Many people have shockingly high expectations of what dogs can and will do – particularly for a floury long-life biscuit full of preservatives. They don’t take their time or make it easy enough on the dog. Remember that loose-lead walking and recall can be really tough behaviours to even get right in the simplest of circumstances – walking two metres without pulling, coming back when asked in the garden when there are no distractions. And having done a minimal amount of training, perhaps a couple of days, people then seem to expect their dog to just click. Dogs don’t generalise well, meaning what you do in the home wouldn’t be logical for them to think of doing out of it. The same goes for eating as it does for training. If you only ever ask for a sit and that’s all the behaviour you ever ask for, if you only ask in your home, it shouldn’t be a surprise that your dog doesn’t seem to understand when you ask in the vet surgery.

Make it simple and make it part of your regular routine. Unless you only want the behaviour in a very specific part of your home under very specific conditions, set up a stimulus gradient and help your dog realise that when you ask for a ‘touch’ on a walk, it works the same as when you asked in the car, in the kitchen, in the garden and in Aunt Mabel’s conservatory. When you move to a new place, increase the value of the food again. My dogs may eat the most low quality food simply because I’ve trained them to eat on the go, but if we’re doing hard stuff in new places, the quality of that food increases exponentially.

#7 You don’t have a training relationship with your dog

This is another reason I find guardians may struggle. I’m really proud of the way my dogs can just switch it on, but I do a little training every single day. I ask them for stuff, they do the stuff, I give them food as a reinforcer. They expect this to happen any place, any time. If you don’t invest in training your dog, don’t be surprised when they won’t eat food because they have no idea what your game is. The way we interact is also a reinforce-able, build-able skill. If I want my dogs to interact more with me and take food from me more frequently, well, I need to build that just as I do with every single other thing I teach.

Ultimately though, if you don’t do ninja training – any place, any time – then don’t expect your dog to refuse food.

#8 You serve the food with your hand as a plate

Some dogs do not like hands. Hands are weird. Who the hell made human front legs do what they do? Can you just imagine what that must seem like to a quadruped whose front legs do pretty much what the back ones do? Some hands come with mixed messages. Feeding might be one, but even stroking can be unpleasant for some dogs, depending on how it’s done. Hands may be associated with constraint, with being held against their will, with unpleasant handling and petting. You may see your hands as plates. Your dog may think of them as weird lobster claws. Want to stick your snout near a lobster claw for a block of Dairy Milk? No? Thought not? Also, and I’m not sure how many people factor this in… dogs are mostly long-sighted and the longer your nose, the harder it can be to locate stuff visually that’s close up. If you don’t want to accidentally nip your guardian, hands can be a worry to approach, especially if the guardian doesn’t hold still with the blessed snack.

Also, hands are Dullsville. For dogs who are excited, the biggest game changer outside on walks that I’ve found – the one thing that switches them from ‘not treat oriented’ to ‘snaffle hound’ – is making the food move or making the dog have to find it. Got a scent hound? A beagle? A beautiful bleu de Gascogne? Hide the food and let them use their nose to find it. Take portable snuffle mats out. I promise you that finding a stinky piece of snackage using your great hooter is much more interesting to a scenthound than taking it from a hand.

The same is true for sighthounds and herding dogs – make it move visually! Throw that treat, roll that treat, make the treat have a bit of energy. This is also great for dogs with strong predatory behaviour too. Nothing feels as nice as the grab-bite!

If you’ve got dogs who are heavily into toys and you’d like them to be more interested in food, lotus balls and dummies are great. If you’ve got dogs who are heavily into food and you’d like them to be more interested in toys, lotus balls and dummies are great for that too. Bridge the gap between prey and play, between toys and food, by making the food replicate your dog’s favourite hunting activity.

You also have a little thing called the Matching Law in your favour, as well as the brain’s biology of habit forming. Practise often and you’ll even find that your highly predatory dog (that’d be mine!) will actually stop trying to chase after a deer and will find and eat a dropped treat simply because chasing and consuming a treat is, in some small biological way, like taking down and scoffing a stag. Hunting is not a reliably reinforcing activity. If chasing food is, then you may well find that your insanely high drive, predatory dog actually finds it more reinforcing to chase and eat a snack you’ve tossed across their sight line. And if you use the full weight of habit to help you so that it’s an automatic and instinctive thing to look for and eat a dropped piece of beef, then believe it or not, your dog who isn’t treat oriented because they’re getting all their kicks from the world at large will become a dog who gets reliable kicks from your treat pouch.

#9 You’re expecting Final Boss level and your dog isn’t up to it yet

Life’s challenges can be very much like a video game (See the great book SuperBetter if you don’t believe me). I like to think of our dog’s challenges from that first, early villain they have to defeat on a video game, and their toughest challenge as the Final Boss level. Yet I see so many people dumping their dog in at Final Boss level and the dog just can’t cope (#3 and #6) with low-grade treats in highly demanding situations. If you’ve got a dog who doesn’t like unfamiliar people, then taking them to a café for an hour and expecting them to cope is their Final Boss level. And if you want them to eat, well, they’re still trying to do everything else, not least wonder if they’re safe or not.

In this case, go back down and make sure you’re working at the ‘Goldilocks’ level – not too easy that the dog isn’t learning at all, but not so tough that food is the last thing on their mind.

#10 You’ve wrecked food for your dog

This is where we’ve only used food as a bribe to do bad stuff. The food has come before the bad stuff, and it’s a signal that sets off ‘uh-oh’ alarms for your dog. Like if you only use food when you’re trying to get them to the vet. Or to give nasty pills. If you’ve used food as an incentive or bribe for bad stuff, if you only dig out the biscuits when scary joggers go past, your dog may well see that as a great, big, hairy clue that something bad is about to happen.


If you’re stuck with a dog who you think isn’t treat-oriented, it’s worth thinking of these ten reasons and working out what’s going on. 99% of the time, making it less challenging and adding better food will get you the result you want. However, I do like to make sure I’ve got a dog who’s happy to eat any place, any time. I think it’s essential they’re prepared for my impromptu life skills lessons when and where they occur. I’m also sensitive to their needs. If it’s too hard, I don’t ask. That’s feedback for me to say I need to make it easier. So we do. I’m also conscious there may be things going on beneath the surface if they refuse food where they’d normally take it.

But in sum, if you want a dog who takes food anywhere, you need to build a dog who takes food anywhere, and that is on you, not the dog. It’s very easy for me to be glib about it and tell you to go get better treats, but there are a whole raft of reasons why dogs won’t take treats, many of them interrelated.

With thanks to inspired discussion in the DoGenius Den, especially Rebecca and Nathan.

One Thing Not To Do with a dog who’s afraid of people

There’s one thing I’m absolutely adamant about, and that’s not letting unknown people feed fearful dogs. So often, I hear from clients that they’ve got a dog who’s a little skittish around people and they’ve encouraged those people to give food to the dog in the hopes that this will help. These dogs are ‘Stranger Danger’ dogs. They’ve a heightened sense of suspicion over who’s friendly and who’s not. The kind of dogs people say, ‘Oh he’s lovely when he gets to know you.’

Let’s not be encouraging strangers to feed our Stranger Danger Dogs.

There are several flaws in the scenario where strangers hand over treats to your dog. The first being if the dog is genuinely fearful, then food won’t be the first thing on their mind. Imagine the well-meaning but kind of scary stranger as being a walker from The Walking Dead.

Do you feel like taking a cupcake off this guy?

Start imagining your dog sees strangers as zombies and you’ll understand why some dogs really don’t feel like taking a biscuit from him.

And you went better than cheap floury biscuits and asked the stranger to hand over some bits of ham or cheese? Maybe you’ve gone down the route of making it more tempting?


If your dog is refusing, that’d be the same as me refusing a block of my very favourite chocolate. That tells you just how scared your dog is.

And if your dog won’t take food from you (let alone a zombie) when the scary humans are around, that tells you something too.

It tells you that your dog is in way over their head and eating is not the first thing on your mind when you’re in fight-or-flight mode.

The person may be the most well-meaning person in the whole wide world. We’ve seen Wicked. We know that Elphaba isn’t a wicked witch, not really. That makes no difference to your dog. No amount of reasoning with them will help them understand that the Wicked Witch Ain’t Really That Wicked.

Your dog is in charge of deciding who they trust or don’t. And if they say they don’t, we’ve got to respect that.

We don’t have to live with it, as you’ll see shortly.

But we’ve got to respect it.

So what if your dog IS taking food from the zombie? From the Wicked Witch? After all, some dogs do.

Sometimes, if the dog is able to, you might see the smash-and-grab.

They dash in quickly, grab the food, sometimes a finger or two in their haste, and only if the food is offered at arm’s length, and retreat to a safe place to eat it. They’re only likely to go in again if food is offered again.

The problem with this is both practical and ethical. On a practical level, your dog isn’t actually learning that the scary human is any less scary, just that they give out cheese from time to time. She’s still the Wicked Witch, just this time she’s got cheese.

On an ethical level, the use of food is forcing your dog into situations they wouldn’t choose to be in simply to get something they really, really want. And that’s coercion. Using food doesn’t make you into a great trainer, a great person or even someone who is innately kind or using force-free methods.

Other people use a lead, a tether or a small space to make sure their dog can’t smash, grab and retreat. This method is known as flooding. You can read more about flooding here and I encourage you to do so if you think it might work. Needs must, from time to time – I’m perfectly aware that when I take Lidy to the vet, I need to use two leads and a muzzle and take a whole pot of paté in with us and even though we manage it with a tucked tail, a few sideways glances and a little growl, I’m absolutely not under any illusion that without the muzzle, the leads and the paté, she’d turn into some kind of Hail-Fellow-Well-Met super-social setter. We’re working on it and I hope one day I won’t have to flood her so that she has no option than to just tolerate it, but inoculations and vet checks are different and they’re her zombie and Wicked Witch Final Boss level in this game called Life, I know that. Just because you’re alright with one zombie doesn’t mean you’re okay with a horde of them – even if they are behind a desk

I simply cannot tell you how many dogs I’ve worked with in the last five years who’ve bitten someone in these circumstances. First time bites – perhaps only-time bites. This well-meant scenario puts dogs’ lives in the balance and runs the risk of some serious medical interventions.

The dog is restrained or trapped. The dog has had to face a number of scary things all at the same time. The dog has thrown out a number of stress signals – lip licks, head turns, shoulder turns, indirect glances, yawns – and they’ve all gone unrecognised by the human approaching them (yes, that includes vets and vet staff!) and then the dog has bitten.

And yet we do exactly this when we put our dog on a lead and ask strangers to feed them. Put the dog up close and personal with their scary stuff and hope that food will be enough to make them feel better.

Now it’s well meant, I know. It’s not a criticism of people’s intentions. Food can change our feelings about things. My own feelings about my lovely grandmother are deeply enmeshed in the fact she is a feeder. Visiting her meant accepting a very large number of snacks, probably at least a pile of sandwiches that could feed twenty people, at least a bit of cake, if not two. Diets died on her doorstep. Willpower crumbled before her. She is cherry cake and lemon cake and salmon sandwiches and petits-fours and M&S crisps and pickled onions and pork pies and Branston pickle and huge chunks of cheese. Food is deeply enmeshed in everything I love about her.

But taking chocolate from zombies is not going to turn them into my grandmother. The Wicked Witch rocking up with a platter of pickled flying monkey brains does not turn her into Elphaba.

Besides the ethics of using food to do this and the practical issues of having a dog start refusing food, there are other issues. Not least the fact that food is a magnet that draws the dog into the space with the human. If you’ve got a smash-and-grabber, hooray. At least they can retreat. But if you’ve got a lingerer, all this means is a highly ambivalent dog is going to end up in the space of a person they don’t like very much for much longer than they would without the food – and when the food runs out and the dog realises they’re a lot closer to the person than they’re happy with, that’s when we can see some nasty bites too. I’ve already had to deal with the fallout of dogs whose food has run out three times this year. If your dog is new to your home, I cannot stress enough the risks of strangers handing food to your dog.

Refusing food from strangers, then, is really not the worst thing your dog can do.

Please do not flood this post with comments about how you’ve used food with hundreds of Stranger Danger adult rescue dogs and they’ve all been fine. I know. We use food liberally at the shelter. I use food liberally with dogs who don’t like me very much and think I’m a zombie. But I know when to do it and how to do it. There are ways and means. And I don’t do this with dogs who have guardians with them. If there is a guardian, it’s their job to dispense the food – not mine. Very occasionally, I might add a bit of food but I hate doing this. I’m very, very aware of all the fallout I’ve just taken you through and I do so with much reluctance – normally because needs must and the owner needs to go faster than I feel like we should. Life is not easy and sometimes needs must. The problem with proliferating liberal advice that strangers should give dogs food is that it is then implemented by people who aren’t aware of the fallout and it ends very badly.

Another part of the problem is that the people who often suggest this are actually not that dog-savvy. Do you know the best place I know of for a dog with a high level of Stranger Danger? People who work with dogs all day long and who know that dogs don’t want strangers waggling fat fingers in their face, who let the dog choose. People who don’t interact with the dog until the dog is okay, who don’t approach the dog, and who are really not that interested in the dog. I’d rather be in a crowd of people who aren’t that fussed about dogs than people who claim they love dogs or that ‘all dogs love them’ – they tend to be all kinds of crazy inappropriate. I know because I am that dog lover who has to consciously myself look at the human, not their dog. I’m crazy inappropriate and I battle it every day.

So what should you do?

The first is that YOU are there with the dog. YOU feed them.

If your dog won’t accept food because you’re too near to the scary zombie, back off to a point where they are able to accept food. Yes, that might be 500m. So be it. You may also need to read my next post about dogs who ‘aren’t treat oriented’ if you’ve got some other stumbling blocks.

You might also need to skill up where your training is concerned.

There is a marvellous protocol from Suzanne Clothier called ‘Treat-and-Retreat’ which uses food in ways that encourages dogs to be confident. Find a trainer who can show you how to do a treat-and-retreat protocol, and get good at it.

Or, drop the food altogether. Some trainers like Grisha Stewart use minimal food in their training programmes like Behaviour Adjustment Training (BAT 2.0) and allow the dog to desensitise to scary stuff without adding food into the mix. Other trainers like Sarah Stremming and Leslie McDevitt use food for training in ever-closer proximity to the scary stuff as if to say, “Yes, there are scary zombies just there, I know, but you and I are engaged in some predictable, fun and highly rewarding stuff and you don’t need to be bothered by them. They won’t hurt you and I won’t let them. We’re doing our own thing.”

And this works wonderfully too.

But the food and rewards come from you. Not the stranger.

So with my Stranger Danger boy Heston, what made the most difference?

Allowing him to go and investigate safe people and then come back to me. I don’t use food. He’s anxious, not hungry. I tell him he’s a good boy and I pet him. I tell him how brave he is. I reassure him and allow him to go at his own pace. When he’s ready, those safe people might pet him too. And he just loves that now. He does take biscuits from people but to be honest, I’d rather he approached them on their own merit. I say this with the heavy irony of being the kind of person who always has dog biscuits on her person and who hands them out liberally.

My other Stranger Danger Dog Lidy is different. She likes structure and predictability. She’s not the kind of dog to investigate. I use food with her as it helps me set up a very structured programme for her.

What your dog needs will be dependent on their needs and their past experiences and their past behaviour. There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment programme for them.

So can you use food with your dog who is afraid of strangers? Absolutely – if it comes from you. And it will depend. It will depend on your dog. It will depend on you. It will depend on the circumstances. It’s nuanced and individualised.

Stranger Danger Dogs need a programme that is right for them with exercises and approaches specifically designed for them. What they don’t need is blanket advice about strangers giving them food – or, worse – throwing the food to them. Unless they’ve got the softest underarm pitch and the most perfect placement, they’re unlikely to be able to throw food in a way that won’t resemble a zombie lobbing a grenade to your dog.

Can Stranger Danger Dogs get over it?

Sure. Heston was very happy to walk through a bunch of soldiers on manoeuvres in the forest yesterday. He didn’t even care they were there. They might as well have been very uninteresting trees. Lidy, not so much. I could pretend she didn’t go into stalk mode and that this didn’t alarm me. We did a few reps of our favourite games and we took our time. I listened to her until she was ready to move on without looking like an Apex Predator sourcing her lunch and she remembered we don’t eat people these days. But by the time we got to the soldiers and their lunches, we walked past as if they weren’t luncheon meat in camouflage at all. Heston said hi. Lidy did not say hi. She stood and glowered a little in the corner like Hannibal Lector in a hockey mask.

What didn’t happen, though, was I didn’t ask those soldiers to hand-feed sausages to my dogs, because even though Heston sees those zombies as people these days, he doesn’t need them to feed him sausages. I gave Lidy some snacks because she was a Very Good Girl to face her zombie foes and it was just another episode in our life-long training programme in which Lidy Encounters Zombies and the Zombies Are Not So Bad After All. No zombies looked at her like they might like to pet her. One day, scary zombies will be the exception rather than the rule, I hope, just as they are with Heston. One day, she’ll realise people are Elphaba not the Wicked Witch. Right now, only she decides when people are okay, and that’s fine. At the moment, we’re at that point in Walking Dead where we’re learning to walk among them without them wanting to grab us and without us needing to kill them. We’re getting good at that. And if any zombie tries to grab her or offer her cake, my job is to say, ‘Not today, thanks! We have cake of our own!’ and to step in rather than letting her have to cope with grabby, cake-offering zombies.

But we didn’t get here by strangers giving dogs treats, by flooding my dogs or by using food when my dogs are clearly telling me the scary stranger is just a zombie in a human disguise. Make sure you’re not setting your dog up to fail and don’t fall for this well-meant but ultimately unhelpful advice.

Being a Dog, Fast and Slow

Got a dog who 90% pays attention and then 10% ignores you? A dog you think is stubborn or lacking in smarts? A dog whose ears seem to stop working whenever you really need them to? A dog with intermittent recall that’s sometimes brilliant and other times poor? A dog who can manage about 10 paces of heel walking and then it all goes to pot?

Are you facing some of the bigger challenges of living with a dog? Extreme predation where every leaf flapping sets your dog’s heart racing and you can’t trust them with the neighbourhood cats? Aggression towards people they see on walks? Fearful reactions in the face of completely benign stuff they come across?

Perhaps you’ve even got a dog whose behaviour is bordering on the pathological? A dog who chases cars despite having nearly lost their life to one? A dog who spins or chases lights and shadows? A dog who seems to border on compulsive, where they can’t be interrupted from unproductive and repetitive behaviours?

Despite having a good understanding of these problems and the canine brain, I’ve always struggled with how to describe the root of the problem to clients. Struggled, that was… until I read Nobel Prize-winning Economist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

He describes how humans have two systems at work in their brain: System 1 and System 2. Even he struggles to name these two systems and admits that neurologists would pooh-pooh his phrasing. However, his explanation is just perfect.

Let me give you an example and then explain how it exemplifies his two systems…

On Thursday last week, my kettle gave up the ghost. Since then, I’ve been boiling water on the hob and making coffee that way. The past three mornings, I’ve put the water on to boil, got a cup out of the cupboard, put freeze-dried coffee in the cup… and then picked up the kettle and tried to pour cold water in it instead of using the water boiling on the stove.

What’s up with that?!

Kahneman gives many examples of such habitual behaviours, as well as other emotional behaviours and cognitive biases in his book. They’re all ways of thinking that we fight every day.

The way he describes it is that we have two systems at work. Roughly, if you’re down with brain anatomy, they’d correspond to the limbic system and the cortex. Roughly speaking, of course, since neuroscientists don’t all agree about the names, let alone what goes where. If you’re not down with brain anatomy, think of it as the white gelatinous mass inside the brain, and the wrinkly grey matter on the outside.

Now you don’t need me to tell you that humans have very advanced brains. We can get stuck ships out of canals. We can do long division. We can calculate the distance to the sun and the weight of Neptune and how big the universe is. We can make rockets that go into space and drills that go deep into the earth. Better still (in my opinion) we can create literature, music, poetry and art that moves the very soul of us and transports us to other worlds.

But we also have very defective and irregular, irrational ways of thinking. We take mental shortcuts. For example, we judge people more kindly if we’re holding a warm drink than a cold one. We decide that one thing is better than three other absolutely identical things and then, when we’re told they’re absolutely identical, we won’t believe it and we argue the toss. We hold prejudices and stereotypes. If we’re sitting in judgement over somebody, we make ‘fairer’ decisions after lunch than before. We think it’s okay to steal a few paperclips and pens from work but not to steal a fiver from the drawer of our boss. We’d think nothing of taking a cookie from an unattended tray, but we’d probably not dip our hands into an unattended cash box.

Kahneman, like many others, wanted to explore why we humans act so irrationally. Having taken on board literally thousands of psychology studies, he details various ways we think in bizarre, counterintuitive or biased ways. By bias, by the way, I simply mean ‘system errors’ – ways of thinking that are in violation of logic.

His explanation is that we have two thinking processes at work. The first is System 1. This roughly corresponds with the limbic system if you’re looking for labels. Kahneman says System 1 operates automatically and quickly. It doesn’t take much effort and there’s no sense of voluntary control. It does learn – of course it does – and it does so mostly through association as well as practice.

System 2 is our grey matter, our neocortex, our thinking brain. This bit of the brain is very much about choice and voluntary action. It’s about inhibition and learning rules of living in social groups. It’s about moderation and self-control.

Needless to say, when I poured cold water from a defective kettle into my cup, my System 1 brain was in the driving seat. System 1 is instinctive, emotional, often innate. It’s fast but it’s sloppy and it makes a lot of errors. It’s the seat of our fears but also of the rewards we get from learning. It learns associations – it’s the Pavlovian bit of our brain. It’s the ‘gut feeling’ brain that Malcolm Gladwell explores in Blink. If you want to know more about the crazy contrary behaviour of the human System 1, neuroeconomist Dan Ariely’s books are filled with the quirks of human thoughts and behaviour. I’m fascinated by System 1 – not least because it’s the bit we share with all other mammals, but also because it’s in charge of the weirdness of the human experience. It’s our dirty little homunculus, our inner toddler, our simian brain. It’s as likely to be our Mr Hyde as it is to be a star athlete or a super-skilled tightrope walker.

System 2, on the other hand, is good at identifying anomalies, at critical thinking, at doing tax forms, at maths, at playing musical instruments, at learning languages, at figuring decimal points and taking voluntary actions. It’s what makes us able to live in enormous groups. It’s Mozart and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It’s Archimedes and Aristotle, Locke and Hume, de Beauvoir and Sartre.

Kahneman explains that both System 1 and System 2 are always running. It’s not like one goes off-line when the other comes online. That said, System 1 runs automatically and System 2 needs to be engaged more consciously. When scientists debate animal consciousness, what they’re really debating is System 2 stuff. Are animals really just instinct machines, going blindly through the motions, following millions of years of evolution of behaviour, or are they in any way aware of what they’re doing and able to voluntarily adapt and modify their actions?

Of course, in his book, Kahneman is talking about humans. However, I think the same is very true of animals. Systems 1 behaviour can often get in the way of Systems 2. Sometimes, it not only gets in the way, but it derails it completely.

For your dog, System 1 stuff is all the stuff they were born knowing how to do. That might be broader animal behaviours like sleeping, drinking and eating. That could be species-specific behaviours that all dogs can do, like barking. It could even be more likely related to their breed, like pointing or digging for critters. Breed might also modify species-specific behaviours, for example making some breeds more likely to bark than others. System 1 is their default setting. It is of course affected by their age and development: male puppies don’t cock a leg to pee, but many, many male dogs (and some female dogs) will cock a leg without you – or anybody else – every teaching them to. I’m going to call the dog’s System 1 their Inner Dog Voice. System 1 seems far too system-y.

The System 1 Inner Dog Voice is in charge of your dog’s likes and dislikes, the things they find rewarding and the things they find scary. You don’t need to teach your dog to bark, nor to hump, nor to sniff other dogs. It’s all stuff your dog is born knowing how to do. Did you teach your dog to like liver? To eat rumpsteak? To love bones? System 1 is hugely affected by socialisation, which can switch on certain behaviours or leave them switched off pretty much forever.

If you think about it, early social experiences are all about teaching the dogs to manage their Inner Dog Voice. It’s about teaching Aussie shepherds not to stalk children, cattle dogs not to nip children’s feet, shepherds not to bark at strangers, terriers not to chase small furries into holes and dig tank traps in the lawn, shepherds and collies not to chase cars, bikes, joggers and cyclists. Early social experience is about exposing our dogs to the right stuff to help their System 2 override their Inner Dog Voices.

In particular, I love the way Kahneman explains how System 1 makes system errors. I think this is so true of so many dogs. In his book Influence, psychologist Robert Cialdini calls System 1 behaviours ‘click-whirr’ behaviours. Like a pre-programmed piece of software, the world presses a button, and the brain’s internal software clicks into play, whirring into motion. This often happens before the System 2 brain has had a chance to say, ‘hang on… false alarm’.

In his book Principles of Learning and Behaviour, Professor Michael Domjan explores the evolutionary utility of these ‘click-whirr’ System 1 behaviours. He discusses ways in which ethologists have tried to identify the precise environmental and contextual stimuli that trigger System 1 behaviours. For instance, if you’re a Mister Turkey, what is it precisely about Missus Turkey that floats your boat? If you’re Mister Stickleback, what is it about another Mister Stickleback that triggers your aggressive behaviour?

Sometimes, ethologists can identify the very precise and narrow criteria known as sign stimuli that trigger a behaviour. For instance, for birds, chick-feeding behaviour is often triggered by both the movement of their parent’s beak, but also by a visual cue like a spot. If you’re a stickleback, then it’s the red belly of your foe that triggers territorial aggression.

As I understand it, System 1 is what’s in charge of knowing and understanding these environmental signs and telling the body ‘do this now!’

Whether these are innate and instinctive sign stimuli that we don’t have to teach a dog to understand, or whether they’ve learned them through association, they’re often largely involuntary, speedy and often without conscious thought.

System 2, on the other hand, is responsible for inhibition, control and rational decisions.

So, not unlike us, dogs face a daily battle between doing what is easy and relatively intuitive, and doing what the Big Brain tells them to do.

The Dog Inner Voice and the Voice of Reason.

The Voice of Reason is everything that you do have to teach a dog. Like how not to jump on Auntie Vi, how to wait for their bowl to be put on the floor, how to walk nicely on lead, how to follow every damn one of those ridiculous human cues to do stuff like sit or lie down or stay put without destroying the house to get out. It’s the stuff they definitely aren’t born knowing. It’s most of the stuff that should come with a manual called, ‘How to Get By in a Human World’.

Going back to those original scenarios – the dogs whose ears sometimes don’t function, the dogs who can’t stop chasing cats, the dogs who bark at strangers, the dogs who snap at invisible flies – a lot of these things are where System 1 is working overtime and System 2 is asleep at the wheel.

All this said, we shouldn’t get too judgey about our dogs’ lack of ability to be reasonable, to follow instructions, to behave in ways that help them survive and thrive in a human world.

To be honest, knowing exactly what I know about the Human Voice of Reason and how often it fails, I think it’s a bit rich to expect our dogs to have a bigger and better Voice of Reason than we do. Seen anybody be rude on social media today? That’s a Voice of Reason Fail. Put cold water in your coffee? Voice of Reason Fail. Expect your dog not to pull when you can’t quit your 20-a-day habit? Voice of Reason Fail. Couldn’t resist the chocolate bar? Voice of Reason Fail. Got mad when someone stole your parking spot? You know my answer. Perhaps not so much as a Voice of Reason Fail as your automatic System 1 kicking into ‘click whirr’ mode when your own System 2 is asleep at the wheel.

I see a lot of System 1 errors with the dogs I work with. Dogs who chase cars, for instance. Coming back to Domjan and his discussion of those very specific sign stimuli that press play on a dog’s default software, what if a flash of light and motion is a sign stimulus that says, ‘Chase Mode: On’? Before System 2 has had a chance to say ‘Dude, it’s just a car,’ I think some dogs definitely have a disconnect between the behaviour they’re doing and reality. I see this most often when the dog is doing stuff to the wrong thing: humping legs, chasing bicycles, barking at snowmen…

System 1 is also in charge of emotional responses and emotional behaviour. When I see, for instance, someone asking their dog to sit as something scary approaches and passes, what I see is a dog who is being asked to have better willpower than me in front of a takeaway menu. My System 1 voice is much louder than my System 2 one saying, ‘Have the steamed broccoli’. You’ve guessed I end up with the food that’s not good for me, despite my best intentions

How does this knowledge affect how we might think about dogs and how we might train them.

First is to give them space and time for the System 2 voice to click in. If we want our dogs to make rational decisions, we have to put a bit of thinking space and physical distance between them and the stuff that presses their System 1 buttons. We need to give them time to make their mind up. We need System 2 to have time to say, ‘That’s a car, dude! They are zero fun to chase.’ Remember, too, that when System 1 commits to a course of action, it’s very difficult for System 2 to even chip in once it realises a system error has taken place. I see this so often with dogs who are caught out when startled. They behave aggressively and afterwards, their guardians say, ‘they looked really sorry’. Of course they did. That Voice of Reason with the manual to surviving in the human world, that System 2 voice, got to say, ‘Dude, are you insane? You’re guarding an acorn and now the humans are mad! Better throw out some appeasement behaviours…

Second, we need to stop asking our dogs to have great and ultimate control over their System 1 unless we have actively taught it, tested it in safe surroundings and generalised it so that it is absolutely automatic in all circumstances. Unless you can restrain yourself from making a correction every single time you see something wrong on the internet, take a step back, human, and remember it’s really hard to have self-control. And even if you manage to keep your fingers or words to yourself when someone makes an egregious error, if you can’t stop the dirty little thoughts you’re having about why they’re wrong, don’t judge your dog for counter surfing, for guarding a plant pot or for barking at a scarecrow.

Third, the bigger and more complex the taught behaviour, the more challenging it will be to do it, especially in situations where System 1 Inner Dog Voice is shouting and screaming. In my view, recall and walking on a loose lead are two of those very complex taught behaviours that we need to stop expecting our dog to just be able to do automatically. You might also add jumping on guests and barking in excitement to that list. Start by asking yourself whether the dog was born knowing how to do what you’re asking. Then ask if it takes people in general a really long time to train it. If the answers were ‘no’ to the former and ‘yes’ to the latter, you’re asking for a complex, taught behaviour. Ask yourself if what you are asking your dog to do is more complex than asking an average 8-year-old to do division when it’s just started snowing. If it’s hard, if it’s complex and if it requires System 2 to use a lot of energy to run the software, then when circumstances get challenging, the Voice of Reason software will crash and Inner Dog Voice factory installation is going to kick in.

Fourth, we need to consider how complex and demanding it is for our dogs to ‘have manners’ or ‘be polite’ when they’re fearful, frustrated or excited. That level of control takes a lot of effort and self-mastery. If I tell you that in virtually every single bite case I’ve ever done, I think the dog was fairly restrained under the circumstances, perhaps we’ll learn to respect dogs a little for barking when they could have bitten, for inhibiting their bite when they could have caused enormous damage, then perhaps we can see that there’s a lot of control being exercised in circumstances where humans under the same pressures might not be so circumspect.

Fifth, we need to truly appreciate the need to teach our dogs System 2 stuff rather than just expecting it. Want them not to bark at strangers? Teach them strangers are safe and what to do instead. Want them to cope with people coming into your home? Teach them that it’s normal and what to do instead. Want them to recall perfectly when in a world of scent? Teach them a recall that is so automatic that System 1 doesn’t end in a scrap about it. We also could do with stopping using tools to enforce control rather than teaching dogs to control themselves from within.

Most of all, we need to have better control of our own System 1. You know, the Inner Human Voice that says, ‘Sure! Go pet that strange dog you don’t know!’ That Inner Human Voice that wins the battle when your dog has jumped on you for the nth time and you end up shouting rather than sticking to your extinction protocol. That Inner Human Voice that says, ‘Dogs should just respect us!’

We need to control our own System 1 that sticks a hand out to an unfamiliar dog… that grabs a strange dog to put up onto a groomer’s table or into a car… that System 1 error that makes us think bad stuff won’t happen to us because our inbuilt optimism bias makes us think that we’re less likely than everybody else to get bitten or get hurt. System 2 is risk averse and does the calculations, but it takes much longer to embed that learning unless something actually happens to us to teach us a lesson. System 2 also gets sloppy. It’s the biggest reason I can think of why people work with their dogs to overcome problems and, in one poor split-second error of judgement, we do what we’d been doing that ends up with the dog biting us and default to our pre-installed software. Thus, people who’ve overcome their urge to chase their dog when the dog’s stolen something, to overcome urges to grab collars or manipulate dogs simply because it was posing a problem in the past are then horrified to find they accidentally slip into that behaviour 18 months later and the dog bites them apparently having ‘learned’ not to. It’s why I tell my clients not to slip into complacency if their dog has ever injured someone. It’s easy to think the dog is over it, but when human System 1 errors collide with canine System 1 errors, it can be a perfect storm of circumstances that end up causing a lot of misery all around.

Not only could we do with understanding our dogs’ System 1 better, knowing how their behaviour is influenced by emotions but also understanding their innate Inner Dog Voice, but we could also do with understanding our own System 1 voice better. But at the same time, I think we should also cut ourselves some slack. It’s hard to have a neocortex that’s built on top of some ancient brain structures and patterns that sometimes go astray. It takes effort for dogs and humans to run System 2 stuff, especially under pressure. Most of the time, it all functions very smoothly, but we do need to remember that fatigue, pressure, time constraints and hunger all play a role in System 2 falling asleep at that proverbial wheel. That’s as true as it is for humans as it is for dogs.

P.S. My System 1 was going to call this post ‘Dogging, Fast and Slow’ as a play on the title of Kahneman’s book. Luckily, my System 2 kicked in and told me that’d attract all the wrong kind of readers. Hopefully this word is so far down the post that the much more rational and logical search engine crawlers don’t end up thinking this post is about voyeuristic hanky-panky. System 1, be damned.

P.P.S if you are here for d*gging, may I point you in the direction of your System 2 and wish you good luck?

The Easiest Heel walk Life hack

Or: how Hagrid taught me to walk to heel.

This month, I’ll be sharing all my tips with you for teaching adult dogs to walk to heel or to walk without pulling on the lead. While puppy programmes are great for teaching puppies to walk without pulling, it can be really difficult to teach a 40kg adult dog not to pull when they’ve spent their whole life doing it, or they’ve not had the training they needed to help them.

Sometimes, that’s just because we’re not helping ourselves when we train our puppies. It’s not just rehomed adult dogs that could do with a back-to-basics course. I know extendable leads are still fashionable; alongside the danger of these devices, they’re absolute sods for teaching dogs to walk under constant lead pressure. They’re the first thing you need to ditch if you have a dog who pulls or lunges on lead, or who spends most of the time looking in the bushes and frantically vaccuuming up smells.

The first tip I have for you comes from a dog who taught me to walk perfectly to heel.

This is Hagrid.

Hagrid was a guest at our shelter for a couple of years, and he taught me very nicely to walk to heel.

Alongside health issues that made him very hungry, he was also a very independent spirit. The first time I saw him, he had a volunteer up against the wall and was helping himself to the contents of said volunteer’s treat pouch. I imagine him a little like a rather dashing highwayman, taking what he wants with latent menace but doing so with pizzazz nonetheless.

Helping himself was natural. I took him once to a photo shoot. That was fun. The student photographers asked me to let him off lead. I told them it wasn’t a very good idea. They insisted. I dropped the lead. Hagrid went to the buffet and ate all the peanuts. Then he went and found surplus in a duffle bag.

I think it’s important you have an understanding of Mr Hagrid and his ways before I tell you how he taught me to walk to heel. Mostly as I don’t want you to think badly about what happened next between us.

When I was walking Hagrid, he had a disconcerting way of giving me a look. A look that said, “Hey lady, give me a treat!” and also, “I’m being polite now… don’t make me mug you…” He was always just that little bit too close to me and I just did not feel relaxed with him right there in my personal space. It was disconcerting and a little unnerving.

He was very obliging and a very hungry, good boy.

I, however, did not like Hagrid walking so close to me. I did not want him up close and personal.

So I threw a treat into the grass.

He went to get it.

I sighed and felt momentary relief.

He turned at me and smiled that gap-toothed smile, then sidled right in again. That dog really did sidle. As unobtrusively as he could, gradually moving in as we moved forwards.

Now I knew this was backwards.

Throwing the treat out was shaping closer and closer behaviours.

It made him come back more, not less.

So I left it longer and longer before I’d throw that treat, figuring he’d just back away or give up walking in my personal space.

He never did.

By the end, he was loose-lead walking almost a kilometre – never begging. Just looking and being there… right at my knee. Just in case, you know.

I’d find him right at my side again.

‘Hullo… I don’t suppose you’d have a treat there for a small dog would you, lady?’

And just like that, he’d taught me the best heel-walk life hack ever.

What was happening was I was shaping him walking in my space. The longer I left it, the closer he’d get, so the next time, he’d just start walking at the previously closest point. So what started being a metre away ended up being 10cm away from me. And then I started to shape longer and longer periods of him being in my space. What started being a treat every ten paces or so ended up being a treat every hundred paces or so.

Hagrid’s loose lead & heel walking method

This is how Hagrid taught me how to walk to heel.

Start in a really easy, familiar space where your dog is relatively calm and able to take food. You can even start in the home if you need to. You can also start on the easy bits of walks – say for instance if your dog is calm(er) as you turn the corner to go home. If you’ve got multiple dogs, train one dog first. You don’t even need to do it on lead.

Instead of looking down and seeing your small, hairy steam train, imagine you have a very handsome but rather unnerving big dog at your side. You want to get them away from you. Every time they violate your personal space, you want to get them out of it. It’s actually helpful to imagine a physical circle or bubble around 50cm or the length of your lower arm from you. Every time they come into it, you’re going to throw them a treat just to get them away from you.

Without going further than the length of the lead, throw a treat 90° to the side of you. It’s best if you’re using a 2 or 3 metre lead. Any longer, and you run the risk of whiplash. Any shorter, and you won’t be able to really move the treat very far away at all. You keep walking slowly – slow enough that you’re still moving but they’ve time to find the treat without the lead going hard. If they’re finding it hard, do this on a clear, flat surface like asphalt, with very smelly and visible big treats. Throw it gently – excitement and loose lead exercises do not mix well.

What you should find happening is an immediate return as the dog comes back.

As soon as they’ve got that treat, they’re back for more.

Reward 20 or so invasions of your personal space every time they violate your imaginary circle.

Make sure you throw to the same side that you want the dog to walk on. Stick to one side.

Eventually, if you like, you can move to a 5 or 10m lead and use smaller treats in the grass so you can take more paces forward while they’re finding it. If they’re slower, you can also stop or slow down until they’ve found it and then start walking again.

It’s so simple: Dog violates your imaginary circle, throw treat sideways.

What you should find is that the dog becomes a real space invader.

Then you can only reward the very worst infractions. Make that imaginary circle smaller.

You don’t even need to mark with a clicker or a marker word like ‘yes’ or ‘good’ – just throw the treat. You can, of course, use a marker word, but marker words are not what make this effective – rewarding the dog with food for being in your personal space is what makes it work. To be honest, with a lead and with treats, I’m not a fan of having something else in my hand, though you can get clickers you operate with your mouth. I prefer a simple verbal marker though – it’s much less cumbersome when you’re on the move.

If you do add a marker word, you’re just moving to a three-step process: dog violates your imaginary circle, say ‘yes’ or ‘good’, throw treat sideways.

You can add a cue if you like. I say ‘ready?’ That just means ‘Come into my space – good stuff is about to start!’ Or you can say ‘heel’ if that’s your thing. To be honest, you could say, ‘Make like Glue!’ if you wanted. No reason it has to be formal.

Make sure it’s a clear word that’s different from all your other words though. If you do this, you’ve now got a four-step process: say ‘heel!’ as the dog approaches the first few times, wait for the dog to move into your imaginary circle, say ‘yes’ or ‘good’ and throw the treat sideways.

To be honest, I’m so lazy, I just keep it pretty loose.

What you do then is stretch out the time that the dog is violating your personal space circle. Do this slowly and incrementally, counting paces if you like. Go two paces with them in your personal space, then throw the treat. Do this six or seven times, then go three paces. Mix it up too and keep it unpredictable. Sometimes throw after one pace. Sometimes after ten. Sometimes five. Keep your dog guessing.

It’s also important to throw the treat when the dog is looking straight ahead. If you can, do it when the dog’s head is held high (as opposed to sniffing the ground) and looking forward, otherwise you’ll end up with the ‘stargazer’ walk where the dog walks next to you but looking up at you as if you’re a celebrity. I hate this. It’s bad for dogs’ necks and they can’t see where they’re going.

If you’re doing show walking for obedience, of course, you may want this.

But for us average Joes and Josephines, it’s better to reward your dog when they are in your space but not looking directly at you. Worse still is rewarding because they’re looking at your pockets or your hands. If your dog struggles with this, don’t engage eye contact with them, look straight ahead. Put your treats away and never touch your pouch or pockets when the dog is looking at them. You can of course do this pocket touching very deliberately. I do. It stops me having to say, ‘Hey, dogs! Make like glue!’ But if you’re going to do this, make sure it’s a choice, not an accident. I love it that I touch my pockets, and my dogs go: ‘Oooh, what? What?!’

You can also just reward the worst infractions and violations of your personal space. I did that with Hagrid. By the end, we were show-walking, shoulder to knee. This was not my intention.

Once you’ve got this, add in progressively more challenging circumstances.

It is perfectly possible to build up to very long stretches, I don’t like this as the dog might as well be on a treadmill. Tilly my spaniel once heelwalked for 5km as I’d left a pig’s ear in my jacket. This was not my intention and she did not enjoy that walk. I tend to use a cue ‘ready?’ or touch my pockets, do a little bit of training and then do an awful lot of dog stuff like sniffing, peeing and investigating in between. Heel work is hard. It also doesn’t allow your dog to do exciting dog stuff.

You can see the technique in action here. Just a caveat – the black dog is on medication that increases his appetite, so there is some stargazer walking here – I’m not that fussed about it because we don’t do loads of demos, otherwise I’d phase it out. The malinois girl is the one to keep your eye on for best technique’. You can also see from time to time, I reward from my hand. That’s fine too.

Why this works

The first reason is that it progressively shapes closer and closer walking. Forget about the lead, really. You can do this without the lead just as well. This is not about a loose lead so much as it is about teaching the dog that it’s worthwhile walking near you. You’re like a walking cash machine that sometimes spits out money. It’s worthwhile hanging around to be there when that happens.

The second is that it teaches your dog where to walk. So many people try to lure the dog in position or use very stilted heel positions that the dog has to concentrate really hard. This method is zero fun. I have never, ever had fun or success teaching a dog to do this. All your dog is learning is the concept that, if they’re near you, they get food.

Throwing the treat sideways is just a test and allows them to reset. It also really helps them understand that it’s being near you that’s valuable. Who knows what dogs are learning if you’re just feeding at your knee or heel? Maybe they’re learning when you bend over, food comes. Trainers do this all the time. I throw treats away when I’m grooming or petting dogs so that I know, if they come back, then they’re okay with what we’re doing. If they eat the food and stay away, then that tells me such a lot. If I want dogs to stay on a platform, throwing the treat away or rewarding off the platform is a crucial step to help dogs realise what it is that they’re doing that’s getting the food. As we always say, the position of the reinforcement is essential. I think this method is better than reinforcing at the side of us because we never can tell if the dogs really understand it. This way, we test all the time if the dog is with us or not. And if they disengage or spend longer getting the treat, that gives me information to slow down and let them investigate.

It’s also a very casual technique that you can practise over time. I tend to reward all violations of my space over a walk with a dog who isn’t that interested in me. Give it a month and you’ll see much more focus on you and much less of the kind of walking you don’t want. This works for me. They sniff and do dog stuff as they like, and when they’re finished with that, then they come back close in and we interact. I’ve found dogs who were completely checked out and never interested in their guardians at all are much more focused on their guardian after a month or so of this technique. It can be very frustrating (and fattening!) to try to teach an adult dog not to pull by doing it as you would with a puppy – not walking them until they’ve mastered heel walking or loose lead in the home, the garden, on easy walks… It could easily be three months of very heavy treat reliance to get that far and that’s frustrating for both dogs and guardians. This way gradually phases out pulling and phases in walking in the proximity of the guardian. It’s not an all or nothing approach and you can do it with ten or twenty high-value treats a day rather than getting through a kilo of cheese and giving your dog pancreatitis. The irony is that the more they’re in your personal space, the leaner and more demanding you can be with rewards.

So, thank you, Mr Hagrid, for having taught me to walk to heel. Your hack helps me daily in so many ways.

This post is the first in a series over the month helping you train your adult dog to walk nicely on lead. If you don’t want to miss a post, hop over to Facebook and ‘Like’ the page, making sure you hit all the right buttons to see posts. Or sign up on this website to get every post delivered to your inbox!

a lifetime of correction?

Recently, the dog-training social media world has been once again in dispute over punishment. I hate this. Nobody ever really falls out over using toys as a reward.

The arguments are always the same. Some people claim that punishment works. And it may – with many, many provisos. First off, you need to be a great trainer to punish dogs effectively. You need great timing. Most people’s timing is really sloppy. I watched a video of me training Lidy the other week and I was embarrassed how poor my timing was. I’m surprised she ever learns anything. We’re lucky most dogs are intuitive.

Second, you need to understand that punishment simply suppresses behaviour. It doesn’t change the underlying need to perform the behaviour, it just might stop the dog doing it again in future. The need to do the behaviour doesn’t go away. So if the dog’s pulling or jumping or even biting, then punishing it might stop the behaviour in future. But the dog’s motiviations, emotions and underlying need to do that behaviour are still there. Bear this consequence of punishment in mind because it’s going to be really important in the rest of this post.

Third, punishment can cause frustration and aggression. It causes frustration because your dog doesn’t know what you actually want them to do, just that you don’t want them to do that. It can also cause aggression – partly because of the frustration sometimes and partly because it doesn’t do anything at all for your bond with the dog. Will your dog trust you if you punish them? Hell no. This is one reason some trainers are so fond of shock collars because it at least might not seem as if it’s coming from them. This disintegration of trust is also is going to be a really important factor in the rest of this post. Herron et al. (2009) did a study of the consequences of punishers on aggression. You won’t be shocked to realise that certain types of punisher (including a hard stare) increased aggression by up to 40%.

Fourth, punishment reduces all behaviours of a certain type. Dogs just stop doing stuff. If you’ve ever seen people playing the ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ game using shock, you’ll see the same there: they just stop moving in the end. A bit like me in my A level English Lit class. We got told we were wrong so many times, we just stopped answering or responding. What you get are dogs who are afraid to try to do anything.

Fifth, punishment increases distance between the dog and the person responsible for punishing them. Again, why some trainers like shock because it seems as if they aren’t doing the punishment. This might seem seductive until you realise that the sixth potential consequence of punishment is that dogs can generalise wildly during punishment and are apt to learn to connect all kinds of unconnected events to the punishment – an odour, the time of day – you don’t get to pick.

Of course, you don’t get to know if any of these six things will be a consequence until you’ve done it. Great. Totally unpredictable and you can never know whether or not the dog will learn totally the wrong thing.

You can read more about the fallout of punishment here, and in the interest of balance, also about the fallout of positive reinforcement training here.

These six factors are the logical, rational and scientific reasons I don’t use punishment in my training. Not least because most of the dogs I work with have aggression histories and – with no judgement intended on my lovely clients – they’ve already tried punishment already and it failed them. Sometimes it has worsened things. Sometimes it has even been responsible for causing the problem in the first place. I don’t use choke chains, head halters, prong collars or shock collars. I don’t even largely use flat collars any more either. I don’t use ‘no!’ and I don’t use water sprays, training discs, shake jars, compressed air sprays, air horns, citronella collars, spray collars, invisible perimeter fences, stern looks, standing over dogs, rolling dogs… I’m kind of lucky that I don’t have to because most of these things are things people have already tried them.

That brings me to the ethics of training. I don’t use punishment on dogs for two reasons. The first is that I like to hold myself personally to better standards. I don’t use it with people and I won’t use it with animals. You could tell me positive reinforcement was only 20% as effective as punishment and I’d still use reinforcement in my training. The second is that dogs often let us punish them, which is largely to their detriment. They don’t deserve us to use aversives just because they tolerate it. Cats largely don’t. I’m a cat person at heart. My cats would have moved out of the house and voted with their feet if I’d used punishments with them. Positive reinforcement in life works on all creatures from single celled ones up to human beings, if you like to think of life organised in that way. You can train bees to play hockey and fish to do agility courses using positive reinforcement. But you can’t punish a bee. A bee would just sting you. A wasp would sting you repeatedly. Most animals would avoid us completely if we punished them, or they’d avoid the situation. Go try punish a wolf! I listened to the very great Jean Lessard in discussion about punishment with a trainer who uses aversives. He made the point very clearly that wolves wouldn’t tolerate it.

Free animals don’t come back for seconds unless… they really want something … or they forget because the punishment lapses. That’s the thing about punishment. You’re committing yourself to a lifetime of aversives. If you use deer scarers to keep deer off your crops, then expect to find them coming back when the thing runs out of gas. Or, if there’s nothing else to eat and they are desperate. Punishment is a lifetime commitment. You can hope that your dog will ‘forget’ the behaviour you don’t like, or that they’ll ‘remember’ the punishment, but if they happen, those are by-products. Punishment needs you to always correct what you see as an error.

Remember that. It’s important. Every time you see the behaviour, you’ll have to correct it.

If you don’t, you’re doing some complicated stuff, learning-wise. Firstly, you’re putting the behaviour on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. That sounds like stupid science waffle, I know. What it means is that because the dog sometimes gets what they want, they’ll keep doing it. Behaviour that is sometimes rewarded is more resilient even than behaviour that is always rewarded. An example: one is a man using a whip (I know…) to keep dogs away from a big pile of food he’s put out in a hunting kennels. Some of the dogs keep running in and grabbing a piece. All that whip is doing is temporarily suppressing the dogs’ behaviour of running in and grabbing food. Second, some of them keep getting some food, so they’re going to keep doing it. Punishment is always a 1:1 thing. If it’s not, even if it’s 99% punished and 1% rewarded, there’s a risk you’re actually creating a bigger problem. I see this ALL the time with people who punish dogs for jumping up. All it takes is that one time the dog gets what they need – to say hello – and boom, the behaviour is back again. With knobs on.

A lifetime commitment to punishing error. That’s what you need.

There are science-y waffle conditions, exceptions and complications that you might want to explore if you’re a very geeky dog trainer, but in a nutshell, nobody has any need to really understand those if you work off the principle that punishment is a lifetime commitment to suppressing behaviour and punishing errors.

All this is nothing new. I’ve written about this so many times from scientific perspectives and ethical perspectives.

But where it intersects hugely with my work is in rescue and rehoming.

A dog who has been trained with all the good stuff – great food and great toys – can be switched to what we call a lean schedule of reinforcement. What that means is that you don’t need to keep doing it. Unlike punishment. Thus, once I’ve taught a dog to walk loose-lead with treats, I can phase them out. Hoorah. Sure, I can keep it fresh by occasionally bringing the treats out and freshening up on skills, but I don’t need to keep doing it.

When my clients ask, therefore, “Do I need to keep using treats?”

No. Absolutely not. It would actually be better to thin them out.

That is not the same with punishment. Guardians should ask, “Do I need to keep using punishment?”

The answer is, “Probably. Most likely. Especially for problem behaviours.”

It also means that other people can take over the training. I was working with a really sweet reactive girl the other week and she’s had nothing but good stuff since she was adopted. She was throwing out lovely behaviours left, right and centre. She was happy to sit for a biscuit from me (though I don’t encourage strangers to use food with reactive dogs and I really prefer the guardian to do the treat bit) and once she realised that her behaviours also worked on me, well, her world made sense.

It means that, should I ever need to rehome Heston or Lidy, their new guardians would just need to say ‘sit!’ and they would. If they went to people who believed in praise and petting (traditionalist cheapskates!) rather than food, then that’d be fine. I do need to teach them to respond to others asking, but it doesn’t take much to switch from one human to the next.

This is not the same with punishment. When a dog comes from a background of punishment, then it requires the shelter, the fosterer, the adopter, everyone involved in that dog’s life, to continue using punishment to suppress behaviour – whether they agree with it or not.

Take off the bark collar, and it’s likely barking will come back again.

Take off the shock collar you’ve been using to stop the dog running off on walks, and the behaviour will likely come back again.

Teaching your dog using punishments passes that punishment on down the line. It requires everyone else in that dog’s life to also punish the dog. And because you’ve never dealt with the underlying emotion, especially behind problem behaviours, that behaviour is likely to pop right out again if the new family don’t want to use punishment.

Worse still, if you’ve been using direct methods of punishment like hard stares or alpha rolls, water sprays, compressed air, hard words, choke chains or head halters, then a person who has no history with that dog is then put into the very dubious position of having to punish a dog they don’t know. As you know by now, the risk of aggression in such a case is huge. There’s none of the learning history, none of the bond, none of the trust. And when you punish a dog, you absolutely need to have those things in place for it to work if you want to avoid repercussions that are likely to end in aggression.

You, for instance, might control your dog with a choke chain on a walk. But when you pass your dog to a new dog walker who has no history with your dog and you ask them to do the same, well, you’re putting a lot of faith in your dog not turning round when the walker yanks on their neck and saying, “Oh will you f@*k off pulling me!”

None of us want to think that our dogs will ever need to be re-homed, but in reality, it happens. People get ill. People divorce. People marry. People die. People move. People go into homes. People suddenly find themselves having to live with a relative. When that happens, if you’ve passed your dog on to someone else and you’ve got a history of punishment to suppress unwanted behaviour, you’re handing over a time-bomb. And you’re doing it when the dog’s bonds are weakest, when the dog is most vulnerable and when the dog is most stressed.

One example I had recently was a dog of a breed known to be suspicious of strangers. He arrived with a shock collar, which the new guardians put in the bin. They didn’t know why he’d got the collar on, or even what type of collar it was. They certainly hadn’t signed up to use punishments on the dog. The first few times the dog saw strangers, he seemed perfectly normal. Seemed. A couple of weeks in, and the dog gets caught out by a postman coming on the property, and boom, barking and lunging freely as he’s always wanted to but never been able to. The new guardian grabbed the dog and the dog turned on him. Without a conditioned history, we don’t have the permission to grab adult dogs who we don’t know. Two weeks doesn’t give our new dog time to understand our idiosyncrasies.

I’ve heard arguments before from trainers who say positive reinforcement training ends with dogs in shelters. This drives me nuts. They say it ends with dogs being euthanised and being unable to be rehomed. This is a lie. In France’s second-largest shelter, we are embedded in a punishment culture. One local trainer actually uses whips and chains and it shows him doing so on his website. His nickname is Mr Whip. We have positive reinforcement trainers too, but on the whole, France is filled with ‘dresseurs’ who use aversives. Some are mild, others are not. In eight years, we’ve never had a dog surrendered because positive training had failed. Let me say that again. Not one dog ever surrendered because their owner used biscuits to teach them to sit.

Not one.

We get loads of dogs who’ve had nothing at all. Fine.

And we get loads of dogs who’ve been hit, been shocked, been subjected to choke chains and prong collars. Loads.

For most, they go on to be great dogs. After all, it was only their first owner who was a knob, and other people seem quite nice. Some take months to learn to trust again.

Others are simply so unreliable and have generalised so much about humans being knobs that you’re literally rebuilding them from the inside out. But it’s not like you’re just starting from scratch. You first have to undo the damage that has been done.

It is never dogs who’ll sit for a biscuit who are the problem. They are barely a problem at all. Usually, they tell you that’s what they know, because they try it out on you, hopefully. We don’t get many of those.

When you take off the punishment – when you take off the shock collar – when you remove harsh punishments – that behaviour is apt to come back with friends. It’s also likely to do so with people who have either no idea that they would even need to continue punishments or engage in lengthy retraining. They’re also people who have no history with the dog.

When you have history, you can get away with aversive experiences. I’m not the type to pretend that I don’t say ‘no’ to my dogs from time to time. It’s layered on years of a trusting relationship where they are rewarded for the ‘right’ choices (read: things I’ve decided in my infinite wisdom that are ‘right’) and when sometimes I say no, they stop. I will often cue them to do something they can get rewarded for and we all learn to get along cooperatively.

But when I first knew Lidy, she grabbed a towel out of my hand. I said no. Her look right then was, “F@$k you, bitch, and f@*k your biscuits too.” It set us back for weeks.

Trust is hard won and easily destroyed. Especially with a stressed, vulnerable dog whose primary attachment figures have disappeared and whose world makes no sense either.

I don’t joke when I say that punishment is apt to cause all sorts of untold problems further down the line.

One was the dog whose kennels used a head-halter without telling his guardian. It caused him a neck injury that led to a bite when his guardian returned. He never truly recovered and he was euthanised three years later because his guardian could never rebuild his trust in handling.

Another was a dog who was surrendered muzzled, wearing a shock collar and a prong. Taking these off gave him the freedom to finally express how fearful he was in public. He bit a vet who lifted him into a car. Years of suppressing his feelings about being handled could never be overcome. You don’t get that with dogs who expect a bit of cheese when a stranger handles them.

Finally, a foster who used bark collars. The dog became neck sensitive – a common problem for dogs who’ve had aversives applied to the neck – and putting leads on the dog, handling the dog, moving the dog, even touching the dog turned out to be a nightmare.

I read sometimes of rescues who use aversives. These cases are all reasons why we do not. The fallout for new guardians can be enormous. They make dogs unreliable and unpredictable. From the mildest problems – my girl Flika who ignored her name because it had been used when she was in trouble – Amigo, who trembled when he saw a fly swatter and cowered when you put him on a lead and wouldn’t even go for a pee – Tilly, who was untouchable for months, who wasn’t house-trained and needed rebuilding from the inside-out – to the most severe cases where new guardians have been bitten… punishment causes all kinds of problems that rewards never do. My easiest dogs were Ralf and Tobby, robust old boys who’d happily sit for a biscuit, who never cowered, who never were afraid.

It goes without saying that nobody should ever use aversives on a dog that is not their own – from groomers and house-sitters to kennels and vets.

But I think we should also understand the complications of situations where the original guardian has trained the dog using punishments.

It puts the new guardian in a position where it can be tricky to live with the dog, not least if it obliges them to keep using punishers because it’s all the dog has ever known.

It also means they have to have a hands-off approach until the dog trusts them. No pulling out brambles, no touching the dog by mistake, no collar grabs, no helping the dog into the car, no putting on lampshades after surgery, no lifting dogs onto vet tables. That can be really tough for guardians who’ve always had a hands-on approach of their own and expect to be able to do the same. It is also tough considering how many rescue dogs require veterinary interventions straight away. It’s tough for vet staff in shelters and for unfamiliar vets working with new clients.

So to come back to dog trainers justifying the technical use of punishment… we really need to think of the life of the dog. We might not necessarily be training the dog to be with us all their lives. Heaven only knows what may happen to us. But pass on a dog who has been loved, a dog who knows humans are kind, who trusts humans, who has learned that life’s inescapable bad stuff is invariably coupled up with good stuff.

Don’t pass on a dog who needs a shock collar to walk past other dogs, or who only behaves because they’re scared of you. Punishment engenders fear. That’s all it does. It sets the dog up for a lifetime of that punishment unless you layer in alternatives and you’re an expert trainer who can 100% guarantee there will be no fallout.

And here’s the thing: no trainer can guarantee that. It’s not about whether punishment may work. It’s not about whether it’s ethical or not. Scientists and philosophers can argue the theory between themselves and let us know when they have an answer. It’s about the real-world fallout of punishment for dogs… the real-world consequences. It puts future guardians in jeopardy and it puts the dog at risk.

Consider the dog who has been kneed in the chest if they jump up. It may seem that they’ve ‘learned’ not to jump (usually in the presence of people who knee dogs in the chest) but put them in a new environment, where stress lowers inhibitions, and jumping up is going to come back again. Are new guardians also expected to knee dogs in the chest?!

And consider the dog who has a history of aggression, ‘cured’ by a shock collar. Take the collar off and the aggression is still right there, in a new home, with a new family who may not have even known it was there.

Whenever, then, trainers get clever and punishment and aversives seem like seductive short-cuts, remember the consequences.

For guardians adopting adult dogs, you do not have the privilege of trust. Maybe you used mild aversives with all your dogs before; maybe you are very handsy and feel you should be able to grab a dog. Know that if you do so with a dog you’ve adopted – even months into the relationship – they may not tolerate from you what your previous dogs tolerated.

For guardians raising puppies, know that you are possibly creating a time-bomb if you use punishers and you need to rehome your dog. None of us think that will ever happen to us, but if you rely on chokes, prongs, shock collars, sharp words and forced handling, then you can’t predict that the future guardians will feel the same or even be able to use aversives in the same way your dog’s trust in you gave you licence to do.

It’s not a debate about should we use punishment, how effective it is or whether it’s ethical. It’s knowing that there are real-world consequences that we might not be the ones who have to face up to.

how to cope with training set-backs

Most of my clients come to me with dogs who are fearful, reactive or aggressive. Some of their dogs are shy; others are confident and a little boisterous. Usually they have problem behaviours that are interfering with their own well-being or the well-being of those around them. Some have problems with their guardians or with dogs in the home; others have problems when out in the real world and faced with life at large.

Solving the problem is never the issue: there are no problems we haven’t seen before. There are no dogs who have problems that other trainers or other vets, other guardians and other dogs haven’t overcome. There is nothing new in the world of dog training. There’s nothing new in the world of dogs.

Finding a way to solve the problem that fits your specific circumstances is a little tougher. All training needs time to acquire the skills you need and time to proof them in progressively more challenging circumstances. It’s that heady mix of slowly and surely, systematically and thoughtfully.

Good grief… you just mean I have to keep doing it over and over, and that’s all?

I’ve said before that there are no magic bullets. It’s just getting the little stuff right and practising until you’ve got it. Start way easier than you could ever imagine you need to and take the tiniest, baby steps until you’ve got it sorted.

Two things happen along the way though.

The first is that you worry it’ll never be right, that your dog will never be over their problem. You worry that they’ll never be ‘better’ and that you’ll never be able to cope. You worry that you’ll never be able to do X or Y. You worry that you might not get around to being able to do A or B, let alone X and Y. This generally happens about four to six weeks in, when you’ve forgotten the great progress you’ve already made.

You might, for example, have gone from worrying on every single walk that your dog was going to bark or lunge at someone. You might have gone from regular jumping, digging or humping to practically none at all.

But you’ve been managing the situation and you’ve been carrying the burden of making sure you never put your dog in situations that were too hard for them to handle. It’s all been on you.

Don’t get me wrong – they’ll have been great. You’ll have worked on focus, on impulses, on manners. You’ll have been desensitising like mad and counterconditioning like a fool, and you’ll have got your u-turns and your hand touches down perfectly.

You should have had a month of great experiences.

But in the back of your mind is the nagging doubt as you move to more challenging situations. The nagging voice that says, ‘What if?’

What if someone appears out of nowhere? What if a guest encourages my dog to start humping again? What if the delivery guy sets foot on the property?

A lot of this comes from having kept your dog safe during the early stages of training. That burden has been on you and it’s been tough. It’s hard to think of every single thing that could go wrong and plan it so that it doesn’t. It’s an emotional strain – just as it is living with dogs who have any kind of problem.

As you move out into the real world again and you start to put your dog and your training to the test, it’s bound to be nerve-wracking. My advice is to get a trainer to help you with it. However, they can’t be with you every single trial you’re going to do over the next three months. As you place your dog in more and more challenging situations, two things will happen. The first is that you’ll begin to have faith in them. The second is you worry they’ll relapse.

Heston is my go-to demo dog these days. He had 8 years to prepare for it, where other dogs carried that burden. Ralf, Amigo, Flika… they’d all done their share of helping guardians and their dogs. Heston, not until last September.

To be frank, Heston missed out on some stuff I should have taught him and I didn’t know enough then to raise him as thoughtfully as I should have done.

Oh well.

We trained. I kept him safe. Gradually, we met the world again. Vet surgeries and human contact, he’s come to tolerate if not enjoy. We learned how to cope around livestock and we learned not to go mental if we see wild boar sunning themselves. We learned not to chase swallows and not to bark at crows.

He has been the best demo dog. Mostly because he’s made the journey my clients’ dogs are making. He’s moved from barking at joggers and shouting at hikers to impeccable behaviour around all kinds of scary, strange humans. We found ourselves once in a masked parade by accident (don’t ask!) and our former worst nightmare turned out to be a walk in the park. He’s stopped over-reacting when he sees dogs and he is an absolute dream with dogs in the vets.

This is not to brag. This is to say, ‘Have Faith’.

Those As and Bs you don’t think you can do today will be Xs and Ys that will be a breeze in the future.

You don’t only need to have faith in your training and in that slow and repetitive process. You also need to rebuild your trust. I remember the day Heston lunged at a jogger who didn’t give us a wide enough berth, despite him barking like a maniac at her. That slow and steady process rebuilt my trust in him and his trust in me.

Every walk with Lidy, every car journey, we’re building trust. I get to watch her horizons broaden, little by little.

Lidy is never going to be my demo dog. That’s fine. I never expected she would be. She will be safe and her world will gradually get bigger, month by month. We might end up with some Cs and Ds instead of As and Bs.

Having faith, rebuilding your trust and respecting hard boundaries is all part of the process.

There will be days it will fail.

I remember about 18 months into working with Lidy. She’d not had any confrontations for those 18 months. One Saturday (coincidentally the Saturday I met Flika!) all her nightmares came at once: Saturday walks in the shelter, darkness, too many people, too many visitors, a man lumbering towards her. She couldn’t cope. Nothing much happened other than me getting a new set of holes in a coat. But it felt like everything had gone.

When it fails, we tend to think all has failed. It’s all been for nothing. Everything was wrong.

What we need to do is realise two things: what we were doing was working and we’re never back at Square One.

Repeat that like a mantra every single time you have a set back. You are never back at Square One.

You are NEVER back at Square One.

All your work counts.

Those 18 months of training and trust didn’t get wiped out in one fell swoop.


We re-set. We re-calibrate (thanks Frances!).

We take a deep breath and we keep doing what we were doing.

I’m now 3 years past that last incident with Lidy. I have no new holes in my jumpers. We’ve seen very muscular joggers running at us. We’ve had dogs appear from nowhere. We’ve crested the hill of what we would do when an off-lead dog was going to come bounding over to us. That bridge has been crossed and the water has well and truly passed beneath it.

We crest new hills all the time. She isn’t the dog she was. Heston is not the dog he was.

None of this is magic bullet stuff. If you read my articles, you know it’s patience, training and working with the dog at their pace. That’s all.

But it’s not just about the dog. It’s about us.

We need to remember to have faith. We need to trust in the process. We need to remember that we’re never back to Square One on the Snakes-and-Ladders board called Life. All that work counts.

So if you’re just starting out with your training plan, remember it’s as much about you as your dog. It’s about you remembering that progress isn’t linear and that life is what happens when you’re busy trying to hold it at bay.

Don’t waste your worries on whether you’ll be able to take your dog to the beach in two years’ time, if they’ll cope in kennels, if they’ll survive yet another off-lead dog running up to you, if they’ll ever stop humping Auntie Kitty.

All your training counts.

It can be hard to keep the pessimism at bay when you’re dealing with dogs with problems. There’s no good reason, though, that you can’t achieve at least some improvement before you compromise and settle on a life that suits both you and the dog.

Grit your teeth, make your training plan and keep going!

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