Keeping your dog safe in the home

Last week I did a post about keeping your dog safe on walks. That related to all kinds of issues from chasing small critters, chasing cars or joggers, fearfulness or spookiness in public, aggressive behaviour in public or even those dogs who just like rampaging up to picnickers, scoffing the lot and racing off with the tablecloths. If you have a dog whose recall is poor or unreliable, or whose behaviour puts them (or others) in danger, that’s your first place to start.

Whilst a home should be a safe place, so many incidents take place there that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a major hazard zone. Whether you’ve got a puppy, a dog with anxiety, a dog who’s aggressive or unpredictable towards unfamiliar people, other dogs in your home or towards guests, giving your dog a safe place is absolutely vital.

And that will need to be a place we can secure, from time to time. We can’t just teach our dog ‘Go To Mat’ and hope they’ll stick at it, not unless we work at it like mental. I’ll never forget seeing trainer extraordinaire Susan Garrett and her five collies. The doorbell rang and all five of those collies ran to their beds and sat there like their butt was glued to the bed. Oh how I wish! Not so easy with dogs coming and going here all the time and so very many years of practice at ‘alternative’ behaviours like jumping, barking or even peeing on the floor when guests arrive.

Teaching ‘go to mat’ or teaching your dog to go to a space when things happen is great though. It’s definitely something I’d put on a puppy’s ‘thing to learn’ chart and it’d certainly stop a lot of door dashing.

But a puppy can’t be expected to be glued to a mat twenty hours a day. So they’ll need a safe space as well as this behaviour unless you plan on supervising them every waking moment.

Why do puppies need a safe space?

Because you can’t supervise them twenty-four hours a day. You need a place that can act as a physical babysitter, so that you can have a bath or go in the kitchen without worrying about whether your puppy is dismantling the sofa, surfing the counters, peeing on the furniture or eating the wires. A safe space is about navigating early learning so that newly discovered ‘fun stuff’ doesn’t become the beginnings of a very bad habit. Why do we take kids to soft play and ball pits and jungle gyms? Because they’re fun and they’re safe. We don’t take them to antique shops or Wedgwoods outlet shop to play around china do we? We do stuff all the time to stop our kids breaking things or touching things they shouldn’t. If you’re not doing the same for your puppy, then you really need to look at your values about this family member. Are you seriously expecting a puppy to just deal with all those wooden chair legs that look so very much in need of chewing? Or those shoes that are just weird pieces of leather that absolutely must be designed for chewing? Don’t expect your puppy to be any more sensible around your Villeroy and Boch fine dining tableware when your kids eat off plastic plates and you give them a drink in a beaker.

What about older dogs?

Ah, this is where I remember my old Ralf with fondness. Ralf, a 13-year-old former guard dog who lived with me for a brief but love-filled seven months back in 2014. Ralf who could take tin cans apart with his teeth. Ralf who ate a kilo of sugar. Ralf who destroyed all my packs of pasta, decided he didn’t like them and left their contents over the kitchen floor. Ralf who was the reason I had to put all my dog food under lock and key.

Yes it’s cute. Yes, it can be dangerous. I came home one day to find Amigo with his head stuck in a biscuit bag and Tilly guarding the kitchen from three dogs who were at least three times her size. I was lucky. I shouldn’t depend on luck to keep my dogs safe.

So the food went away. The kitchen found a door. Ralf’s foraging days were over.

He wasn’t the only one of my dogs who could open doors. Effel the beauceron did a good job ‘trying’ to open the door. One wrecked door later and the dog food found a new home.

So just for your common-or-garden dogs who have no particular bad habits, a secure space in the home is an essential. Ralf, Amigo and Effel were great dogs, but to expect them to resist temptation when I’m absent is a big ask.

After all, even by the age of five not all children will wait for a bigger reward later – and that’s for human children with their developing ability to understand consequences!

So expecting a dog to leave the marshmallow when there are no better consequences if they leave it til later… quite frankly that’s just ludicrous. In Ralf’s case, have sugar now and have food later too. Those two things were not linked in his head. Neither were ‘have sugar now and have tummy ache later’.

Also, you wouldn’t punish a four year old for not being able to delay reward, so punishing a dog who understands even less is just so irrational of us as humans that you’d have to ask if we actually have any sense of theory of mind or understanding of other species’ capabilities at all. Would you really go into that room and tell that little girl off for eating a marshmallow? Or wetting her bed?

Yet we expect more of our dogs than we do of five-year-olds in many cases!

It’s not just about learning to delay rewards.

Dogs also learn by trial and error: jump at the door handle often enough and one day, you’ll press the lever and be free! Flika is a devil for opening doors. There is some evidence that dogs learn by watching and mimicking (although not like apes do) and Heston learned that delightful trick from her – something I have to keep my eye on.

And that’s just your normal dogs doing normal everyday kind of stuff… opening front doors and gates, foraging in cupboards and chewing shoes.

A safe space is vital.

For fearful dogs, having a secure space is absolutely essential. It may only take the door being open that split second and a loud bang for the dog to choose flight over all other reactions.  I know I don’t need to explain how many fearful dogs run off during thunderstorms. Living with the noise-conscious Flika has given me more of an insight… low flying planes, noisy motorbikes, tractors, lorries going too fast, cyclists, people chatting… they’re all enough to spook her even when she’s in the house. Luckily, she chooses fight over flight, barks at the thing and – surprise, surprise! – the thing goes away. Very effective for Flika. But for fearful dogs, the risk of flight is huge. For dogs with severe separation anxiety or hyper-attachment, it’s not uncommon to find them trying to escape to get to you. I’ve had two that can do this.

This image from Caring for rescued ex-street dogs  shows just how many things can set off a fearful dog outside the home.

Do you think it’s much different INSIDE the home, especially for a dog who has never been in a house?

For dogs who’ve lived outside, claustrophobia can be a real issue. Imagine being trapped in a prison you can’t escape from with noisy machines and hoovers and pings, beeps, alarms. Let’s not forget the television and the people. Can you imagine if you were fearful of dogs and being trapped in a house with four big dogs?

Now imagine being a dog who is scared of people and being trapped in a house with four big, hairy scary humans.

Horrifying thought.

For aggressive dogs, a safe secure space is also vital. Aggression is part of the normal canine behaviour repertoire. That dogs are territorial shouldn’t come as a ‘Breaking News!’ kind of story. That some dogs don’t like new stuff, don’t like unfamiliar people or don’t like unfamiliar dogs is not newsworthy either. But you don’t want a dog barrelling out of your front door to bite the postal worker or your Auntie Dot’s bichon, make sure your dog is secure.

It’s also true of dogs with predatory behaviours – even if the worst they’d do would be chase. Do you think an open window is much of a hindrance to a greyhound who’s just seen a cat jump over the fence?

Needing a secure space is also necessary for dogs who are curious with low fear levels. Call it foolhardiness or just plain stupidity, but I once watched a dog about to jump out of a third-floor window because her owners were outside. Dogs naturally should be fairly fearful of big drops, but not Maya. If you have a dog who is curious and a risk-taker, security will be paramount.

So very, very many reasons why homes might not be as secure as we think and why our dogs need to have a secure place. We just can’t expect the ‘perfect’ dog who doesn’t chew in our absence, who doesn’t pee on things, who doesn’t stay put. We’re not Susan Garrett with her fabby collies. And our dogs might be able to manage a 10-minute ‘go to mat’ exercise, but we shouldn’t expect them to be able to hold that for five hours when we have guests.

We don’t think, either, that we might need our dogs to be secure when they’re older in ways they never were as a young dog. Maybe we have the perfectly behaved dog (oh my Heston, you are such a good boy!) who doesn’t escape, who doesn’t chew, who isn’t fearful, who isn’t predatory and who can cope with open gates as long as nothing too untoward happens on the other side. Yet dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction (doggie dementia) can suddenly need a safe place in ways they didn’t when they were young. Amigo would pace and pace in the night – and it wasn’t safe with other dogs about since he was deaf – he couldn’t hear their growls and couldn’t see them. I wished then that my other dogs were crate-trained so that I didn’t worry about a fight. You can’t crate train a dog with dementia… it’s hard enough to be losing your understanding, but to be put in a crate as well?

And that brings me on to another reason to keep your dogs secure. Some of the worst dog/dog injuries I’ve seen (and even dogs who’ve killed another dog) have been during owner absence. Redirected aggression over an exciting moment like an owner’s car pulling up or someone knocking on the door or a cat passing the window have been the triggers for some pretty hideous fights. I don’t ever – never, never, never – leave a new dog alone with all my others. I don’t leave dogs of disproportionate sizes alone in my absence. I don’t leave anxious pacing dogs alone with my others. When I first leave a dog with my others, I do so for five minutes and I video. And then for ten or fifteen minutes, again with video. That way I can see for sure what’s happening.

So as you can see, there are so very many reasons why you need a safe, secure place.

That boils down to ‘Dogs are dogs’.

No wonder so many dogs end up being banished to a yard. Being in the house unsupervised is really, really hard!

So what can you do to secure a space for your dog?

This is where baby and toddler stuff can be really useful.

Baby gates are great if you have stairs. And if your dog can jump them, put another one above the first. Make sure there is no gap and if you have a very determined escape artist or a gap, a roller at the top is a bonus.

You can make ones with steel or aluminium tubing as well if you’ve got Man Tools.

Of course, doors are a bonus. But doors can be easily destroyed… unless you fit metal plates to them or buy a security door. No they don’t look pretty. Who wants to live in a home that looks like a workshop? But your dog is safe. And you only need one room to do it.

Some people may change handles to knobs. Just a word of caution. It is VERY easy for a dog to jump and get their collar caught on a doorknob. I know seven dogs who died last year as a result of this sadly very common situation. If you have an escape artist, you’re going to want a collar with a tag on it, but those can so easily snag on a knob. I’d either remove the collar and have them chipped or wearing a harness with a tag on it, or stick to flat handles. Our shelter used to have a gate with a flat handle which pointed to 6 o’clock so that our resident guard dog Belle couldn’t open it. One at 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock is easy to jump on. One at 6 o’clock pointing downwards can still be operated by humans, but not so easily by a dog. Belle never managed it.

Hook and eye locks or sliding bolts are useful too, although I know dogs who can flick hook and eye locks or pull sliding locks with teeth. Fitting one to the upper part of the door where it’s out of reach of a dog’s height when standing on back legs is straightforward enough.

But for most dogs, a simple closing door with a handle and a simple lock if necessary is more than enough. Add a baby gate for stairs or wherever and you’re probably more than secure.

I’m talking about the super-dog escape artists.

Want more?

Metal panels attached either side of a door can stop them tearing through partition walls. A handleless metal-plated door with security locks is not a door that can be opened by a dog, teeth or claws, jumping or trial and error.

I work on a ‘two-door’ system as well. I want there to be two doors between a dog and whatever its target is. Got a super territorial dog with a bite history that you love dearly and want to keep from a mandatory euthanasia order? I want two dog proof, lockable doors between it and the postal worker. The dog is safe, the postie is safe.

Crates are great for small dogs, but be sure to get a sturdy one. I’ve had a 5kg minpin with severe separation anxiety wreck a crate in minutes. Make sure you train it and desensitise a dog to it: don’t expect them to like being in a crate especially if they can see or hear you.

X-pens are also useful. Baby parks and playpens are fine for little dogs who can’t clear it, and rollers around the top will stop them getting leverage on the edge. These are not very secure, so you need to bear it in mind that they can easily be knocked over.

If you have a dog who is such a risk that you’re thinking of rollers and double-locked double-door systems with ‘air-lock’ type entries, then it’s vital you get help too. If this need is caused by fear, then medication should be an option here.

If your dog is so aggressive or presents such a risk to guests that they need such a system, then you need to be working with great behaviourist or trainer who knows how to work with these in fear-free ways. Intimidation, threat and coercion will only suppress emotions. I don’t have to tell you about the owner who used these methods to stop his predatory huskies chasing his cat. He usually kept the animals separate, but one day the huskies got out and he came home to a dead cat. A secure area and caution would have managed the situation much better. But because he thought that his “no!” training had worked, he stopped taking precautions. All that had happened was the dogs learned not to chase the cat when the owner was present. The owner relaxed and got a bit careless. And the huskies cottoned on to the fact that when no-one was present, they could do what they liked.

Just a note of caution about ‘containment systems’ using shock or static, vibrations or otherwise. These tend to give a level of confidence that is unwarranted and unmerited. I’ve seen broken wires, mains failures, dogs who barrelled through them anyway. When the stakes are high, these are not secure and a dog will risk it for a biscuit. Plus, they work by building in fear of punishment, pain or discomfort. If you have a fearful dog, do you really want to make them MORE afraid? If you think that a predatory dog will put aside automatic behaviours or even be put off by a shock, you need to hope that never fails. And a hope is all it is. Batteries die. Mains power has cuts. Plus, the desire to chase or kill can be so powerful that punishment would need to be ramped up really high to work. And if you have an aggressive dog whose target is on the other side, what effect do you think adding a punisher will have? Either suppress the behaviour and never overcome it, or even increase the fear or anger that leads to the aggression in the first place. There are so many, many reasons not to rely on ‘electronic’ containment systems, and the devices fail more than you know. Fitting them is an art in itself. Too loose and you could end up thinking it wasn’t working, so amp up the shock. Too tight and you can do some nasty burn damage. The stakes are too high to have confidence in this equipment.

Ultimately, a dog who is contained within four walls with a secure area filled with great, chewable, dissectable dog stuff and no access to things that could hurt them is a dog who is safe. There are many things that kennels are not great for, but keeping dogs safe is one of their virtues. When keeping a dog safe from the world (or even the world safe from it!) is of paramount importance, don’t take risks. I know we have an emotional response to a dog in a secure kennel run, to metal doors and rollers and airlocks. It makes us think of prisons and that makes us sad. We don’t want to think of our dogs being deprived of freedom or living in such ‘unwelcoming’ an environment. But our pretty wallpapered walls and parquet floors are aesthetically pleasing only to us. They pretty up OUR lockable secure prisons. A dog doesn’t care if you have metal panels on walls or if you have Sanderson’s Harlequin ‘Quintessence’ in lagoon blue and cerise from their ‘Standing Ovation’ line. It’s just a wall. Unless you have no doors, no fences and no gates, and your dog roams everywhere doing whatever they like, upstairs and downstairs running through the town like Wee Willie Winkie, then you already secure your dogs somehow. It may make you wrinkle your nose with distaste at the thought of a secure dog space that has had carpet or vinyl removed to stop them chewing it, but you won’t be getting home to find your dog has munched its way through your best Axminster carpet and is now in need of a very expensive surgical intervention to clear a stomach blockage.

If you have the kind of problem that baby gates, rollers, pens, crates and doors can’t solve, then you really need to find a good trainer or behaviourist to help you out. Sometimes it may be that you need to keep them very safe just for a short while as they learn to overcome the issues that require heavy-duty lockdown.

And if you have the kind of problem that baby gates, rollers, pens, crates and doors CAN solve, then you’re likely to find that your dog can quite easily be taught boundaries in positive ways that they actually respect when you are not there too. You’ll find a trainer can help with those things!

Here are three of mine who were learning not to gate-dash. I was behind the camera waving leads and chicken at them. When you find being inside much more rewarding than life outside, then you’ve cracked it!

None of my current dogs have any problem being given the run of the house. They no longer need supervision. There have been times when I’ve needed to secure a zone for one reason or another, but doors are more than enough. Heston had the beginnings of a chewing habit, so a door and tidying up nipped that in the bud. Tilly had problems with housetraining for a few months when she arrived, and being restricted from less familiar rooms put an end to that.

Flika is a little different. She WILL destroy doors in a bid to escape during storms or when I’m absent. We’re managing that through medication, supplements and through desensitisation, as well as through babysitters and her coming with me. But she’s 14. My hopes of a positive prognosis for her ever learning how to be on her own in the house for an extended period are low. Were she younger, I’d be making more of an effort to help her cope rather than adapting my life to suit her. This reminds me to finish with an important statement…

Keeping your animals safe is crucial. Preventing them from practising behaviours when unsupervised is vital. But nothing will change your dog’s underlying reasons for needing this security unless you invest in a programme to overcome it.

That means understanding the reasons behind it and getting to grips with the underlying emotional causes of their desire to break free. Whether it’s anxiety, full-blown phobias, boredom, not knowing how to be on their own and settle, territorial behaviours, predation, chase behaviours or even that they see the best defence as a good offence, you need to understand what’s driving those needs and deal with that. Then you may find that you don’t need to turn your home into Alcatraz.

Next up: keeping your dog safe in the garden

Keeping your dog safe on walks

I make no bones about it: I love a challenge. And I work with some dogs with pretty challenging behaviour. Sometimes that means making some adjustments in the dog’s life, be that for the duration of the training programme (with an aim of phasing those adjustments out) or for the duration of the dog’s life.

What I’m exploring today is how you can keep your dogs as safe as possible without compromising your daily walk.

Why am I even thinking about this?

What I love about dogs is that they are so utterly predictable. What I hate about people is that they aren’t.

For instance, I know my Heston. Crowds, he can handle. Hunters, he can handle. Joggers at the lake in groups, he can handle. Isolated joggers running towards us when he’s spotted them coming over 200m away, he can’t handle.


And I can predict what he’ll do. First he’ll see them and stop. He’ll assess the situation. He’ll decide they’re a threat. He’ll start pulling towards them. He growls. He’ll back and bark as they go past and if they’re too close, there’ll be lunges as well. He doesn’t snap or bite. To be honest, with a bark like his, he doesn’t need to.

So predictable I’d put money on his behaviour.

But people aren’t predictable. Never bet on what a person will do next.

Like last week when I saw a jogger coming towards us about 300m away or so. I turned round, backtracked, slipped behind a fence and waited until she’d gone past. She saw me and I have no doubt she saw me trying to clip Tilly back onto the lead and wrestle Flika who decided the best way to avoid going back the way she came was to stage a sit-in.

The jogger went past, and I came out and continued with my walk…

Only then to hear her coming up behind us and running back towards us! No matter that it’s a full circuit and she had no reason to turn and about face that I could think of.

Completely unpredictable.

And not only that, we’ve so lost touch with what might be frightening to an animal that we’ve lost sight of the fact that for every other species, if a predator runs head on at you at speed, it has one intention: to threaten or attack.

Bulls know that when dogs run up to them, it’s threat or attack.

The only reason a predatory species would do that to a prey species ends with being attacked or killed.

I did feel like asking the woman what the bloody hell she was playing at, but people are so unpredictable I don’t know how it would have ended.

But I had done my bit to keep my dogs safe. Both my dodgy recallers are on leads. And Tilly was on the lead because I’m respectful. I don’t know how that jogger feels about dogs. She could be frightened of them.

But my dodgy recallers stayed on the lead long after the jogger had disappeared over the horizon.

Yes, that’s pretty much permanent. Sometimes they’re on 3 metre leads and sometimes 10 metre leads. Unless Heston is working, he’s on the lead. He’s not savvy enough to know when working is and when he’s not supposed to freelance.

No, I don’t feel like I’m depriving my dog of the primordial experience of galloping free through nature because guess what?

This happens.

Yes, that’s my 14 year old mali girl with chronic arthritis and hyperattachment buggering off across a field like a greyhound out of the slips.

Luckily, there were no cars, roads, cows, dogs or people hanging about. Flika is super friendly with all of those things.

Flika’s recall – or lack of – is predictable. Cars, cows, people and dogs are cause to bolt. Cows are pretty predictable. I know where they live and in a world without cars, people and dogs, I could happily let her gallop off and hope that she’d come home eventually as long as there were no cow fields along the way. In actual fact, she’s practically by my side most of the time and if I felt lucky, I could let her off lead.

But I also know what she’d do then. The first is find animal crap. The second is to roll in it and the third is to test if it’s edible.

Those are disgusting if not particularly dangerous, right?

Well, rolling in stuff requires a bath. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried bathing an old mali who’s got rickety bones? The less I have to manoeuvre her and manipulate her, the better. Every time I do, it takes out a huge withdrawal from our trust account and one day that will end badly, I know.

So I could do without unnecessary baths.

And eating animal crap isn’t the end of the world… until she comes to some poisoned meat, or gets worms… Or worse. Decaying corpses aren’t too good for the health, really.

Could I teach her? I guess. A solid recall. A solid leave it. Counter-conditioning around cows, cars, people and dogs?

But she’s 14. She got here 6 months ago and we’ve got our head around not pulling like a husky and not wandering all over like a beagle.

So she walks on a lead. She pootles. We hang around. I follow her nose. She is safe and alive and I don’t have to wring my hands after a terrible accident and say, ‘if only that cow hadn’t kicked her to death’ or ‘if only that car had seen her coming!’

Yes, you can accuse me of exaggerating in the name of making an argument. Except I’ve picked up dead dogs from cow fields and I don’t need to tell you how many lost dogs end up as dead dogs due to poor road sense.

And even if it doesn’t end up like that, I respect cows enough to know they don’t need a batty old mali cantering around after them to kiss them/chase them/whatever. My dogs are not more important in the universe that they get the automatic right to chase stuff.

And that’s my normal non-aggressive dog. Flighty Flika. Lead on.

Tilly has her lead on sometimes. Past vegetable plots and cow fields mainly. She is a spaniel and foraging for tomatoes, strawberries and cow pats is second nature. Again, mildly annoying, but she’s practically deaf now.

Amigo had his lead on most of the last few months. Canine dementia and deafness don’t tend to end well when they meet up with roads or forests.

Heston has his lead on most of the time. Whilst his prey drive is under control, he is too predictable with unpredictable joggers. That may only be 10 days out of 365, but even so. Lead off where I can see for miles. Lead on where I can’t.

What worries me though is this thought that many people seem to have that a dog ‘deserves’ to be off lead, that it ‘needs’ to be off-lead or that it has a right to be off-lead. I know I don’t have to share the story of the spaniel killed in Manchester for running up to two dogs. Sure, worst case scenario and rare, I know. Heston has never had a scrap with an off-lead dog running up to him, but every single time one runs up to him, it doesn’t do him any good at all. It’s not “friendly”. It’s over-friendly, it’s over-confident and it’s rude. A dog who rampages up to other dogs hasn’t got good manners and isn’t sociable. It is rude and bad mannered.

And I’ve had a battle with some clients to get them to understand that. Your dog is not friendly. It’s the equivalent of Donald Trump at a Playboy party.

Not only that, if your dog is fearful and might bolt, if they’re predatory and they might chase, or they’re aggressive and they might make a bit of a scene, you owe it to your dog to keep them safe. If they can’t be trusted not to eat rubbish, if they can’t be trusted not to chase a bike, if they can’t be trusted not to trot off into people’s veg plots and steal tomatoes, they need to be on a lead.

And the faces on clients when I say this!

It reminds me of an episode of some pet show whose name I can’t remember. Trainer Craig Ogilvie was working with this out-of-control labrador. The woman was horrified when he suggested she kept the dog on the lead to stop it barrelling up to other dogs and getting in scraps and to stop it eating animal excrement. It had already seen a vet for a number of reasons, gastrointestinal problems being one. She seriously looked as if giving the dog up would be a better solution than keeping it on lead. Mind you, seeing the dog walking on lead made me realise why she let it off so often. Our fearful, aggressive and predatory dogs, or those who like eating from Nature’s Buffet, can pull like steam trains and forget their learning.

But really?

You’d really rather relinquish your dog than put them on a lead?!

It’s too horrifying to think that they might be able to enjoy life beyond the house to somewhat less of a degree than the rule-less mayhem they were living in before?

Yes, I’ve had an argument with the owner of a German shepherd who had a nasty car-chasing habit. That was going to end really, really badly. But put him on a lead?

Deprive him of his freedom?

I said, ‘what would you prefer? 2000€ vets’ bills? A dead dog? or a safe dog?’

I don’t think that’s a ridiculous decision.

Yet it was as if I was suggesting the dog be locked in a glass prison like Hannibal Lector.

And there is also a vision that it will be forever.

It may be.

I’m not going to lie to you.

Certain problems may warrant the permanent wearing of a lead when out in public. A dog who has killed another animal is one. A dog who has bitten is another. Predation is a third reason as it can be really, really challenging to stop that automatic motor pattern. And a dog who is fearful and may disappear is another.

I always start out with that as my baseline. They may have to be on a lead on walks for the rest of their natural born lives to stop them getting splatted/kicked/bumped/squished/squashed/attacked/bitten/euthanised … and I can live with that.

After all, I clunk-click every trip.

My ‘freedom’ to not wear a seatbelt pales in significance with being alive.

But instead of seeing a lead like we see a seat-belt, as a useful thing that is a bit of a restriction but keeps us safe should the worst happen, we see leads as some kind of mobile prison.

I don’t understand that.

Not only that, if I am working with dogs on their fear or aggression, the last thing I want is them practising it.

We have this vision, don’t we, that ‘they’ll get used to it’, they’ll ‘get over it’.

Nope. They never get used to it. They never get over it. They just keep doing what they’re doing, getting better at it every time they practise.

From the relatively safe world of Tilly, who is practically always off-lead once away from cars, I also deal with dogs at the other end of the spectrum. Dogs who present an elevated level of fear, predation or aggression that it is so pronounced that they present a danger to themselves, to other animals or to people.

For incredibly fearful dogs like this, I would wonder if walks were beneficial, but I can envisage scenarios in which they may find pleasure in walks. And aggression too.

But these dogs don’t necessarily have to be completely deprived of a walk.

The first step is to ensure a two-lead system. One lead attached to a secure collar and to a secure joring or canicross belt. A secure harness (ruffwear webmaster is great – six buckles) that is regularly checked for safety and to make sure the buckles don’t fail. One dog I worked with has a harness that, even if the buckle fails, he’s still secure in it. A dog who is doubly attached – with lockable carabiner clips securing the lead at both ends – is a dog who can’t get away. They need to be walked by one person – a person whose entire focus is on that one dog. No phones. No music. No other dogs on lead. Balance harness, front attaching harness or even a conditioned head halter if necessary, although I hate these. Dogmatics is the only one I recommend or would use and only after extensive desensitisation to wearing it.

If they’ve a bite history or potential to bite, then a muzzle they’ve been gradually trained to wear is also a must.

And the final piece of the puzzle is a safe walk away from triggers, threats or prey. Drive if you have to. And if you get there, do a circuit in your car if necessary.

Never, ever lower your guard, even if you think it’s safe to do so without having had a really good risk assessment first.

One of the unpredictably aggressive dogs I work with lives like this. He has hundreds of great walks every year. His owners walk him three times a day. They drive to a number of pre-planned, pre-approved walks where they can predict and anticipate things that Niro sees as a threat. They have a great harness, a canicross belt with one bungee lead attached, a really great fixed length 3m lead and a muzzle.

And their dog is safe.

He enjoys his walks. He loves that time with them. He potters. He sniffs. They do some tracking work with him and scentwork. His aggression levels have dropped so significantly that we can now try other walks.

But as his owners said, “He’s never going to enjoy walks with other people or other dogs. He can cope now because of the training plan when he does see people or dogs. We even had a small terrier run up to us but because we always walk him together, my girlfriend went off to intercept the terrier and I walked off with Niro.”

Is that such a bad life?

In rural France, it’s definitely a possible life.

Sure, he is no longer wandering around town frightening old ladies or grabbing bikes by the tyres. He’s not barked at anyone on a walk for over 18 months. He doesn’t have the right to wander all over the place like he was, but he definitely wasn’t very good at doing that and the time he attacked a cat put an end to it.

In the meantime, because he’s not practising the behaviours any more, we can work on other things. One day, we might get to a one-lead situation, but we don’t have that as a goal. To be overly-ambitious or overly-confident about your dog’s ability to cope in the outside world is to place their safety and the safety of other people or animals in jeopardy.

This is absolutely one time when you’re better safe than sorry.

So don’t test your dog if you do have 100% recall. Keep a lead handy. I shan’t tell you about the annoying labrador man who goes jogging round our end without a lead. And his dog certainly does not have 100% recall.

Expect that, in the course of a dog’s life, that recall WILL fail at some point. Are you in safe enough circumstances as Flika was that it doesn’t matter? I promise you that what causes a recall failure won’t usually be a ‘safe’ situation!

Keep working on your recall and keep it strong and well-rewarded.

If you see dogs or people, ask first. Don’t let your dog run up first and then recall them. Those people may be happy to say hi to your dog, and if they’ve got a Flika, their dog may be glad to say hi. Ask first, that’s all.

And if your dog is bordering on 100% lead on, it’s worth investing in a behaviourist or positive trainer to help you overcome these issues.

In the meantime, no practising. There are so many ways that you can keep your dog safe without depriving them of exercise or stimulation, without them living like a hermit or a prisoner.

It may not be forever. You might just have to do this for the life of a modification plan.

But if not, it’s not the end of the world, is it? Safety trumps unlimited, ungoverned rule-less freedom every time.

Next up: how you can keep dogs safe in your home and garden if you have a dog with elevated risks of aggression, predation or fear.

Training Corner #9 Down

Why is “Down” one of those tricks that dogs really need in their repertoire?

“Down” (meaning lie down, not ‘get off’ or ‘get down’ – I use “Off” for that) is a great behaviour to help your dog learn how to settle, how to respond appropriately. It also helps them manage their emotions. An excited dog will find it hard to stay in a down, but equally a dog in a down will find it hard to stay excited.

Once you have a “Down” and a “Stay” (or a “Down” and a “Release” or “Break”/”Free”) then you can do distance work. It’s great for dogs who are hyperattached to you, who shadow you or follow you about. It’s also great for separation anxiety, and you’ll find a lot of programmes for separation anxiety ask you to train this behaviour. It’s brilliant for manners. A dog in a down is not jumping over your guests, or thieving from the table. It’s all about impulse control.

You’ll find down in competition work as well, if you want to do obedience or ringsports. It can be a way for dogs doing scent work to show that they’ve hit their target too. It’s not just a staple for basic manners. If you have a working gundog, a down is vital – you don’t want your dog getting in the way of the other animals or the guns. A down is as much about a settle and about impulse control as it is anything else.

You’ll find also several positions of down. One is the sphinx down.

This is the one you’ll find most in competition or in command work. Some dogs lie like this more naturally without being taught

And others have a more “side saddle” approach or a relaxed down, that won’t wash in competition but is great if you don’t fancy winning any medals

Some dogs also have a kind of “spatchcock chicken” or froggie leg down

Whichever works for your dog is great if you don’t have a preference. I think they’ll tend to choose the one that is most comfortable. I’ve never seen any of mine except Tilly do the spatchcock chicken one. She never does a sphinx one. Heston does sphinx and side-saddle, and so did Amigo. You can always also teach both. I like a side-saddle down for a relax, and a sphinx down as a down that means “you’re still on the clock, dog!” simply because side-saddle seems to be easier on the joints and is more akin to a normal resting position. My sphinx down is just “Down”, and my soft relaxed down is “Settle”.

So whatever works for you is fine unless you are doing competitions. It’s the stillness that counts.

If you are planning on doing obedience, you might want to follow a special programme to help you with positions and making them exact from the beginning, but for the rest of us, it’s not such a big deal. If you’re planning on doing competitions, you’ll want to be working on transitions and you’re better off checking out with an obedience competition trainer before you even start this behaviour, as the way they do it is a hard habit to change or break.

So, how do you teach a “Down?”

The fastest way is to lure a couple of times with a treat in your hand, and then to fake the dog out, use an empty hand as a lure and then reward in position. Where you reward is vital. If you are standing and you don’t reward in place, you’ll end up with a dog who ‘pops up’ quickly and finds it harder to do a sustained down.

Something to be aware of: if you’ve already taught a sit, you can lure from a sit, but your dog may always think it has to sit first.

You want your dog to know down from a standing position as well as down from a sit.

Just a note: trainer extraordinaire Kathy Sdao says that “Down” is very close to “Bow” in sound, so if you’re teaching a bow first (which well you might) you might want a word or phrase that is different. She uses “Queen” in “Who’s your Queen?” and “Tah-dah!” for her dog bows, which is pretty cute.

If you have a little dog, putting them on a table or higher platform can really help you. Then you can see what you are doing. Groomers’ tables are great for this, but you can just as well use the kitchen or dining room table. I like to do this with my big dogs as well – some vets insist on using a table and nothing is worse than trying to yoink a 30kg dog onto a table in the vets. If you’ve got an ‘on’ and a ‘down’, you’ve got a dog who can do it by themselves. Stick a chin target in there and you’ve a dog who has three perfect behaviours in the vet office

Once you’ve taught this behaviour, you’re in a great position to teach down at a distance, down in areas with more distractions, down on a mat. You can teach them to cross their paws too, which is also cute.

You can use it for down in their bed and teach new behaviours that are rooted firmly in this behaviour. It’s also good for ‘roll over’ (called ‘show me your wiener’ and ‘show me your lady’ in this house) which will be another trick to teach in the future as it’s GREAT for all kinds of animal husbandry, nail clipping and undercarriage maintenance. You can also use it to teach a ‘play dead’ or a full roll-over.

Once you’ve taught it, you can build it up until it’s a really strong behaviour in all kinds of environments and for all kinds of variable durations. Add distractions, add things that are going to make them want to pop up, and practise – practise – practise!


Training Corner #8 Chin Touch

So, you’ve already learned nose-to-hand touch, and if you’ve got a young nose bopper, they’ll have taken to it straight away. Why would you also want a chin target?

The answer is pretty simple. A nose touch is great fun for bopping. But generally, I’ve found it pretty hard to get a sustained nose target where your dog holds their nose there for a longer period of time. For masters of clicker training, it’s fine. If you’ve got great timing and a patient dog, you can prolong those nose targets for longer and longer periods.

But for us mere mortals with shouty dogs or teenage dogs, it’s not so easy.

I think there’s a reason for that. I want you to imagine those poor children in the past who were sent to stand in the corner as a punishment. Not looking at things and being up close to a surface is not pleasant in itself. I think Lidy likes bopping things with her nose. She bops me with her nose often enough. But to train her to sustain that nose targeting would be hard work and not particularly rewarding for either of us. It’d be like standing in the corner with nothing to see as a punishment.

A chin target is much less difficult in that it asks the dog to do something that is much less unpleasant in itself. Therefore, I think the psychology behind why it’s easier to build it up so your dog can hold their head there is much more straightforward: it’s not unpleasant. They can see you. You can get eye contact with them. They have more freedom to see the world around them.

Chin targeting to a hand is sometimes called a ‘calming chin target’. In reality there’s nothing particularly calming about it. It just asks a dog to hold a position. But it has the bonus of calming too, for many dogs. It’s all that being still.

Because we mere mortals can get a sustained chin target more easily, where we want to keep a dog in place, it’s great for getting your dog to be still. Chin targeting is great for vet visits, animal husbandry, clipping nails, and it can be pretty cute if you train it to other places as well. Who can resist a dog who comes up and places their chin on your lap? It’s an inoffensive and quite charming way to get attention in ways that don’t involve barking, dancing, humping, yapping, pawing or mouthing. If you have a dog who likes to get your attention, it is a nice target to teach, providing you have a dog at the right height! If you have a little dog, you can also teach them to target to a foot.

This is Chirag Patel using what I’d say is a half and half chin/nose target for vet stuff… so you can see how useful it is. Also a very good one to teach for muzzle training too.

Since the dog can remove their head at any point (it’s their choice to place it there), you can then use it for consent with handling, vaccinations and so on. It stops their eyes wandering and minimises panic. A chin targeted on my hand is a way of communicating between you. Your dog’s head on your hand is a way for your dog to say, “this is okay. I’m fine with this.”

It’s also nice for many dogs too, because many dogs like the under chin petting or scratching. They seem to prefer it much more than the old pat on the head that so many people are so fond of.

Most of us are just going to use this to encourage calm behaviours especially around distractions, but it can be good also for therapy dogs or assistance dogs.

For chin targeting, you need a good cue. You can, of course, use ‘chin’, but if you’re going to teach ‘spin’ later, you might want something less similar. Luckily, the actions are very different, so it’s not perhaps as confusing as ‘down’ and ‘bow’, for example.

I use the word ‘place’ for Lidy and Heston. Amigo’s cue was ‘Be Cute!’ as he targeted my knees with his chin. I use ‘Chin’ with Tilly because I have no desire or need to teach her how to spin, and I taught her last. I have no idea why I didn’t stick with ‘place’, but that’s humans for you. You can have different cues for different places you want the dog to target. I think ‘Be cute!’ would be a nice one to follow on from ‘Place!’ or ‘Chin!’

You will need also to make sure that your dog knows what to do with the rest of its body. Do you want them to sit, stand or lie down? A down and a chin target on your knee leaves your hands free for all sorts of things. You can ask for a down and then a chin target very easily.

Chin targets are another way, along with Watch! or a nose target, that you can keep your dog focused on you if they are aggressive, reactive or fearful. If you have an over-excited dog, it can help with that too. I really like this behaviour for fearful dogs: it really seems to offer them security to have that contact, but you may need to do a little work to get them used to your hand approaching them.

Since you need your dog to be calm, you may need to think about what you’re using as reinforcement and how you are marking the behaviour you like. If the food is really too overexciting, you can use less valuable food, or try this after they’ve had a good meal with some of their regular food as the reward. Using a toy is not particularly a good tactic unless you are working with a super-focused dog who has impulse control in the bag. Not impossible but one to save for those times where you want to give more of a challenge.

Remember, don’t lean over your dog or crowd them.

If your dog already has a good hand touch, it’s easy to slip your other hand under their chin and hold your target hand a little away from their nose. You can also use your Wait! or your Watch! commands as part of it. It’s easy to lure the behaviour at the beginning to help your dog understand what behaviour you want them to do.

You may find, as with a nose-to-hand target, that your dog tries to paw you, especially if they’ve already learned ‘paw’ as a command. This is why I don’t teach paw until much later in the sequence. Once you’ve taught paw movements, there’s no going back, and it can lead to a lot of trialling with pawing. I find dogs learn to distinguish quickly between this and a nose target, because your hand is in a different position completely. If you have already taught paw, you may find that bringing your dog closer to you so that they can’t move their paw up so easily may help you.

You can also teach your dog to place their chin on other things, like chairs or low tables. As I’ve said, I like a lap target. Can you just imagine if you walked into a busy vet surgery and every dog was docked on their owners’ lap like Amigo was with me? How easy would those vet visits be?!

This great video also shows you how to capture only behaviour where there is no paw offered.

You can also use a mat or towel as part of the learning process too, which will also stop dogs offering the behaviour all the time. As usual, if the behaviour is on cue (ie you only reward it with food or petting when you ask for it) you’ll stop that behaviour popping out willy-nilly, spilling out whenever you don’t want it. Nobody wants a dog coming and sticking its chin on you when you’re fast asleep!

As you can see, it’s a great and versatile behaviour that allows you to do all kinds of animal husbandry and grooming once you’ve built it up. It’s also one of the most endearing ways to teach your dog a polite way to get your attention. A dog who jumps all over you isn’t great, but a dog who places his chin on your lap is a dream. It’s a nice way for your dog to say ‘hi! I’d love a bit of a fuss please!’


In tribute to my Amigo, who died on March 29th 2018.

The best chin rest I ever knew.

Training Corner #7 Fetch!

Last week, I was looking at “Take it!”, which is a great behaviour to teach a dog as part of programmes to keep their mouths busy. It also teaches them to wait for permission before putting something in their mouths. If you’ve taught “Wait!” then “Take it!” is the perfect cue to let your dogs know that now is the time that they can get what it is they’re waiting for, if it’s a toy or a food item. “Take it!” and “Leave it!” are great skills to help dogs understand what they can and can’t have. They’re both great for impulse control and for helping your dogs understand about patience.

“Take it!” is also great for avoiding potential guarding problems. A dog who is adept at “Drop!”, “Wait!”, “Take it!” and “Leave it!” is a dog who is happy to learn how to trade with you. A food or toy guarder, by their very nature, has already learned to use their mouth to help them out, and so putting those behaviours on cue and making them fun helps you avoid all manner of self-employed robbery, pick-pocketing and menacing later in your puppy’s life.

Once you’ve got “Take it!”, you can use it so easily every time your dog eats even if you feed from a bowl twice a day. That’s at least 14 trials of “Wait!” and “Take it!” every single week, even if you don’t play much with your dogs.

“Fetch!” is another really useful behaviour, as well as a trick. Whilst holding stuff in their mouth, carrying it and giving it up are great, “Fetch!” is lots of fun and takes it that bit further.

Obviously, you can’t teach fetch without a good hold!

When I first got Heston six years ago, nobody thought to tell me that it’s easier to work backwards. Luckily, he quickly got the notion to bring things back to me. It’s one of the reasons I was convinced he was a retriever X. And he has a bit of labrador in those genes for sure. But if you have a terrier, how many of us throw a toy for our puppy only for them to teach themselves a M-A-G-N-I-F-I-C-E-N-T new game… a terrier’s favourite game… “Chase me!”

Picture the scene…

You throw a toy. Your terrier runs after it delightedly. It picks the toy up. You call your terrier back… and…. it runs off into the distance to dissect it under a bush.

Some terrier owners have got savvy to this and use flirt poles and tug toys, knowing that a terrier can’t run off with a flirt pole and they love a game of tug almost as much as they love a game of “Chase me!”

Other dogs don’t get that they’re meant to a) grab the toy or b) bring it back. Effel my foster beauceron spent weeks chasing tennis balls happily, never even nosing the ball. Not a chance he was going to pick it up and bring it back.

Tobby my ancient old rescue mali got as far as “Take it!” before he arrived here and never wanted to relinquish, chase or retrieve.

Not everyone is lucky to have themselves a Heston who learns forward first by chasing a ball, picking it up and bringing it back.

But fetching stuff is such a great skill. If you don’t fancy a walk, if they’ve got a burst of energy, if you want to keep your dog near you when off-lead, if you want a part-time assistance dog who can pick up your washing and bring it to you, fetch is a skill that makes the most of our human-canine bond. It gives dogs a helpful job to do at times. At others, it keeps them occupied and helps them burn off steam. You can see why so many people who have working scent dogs use ‘Fetch!’ with their dogs.

Pair it up with “Find it!” or scenting and you have a very, very good game of hide-and-seek that can be used for so many reasons. First, it’s a great game to keep your dogs busy. Second it’s a very useful thing. Attach a special keyring to your keys and if you’ve got a dog who’s been trained to find it and fetch them, you’re never going to lose your keys again.

“Fetch!” has practical applications in all sorts of dog activities: obedience, ringsports, frisbee, gundog trials to name but four. It’s such an addictive activity that many professional trainers use it as the reward for their detection dogs. When you see a dog searching an avalanche for humans, you might not even wonder why they’re doing it. Often, why they’re doing it is that their game (whatever it is) is based on successful location of an item. They may work for hours on bombsites or on earthquake sites, in busy airports or in nightclubs simply for a game. Along with tug, it’s one of the tricks up the sleeve of many professional trainers, and you can often see a sneaky tug toy or ball on handlers. And if you’ve got a dog working around drugs, excrement or human bodies, you can see why you need a game and not a food reward.

A dog who has a mild obsession with “Fetch!” is a dog who is hanging around you on a walk. Guess how far Heston is from me on walks when I have his favourite squeaky rugby ball? For many dogs, toys end up being a much more powerful reward than food. It also fulfills very different needs. It’s not about eating. It’s about play. It taps into predatory behaviours. A dog who has a good “Fetch!” has a behaviour that you can use instead of food.

And that is the side-effect of games like this: they can be highly addictive to your dog, so be aware of that before you start. As with all physical games, make sure you are on even terrain, that your dog is in good health and that you are not playing two hours of Fetch with a young dog whose bones are still growing. It’s one reason why I like to teach a dog to come around the back of me and chase the ball or toy rather than dancing around in front of me waiting for me to throw it. They at least have a chance of seeing where they are going, and yes, I know dogs daft enough to run into trees or over the edge of a slope or cliff because they are that fixated on the target. It’s one reason I prefer ‘Find it!’ and ‘Fetch!’ eventually, because that way you a) aren’t being pestered as often to throw something and b) your dog isn’t that fixated on a ball that they’ll run into a fence.

To teach “Fetch!”, it’s really helpful to have a “Drop!” cue and a “Take it!” behaviour so that the dog is used to taking things in their mouth and they’re also used to giving them up. If you’ve taught “Give!” as a separate behaviour to “Drop!” you’ll find your dog more able to give to your hand and differentiate between that and spitting something out on the floor. That might not seem so important until you’ve got a really bad back and you don’t understand why your dog keeps dropping stuff on the floor instead of putting it in your hands. You may also want to think about teaching “Take it!” as a cue that means “take from hands” compared to “Get it!” which means “take from wherever it is”. That is also useful for precision. In themselves, they aren’t massively different to us, but they are to a dog. That can help you with troubleshooting, and also with a ‘business retrieve’ for competition work.

A dog who thinks “Take it!” means always from your hands won’t perhaps generalise that it also means they can get things from the floor, from a table, from under a bush. This is why I use “Get it!” as well. “Take it!” is for things on my person. “Get it!” is for things that are not on my person.

A dog who thinks “Drop!” means the item must go on the floor isn’t going to understand why you keep holding your hand out. “Give!” is a nice way to get them to give it to your hand rather than “Drop!”. You might not think that is important until you have a dog who’s brought back a mangled pheasant or you want to spit out half a clod of chewed-up cowpat.

Here’s a great video on training the whole “Fetch!” behaviour, back to front.

Start with mouthing and holding the object, then holding it for longer periods of time.

You then start throwing the object short distances before increasing the distance.

One of the biggest problems can be getting the dog to hold the object for longer periods of time. If that’s happening, you will need to slowly shape that hold, so that the dog is doing it for longer and longer periods. Make sure you choose something that is easy for the dog to hold (which is why I started Effel on tennis balls even though I don’t ever use tennis balls when playing fetch) and that the dog is rewarded for holding.

Once you have a great fetch behaviour, you’ve got a brilliant way to encourage recall, to keep a dog working with you in your space instead of buggering off and to keep your dog fit. For your dog, there are two types of reward: those you have to teach them to like, and those you don’t. You don’t have to teach a dog that sausage is yummy. You do have to teach them that fetching is fun. Some of these ‘secondary’ reinforcers that need teaching at first then become ‘primary’ – you don’t need to keep rewarding a dog with hot dog for it to still be fun. It’ll always be fun whether it comes with hot dog or not. Whereas normally, an taught reinforcement, like Pavlov’s bell, stops meaning anything fun once you break the connection with the primary reward. If you ‘de-couple’ hotdogs and bells, the bell stops making the dog salivate. That happens if you stop pairing your clicker or your marker word with a reward. That’s not true though when you de-couple hot dog and fetch games. Then fetch is fun all on its own.

For many dogs, a game becomes much more fun than food ever can be.

That’s why Heston’s Game Face looks more excited and interested than his Food Face.

Now that Game Face is great for focus – and it’s what handlers look for in competition, in agility, in trials, in work. Don’t get me wrong, some dogs are happy with food. My cocker spaniel Tilly is one of those. But other dogs have other drives. Playing fetch is a great way to tap into those.

Besides, even the most crass of the punishment-based trainer accept that game play is a happy middle ground. Although if you follow these methods, you’ve got no need for old-fashioned ear pinches or other cruel and unethical methods!

Here’s Philippa Williams’ amazing gundogs at Crufts showing what you might do with your “Fetch!”

But you could also use it as a base to help your dog find your keys, fetch their lead, bring your slippers, fetch the newspaper or just enjoy a good old game in the garden! A ‘Fetch!’ junkie has a very reinforcing behaviour in their repertoire that you can use as a reward for all sorts of other behaviours.

As always, be careful with what you ask your dog to fetch. With rebounds and direct catches, there is a risk that the item can get lodged in the dog’s mouth. Ropes can get all yucky and germy. Frisbees can be awfully heavy. Make sure you check out safety concerns, don’t use tennis balls or small balls that could end up choking your dog, and make sure you keep the objects clean. It’s a good time to check out a canine first aid course so you’re prepared for small hiccups when you start doing anything remotely energetic with your dog.

So far in the series:

#Hand touch

#Wait & Leave it




#Take it

Why I’m re-thinking my puppy nipping advice

As with many things in my dog world, a confluence of experiences has led me to re-think puppy biting. Two of those are an 8-month old JRT that I’m working with at the moment, who is a horrendous landshark, and an 11-month old labrador who is giving quite hard bites to his retriever friend during play. Another two are two young dogs at the refuge, one a seven-month old husky and the other a young pointer cross, who haven’t learned to play nicely with their friends or with humans. Couple that with having had a fair few puppies here in foster, what I do with kittens to help them get over a bitey stage, and a video of a malinois puppy in a park clearly having the time of her life biting her owner’s trousers…. and then a facebook thread that really defined it for me.

But it’s that video of the 8-week old malinois that got me. You know I have a soft spot for them.

The man was doing all the things I would have advised – say “ow!”, walk away (but he was completely unable to in that case, with his puppy on a lead in a park). To be fair, whilst I was laughing a bit, there was nothing inherently “wrong” with what he was doing  – other than the fact he maybe shouldn’t have had a malinois if he didn’t have a bag of 50 tricks up his sleeve to stop them turning into landsharks.  It’s all advice I’ve handed out glibly in the past. Maybe saying “this breed” or “that breed” is too challenging for most owners to teach bite inhibition to isn’t working and we really should be asking why our methods of teaching puppies what to bite and what not to needs a bit of consideration instead of glibly-given well-meant advice about yelping and withdrawing.

Traditional wisdom says that puppies learn from their litter-mates and that their siblings’ yelping is the thing that helps them moderate their bite. And I think there is a lot to be said for that. Should we biped apes also yelp or have a word we say to signal the end of play, then walk off?

Is that working for us?

It’s certainly advice that’s handed out ALL the time.

BUT… but…

Is that really true, or is it just something we say that may be true and we don’t really know how it functions – it just seems to? Is it functioning as well as we think it is?

Do puppies and their mums really yelp and interrupt play?

Does this moderate bite behaviour?

Does it moderate bite behaviour in the way we think it does?

And if it does, is it valid that we should use the same methods?

Those are all very big questions that need asking, and they’re questions I’ve been asking myself. Experience seems to be taking me down a different path. Also, when I really reflected on it and started processing those thoughts, I didn’t like the answers, reasons and justifications I was finding.

Because I’ve had litters of pups here who did very little biting at all. How do they learn bite inhibition if they never do it?

And I’ve had puppies here who I’ve had to split up because the risk of injury is huge. One puppy pinned and bit her brother so hard that he squealed for a good minute before his siblings came in and it ended as an all-out gang war.

And why does my lovely Heston have such great bite inhibition if he only grew up with only one sibling for his first six weeks, and no mum to correct him? How, in those two weeks of being truly mobile before he came to me, did he learn an inhibited bite? Certainly, he never, ever made either Molly or Tilly squeal. They never told him off. Though he bit me by accident a few times in play, it really was an accident. I can say categorically that no squealing happened under my roof.

Traditional wisdom would say that Heston would have poor bite skills. Yet he has had five contact ritualised fights with three dogs in among the hundreds of dogs he has met and lived with, and never put a tooth on them. Not even when one of them was my bitey foster beauceron who had been boisterous when he shouldn’t have been and there was 80kg of black fur flying over a bit of doorway bouncing.

He played primarily with adult dogs from week 6 to week 16. The only other puppies he met was his brother and sister, and they never had yelpy fights. But he never hurt those adult dogs. They never yelped. He never got pinned or barked at. How did he grow up with such precision biting and great inhibition even in anger or fear?

Let’s look at the first line in the argument for yelping and disengaging as a teaching method.

Puppies learn to moderate their bite by their siblings yelping and disengaging.

First, is this true?

For the first weakness in the line of argument that supports us doing the same is that a) this happens and b) this happens for the purpose we say it does.

Now I don’t doubt that puppies yelp. I’ve seen it. I know some litters who’ve been shouting balls of yelping hot messes by six weeks, and some litters who’ve not uttered a peep, nor engaged in the kind of biting that would lead to a yelp. JP Scott and John Fuller are the “go-to” guide with their 1950s and 1960s work about socialisation. Scott was first and foremost a behavioural geneticist, as was John Fuller. They worked at Bar Harbor in the Jackson Laboratories. The laboratories were 30 years into a career of genetic research, and Scott and Fuller’s work was conducted over many generations of breeding. That they used dogs to explore how behaviour is inherited is kind of coincidental. They took five breeds, raised them in a variety of situations and raised them and their crossbreeds in a variety of situations. It is the biggest single piece of research on socialisation and it has given canine science its understanding of sensitive periods, canine development and genetically-driven behaviours.

Their work allows us to understand a bit more about bite behaviours and play.

They said:

“Playful fighting appears early in the transition period (from 3 weeks). At first the young puppies seem to be acting in slow motion, clumsily pawing and mouthing their litter mates without producing any real damage. As they grow older their teeth become longer, and a puppy which gets hold of a sensitive spot, such as the ear, may be answered by a yelp of pain.”

They noted that development is different for different breeds, with terriers in their study being more developmentally advanced at a younger age. The cocker spaniels and shelties were quite a long way behind. Some crossbreeds developed fastest of all. Two things happen around Day 21 and 22: a startle response and first teeth start coming in. Play fighting undergoes a massive increase at this time as well, and by day 27, most breeds and crossbreeds were play-fighting. There are some other interesting observations about reactions to shock and food, and a suggestion that younger puppies (3 weeks – 6 weeks) are in some way protected from the psychological impact of pain.

Does this mean they can bite at a young age and not have psychological fallout maybe? But what’s the implication for doing it when that bubble of protection from emotional fallout is over?

As they age, we get to the really interesting bit. The socialisation period. Observations suggested that motherly growling and puppy yelping was more to do with their attempts to continue nursing. This certainly fits with the litters I’ve had here and those we’ve raised at the refuge. Mum is increasingly less tolerant of puppies’ attempts to nurse and she’ll growl in their face. Not to do with play fighting, then.

Some of the bitey play-fighting is perhaps about breed, and Scott and Fuller’s work makes that clear. No prizes for guessing that the yelpiest, most bitey bunches of my fosters were bully mixes or terriers.

You can see a litter of Golden retrievers here (first video on Youtube when I searched puppies playing in litter):

Now there’s some vocalising and whining – and some mouthing. I don’t think the vocalising and whining is actually directed at a biter. Focus on one or two pups and their mouthing, and see how it stops. I can see four or five times when the puppy targeted just turns away. Here, fellow, this is my rump. I saw that – leaning away and turning to give a rump a few times following a bite.

But maybe they’re too young to be yelping and their teeth are not painful enough? Maybe they’re yelping all the other 1398 minutes of the day?

It’s possible.

Here’s some older beagle pups.

Lots of vocalisation, mostly related to the barrier. Maybe they too are doing their bite-yelp learning in the other 1392 minutes of the day. As for the other vocalisation, Scott and Fuller note that confining or separating a puppy can elicit all kinds of vocalisation:

“A puppy left alone in a strange place yelps loudly and continuously, producing the maximum number of vocalizations when it is 6 to 7 weeks old”

There’s lots of distress vocalisation on the beagle video (it’s the first non-musical Youtube video I got when I searched 5 week old puppies playing in litter) but you see some play too, including bites. But these are not puppies who are teaching each other bite inhibition through the strength of their bites. Are they too old or too young then or do we just not see it in this clip? Several of those play incidents involving bite are unreciprocated and the other puppy just walks off. Now I don’t know about you, but I guess that means the bite already didn’t hurt in play at 5 weeks of age. You do get a lot of ‘grrr grr grrr’ practice growls though. I suspect that a lot of the distress is the fact of the person videoing on the other side of the barrier, or maybe mum.

More beagles with playing. Lots of airsnaps and grr-grring, but no yelping.

And some GSDs playing too…

Then I went looking for more of these supposed yelps, but despite a good hour of various videos (many with music over them – grrr!) I found very few. Not a surprise. Who’d upload a video of their puppies squealing on Youtube? Mind you, plenty of people upload videos of their dogs and kids engaged in all kinds of uncomfortable play, so I’m sure it’s not the only reason I found so few.

It comes back to that lovely conditional that Scott and Fuller use. Puppies may yelp.

It’s a may, not a must or a will. May. As in, they might. It’s possible.

So in answer to my first question, puppies may yelp when bitten. But it’s not a given or an essential part of the learning curve.

But learning theory tells us that either classical associations or operant learning are reliant, at least at the beginning, on a high ratio of ‘this then that’. Over 90% for classical conditioning, and a fixed ratio of reward for operant. Can a puppy who is getting spasmodic feedback at best about his bite strength really be using that spasmodic feedback to influence their learning?

It’s a question. I don’t know the answer. I suspect I know, but I don’t have any data. I’d think the link between yelping and learning is too infrequent to be the major contributing factor to why a puppy learns to bite its siblings more gently. Plus, those goldens are already, at four weeks, showing bite inhibition.

Maybe the problem comes later in development?

Scott and Fuller noticed a problem emerging around 7 weeks, one I noticed myself with a couple of litters…

“At about 7 weeks of age (the time when final weaning from the breast begins and mothers begin to threaten their offspring), puppies left with their mothers begin to attack each other in groups. The animal against whom the attack is directed is sometimes a small and weak individual, but it also may be a large and aggressive one. In most breeds this “ganging up” is temporary and playful.”

That sounds normal. Except for their notes about the fox terriers, one of the five breeds of dog in the trial.

“In the fox terrier breed, however, such group attacks are persistent and become so serious that the victim has to be removed in order to prevent serious injury”

Now that suggests something about bites. It suggests that for some breeds, groups or individuals, biting increases, not decreases.

That’s something to think about.

Biting has been reinforced and it has increased.

We might want to go as far as saying that biting is – dare I say it? – pleasurable or rewarding.

So from all of this…

Do puppies yelp? Why of course they do. Maybe less than we’d think though.

Is the purpose of yelping to communicate the end of play? Nope. Highly doubtful. I yelp because it hurt. It’s not to tell you that it hurt but because it caused pain. It’s not some feedback-loop where I’ll let you try again. Does the other puppy learn from it? Maybe. I’d suspect it’s the end of play that they learn from, which may or may not be related to biting or bite strength. Sometimes when one of my terrier pups hurt the other, all hell would break loose and it would end in an aggressive retaliation. Is that something we might want to try just because puppies do it? Aggressive retaliation definitely says, “bro, you bit me too hard!”

So just because puppies yelp doesn’t automatically translate that it’s a code to help their siblings modify their bite. Some puppies don’t learn to modify their attacks with their siblings and bites spill over to aggression that is so severe that groups have to be separated. But nothing says those puppies go on to have a hard mouth with humans.

Whether or not puppies yelping and finishing play relates to learning about bite inhibition is a notion I’m not entirely sold on.

And even if it were, it raises ethical issues for me.


Can we really take our cues from how puppies and their mums behave with each other? Since the yelp and disengage comes right from the ‘this is how dogs behave with each other’ school of thought. That is, if you accept the premise that a) puppies do this with each other frequently enough to learn from it and b) it is designed to aid the other puppy modify its bite.

My problem is that I don’t like that school of thought about mimicking canine behaviour. It starts with yelping like puppies and ends with justifying Cesar Millan and alpha rolls. And even if puppies were to yelp and disengage (which I don’t think all do, and certainly not as frequently as they’d need to for some sustained learning) then should we be copying that? That’s the school of thought that gives us “scruff your dog because the mother dog does” or even “spit in their mouths because the mother dog does”. I kid you not. It’s the justification for prong collars, and the ‘pinch’ of a mother’s jaw in punishment. It’s the justification for all sorts of human attempts to communicate with dogs in “their” language. Why is it that we don’t mimic the pro-social things dogs do with each other, but we want to mimic those that are punishers? I don’t get it.

Now I’m not equating yelping with prong collars, but the logic is the same. Dogs communicate this way, so I’ll use this method to communicate also.

And whilst you might be happy with that, it doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t growl or airsnap at my dogs, hump them, lick their penises or sniff their arses. I don’t lick their wee and do Hannibal Lector face, nor do I wag at them with a pretend tail. I thought positive dog training had come further than this.

So that put paid to the ‘puppies do it to each other’ logic of the argument for me. You might feel differently, I know, especially if you’ve found it to be effective.

Now let’s talk about the human-canine learning loop. Is it effective learning? If so, how does it work?

It took me back to learning theory. Sorry. This is going to get a bit technical. I apologise.

It’s all about consequences, this yelping and disengaging business. The consequence is that a noise is made, play stops and the other party disengages. We’re not talking antecedents and reflexive behaviours, bells and salivation. We’re talking behaviours and consequences.

That’s the realm of Skinner.

Press red lever, get reward. Press yellow lever, get shock.

In other words, play nice and play continues. Play badly and play ends. It’s the puppy’s choice.

That got me thinking about training methods, ethics, emotional fallout….

We know behaviour does two things: increase (or maintain) or decrease.

That’s it. It doesn’t get simpler than that.

Either biting gets more or biting gets less.

A yelp or sound and a disengage is intended to make the biting diminish. I’m not using it to encourage good play to continue, except as a by-product of learning that play stops if you nip me, puppy.

That belongs to the ‘punisher’ side of learning. Something aversive is applied which makes the behaviour decrease. Or good stuff stops which also intends to make behaviour decrease.

We know that if behaviour decreases, then it’s got to be aversive. It has to be, otherwise behaviour wouldn’t decrease. Call it what you want: unpleasant, disagreeable, bad… whatever word you use for a ‘punisher’, that’s what this behaviour is doing.

Some people are going to say that a ‘yelp’ is a No-Reward Marker. Like a click marks a good behaviour, the yelp marks a bad behaviour.

Except I don’t think it is.

In fact, I was surprised to see an article about yelping and disengaging on Karen Pryor’s clicker training site, to be honest.

A marker is a signal that was once neutral but has come to be a way to communicate to an animal that what they are doing right at that moment is exactly what you want. It’s also known as an ‘event marker’. Clicker trainers like the precision and the neutrality of the click and we all know that a click always and always absolutely has to be paired with a reward. Another name for a marker is a bridging stimulus, which signals ‘good stuff’ or ‘bad stuff’ is coming. A click, or a yes, or a good is a signal that something will happen that’s reinforcing to the dog – play, petting, food and so on. Some people use negative ones too as a warning. The beep before electric shock is one example.

Now a no-reward marker (NRM) is, in the words of Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training site, ‘a signal that says ‘no, that’s not what I want, try again.’

Fair enough.

I don’t use no-reward markers in training because they can be frustrating, can provoke aggression and they can hinder learning. There’s only really one study about NRMs, Rotenberg (2015) who concluded that using them wasn’t as effective at helping dogs learn as just ignoring mistakes was.

That’s right. No-reward markers are pretty useless and they hinder learning.

If you like Kathy Sdao, and I do, listen to her talking about using NRM over speakers with dolphins. She doesn’t like them either.

A no-reward marker should be neutral, like a click is for marking a behaviour. It’s like the beep on a shock collar. You could equally have a different kind of noise or a meaningless word like “snip” as a NRM. You don’t need a yelp or a no or an ow. Many people use No as a no-reward marker, but that doesn’t sit well with me.

No, ow, yelping… they’re not neutral sounds.

They’re laden with emotion.

For example, I do a lot of marker training with Lidy the mali at the shelter. She is super-savvy and very operant. I use ‘nice’ or ‘yes’, and it’s so precise. I made the mistake of flipping from practising holds with object in one session to practising nose targets with objects on the next. That was stupid of me and I got a bit of biting and picking up the object. Lidy didn’t know what I wanted her to do. By marking just before she picked the object up, she quickly cottoned on to the fact I was asking for a touch not a hold. So precise. Over time, yes means great things and I can get away with the occasional marker without a reward, but ‘yes’ or ‘nice’ are meaningless to Lidy, and so if I stop rewarding, they’ll lose the association much more quickly than you’d expect.

Markers are supposed to be neutral.

Now I said ‘no’ to her the other day, and I said ‘Let go!’ – she’d grabbed something she shouldn’t have. Wow, did that take a lot out of our trust account! The look on her face! It really said, “Bitch, make me!” Needless to say, I didn’t get what she’d taken. I said “Out!” and she dropped it straight away and I said “yes!” and gave her some ham.

Because our words have tone and tone expresses emotion. It’s why animal trainers like clickers and why I like ‘yes!’ (because I can go “yeeesssssss!” when she really gets it, and I’ve always got my mouth with me).

So if you’re going to use a no-reward marker, don’t pick a word that conveys emotion. Pick something meaningless like “try again”.

But therein lies the rub.

A NRM is about trying again, about keeping going, about perseverance until you get it right.

Yelping or saying ouch then disengaging is not giving a dog a chance to keep going.

So it’s not a no-reward marker. It may well be a warning that good stuff will end, like a threat before a time out. And that’s most likely what that yelp should be. If you’re using an NRM, then you should give the opportunity to try again, not stop the play completely. Even a shock collar gives a warning for the behaviour to change.

So if the yelp is not a warning and it’s not an NRM, what are we using it for? We might as well just leave and have a temporary time out.

My problem with time outs is that they are frustrating. You’re stopping the good stuff. You’re also doing it with a young animal who is aroused. Arousal doesn’t tend to dissipate so easily when you’re frustrated. In fact, it just makes you more aroused and more frustrated. Just a thought, but is there a connection between frustration and arousal and dogs who bite you as you leave? I’m not saying time-out training is growing monster dogs, but what are we teaching our dogs if we walk away and they’re feeling bitey? I’ve had a good few stories of bites in the butt that mark that perfect combination of frustration and arousal.

So the time-out may come with emotional fallout, especially for a young puppy who hasn’t learned much about impulse control yet.

On the flip side of that ‘P’ quadrant, the absence could also be a punisher. Remember Scott and Fuller’s comment about distress vocalisations in young puppies? Plenty of puppies think that the group splitting up is distressing.

It leaves me, whichever way I cut and slice it, firmly in the ‘P’ section of the quadrant, along with its nasty side-effects and fallout.

I hate that. Not a quadrant I like to operate in unless I absolutely have exhausted reinforcement first.

And a yelp and a disengage/temporary time-out are often proposed first before any other intervention!

Of course, you want to decrease biting and bite strength. That leaves you on the Punishment side of the quadrant.

You have to rephrase it if you want to increase stuff, like increasing soft bites, increasing no biting and increasing non-human/animal biting.

Then you can use your R+ methods… all that good stuff.

The quickest way to replace an unwanted behaviour is to build up a wanted behaviour, like biting a toy. That satisfies the bite urge perfectly. I’d use caution here. John Rogerson says don’t teach tug if you haven’t got a perfect ‘drop’, and I second that wholeheartedly. Do you know what I do prefer? A bit of chase and bite. The first parts of retrieve.

Do you know why? Chasing a ball or a toy gets the bitey young landshark AWAY from you. It’s a perfectly incompatible behaviour. Can’t bite if you’re on the other side of the room. It also helps with retrieves, practising that chase and bite. It satisfies the bitey urge in ways that absence and ouches do not. You can use this with a toy or with food even, if you haven’t got a great ‘drop!’ behaviour.

Some people are going to say that if you redirect a dog onto a toy – either in tug or in chase – you are rewarding the biting. Do you know what? The same argument could be made about ALL behaviours where the dog is doing something inappropriate and you ask it to do something else which you then reward. Don’t bite me, bite this. Don’t jump on me, give me a sit. Don’t bark, carry a toy. It’s not entirely ludicrous. If you only ever use a tug toy or play chase when your dog is biting you, then your dog may superstitiously end up thinking that it needs to bite to get the reward. Kathy Sdao talks also about how she accidentally trained dogs to think they must jump up before a sit. I’m sure she’s joking – she is far too good a trainer to make such an error, but it is a small concern nonetheless.

There is a very simple solution if you share this concern about following biting with a toy.

Don’t connect the alternative or incompatible behaviour with biting. Don’t make the bite a perfect predictor of a toy.

If 90% of chase, fetch or tug relates to non-bitey situations, you’ll never be in a situation where the dog thinks it has to do A in order for B. If you’re often chasing, fetching or tugging, why would you think you need to bite first if those things only accidentally coincide 5% of the time?

Another thing kicks in. Matching law. This is the science that says when we’re presented with two choices, we choose that which is most reinforcing or least punishing. If you make chase or tug more reinforcing than biting, you are onto a winner.

So I don’t behave like a dog, I don’t use dog-style punishers.

I use incompatible or alternative behaviours.

And it works.

There have been times when biting has been more fun than chasing a ball or playing tug. We’re talking about predispositions to pleasurable behaviours here, and biting feels like lots of fun. Don’t judge your dog for enjoying fighting or playing at fighting. Boxing matches aren’t much more than a ritualised way for us to enjoy hurting each other or watching others get hurt. Most sports satisfy some primitive primate need in us to battle in ritualised ways, even chess. We humans shouldn’t be judgey about dogs who enjoy scratching some ancient behavioural itch.


There are dogs who really do need to learn that biting is not socially acceptable, though, who are happily redirecting onto a toy where human biting is concerned, but biting their friends WAY too hard.

That’s where the other advice comes in about socialising the puppy with other puppies is often given with the expectation that the other puppies can teach bite inhibition and bite strength, as if it’s some kind of canine bushido.

I kind of agree, but I also know dogs. Some puppies’ biting increases with others, meaning it is reinforcing – dare I say something unscientific like pleasurableThey are learning that hard biting is so much fun and that people and dogs squeal and that’s a lot of fun as well, and that then they panic and try to escape, and that’s fun as well. It all sets off the automatic modal predatory behavioural patterns that are a ‘click whirr’ as an almost instinctive pattern kicks in and the conscious brain switches off. Have you met a terrier and their favourite tug toy?!

In other words, some puppies might be all samurai manners and the rules of engagement… but others are dirty little cage fighters who get off on biting ears off and think nothing of giving you a rump bite if you won’t engage. Others still are trapped in some other part of the sequence like my beauceron foster and his love of chase, where he is always the chaser and never the chasee. Not every puppy comes equipped with the full set of Canine Bushido rules, that’s for sure. Someone had definitely torn out the pages in Effel’s copy when it came to role reversal. And he wasn’t a dog who got off on biting.

What’s it doing to those other puppies – who are still learning Dog Bushido themselves – to be practising their Katas when a young Hannibal the Cannibal is in the room?

The truth is that puppies can and do play rougher than adult dogs ever do. But I don’t think it does them any favours to spend most of their time with other puppies who enjoy hurting each other or who are still at the beginner end of the behaviour spectrum.

Think about it.

If you grew up with lots of children as your friends, and little adult supervision, you may well grow up not really understanding why you don’t pinch people or give them skin burns. The adult world is different from the world of children – and if the only adults you meet are your mum and your siblings, you’re up for a dysfunctional view of the world from the start.

Not only that, if good puppies have to be responsible for teaching bad puppies, something is wrong with that picture. Why entrust something important to beginners? It could end badly for those good puppies happily doing their yellow belts with fun-time fox terriers if some pup comes to class with a very stabby set of knuckle dusters and a nunchaku.

I don’t think puppies playing with other puppies is entirely the answer to bite inhibition.

I think it has a role to play, but I think that exposure to adult dogs and adult dog behaviour is vital too.

Take the wonderful puppies belonging to a friend. Neither had a particularly advantageous start to life. They were born in foreign countries, shipped miles to a better life, and one in particular has had a run-in with a dog at some point before she arrived that has damaged her eye. She spent the first two weeks back and forward at the vets. She has some lead frustration – it is her fundamental right to meet all dogs, in her opinion – which is massively improved through some particularly expert and sympathetic socialising. That socialising has been with lots and lots of unfamiliar adult dogs and with an older sibling who was already rock solid.

Whilst their meeting here with my adult dogs was noisy and muddy and humpy (oh Heston!) a puppy who is brusque sometimes in meetings and plays hard understood that you don’t bounce Tilly or Amigo or Flika, and that Heston doesn’t mind it if you grab his mane and bop him in the nose or tell him off for humping your sister. Puppies don’t have those social skills yet, just as human children don’t, and if all they meet are other puppies, then they aren’t able to pick up those nice dog manners or the nuances of behaviour that older dogs have. What I liked most was how she completely ignored my oldies who don’t appreciate bouncing. Not a one of them had to tell her off.

So… is the answer to puppy biting more time with other puppies?

Perhaps it would be better spent with some fabulous older dogs who can disengage gently.

This is Heston with Lisa. I’d had to separate her from her brother as his squealing was not only not working, but it was also turning into something fun. She was 8 weeks old in this video.

Now as you can see, Heston nicely self-handicaps to allow Lisa full access to him, and contrary to one person’s comments on a Facebook thread, his paw at the end is not a pin or a grab or a punch. It’s not discipline. It’s just a very gentle ‘enough’ that she can get out of without problem and then he stands up and they disengage. No yelping. You can see she’s learning mouth control. You can hear those full clacks of teeth that show she’s not got full control of her jaw yet.

Adult dogs play like this where puppies may not. That yelping wasn’t working at all with Lisa’s brother. She did need to learn how to play and when no means no, but her brother wasn’t helping. All he was doing was bringing out the inner bully and teaching her that it feels mighty fine to hurt other dogs.

So, in answer to the original statement, I don’t yelp, yip or say ouch and then disengage. I am not a dog.

I don’t even know if puppies really do learn bite inhibition and manners in that way.

I don’t like the school of thought that we should do as dogs do.

I also don’t like using punishers with dogs, especially with ones who are weeks old and perhaps not quite as switched on to operant learning as we might think. You might understand you can sit for a biscuit, but there’s a whole lot more to learn.

I don’t think yelping is an effective warning and it’s not a no-reward marker. A no-reward marker says, “try again” not “stop”. Teaching better behaviours through redirecting to a previously taught object like a toy is great, and beginning retrieves might satisfy other urges whilst meaning that your puppy is physically unable to shark you.

I don’t think you can easily cause a puppy to superstitiously learn that they need to bite to get a toy unless you are on a 1:1 ratio of always following biting with a toy, and never using that toy at another time.

I don’t think puppies socialising with other puppies will cure biting. I think it could have fallout for those who know the rules. Why should nice puppies put up with a biter who gets reinforced by doing so? All we’re doing is reinforcing bullying and breeding problems for the future.

I do think we should teach a puppy a better behaviour than biting, or to bite things that are appropriate. I’m with John Rogerson once more (and you wouldn’t believe how infrequently that happens!) in that I don’t think dogs should put teeth on humans or really on other dogs. I don’t mind a bit of mane-pulling or mouth-wrestling, but I don’t want to see teeth on the skin of any live creature, thank you very much. Body slamming, jaw sparring, leg wrestling, hip checking and over-aroused games of chase are one thing, but teeth are entirely another.

We should be reinforcing incompatible or alternative behaviours long before we start using punishers, especially with 8 week old puppies. It’s unethical to start in the P side of the quadrant when you haven’t tried out the R side.

Puppies should also hang around a lot of expert older dogs who might not be masters of Canine Bushido, but who play by the rules. That’s not because those Bushido Masters are going to teach through punishment, yelping or disengagement, but because they know how to end things gracefully. I most love how Heston realises that Lisa is getting overstimulated and disengages before it gets worse. That’s pretty cool for a dog found in a box at one day of age, who only knew one sibling until he was six weeks old, and a terrier puppy found in a box with her brother at six weeks old. You don’t need puppy parties, and we shouldn’t be trusting puppies to teach each other about good behaviour. We need the experts of good behaviour to teach that, and by their very nature, those dogs are not puppies.

Anyway, that’s my long and waffly take on why I won’t be yelping or saying ow ever again, or letting puppies hang around exclusively with other puppies. I know it’s controversial. It shouldn’t be as controversial a view as it is in the force-free world; I simply think many of us have taken this piece of advice and run with it without thinking about it too deeply.

You may of course disagree and think that ouches and brief time-outs are the best method ever for teaching bite inhibition. The truth is that we’ve only anecdote to go off. But having spent a little time reflecting on it, I’m sure you understand why I feel as I do. You may even find this advice on other parts of my website – I’ll be updating if I find them, I promise. I don’t think, having really thought it through, that I can go back to giving the advice about yelping and disengaging anymore.



Training Corner #6 Take it!

I bet you’re wondering how I can possibly think “Take it!” is a useful trick to stop behaviour problems. Surely it’s just part of playing fetch? It’s just one of those things that retrievers naturally do right? What possible relevance can it have as a behaviour that is useful or functional to help avoid problem behaviours with your dog?

If you have a dog who is over-excited or over-aroused and bites the lead… if you have a nippy shepherd or heeler… if you have a sighthound who likes to chase small furry things, or a labrador who is pining for dead ducks that he has never been taught to retrieve, “Take it!” is a really useful behaviour. It’s also a great behaviour for muscle memory and for dogs who need to learn to use their mouths more gently and as such it’s a really good way to help your dog actively learn to moderate their bite strength.

For a dog, a mouth is the equivalent of their hands… good for grabbing stuff, investigating, prising things open, carrying stuff off, holding your shoes whilst they run off with them. Teaching “Take it!” is a really useful behaviour to make sure your dog knows what to take and what not to. I’d put a caution on this: be careful you don’t unleash a monster. Some dogs need little excuse to practise what is essentially a smash-and-grab. You might want to make sure your “Drop!”, your “Leave it!” and your “Wait!” are really solid behaviours. I was doing nose targets with Lidy at the shelter the other day, and she got hold of my target spoon… needless to say, a good “Drop!” and “Leave it!” helped avoid a mouthful of splinters. That’s why you need to teach them and proof them first.

You can teach it as part of a full retrieve. When teaching a full retrieve, you need to work backwards. In a retrieve, what you want a dog to do is: orient to the object (orient), move towards the object (chase), locate the object, pick up the object (grab-bite), hold the object, turn, bring the object back, drop the object at your feet or in your hands. Why you work backwards is something called ‘backchaining’ – it’s easier for animals to learn complex actions when they are separated into their individual components and learnt backwards.

So, a retrieve backwards is:
Drop the object
Hold the object
Move towards you with the object
Turn with the object
Pick up the object
Locate the object
Chase the object
Orient to the object

And you can see why, having already learned “Drop!” they’re ready to learn to hold items.

Beyond retrieves, taking an object and holding it in the mouth is absolutely vital if you have a mouthy dog. It’s not a cure-all, but if you’re obsessed with carrying your toy, you aren’t a) overaroused and biting your lead, b) as able to bite joggers/bikes/skateboards and so on. Notice I said it’s not a cure all and your dog isn’t as able. Nothing stopping a dog dropping what’s in their mouth, but it often avoids a lot of problems if your mouthy dog loves carrying things around. Mouth is busy, mouth not doing bitey things.

I’m not a fan of lead-biting, though I know some people aren’t as bothered about it. I’ve seen it end very badly a few times, not least because the dog has got control of the lead. The only time I’ve ever had an accidental escape at the shelter when walking a dog was a lead-biting beagle cross called Jonny. And if you think a dog won’t chew a metal lead, you’re very much mistaken. I’ve seen young dogs with a mouthful of worn teeth from biting metal chains. Some people have tried all kinds of things for lead biters, including cones and muzzles, but believe me, it’s MUCH easier to teach a ‘hold’ to a dog (which is fun and reinforcing) than it is to get them to come and put a harness on, a muzzle and a cone. Plus you can use toys that are gentler on the teeth.

If you are going to do heelwork, obedience, ring or other dog sports, a “Take it!” and hold is going to be vital too. Plus, it’s the first step in an awful lot of interactive toy play. If you have a puppy, it’s going to be a vital part of being able to redirect them onto appropriate things to bite, mouth and chew.

Whilst it’s natural for dogs to pick some items up with their mouths, or bite some other items, holding other things is not so natural. Plastic, fabric and metal are not the same as wood. Some dogs are just not as easy to teach to “take” or “hold” as others. Be aware that if you try to use force or coercion, your dog may not enjoy this move, so don’t force things into your dog’s mouth.

For dogs who don’t take to it as naturally, you may want to start with food items and chews. Even if you have a dog who is used to holding things in their mouth, you know they have preferences. Heston is a fan of squeaky toys and balls, or rope tugs. Not a fan of the very excellent Puller toys or frisbees. He has about ten frisbees and he hates them all. Lidy loves fabric things, towels and soft stuff, but she also loves the Puller. Tobby came here with his sad little rope toy that he’d assiduously put down to eat, to pee or to sleep. Needless to say, it stank to high heaven and soon went in the bin.

If you have a very reluctant dog, start with a long food chew. Reward them for being interested in it, looking towards it, moving towards it, touching it with their nose, mouthing it.

You can see this great video for dogs who don’t mouth things at all.

To make it more complex, you can then add unusual items

You can see that Emily Larlham is using “Touch!” too – something your dog should already know if you’re following these training tips in sequence.

You can make it more challenging by asking for a retrieve to another place, like a basketball hoop, a wastepaper bin or even their toybox

Now you can see how useful it is to get your animals to get them to tidy up!

This behaviour is the basis for so many other behaviours. If you want your dog to be able to get you things you’ve dropped, if you want your dog to be able to open and close the door using a pull, if you want to win at obedience training and have your dog carry things over jumps…

Donna Hill has some great examples here of the items you might want to use:

Picking up leads or gloves, emptying the dryer, putting socks in a linen basket, help you pull your socks off … your dog can use this behaviour to really help you out! Like Donna, I also use “Thank you!” as my cue to ‘give to hand’. It’s different for me than “Drop!” which I use for ‘spit it on the floor’. Don’t expect your dog to release an item to your hand just because you’ve got “Drop!” as a flawless behaviour.

Taking, holding and carrying an item are not just great for avoiding problem situations, they are the basis of so many dog sports. If you’re a flirt pole fan, if you’re a disc dog addict, if you are teaching blind retrieves to your labrador, if you’re just playing “Fetch!” in the garden, it’s the basis of so many dog sports that it’s a great way to get your dog to let off a bit of steam in a productive and fun way.

And just for fun, here is Effel, who I had in foster for a while… He arrived here aged 7 with a very lovely lawnmower-biting habit, and a nipping when excited habit. He had never played in his life and had no behaviours that he’d learned… but just to show that you can teach an old dog, new tricks, this is the first time I stitched together those orient-chase-return-hold behaviours. We started with an easy object (not a fan of tennis balls usually but Effel had only been chasing and nosing up to this point) and it might have taken him a few months to master all the parts of fetching a ball, but once he had it, he was a master!

There is an added benefit to ‘Take it!’ that few people think about… when your dog knows only to take things when given a cue, then they don’t think the universe is a huge free-for-all. Instead of spending all your time telling your dog to ‘Leave it!’ for ninety gamillion objects in the universe, you can tell them what you DO what them to take. It’s much easier on the handler when you have a dog who knows not to interact with the universe unless given express permission.

So get out there and start working on your holds!

Training Corner #5 Watch!

One of the ‘non-food’ trainers was complaining about how positively-trained dogs often look at their hands on a thread I was following the other day. I was watching a video of obedience training this morning with a dog who wasn’t paying any attention at all to the handler, only to her hand and treat bag, and in my mind this can be one of the drawbacks of using food or toys. I could really see what that criticism was about. I don’t want a dog who’s constantly looking at my hands or treat bag in the same way as I don’t like having interactions with humans who only stare at my chest.

My eyes are up here, buddy.

That was very true of Hagrid, the mali x GSD, at the shelter. He was already hand-obsessed, due to protection training that had left him obsessed by the movements of hands and arms. Add a little food obsession in there and you’ve got a recipe for lots of focus on hands. My hand going to my pocket was watched with an unhealthy fixation. I taught him “Watch!” early in the sequence of things I taught him because I don’t want a dog’s eyes on my hand. I want them on my face.

But eye contact can also be a tricky one where dog body language is concerned. We all know that a hard stare is offensive TO a dog, and offensive FROM a dog. They don’t like it when we stare at them, and we don’t like it if they stare at us. For nervous Nellies, for humper Harrys, for attention-seeking Amigos, eye contact is about lots more than just ‘look at me’. It’s about being engaged. It’s about being in the moment. It’s about a partnership. It’s about communication. But it can also be frightening or offensive to a dog.

I teach a dog to look at my eyes for lots of reasons. One reason is that people WILL eyeball your dog and you WILL have to get your dog used to that. I had four dogs last year who were reactive to humans who looked at them! If you teach your dog to look at you in a careful and gradual way, it can be part of teaching them that it’s okay for humans to give you a bit of a chimpy gaze from time to time.

That’s important for dogs to learn.

Dogs don’t naturally stare at each other very much. It can be very confrontational.

Effel my beauceron foster used to do this with Heston. If they were lying in beds opposite each other, Effel would stare hard at Heston. Heston would growl and grumble. I’d call Effel’s attention and then he’d dart a hard stare at Heston on the sly! You could easily miss that darted stare and think Heston was being an arse. Seriously, Effel would look back at me like, ‘Will you look at that! He’s growling at me!’ – if dogs did indignant mock outrage, he had that down to a tee. Staring can be part of posturing.

I’m sure many behaviourists and trainers will tell you about dogs who are not reactive until you look at them!

Staring or fixing is also part of the predatory chain for dogs too, which is why I want dogs to be able to watch and release on cue, not only with me but with other things too. They can be animate living things like people or animals, or inanimate moving things like bikes, lawnmowers and cars. Either way, being able to break the predatory stare of a dog is vital to stop that behaviour escalating.

Dogs do stare in different ways with humans though, which is unique to our human-dog bond. Dogs will look to the eyes naturally with humans in ways that they don’t even do with their own species. It is one of the reasons that scientists think the dog-human bond is so special. Eye contact is a reason why they bond with us so well. That stare releases all kinds of positives for both of us, if you read neuroscientist Greg Berns or the work of Brian Hare.

It’s more than bonding or posturing, though. It’s not just about underlying emotions. It can be a learned behaviour – a trick your dog can do.

I teach a dog to look at me because it’s an incompatible behaviour for those environmental distractions, like distant sheep that just look like they might want a dog rampaging through the field, or a car that is in need of rounding up, or a jogger that is obviously running up to us to chase and kill us. A dog who has mastered a hand touch, a recall and a watch is a dog who has three ways to interact with you at vital times, rather than the environment.

So when dog-hating Hagrid was about to cross paths with dog-hating Estas, I U-turned 90° away from Estas, asked for a sit, and a ‘Watch me!’ whilst Estas walked by his handler with a ‘Watch me!’ on the other. How you get two dog-aggressive dogs past each other on a two metre wide path without any conflict whatsoever. No posturing, no freeze, no hard stare, no growling, no lunges, no air-snapping.

“Watch!” is one way to create a bubble around you and your dog, in which the environment around you doesn’t matter.

That’s why “Watch!” or any of its synonymous cues is part of the majority of reactive dog programmes.

But before you start teaching it as a trick, be aware of your dog’s personality. My Amigo hates a hard stare from me. So does Tilly. Heston was mine from a pup and I taught him ‘Watch’ as the second thing he learned, so he was never a problem. Lidy at the shelter is nervous of stares, so I started with her looking at my face and me looking at her nose. Then I used very soft eyes and very short looks. Not all dogs are like this though. Hagrid at the shelter loves a full-on shepherd stare. Gazing into each other’s eyes has been shown to raise levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and it’s not unusual for a dog to gaze at you and do a big sigh. That’s not why Hagrid does it. He does it because he knows a treat comes next and if he looks at my hands, he won’t get it. Some dogs are going to stare at you as well as a way to get your attention. Having it on cue can stop that behaviour spilling out all the time when you don’t want it. Know your dog, start with short durations if necessary and build up duration.

If you do obedience or rally, or many other types of dog competition, a “watch!” will also be essential.

So… vital for avoiding hand obsessions, avoiding distractions, for relationships, for desensitising a puppy to human behaviours, for competitions… a good all-rounder.

I don’t actually use the word “Watch” as it’s similar to a number of other words in sound, like “touch” and “fetch”, but many people use these words without a problem. The W sound at the beginning is different enough not to cause much confusion. I use the words “eyes” because it is unlike any other word in my cue vocabulary. Some people call it “Look at me!” (which I teach as a different behaviour later, specifically around distration, when I don’t care where they look as long as it’s around my person) and some people say “Watch me!”

The important thing is that you have a word or very short phrase that works for you and that you stick to that word.

You can teach this behaviour in a number of ways. You’re going to start in a really easy location with no distractions. You need to be close to your dog too.

The first is with a lure.

That means you get a piece of food or a toy, and you show it to the dog. You bring it up to your eyes. When they’re looking in the right area, you click or say “yes!” and then you give them the food. If you do this five times or so, and then fake them out – pretend you have something in your hand, bring your hand up to your face, mark the behaviour with your click or “yes!” and then give a treat really quickly from your other hand. After a few repetitions and practices, you can start putting the cue, “Watch me!” in there.

The second way you can teach ‘Watch!’ is by capturing behaviour. You can see Emily Larlham doing it here:

Another way you can do it is to drop a treat on the floor and then wait for the dog to look up at you before you mark the behaviour with a “yes!” or a click and then drop another on the floor.

You can also see Donna Hill doing this here, capturing behaviour without a lure

Watch is such a great way to make sure your dog is focused on your face, and it’s also a great one for managing difficult or distracting environments. As usual, start simple and short in a safe and quiet environment, building up duration and challenge in a wider range of situations. When you’ve got a failsafe “Watch!” in many situations, you can use it easily to manage temporary distractions that you don’t want your dog to see. If you have a sight-hound, a collie or a shepherd, that’s going to be really useful! It also teaches your dog to look to you so that you can ask for another behaviour. It’s a foundation before ‘an auto check-in’, which can also be a very useful skill.

So get out there and practise your “Watch!” cue. Start easy with minimal distance in a distraction-free environment, and advance it from there. When you’ve got a mighty fine “Watch!” your predatory dog will let all manner of distractions go by, your reactive dog will care more about you than barking at the other dog, and your hand-obsessed greedy golden retriever will be looking at the eyes, not the hands.

Training Corner #4 Rover, come!

Recall is one of those skills that is absolutely crucial. You might have thought that I’d have put it at number 1, and you’d have good reason to make that argument. But some of those things you’ve taught before can also help you with recall, giving you a range of ways to get your dog coming back to you.

A dog with an instinctive recall is a dog you can let off lead wherever you like. A dog with a rock-solid recall can enjoy the world around them and will not have to do such self-employed things like charging up to other dogs or people, or engaging in chase activities. They’re dogs you can have off-lead around other animals, around cars, around joggers, around cats and around a range of environmental stimuli.

All dogs have their own challenges where recall is concerned. Some of those behaviours are based in predation. They just love truffle-hunting. They enjoy rooting around in bushes. They love running. They love chasing. Something moves in the distance and they don’t care if it’s a car or a cow – they’ve just got to investigate. They have stuff and they don’t want you to have it. They have stuff and they don’t want other dogs to have it. They want to eat stuff or drink stuff. They want to wander off and roll in something foul.

Some of those behaviours are based in emotion: they’re fearful and they want to get away. They are lacking in confidence and they’re looking to hide. Some are based in fearful aggression: they want to create distance by charging up to strangers, shouting the odds at a strange dog or seeing off anything that crosses the boundary of their comfort zone. Some are based in joy: chasing, racing and rolling.

Recall behaviours are ones you can start to capture and encourage as soon as the puppies start moving independently. Imagine how much easier it is if your dog has already practised ‘Come!’ fifteen times a day in the four or five weeks until they get to you. That’d be over 500 practice goes that they already have under their belt!

But most of us leave it until they are older – nine or ten weeks at the least – and we miss out on all that valuable time. Not only that, it comes at a time when puppies want to explore the world and investigate.

And that’s what recall comes down to: You vs The Environment.

You can find other recall information on my post about poor recall that will help you with older dogs or in understanding in more detail. If you have a really, really challenging dog, you may also find Susan Garrett’s Recallers programme to be massively beneficial. Absolute Dogs have a programme that will also help. Other resources such as Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed and Emily Larlham’s Harnessing the Hunter will also be a really good investment.

But I wanted to give you ten quick games you can play with your dog to help their recall. You will need to practise these in the home (on-lead and then off-lead) in the garden (also on-lead and off-lead), out in the environment (on-lead, on a long line, with a dropped long line, off-lead) and then in more challenging environments.

Recall can be repetitive and boring for us, and for our dogs. Finding ways to make coming back to us exciting makes it much more pleasurable and that means we’re much more likely to be effective.

The most important thing to bear in mind is challenge:

Start at the bottom and work to the top!

You might find some of this will need adapting. I know dogs who find their own garden massively overwhelming.

Don’t forget you can also play with:

Calm vs excitable

Distance FROM distraction vs Distance FROM you

All of the games that follow can be practised at different points on the Challenge Ladder. If it’s too hard, go back down a step. Try to make sure your dog doesn’t fail with recall. It only takes one super-pleasurable cat chase for your dog to learn that cat chasing is The Best Thing Ever Invented. Coming back? Yeah, not so much.

If you mess with one factor and make it more challenging, bring the others down again. Just because my dog’s recall is great off-lead in the house doesn’t mean that it will be in the garden, so put them back on a shorter lead, then a longer lead, then a dropped lead, then no-lead.

And you can mess with the rewards you use too. Food is only one. Toys, games, smells and behaviours are some others. Not amazing to find that the speed with which Miss Lidy-la-Louve was completing a hand touch was so much faster when cheese was involved rather than general kibble! Never a surprise that the squeak of Heston’s rugby ball will bring him back from a highly distracting environment. The best reinforcer on Heston’s recall? Disgusting… you’re going to hate me for making the most of this… my cocker spaniel’s pee. When Tilly pees, Heston comes back to have a sniff. But as a reinforcer for recall, it’s more reliable than his squeaky ball.

You’re going to need a good word – most people use ‘Come’, but you can also put your dog’s name in there. That is pretty useful if you want your dogs to be able to come when called and differentiate between ‘Doggies come!’ or ‘Tilly come!’ Vital in a multi-dog household! When you’ve got an ‘Amigo Stay – Tilly Stay – Heston Come’, you can easily split up your dogs without fuss. You won’t believe how useful a bilingual ‘come’ can be. ‘Viens!’ only works on my French fosters, not on my own English-speaking dogs. A gesture works with my deaf dog.

So… ten games. These are a mix from various recallers programmes, or programmes designed to get your dog’s focus on you.

  1. ‘Come’ to a whistle or other sound. Use the ladder and start at the bottom, pairing the sound with a top notch reward. One squeak of Heston’s toy and he’s there! Once they’ve mastered one sound, add another. You can’t beat having ten ways to get a dog to come back. ‘Does Tilly want a treat?’ works marvellously when Tilly looks like she might toddle off to find some lovely ripe cow pat to nosh on. Better than ‘Tilly, come!’. Likewise ‘Does Heston want a treat?’ is not as powerful as the whistle (which means tug) or a squeak of his toy.
  2. ‘Drop!’ – you’ve already got this one from last week. Use the ladder and work up.
  3. ‘Surprise!’ – treats rain from the skies all around you. Both 2 and 3 are really just variations on number 1.
  4. Jackpot recall – once in a while, give them an amazing, amazing payoff. Once I’ve phased out the rugby ball, I may just have it there once! For food-oriented dogs, paté, stinky cheese, a raw bone… For scent-oriented dogs, how about a sniff from a pot of stinky weasel poo? You laugh now, but I have a jar with a weasel poo in it.
  5. The Up-Down game. Drop a treat on the floor. When the dog looks up at you for the next, say ‘yes!’ or click and then drop the treat on the floor again.
  6. The ping-pong game. Throw a treat away from you. When the dog orients back to you, say ‘yes!’ or click, then throw the treat away from you.
  7. Touch target. Your dog should already be good at hand targeting if you’ve been doing this since Week 1. Games 1-7 can all be used with the ladder.
  8. Chase me! In a safe, enclosed environment, shout ‘Chase me!’ and run away! Play tig/chase with your dog and reward them ‘catching’ you with a game or another reward. Heston’s favourite reward for this is a bit of wrestling.
  9. Reward with a trick. If your dog already has another trick they like to perform, use it. Lidy loves to jump off my chest. I don’t let her do this very often as it is terrifying to have a mali-raptor up close and personal with your face, but when I say ‘hup!’ and pat my chest, she’s on it! Heston loves ‘bow!’ and will come running to perform it. It’s usually followed by the trick, ‘show me your wiener!’ and a tickle festival.
  10. Thigh pat recall. Pat your thigh, give a reward. Practice where your dog can see you and reward with something they like. I have paired thigh pat with a petting session.

When you have a range of gestures, words and sounds that mean ‘come here!’ and are paired very clearly with certain rewards, you can think about what the needs of your dog are at that time and use it accordingly. Amigo never fails to come for a thigh pat and it works well because he’s deaf. He loves petting sessions, no matter where we are. If Heston is in a silly mood, bowing, tickling and showing his wiener work. Squeaky noise trumps everything. Chase me! is great if he’s wanting to chase something. If I spot a hare he’s not seen yet, me shouting ‘Chase me!’ in the opposite direction gets him away from the blessed hare and gives him a behaviour I know he really likes.

One final word: don’t expect food to work all the time here. Not even liver paté. If you don’t have a range of amazing paired cues and a range of really valuable rewards, don’t expect to find your liver paté to trump a hare chase.

Unless you have a Tilly.

Then food trumps everything apart from rolling in fecal matter.

Recall is so very essential, and it’s the one thing we poison by following it up by ‘removal from fun’. If you want your dog to come back to you, having fifty ways to get it will help you.

And remember: sometimes it is just too hard. In those cases, don’t keep shouting! If it’s important that your dog comes when you call and you think they might not, put a lead on them!

Even the best recall and a dog who is usually your shadow can be thwarted by simple environmental factors like rain!

Aim to have a couple of calls, a couple of noises, a couple of toys, a couple of behaviours, a gesture and a couple of environmental factors up your sleeve, adding a new one in there every couple of weeks. You won’t weaken the behaviour by having a range of cues for it, I promise! Over time, you’ll come to see that in some circumstances, some recalls work better than others, and that you’ll have one or two that will be rock-solid despite everything.

But don’t expect 100% recall everywhere. Sometimes it’s just too hard. “Does Tilly want a treat?” will get Tilly out of the cow-pat she’s rolling in. If I’m not 100% sure it will, she’ll be on lead.

The biggest mistake we make with socialisation and habituation

I’ve written recently about why you need to take breed (and personality) into consideration when you socialise your dog, as well as exploring why it’s so necessary. Nobody brings dogs to our shelter in France and says, “well, they’ve been over-socialised”… but for dogs who arrive, it’s those gaps in socialisation that make them hard to rehome. The more life experience they have around familiar and unfamiliar humans, familiar and unfamiliar dogs, other household pets and the world around them, the easier they are to rehome.

A dog who is friendly to others, friendly to strange humans, familiar humans and their smaller versions, happy with cats and fine in a range of environments is a dog who won’t stay long. They’re dogs we can place in fosters. They’re dogs who have the fewest problems when rehomed, too.

It goes without saying that socialisation is necessary.

But I do think that there is a big problem that we make when we socialise dogs. It’s not over-socialisation as such. But it is hands down one of the biggest causes of frustration, misunderstanding, miscommunication and off-lead problems.

It’s allowing our puppies to think they have an automatic right or need to greet every single person and dog they meet.

Let me explain.

Imagine if we walked down the street greeting every single person we came across. I don’t mean just saying ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ to people we see on a hiking trail, I mean going up to and engaging with them, even for a few seconds. Imagine if we shook hands with every single person in the street. Now, if we were Joanna Lumley or Oprah, that’d probably be okay and we might get away with it. But for your average run-of-the-mill random person, that’s never going to work, is it? People already think I’m weird enough.

Imagine if we hugged them?

What if we gave them a full-on-the-mouth snog?

With tongues?

Twerked them or humped them?

Pinched their arse?

What about if we went up and stared them right in the eye?

What if we yelled at them?

Can you imagine the fights and bloodshed?! We’d be arrested at some point, without a doubt, and probably end up on medication or in therapy.

But you know, some of those things are ones I do with those I’m familiar with. They wouldn’t be inappropriate. I know who to greet and how to greet.

I know there are people who I don’t need to greet at all (like all the people in the supermarket).

But some of our dogs feel the need to greet every other dog or human, even though it’s not appropriate for their species-specific greetings either.

They approach every single dog they see and it either elicits an inappropriate social moment, or aggression and posturing.

Some of those dogs are like my foster, Flika. She’s a social butterfly. Wants to greet everyone. She’ll pull on the lead to greet every single other dog. I don’t let her, but she does get frustrated if I don’t. She’s the kind of dog who is very sweet, gives kisses to every dog and then moves on, just as Tobby my old mali used to. Kiss-kiss and disengage. You could see why I’d keep them off lead and let them do it. After all, they’re lovely to every dog, right?

I know I’d have been the owner yelling ‘Don’t worry! They’re friendly!’ to some terrified person with their reactive dog on a lead and muzzle, desperately trying to hold on to their own anger.

Flika and Tobby’s recall skills off-lead around other dogs?


Some of those ‘must greet all!’ dogs are like my dog Heston, who’s had a long and fairly successful programme to ignore other dogs having spent his first three years of life feeling like he had to greet every other dog. Not only that, he was a complete Tarzan (as well as a teenager) and some of his inappropriate behaviour was more ‘hugs with tongues’ or ‘staring in the eye’ than it was a quick handshake.

So, yes, this causes fights.

What do we then do? And how does this cause problems?

If they’re inappropriately social, or even if they’re just a hit-and-run greeter like Flika my foster girl is, we might keep them off the lead. If the other dog has problems with it, that’s their bad and they’ve clearly got ‘aggression’ or ‘reactivity’… too many of us fall into the ‘it’s okay, my dog is friendly!’ camp because we know that, on lead, our dog is a barking, crazed menace, and we indulge that ‘I must greet everybody’ behaviour. They’re what we call ‘frustrated greeters’. In my experience, this is common for dogs who feel that they have an absolute right or need to engage with other dogs. We let them off the lead because it’s easier than having them on the lead. And if the other dog is an arse when approached, well, that’s clearly them with the problem.

So on the mild side of the scale, when Flika is on lead, she’s looking back, she’s looking, she’s wagging, she’s pulling towards new dogs or humans. She is such a nice greeter – lots of kisses and playful body language – but because she is such a sweet friendly girl, you can see why I’d let her off lead rather than try and wrestle with her.

On the other side, there’s Heston – or how he used to be. That’d be lunging, pulling, barking, posturing. Not aggressive, but so over the top that he was unmanageable. For people watching him, you’d have thought he was completely out of control, and you’d be right. Off lead, he’s not bad. As long as the other dog is friendly.

Neither Heston nor Flika have any real awareness that the other dog has no desire at all to engage with them.

Some dogs make it really obvious that they don’t want to engage. Like my cocker Tilly. She ignores other dogs unless they notice her or try to engage with her, and then we get a lot of nervous barking. This is true of humans who approach her as well. Her barking is alarmed and panicked. She’s okay with dogs on leads – there’s no problem at the refuge or at the vets, in town or on dog walks, but dogs off lead panic her. Amigo is the same. He’d rather not deal with social greetings with other dogs.

So on the one side, you’ve got what Jean Donaldson calls Tarzan dogs. Full-on, in-your-face greetings. The kind that would be the equivalent of a human walking down the road and greeting every single person in a full-on, inappropriate way. Humping, head-overs, kisses, growling, grabbing and even ‘play’ bows or incredibly oversocial behaviour. Tarzans can be hit-and-run greeters like Flika, with her wiggly body and her kisses, or it can be full-frontal mania, like Heston was.

And on the other, there are dogs like Tilly and Amigo who Jean Donaldson calls Proximity-Sensitive dogs. New dogs worry them and they don’t want to engage, thank you very much. Not until they know you better.

The dogs in the photo at the top are key examples. Social butterfly meets Angry loner. An accidental, too-close meeting meant that the little terrier ended up with his head in the other dog’s mouth. No damage was done, but when a small overly-confident dog feels the need or right to greet every single other dog – especially one who is giving a hard stare, whose body is still and hostile, whose mouth is closed – then they’re going to get themselves into an accident sooner or later.

That’s the biggest problem, then, when socialisation and habituation go wrong… dogs who feel the need or right to engage with every other dog and don’t understand that 95% of dogs they’ll see in life won’t come with the automatic right to engage. On the flip side, the problem is for these off-lead encounters is with the occasional dog who doesn’t really like other dogs and don’t know how to behave when they do get an inappropriate greeting, then rely on over-the-top ‘corrections’ or aggression. So Locky the terrier might have had 999 greetings where he got varying responses from pleasure to growling or snapping, and 1 greeting where he ends up with his head inside the powerful jaws of a hostile dog 7 times his size.

And that’s not okay either.

Imagine that, having met a super-greeter on the street, who pinches your cheek and humps you, you take a machete and try to chop off their head.

That’d be a completely over-the-top reaction to that inappropriate behaviour.

So when Heston got nipped on the ear by Lidy when they first met, that was certainly inappropriately Tarzanita on her behalf. He yelped. But he didn’t turn into a monster and attack her. He backed off and took it a bit more easy. If he doesn’t want a dog to approach, he’ll growl. And then he’ll bark. It’s his way of saying ‘Dude, if you keep coming, you’re going to make me get the weapons out’ – and it works very well. When Heston was approached by Locky, he didn’t bite him – he was surprised and he growled when Locky the terrier tried to mount him, but then he backed away and Locky’s handler went on his way. Those would be appropriate responses from a dog. Hopefully, Locky’s handler would learn that all those inappropriately over-friendly greetings are a) annoying to other dogs and b) going to end up badly at some point for Locky. Sadly, often neither the dog learns, nor the human.

We see appropriate responses to this Tarzan behaviour all the time.

For the cocker who got bit on the rear by a westie who charged up to it in the park, the cocker looked surprised but he headed right back to his owner. When Heston got humped by an elderly poodle, he didn’t go all Charles Bronson. It’s not appropriate to get humped by an old moth-eaten poodle, but that’s their bad, not yours. When Belle, our shelter guard dog, got inappropriately flirty with him, he growled and told her he didn’t feel like playing grab-a-granny thank you. She didn’t get the hump with him. It ended nicely.

But too many inadequately socialised dogs are unable to handle these inappropriate greetings, and too many dogs expect that they have the right to greet every single dog they ever meet, often with highly inappropriate behaviours.

When those two dogs end up in the park together, it can be catastrophic.

We keep our inadequately socialised dogs on the lead. We muzzle them. We take them out when other dogs or humans aren’t about. We do our best because we know our dog is unpredictable and perhaps unsafe. We dread the cheery approach of an off-lead dachshund who has no recall at all. We dread the owner who shouts, “Don’t worry! He’s friendly!”

It only takes a muzzle bop, a failed clasp on the lead, a broken buckle on a harness, a slip of the hand, a moment where we think we’re alone and we’ve let our dogs off-lead to be dogs, and we end up in the papers and on the end of a lawsuit.

Now I keep my dogs on-lead around other dogs. It’s not that my dogs are unpredictable. They are totally predictable. Heston will flirt with the girls and fluff his tail up for the boys. He’ll play chase with willing dogs or growl and back off with others. Tilly will bark if anyone looks at her, and hide behind me. Flika will kiss and move on (she’s so French!) and Amigo will wag and stand still, but worry all the same. That’s predictable.

But if they are constantly approached by hooligans, their feelings about other dogs might well change. Heston would be more guarded, more barky, more growly. Tilly will just be more and more anxious. Flika grumbled at a dog who tried to hump her because she’s old and arthritic. Amigo would growl and grumble. And if all they meet are Tarzans and Tarzanitas who have no idea that some greetings are inappropriate, who are really, really well-practised at those horrible inappropriate greetings, MY dogs will end up being dog-reactive or dog-aggressive. I can see the look now that says, “but that dog JUST WOULDN’T LISTEN!”

No wonder we have so many ‘dog-aggressive’ or ‘reactive’ dogs!

So what causes this? How do we avoid these situations?

The first is in ONLY socialising our puppies. By this, I mean the kind of puppyhood where puppy meets loads of other puppies and they play-play-play. They interact with every puppy they meet. Their rate of interaction is 100%. Every single dog is a nose-to-nose social encounter. Puppies who grow up thinking you need to or you can greet every single dog you see on the street. These are puppies who have interacted with every single dog they’ve ever met, until they’re five months old and then we put them on the lead. No wonder they are frustrated and don’t understand!

A second cause is that they are ONLY socialised with other puppies. For young dogs who don’t learn than you don’t hump or face-bite elderly, arthritic spaniels, that you don’t play rough with adults, that you can’t grab scruffs and skirts of all other dogs you feel like, they don’t learn appropriate contact with adult dogs. In not meeting a full range of adult dogs, and a full range of breeds of adult dogs, they never learn the nuances and shades of canine behaviour. A young dog should meet grumpy old grumblers and they should experience dogs who tell them politely to disengage. Some dogs are going to need a bit of help from their humans knowing that when a dog is giving you signals, you don’t keep going in. I’ve had puppies here – terriers mainly – who at 7 weeks old already need help understanding (even from their mum!) that a growl is a growl and means disengage. These are the ones I’ve had to forcibly remove from dancing round Tobby and Amigo, and also the ones who Tilly will have a full-on shout at, then they run away whimpering! Socialising puppies with adult dogs (and ones from different breeds) means that they are exposed to a full range of canine behaviour, not just ‘play-play-brawl’ from other puppies, turning them into play junkies.

The third cause is thinking that socialisation needn’t go past the home or familiar dogs. For dogs who don’t have experience of unfamiliar adult dogs, they aren’t aware of all the ways a dog they meet might behave. Too often, many people in multi-dog homes think that their dogs are socialised. Nope. They’re social with familiar animals. They need to meet unfamiliar animals too.

The fourth is that some dogs don’t get socialised at all once they leave their family group. They may get used to seeing other dogs on the lead at a distance, but they don’t have experience of actual interaction. They live as isolated animals, on their own, without much interaction with dogs at all. Other dogs are treated as Heston treats cows: other stuff on four legs that move, but that I don’t need to interact with. So when a dog does try to interact with them, appropriately or not, they then turn all Charles Bronson. They haven’t learned that a growl is a useful communication device. Heston is very good at the growl. His growl means he doesn’t have to get to a bite. In all of his more complex interactions, he has never got to using teeth, even with some very challenging behaviour.

These approaches cause all manner of problems, from puppies who grow up into adult dogs who expect every other dog to play with them to puppies who grow up into adult dogs who have no real experience of other dogs.

So what do puppies need to learn?

  1. They need to learn to get used to and habituate to the presence of all sorts of other dogs without interacting with them. That includes dogs going bonkers to meet them on leads, aggressive dogs behind fences, dogs walking by on the lead, dogs in classes, dogs in cars, dogs off-lead who run up and bugger off… Our puppies need to grow up learning that they don’t need to or have the right to engage with every other dog they meet. We need our dogs growing up understanding that they don’t have to greet other dogs – that the presence of other dogs doing whatever dogs might do is nothing special. We do this all the time with other animals and moving things that we do not want our dogs to engage with – pigeons, squirrels, cows, sheep, horses, cars, bikes, humans and children – and admittedly not always very well. But I do expect an off-lead dog to be able to walk past a moving herd of cows without feeling the need to get in there and interact. We should teach our young pups to get used to other dogs and not greet them at all.
  2. They need to meet adult dogs doing all kinds of other dog stuff. Big dogs, hairy dogs, short-nosed dogs, dogs with flop ears, dogs with pricked ears, dogs with tails, dogs without, young dogs, ancient dogs. Dogs walking, dogs sleeping, dogs running, dogs playing, dogs on lead.
  3. We especially need to socialise our dogs if their breed description includes words like ‘suspicious of strangers’ or ‘aloof’. Cane Corsos don’t need to end up being arseholes to inappropriate Jack Russells. We also need to help our dogs disengage if they’re breeds that come with labels like ‘persistent’, ‘stubborn’, ‘determined’…. even my dictionary describes terriers as ‘tenacious’. Dogs like this need to know how to approach gently  and politely, and to listen to the grumbles of an old bitey malinois. Teaching them to disengage in play when called is crucial.

I firmly believe that we miss out one of those three steps sometimes – and it can be entirely accidental – and it causes no end of problems.

It’s a lot to ask, I know. Puppies have such a short window of socialisation that it can be impossible to fit it all in.

I know what I did wrong with Heston: he didn’t ever learn until much later in life that he doesn’t have to interact with every other dog he sees. And it’s an uphill battle once you have a frustrated dog on a lead. I wish I had spent a few sessions gradually decreasing the distance between him and a lot of on-lead dogs that he had no need and no right to engage with, as well as giving him exposure at a distance to dogs being dog-arseholes – fence-running, barking on lead – so that he learned he didn’t need to reciprocate.

Tilly was never mine as a pup, but she needed much more exposure to other dogs who she was supposed to actually socialise with. She has little idea about canine play, for example, and it makes her worry when she sees playing dogs. She alarm barks and quite obviously feels uncomfortable: that is the experience of a dog who has never seen other dogs play. Amigo is exactly the same. My former foster Effel was the same too. Dollars to donuts, all of them grew up without sufficient interaction with unfamiliar dogs. How do you grow up not knowing what play is and what a fight is? I see this all the time with dogs who have no idea what canine play is, who are alarmed by it, who are distressed by it, who don’t play-bow or have a play face, and don’t have the skills to play. All three of these dogs have real issues with off-lead dogs who approach them. They don’t want to interact. They don’t want to say hi. They are the kind of dogs who happily pootle along (or in Effel’s case, run like an out-of-control steamroller) and see another dog in the distance without changing that distance at all. They aren’t scared of other dogs: they don’t retreat. But they don’t charge up either. I’d see this as a taught skill except for the fact that all three are unable to read other dogs’ body language and all three have quite clearly much less experience with what other dogs might do. It’s why they are okay with friendly fosters I bring home, but I could never bring one home for remedial socialisation. Dogs who are lacking in social experiences themselves are not the ones to teach others. This is vital if you have a herding breed too. The last thing you want is play that looks far too much like predation. Effel’s only play style was ‘chase’ – and once or twice ‘chase/grab’ – he had no role reversal. You can see that here:

See how he bounces up to Bandit, who’s play crouching, jumps at him, does a lovely ‘wait’, but then finds Effel doesn’t shift roles. Bandit’s hanging around waiting to see what happens next – maybe Effel will play ‘chase me!’ but Effel never plays ‘chase me!’ only ‘chase you!’ He even walks nicely round the back of Bandit, waiting for him to move, then looks back to me. When they get spooked by Heston peeing on the bush, Bandit clearly shows that he doesn’t want to play chase, and Effel comes back to me – why I say ‘Good boy!’

Can you see why, when you have a predatory herding breed that weighs 50kg, you want them to be okay around small dogs? If you don’t want to spend your life standing in the garden supervising, then that’s going to be vital.

Flika, my current foster, and my old mali Tobby who died a couple of years ago, both needed to learn to habituate to the presence of other dogs without interaction. Other dogs being around does not mean an automatic right to engage, no matter how kissy your greetings. These ‘over-socialised’ dogs who greet 100% nicely in face of some quite overt hostility are great for those dogs who need remedial socialisation: as Flika proved today, when you accidentally fall in a ditch and a young German shepherd bounces you, you need to be able to grumble without getting in a fight. A younger, pain-free Flika would have been perfect to smooth the edges off older dogs who were missing out on interactions. She’s not so biddable that she’ll accept Tarzaning, but at the same time, she’ll play and flirt her way out of situations with dogs who are wary. It would have been nice if both of them didn’t feel the right to engage, but I’d rather an over-social dog with mild lead frustration any day, than a dog who has simply habituated to the presence of dogs at a distance and has no idea how to behave appropriately if they get bounced by a Tigger of a dog.

That balance is vital.

The biggest problem with socialisation and habituation is that we don’t get the balance right, or that we miss out one or the other. We see everything about interaction – which is not how the real world works. For many of our dogs in the shelter, they are neither habituated to other dogs, nor socialised with other dogs. When you grow up in isolation or in a small family group, that will happen. If you only ever see on-lead dogs at a distance in the park, what will you do when you are dive-bombed by a love-giddy setter? If you only ever knew puppy play, why would you expect an adult dog to behave with aggression when you nip their cheek? If you expect to socialise with every dog you meet, why wouldn’t you be frustrated on lead when you see a dog in the distance and you can’t charge up to say hi?

If we got that balance right, if we habituated our dogs to the presence of other dogs as well as socialising them, if we do both, then we’re less likely to end up with the dogs who don’t handle greetings well through frustration, or dogs who respond inappropriately when they see a dog in the distance. For most of our dogs in the shelter, a little bit of socialisation – anything at all – would have gone a long way.

Getting that balance means our dogs will have a much better understanding of the world around them and much less stress about seeing other dogs. They’ll know how to behave without getting in fights, how to greet appropriately and also how to watch other dogs doing their thing without the need to go over and greet them.

Easy in theory, at least!


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