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

Isn’t that right, Flika?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if she falls asleep on duty!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above all, avoid punishment.

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

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

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

Building resilience

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

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

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

Physically, at least.

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

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

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

You can see resilience in action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so easy to work with a dog on those.

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

Simply Psychology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But success or failure is an immediate thing.

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

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

What makes Flika bark?

The increasing noise of planes in the sky.

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

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

What makes Heston bark?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on resilience, I promise!

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

The Dog in front of you

In dog rescue, particularly in what the French like to call the ‘Anglo Saxon’ world, there’s a mindset that I don’t often see in the French families who come to adopt our cats and dogs. I think it’s very specifically a dog thing, and you’ll see what I mean later, and very specifically an English-speaking phenomenon. I don’t know why that is, but I do know it gets in the way of our relationships with our dogs.

It’s about the dog in front of you.

This is Heston.

I know everything about Heston, after the day of his birth. I know where he was found. I know how many other puppies were found in a box with him. I know what his life was like up to six weeks of age and I know every single event that has happened to him in his seven years of life.

I know his DNA. I know which breeds got in there and what makes him 75% shepherd. I’ve got both Embark and Wisdom panels so I can fill in the bits I don’t know from his life before 1 day old when he was found in a box.

I know his medical history.

I know his best qualities and his worst.

So let’s take a ‘problem’ behaviour we’ve been working on since he was about 12 weeks old (and yes, I can tell you categorically when he had his first fear period involving humans and his first fear period involving other dogs). Heston can be a bit of a tit with joggers. We’ve largely mastered the sudden and unexpected appearance of Apex Predators on walks. We’ve mastered the sudden and unexpected appearance of Apex Predators mushroom-picking. We’ve mastered the sudden and unexpected appearance of Apex Predators on bicycles. We’ve mastered the sudden and unexpected appearance of Apex Predators and their packs of hunting dogs.

But joggers… Well they still bring out the worst in Heston.

Now, I can navel gaze as much as I like. I can look at the jigsaw that make up his pieces and say, well, groenendaels tend to be good at barking at threatening strangers (witness how easy it is to train their differently coloured Belgian brethren in protection sports) and I can say, well, he’s a dog and they can be protective of human resources, as well as territorial. I can say, well he’s a dog and predators don’t like bigger predators running at them. I can say, well, he’s a groenendael, and like many breeds or types of dog, he’s been bred to go in rather than hang back. If it comes to fight or flight, he’ll pick fight 100% of the time.

Or I could say, well, he maybe had fearful parents.

Perhaps it was a bad breeder.

Perhaps his mother had a third trimester stress experience that sensitised him to stress in utero.

Perhaps he was the first male in the womb and got a bigger dose of testosterone alongside that stress experience.

Perhaps he’s lacking in good maternal care. Maybe it’s because he was bottle fed.

Perhaps we should have kept the litter together.

He definitely needed better habituation to strangers. We live in a rural area and he didn’t see a jogger until he was way into his secondary fear period.

If I’d adopted as an older dog, perhaps I might have thought he’d been harmed by joggers. Perhaps he’s having flashbacks to some previous experience with people in lycra.

I’m being silly of course. I know this never happened.

But I can analyse Heston from his DNA up. All that’s missing is that early history. I can wonder if he’d be more accepting of large lycra-clad predators running at him had he been raised by a mother rather than a particularly spooky cocker spaniel.

I can pull apart Heston in a Philip Larkin fashion, wondering in what ways he was f%*ked up by his mum and dad, and which faults they passed on.

I can look into his eyes and wonder about inherited trauma.

I get a lot of this kind of questioning from the Anglo Saxon owners who approach me for behavioural work. Why are they like this? What’s going on? What caused it? As if by understanding cause, you can change behaviour.

I show them this:

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

This ‘soup’ is what makes up a dog (and more than this, believe me).

We hear often ‘no dog is a blank slate’ as if genetics are the be-all and end-all of behaviour. And we hear too trainers who claim they can change all behaviour as if genes and history don’t matter.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

It all matters.

And, as I said, more too.

Determinants of a dog bite model (Watkins and Westgarth 2017)

This diagram kind of picks up where the other left off… it’s what contributes to a dog bite. But it’s actually what contributes to ALL behaviour. That social environment is crucial. It all matters. Heston is a rural dog in a land where joggers don’t understand not to run at dogs. He doesn’t see joggers. He doesn’t know joggers. I have to drive 30 minutes to even see joggers in any predictable way.

Your dog will be influenced by these things too for their behaviour.

So when people ask me why their dog is ‘like this’, my answer is this:

“You can know every single piece of the puzzle and it still won’t change behaviour.”

The truth is that we Anglo Saxons torment ourselves with the whys and wherefores. That’s especially true when we have a rescue. We make up stories to fill in the gaps… they came from combat rings, they were abused, they’re street dogs, they were neglected, they had a traumatic second fear period…. ad infinitum.

This poses a challenge for two reasons. The first is that, as I said, it doesn’t change behaviour. It doesn’t actually help you understand the behaviour of the dog in front of you. It’s frustrating and without cease. The problem is that when you start unpicking causes, you start apportioning blame. If only he’d had a better socialisation period. If only those knobs didn’t leave him in a box. If only I’d not taken him to that market that time. If only….

In therapy, this is known as the ‘tyranny of the shoulds’. Karen Horney said in her writing that these prevented us from moving on. They weighed us down, gave us unreal standards to live up to and prevent us from change. Shoulda Coulda Woulda.

The second reason, apart from the frustration of never being able to put that spilt milk back in the bottle or lock the stable before the horse bolts, is that it gives us built-in excuses.

‘Oh he’s like that as he had a traumatic event during his primary fear period’.

It’s an answer.

But it’s a reason too. An excuse. A statement that says ‘I’m sorry: the milk was spilt and it wasn’t my fault. Please excuse my dog who is behaving like a bit of a tit.’

Both of those things prevent us from moving on. They prevent us enjoying the dog we have, taking stock of how wonderful they are and saying, ‘do you know what – let’s sort out this problem behaviour’ no matter its genesis.

Heston very much enjoyed sniffing in bushes last time we experienced the sudden and unexpected appearance of Apex Predators jogging in too-tight fluorescent lycra. We play ‘find it!’ when joggers come by, and strangely, this game avoids the need to behave, well, like a dog.

I’m going to take away my pride at my work and my canine ‘offspring’ and his ‘journey’. It’s a simple recipe of gradual desensitisation paired with food reinforcers (Pavlov) that turned environmental threats into a cue that a game would begin (Skinner). All pretty good practices endorsed by the best clinical animal behaviourists.

I’ve never known this recipe fail to modify behaviour when done properly under supervision of someone who knows what they’re doing.

So, instead of passive acceptance and instead of naval gazing, I now have a dog who feels like joggers are just random cues in the environment that treats will suddenly rain from the sky. A dog who looks forwards to the presence of joggers when he is in my company because, well, that’s nothing for us to be bothered about.

It’s about looking at the dog you have in front of you – one exhibiting a problem behaviour at least – and asking, ‘what can I do to make the world feel safer for you?

Sometimes, I admit this is not always possible to a complete degree. I can’t make Flika feel completely safe in storms. She’s had 14 years of working it out for herself, I would guess. But I can shut the shutters, stick on some Bob Marley and read her a book. Last storm, she only tried to eat the door once. Small progress counts. That’s better than trying to eat the doors without stopping for 30 minutes.

Instead of wondering if she has PTSD about times she was shut in a warehouse or left outside on patrol during a storm, I move away from deep causes. Identify triggers, change behaviours.

The truth is that we Anglo Saxons enjoy a bit of navel gazing and puzzle solving. I’m not suggesting you ignore your dog’s history and never try to make sure you understand all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. What I am saying is that we need to stop this holding us back from working on behaviour problems that show our dog feels uncomfortable with the world, and we need to stop excusing it.

Those excuses mean that we allow our dogs to continue behaviours that feel unpleasant but necessary to them.

It stops us finding solutions.

And also, we don’t do this with cats. We do this with dogs because they occupy a unique niche in our world as quasi-humans. We want to understand all the components as if they were human. We don’t do this with other species.

‘Oh that elephant is just acting out because it had a traumatic single learning event in their secondary fear period.’

‘My rescue cat was obviously abused by lycra-clad joggers.’

‘That beaver’s mother must have had a traumatic third trimester.’

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about whether animals have memories, whether they can conceptualise the future and whether they live in the moment. More so than ever with dogs. You know, quasi-humans in their ‘special’ relationship with us.

Look to your dogs. They will tell you. You don’t need science to prove this stuff. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Watch your dogs. Tilly found a big bone once in a field. She couldn’t carry it back as it was too big. Over 3 months, on each walk in that area she would progressively move it closer to the house and rebury it for safekeeping. 100m every few days. If that’s not both memory and planning, I don’t know what is. But sure, dogs live more in the moment – and so should we. Live in the now, look at the dog in front of you right now and instead of vivisecting behavioural causes to the nth degree, look to how you can move forward. Especially when you don’t have all the pieces.

Say, ‘Oh well!’ to that history. Tant pis.

Solutions, not excuses and ballast that stops you progressing.

Think ‘Gonna’, not ‘Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda’

You will never put spilt milk back in a bottle, but if you keep spilling it, you need to ask yourself how you can change so that in future, less is spilt, or none at all. When our horses bolt, it makes no sense to lock the stable behind them. But it’s a good reminder to lock the stable door before they run off next time.

Look at the dog in front of you right now, not the pieces of their history, and know that you will never understand everything. Even if you do.

Let’s stop psychoanalysing our dogs, vivisecting every aspect of their behaviour, looking to explain it all with deep-seated biological, neurological or historical reasons that can’t be changed. Say ‘Oh well!’ and work on what would make the world better so those behaviours would be surplus to requirement. Let’s stop talking about ‘traumatised’ dogs and live more in the moment with them, helping them to cope with the future. After all, we’re all heading there, dogs included. The past and the future, time’s dual arrows, are predicaments of human beings, not animals.

Next time, I’ll be writing about building resilience in dogs to help them for that future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

tellement méchant

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are plenty of flaws in the system.

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

The vet wrote collie x for Heston.

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

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

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

For most dogs, that doesn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That way, you can avoid all kinds of problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess that tells you all you need to know.

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

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

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

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

Dog problems: car chasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what ARE you supposed to do?

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

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

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

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

Set up zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Set-up solutions – things to consider

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main things to remember are:

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

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

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

Stress and small sinks: is your dog in danger of overflowing?

“It’s simple, really…” I found myself saying. “Your dog has a small sink. She overflows easily and doesn’t drain well…”

It made sense to me at the time, but it sounds like awful nonsense without a justification.

The sink metaphor is one I use frequently though with owner to explain why their dog isn’t coping with life.

You might very well be wondering what sinks have to do with stress and why some of our dogs don’t cope with the life they lead, or why they ‘suddenly’ seem to find life so hard.

Why are some dogs ‘bomb proof’ and some dogs on a hair trigger?

Why does it take some dogs seconds to recover from things, and other dogs seem to take days?

Why do some dogs seem to tip over more easily into fearfulness or aggression, and why isn’t it a good idea to flood your dog?

Your sink is your body. The taps are the centres of your body that control the release of hormones, neurotransmitters and other bodily chemicals. I imagine them like water –  adrenaline, cortisol – all those fancy biological bits that our brain turns on or off, that pour into our bodies and make us ready to fight, to freeze or to run away. There are certainly more taps running into our sinks than adrenaline or cortisol, but these are our ‘stress’ chemicals, that help our body deal with life.

Lots of factors decide how much pours out of those taps and how well your sink is able to handle the flow. You might, for instance, have a ‘normal’ flow of adrenaline and cortisol and your sink may just not be able to drain them quickly or efficiently. It might be too small, overflowing at the smallest fright. Tilly is a bit like that. It doesn’t take much for her to ‘flood’ – and the puddles that go with that are a much more literal vision of a ‘sink’ that floods too easily. Tilly doesn’t cope well with stress. When her sink floods due to a stressful event, she alarm barks and she pees.

You might have a fairly big sink that drains well – coping with life admirably. But what happens when your ‘taps’ release more of those chemicals than usual? You might also overflow too. One reason a body will do this is if you’re subjected to something acutely stressful. Chronic stress can do this as well – when it just accumulates and accumulates. Dogs also get illnesses such as Cushing’s – there are many reasons they may get Cushing’s. But Cushing’s tells the body to produce lots and lots of cortisol, like leaving the tap running at full flow all the time. Steroids can also have the same effect. Addison’s disease is the flip side of that coin, where not enough cortisol and adrenaline are released.

What largely dictates the size of your sink, how well you are able to cope with the flow of cortisol and adrenaline, is dependent on a number of things.

Genes are one. Bombproof parents are more likely to have bombproof babies. Breed is also a factor for dogs: it is without doubt that some dogs are more nervy and less able to cope with stressful situations or change than others.

A lot of that determines how big a sink you’re going to be born with.

Then socialisation (between 3-12 weeks and then continued more gradually up to adulthood) also influences the size of your sink and how well you cope with stress. Sadly, we know very well the risks of not socialising dogs and not inoculating them against stress… you can take a dog born with great parents and from a rock-steady breed, and if you don’t expose your dog to the world they’ll need to live in, you’ll end up with a dog whose sink size shrinks.

Sometimes, that’s just a little bit.

Heston, my shepherd, came to me aged 6 weeks. We had lots of exposure to cars and the outdoor world, not enough to people, vets, groomers and dogs, and none to stairs.

You’re wondering why I said stairs.

Didn’t cross my tiny mind that his fairly usual-sized sink might not be able to cope with stairs. Full-on fear overload because I forgot I might not live in a bungalow or have bungalow-dwelling friends all my life. Think of me carrying my 30kg dog down a spiral marble staircase as he literally pisses himself… and you’ll realise why I forgot to make his sink big enough to cope with stairs and why that posed a problem.

Habituation (getting used to things in life), desensitisation (getting used to the scary stuff gradually) and socialisation (knowing how to interact with people, dogs and other animals) are crucial influencers on the size of sink your dog ends up with.

A dog born with a fairly small sink may, for instance, expand their sink through a careful, planned, gentle programme of habituation, desensitisation and socialisation.

You have got a very brief period of time with a puppy to make the most impact – from 3 weeks of age to around 12 weeks. After this, your job is much tougher.

However, a lot of people do the early stuff (and get it wrong by accidentally overwhelming their young puppy) and forget to keep doing it – a lot of the good work you can do early on can be diminished by stopping at 13 weeks and not keeping it up at a gentle rate. But if you only start at 13 weeks – illness and vaccinations are two common reasons this step might get overlooked, but lack of understanding in puppy rearing is also a big factor too – then you are facing an uphill battle.

As we age, the size of that sink gets much harder to change. It’s much more fixed.

That’s not to say I can’t grow it gradually (I didn’t just give up to carrying Heston upstairs or accept that Tilly would pee every time anyone came to the house) but it’s a task-by-task scenario that can take weeks or months. I can’t turn that tiny hand sink into an enormous Belfast kitchen sink once that socialisation period is closed.

And that’s also not to say it can’t shrink overnight. A one-off traumatic experience can be enough to change your dog’s catering sink into a hand-basin. Those kind of events are rare though. Let’s make that clear.

So a small-sink dog might be a poorly-bred puppy-farm-raised nervous nellie of a -doodle whose owners followed vet advice to the letter and never took the dog anywhere until it was 16 weeks.

It might be a dog who started out with a great big sink, but who was over-exposed constantly to stressful situations and lived in chronic stress.

It might be a dog in pain or ill-health, suffering from acute stress.

And your big sink dog, well, we don’t put enough into making dogs with big sinks in my opinion. That takes a lot.

Rock-solid temperaments in parents, great genes, careful breeding programmes, thoughtful socialisation up to 12 weeks and beyond…

Genetics, breed and parentage fix a lot of the size of a sink. Not all, but a fair whack. Socialisation from 3 – 12 weeks fixes a lot of the rest.

What happens when that sink floods is what worries us most about dog behaviour. Aggression. Fearfulness. Running away. When our sinks flood, we’re in dis-stress. And stress affects so much more than just causing Tilly to pee when guests arrive.

Stress makes it easier to learn a fear association and turn it into a long-term memory. A flooded sink makes us hypersensitive to the environment and to remember it. It’s why we have flashbacks and develop phobias.

Stress makes it harder to unlearn fears. All the time, those flooded sinks are telling us that being safe is our number 1 concern and we should ‘save ourselves’. Fight. Flight. Freeze.

Stress sticks us in a rut and makes it harder for us to change our ways.

We go more easily to modal action patterns like chasing, circling or barking.

Hence compulsive disorders in dogs. I never see a compulsive barker without seeing a dog who isn’t coping well with stress. Nor a tail-chaser.

What do we typically do during a stressful time when something isn’t working? The same thing again, many more times, faster and more intensely— it becomes unimaginable that the usual isn’t working. If barking normally makes the bad stuff go away, it’s unimaginable that it’s not working, so our dogs bark more frequently, bark more loudly.

Stress also makes it hard to learn new responses. When we have a small sink, it makes it harder for us to learn. How rubbish is that?! The world conspires against us in so many ways. A small sink is biologically useful as it keeps you alive. It’s the bit that says ‘run away!’ if you’re in a war zone, or ‘fight!’ if you’re a mum protecting your children. It’s not biologically useful if you’ve had a car crash and now you have a panic attack every time anyone pulls up quickly at a junction. That last example is me, by the way. My sink shrank exponentially when a guy cut across me and caused a car accident.

Stress also lowers our inhibitions. It makes me want to get in street brawls with drivers who came to a squealing stop at a junction or pull out too soon onto a roundabout. Sometimes, I’m physically restraining myself from getting out of the car to yell at someone whose driving was marginally worse than the majority.

We see this in dogs too: dogs who usually have really good bite inhibition whose sink floods and then suddenly bite; dogs who normally have great recall and panic when they hear a gunshot; dogs who jump up more or bark more when they’re stressed out.

Sustained stress also makes us really bad at assessing risk. A guy coming to a roundabout at 5 miles faster than he should have, and being 2m closer than I’m happy with is not endangering my life. It’d be a fender bender at worst. Yet I react as if he’s got me at gunpoint and he’s Howling Mad Murdock in the A Team. A distant gunshot is nothing to most dogs. A storm isn’t life threatening. But small sink dogs aren’t good at assessing the risk of these.

Small, overflowing sinks are a recipe for displacement aggression as well. When I was fifteen, I watched a guy called Oggy punch a wall until his fist bled. Displaced aggression. I used to come home from work on a Friday and get into a fight with my boyfriend. Displaced aggression.

And we wonder why our dogs will turn around and bite us when stressed?

I was thinking about it the other day – every single contact a dog has made with their teeth on my body – has been ‘unpredictable’ in that there was no growling, no hard eye, no closed mouth, no lunges, no snarls. I’m sensible around dogs who have the slightest sign of fear or aggression. But I’ve had a fair few nips in over-excitement and on leaving the kennels or in handling dogs who are in pain. No warning kind of nips. Not loads and loads. I’m not some fool-hardy bite freak. But I’ve been on the receiving end of that displaced aggression in dogs enough times to know that stressful situations (leaving kennels, needing treatment, being in pain, being handled) can cause lowered bite inhibition and displaced aggression. Small sinks at work.

So when I say a dog has a small sink, what I mean is they don’t have the genes or the experience to cope with everything life throws at them. They ‘flood’ easily. Aggression or fearfulness are easy, automatic responses for them at times of stress.

Now you don’t have to live with this. Neither does your dog. You don’t have to say ‘oh well… small sink… can’t cope…’

You can do so much. You can limit triggers and stressors – the things that get the chemicals flooding in in the first place. You can also continue a gentle programme of gradual systematic desensitisation or exposure therapy. Those two things together can help your small sink dog cope with what life throws at them. Creating a safe, secure environment, teaching your dog autonomy and using both mental and physical exercise to help you ‘unblock’ the sink can also help your dog become more independent.

The very best way I’ve found of overcoming a small sink is to build a partnership. A dog who sees you as a secure base, who trusts that harm will never happen when you are there and who has a history of being safe when with you and when at home is a dog who is able to learn new strategies to cope with life. A dog who trusts you has a built-in overflow mechanism to help them cope. You. We all do better in life when we can depend on our friends and family. It’s no different for a dog. The right social systems and networks are enormous confidence boosts, and can help build resilience in your dog. You’re never going to make your Nervous Nellie into a Bombproof Brian, but the beauty of behaviour is that is doesn’t have to be fixed forever. Being realistic about what your dog can cope with and becoming a trusted base for them is a lifeline for many anxious, fearful or aggressive dogs. Life may have handed them a small sink, but it’s very helpful when your best friend is a plumber.

Is that one metaphor too far?

I think it probably is!

Canine Cognitive Decline

It’s no secret I love the oldies – Since 2014, I’ve always had a pensioner, or two, or three, milling about the house. Right now, I’ve got Miss Flika Flirty Knickers, whose knee and ankle joints are not at their best. She came to the shelter in pretty poor health – missing eye, cystitis, kidney infection, arthritis and she’d had a stroke one night. I didn’t think she’d still be here nine months later, but she’s still rampaging through retirement without any sign of slowing down.

I’ve also got my little Tilly Popper, who came to me as a 5 year old some 8 years ago, and has been plagued by almost 2 years of ear problems. Started with mites and fungus, cleared up, got other things, and finally in April, a virulent antibiotic-resistant infection that we’re fighting hard. Sadly, with a heart murmur, it’s not easy to clean it out – and the only operation worth doing may not work anyway. Tough call. She had a stroke a month ago, and then another last week. But we’ll see.

Today’s post is about Amigo, my old boy who died back in March. His old age crept up on me after Tobby died in 2016. Barely 2 months after I’d lost Tobby to degenerative neurological problems, Amigo had a stroke one night.

His recovery was slow. Although he was only supposed to be nine years old (I’d adopted him when he was 6, but he came from the pound, so we had no idea really how old he was), the vet realised he was much, much older than that. His balance came and went. His breathing got worse – he had two bullets in his chest from his first life – and pulmonary fibrosis set in. Most of his hearing went with the stroke, if he’d had much before, and it marked a real deterioration in both his mental and physical health.

During the day, he was fine. Happy to trot on walks, if a little happier to bugger off. More time on lead and less time romping through fields. He was slower, too, but not noticeably. Amigo was always the one who told me it was breakfast and it was dinner time. He didn’t bark more, he didn’t seem lost. He just seemed a little older, if anything. As sweet as he’d ever been.

His appetite didn’t change much, although I thought I’d lost him in September 2017 when he had a bout of colitis. We x-rayed him after an ultrasound and I was expecting cancer. I think he sensed the relief in the room when the vet said it was colitis, and he jumped off the x-ray table with all the vigour of a dog who hadn’t just seemed like he was at death’s doorstep.

But it was the night-times that were tough. He’d sleep in the evenings without any issue – happy to curl up next to me while I worked. Come 11pm and he would not settle. The pacing would start. Then the panting. Some nights, he would pace and pace until 2 or 3 in the morning. And he was always up by 5am. After 11pm, he changed. It was like he wasn’t himself any more. He’d try and get in other dogs’ beds – while they were in them! – and even then he wouldn’t settle. Being deaf didn’t help – the others were growling and he couldn’t hear them. I could let him out – he didn’t want to go out. I could pet him – he wasn’t bothered. He just wandered and wandered.

Eventually, I got a salt lamp. Whilst I’m not some ancient hippy believing every alternative health story, the pink light was better than leaving lamps on all over the house so that Amigo didn’t fall on things or crash into other dogs. It was certainly better than trying to confine him, which made him much more distressed. It was also better for my sleep than leaving lamps on. Whether it’s hocus pocus or not, there is some small-scale evidence that these can help with mood in animals. And if it’s hocus pocus, the low light wasn’t offensive so I could get some sleep at least.

That lamp also stopped him crashing into other dogs, at least. And on the nights he had an accident, it also stopped me slipping in it afterwards. Always a bonus. Obviously, keep them out of reach of dogs tripping on them or licking them – that goes without saying.

Because it was related to sleep, I also tried some sleep aids with the guidance of my vet. We didn’t want to sedate him, so it wasn’t a case of giving him a sedative like valium (although I had some of that here for other health issues for him) Melatonin had some effect and it certainly fitted with other things, like his alopecia. Don’t try it without checking with your vet: there are potential side-effects especially for diabetic dogs or those with a heart condition.

A thundershirt and Ttouch also helped. With the melatonin and a few other things, a combination of massage, some Ttouch movements, melatonin and a thundershirt, we all got the best night’s sleep. He went right through from 11pm to 6am without a wander. I think managing decline can be a lot like that – a combination of thing can accumulate.

A vet friend of mine had also recommended MSM for another of my dogs who was suffering from arthritis. He says that a lot of the supplements we give are for mobility but are not anti-inflammatory as such, and offer no pain relief. It’s not a medical anti-inflammatory, that’s for sure, but the nights when I’d given him MSM seemed to be the most peaceful ones. There are some small-scale studies which are ‘limited but encouraging’ and it certainly seemed to help with both his hair, his movement and his night-time restlessness.

There are other sleep aids you may want to try out in discussion with a holistic veterinary practitioner. Valerian and passionflower were two I tried. I didn’t see any difference, but that’s just one dog. Zylkène, Nutracalm, Pet Remedy, Adaptil and Anxitane may also help with anxiety, and it’s worth checking them out with your vet.

Also, like a baby, I figured it was also about poor sleep training. He was sleeping when he should have been active in the early mornings and at dusk, and then not sleeping through the night. So I made sure he had a good amount of physical exercise – not too much because I didn’t want him restless because he was hyped up on adrenaline or because his knackered old body hurt – but I tried to make sure he had a little trot about about an hour before bed. I also made sure he had plenty of mental enrichment, and I’ll tell you about that later.

However, it’s important to remember that you can tire your dog out and you can give them natural (or pharmaceutical) sedatives and sleep aids, but it doesn’t get to the underlying causes. Sometimes that’s canine cognitive dysfunction (and you can get supplements for that too) but often it’s a physical thing. When I could see on the x-ray the shrinking size of Amigo’s stomach as his lungs expanded as a result of fibrosis, his colitis was without doubt worsened by the fact that his whole body was out of sync. He often had tummy ache. I wonder how often the wandering and restlessness was caused by gastro-intestinal problems. I had trapped wind last night (overshare!) and I was restless.

Sometimes that wandering is caused by pain, so a comfortable bed can help with that. That said, both of my oldies who’ve had crippling arthritis have both been ‘go to bed  – stay in bed’ types. I often wondered whether Amigo’s bed hopping was related to the need to find the most comfortable sleeping spot.  Sometimes I think we overlook the physical problems that may be causing our dogs restlessness, thinking it’s cognitive decline when in fact, they’re just uncomfortable. Pain relief can be a really important factor in treating sleeplessness.

That said, many dogs do suffer from cognitive decline, and pharmaceuticals do exist to help with that. Sedatives aren’t the only option. Anti-anxiety medication or anti-depressants can be prescribed by your vet if they suspect it may help. Remember these are not sedatives and they won’t change your dog overnight. Prozac and Selgian are two pharmaceuticals you may find your vet prescribing to help with other cognitive issues.

Just as mental enrichment and stimulation can slow down decline in humans, so it can in animals. Where his body couldn’t cope with physical activity in the same way as it had when he was younger, I put in lots of mental enrichment. From Sprinkles to Kongs, food toys to snuffle mats, Pickpockets to puzzle toys, hide-and-seek to scent work, trick training and husbandry training kept his mind busy and allowed me to keep him occupied as well as track decline. Forgetting learned tricks is a quick way to see that decline is setting in.

We played lots of games outside to keep him occupied, and lots of slow ‘sniffari’ walks too.

Mental enrichment not only helps re-train your dog to better sleep patterns, but also uses up some of that mental energy they don’t use up through physical activity as they used to. It also keeps them thinking, seeking, puzzling. It keeps them curious. It was a vital part of our old age regime and continues to be so for Flika and Tilly. Just because they spend a lot of time asleep doesn’t mean they are well-occupied.

It’s also all very well to speak about how wonderful it is to love a dog with canine cognitive dysfunction, but we also have to remember that it is hard. We are not saints. It’s often frustrating and depressing. Taking care of yourself is vital. If that means finding a pet-sitter so you can catch up on some sleep yourself, then do it. Some of the best nights I had were when I had taken all those sleep supplements and left Amigo, securely, to wander. It’s a long journey with a sad destination, and that’s not made any easier if you are exhausted and upset. Remember to look after yourself. In the long run, Amigo’s decline happened over 14 months. That’s a long time for any human to be sleep-deprived. Be kind to yourself and to your dog. Use sitters and use your friends/family to help you out: you would if you were dealing with a newborn.

Finally, Eileen Anderson’s wonderful book, Remember Me? is an absolute must-read for anyone with an ageing dog. You can buy it on Kindle if you don’t want a physical copy. For well-researched information about diet, housing, medication and much, much more, it’s a real treasure to have at your side as you navigate the problems that age-related cognitive decline can pose.

Keeping your dog safe in the garden

This post is the final one in a series of three about keeping your dog safe.

The first post, keeping your dog safe on walks, is largely aimed at dogs who like walks but who don’t like certain things that happen on walks, such as strangers appearing or other dogs charging up to them. It’s also aimed at dogs who treat the outdoor world as a picnic buffet and like to ingest all sorts of things they shouldn’t. It’s aimed at dogs with predatory drive that isn’t manageable and dogs who are fearful but are in the process of being gradually and gently habituated or desensitised to the outside world. It’s for car chasers and bike chasers, jogger-haters and scooter-fans. Reading a sad story about a dog who impaled itself this week during a walk, it’s also for dogs in high risk areas such as traffic, dangerous wildlife or man-made risks like traps. Deaf dogs, blind dogs or dogs with dementia would also benefit from the suggestions, no doubt.

The second post, keeping your dog safe in the home, is aimed at door dashers, family and household incidents, dogs with separation anxiety, dogs who are aggressive with family members or other family animals and also puppies. For newly arrived dogs who’ve never lived inside, it’s also useful.

Today, I’m looking at how you can keep your dog safe in the garden. For dogs who may escape or dig out, who have high prey drive or like chasing skirt, it’s a must. As with everything, there are times when management is your main goal and there are times when teaching is more sensible. For 14-year-old skirt chasing Tobby, it was a bit of both. When you’re 14, there’s a time investment involved in teaching new behaviours. Management may sometimes involve financial costs, but it can be used at any point in a dog’s life.

Why might our garden be dangerous for our dog?

If you’ve got an escape artist, it’s often easier to escape from a garden than a house.

If you’ve got a digger, they can break claws, tunnel to victory or unearth roots or plants that could poison them.

If you have a pedigree dog that is a status animal, an unsupervised garden can be an easy place to take them from.

People outside may also open gates inadvertently where they wouldn’t open your front door.

If you’ve got a territorial dog, a fence may not be as secure as you think it is in terms of protecting passers-by.

Also, whilst you may have the most perfectly trained pet who’d never wander off site, it doesn’t stop other animals getting in. When you’ve seen your 45kg shepherd having a fight with a badger, you realise that fences are not just about keeping things IN, but also keeping things OUT. Badgers, by the way, even old, sick ones, can cause a lot of damage. Learned that by experience. You don’t have to live in more exotic parts to meet animals that might decide your dog is a tasty snack, that’s for sure.

And we have all heard tales of animals poisoned by food thrown over fences, or, here in rural France, animals shot by hunters accidentally.

Lots of reasons then that your outdoor space could do with a bit of thought.

Also, we tend to adapt our houses to suit our dogs when we’re out. A couple of chewed books and boots and I got really, really good at tidying up. An overturned bin one day and I was vigilant about putting the bin under lock and key. If we’re in and our dogs are in the house, we tend to be supervising them – passively if nothing else. If we’re on a walk, again, our dogs tend to be on a lead or within earshot. Certainly, they should be, even though I know this is not always the case.

But we leave our dogs unsupervised a lot out in the garden.

In rural France, a lot of dogs are outside, unsupervised 24 hours a day.

For many dogs, even a slight boundary is enough to keep them in, even if it doesn’t stop other things coming into the garden. A 1m high chicken-wire fence is all I’ve got along one of my boundaries. Any determined dog would make short work of that.

My first question for escapees is over or under?

Are they jumpers or diggers?

I prefer jumpers. So much easier.

Shelssie was a jumper. This 30-cm-high staffie cross could scale a 3m fence. I saw her. A flat, featureless fence that my champion rock-climber friend would have trouble finding a foothold on. She could easily jump 2m and even with a grille across the top of the kennel run, if unsupervised, she would spend her time jumping and headbutting weak spots until she made a gap or got a loose bit, and then she was off. So a roof kind of slowed her down, but didn’t stop her. I’m pretty sure she could have scaled 4 or 5 metres even.

Butter wouldn’t melt, would it?

Don’t believe me?

Now I’m not a fan of dogs training like this – oh the physical damage they can do to themselves! – but is it really any better for Miss Shelssie who freelanced? Forget this dog’s 2-hour training sessions and treadmills, Shelssie practised whenever she was unsupervised, which was a good 10 hours a day sometimes.

Coyote roll bars are a good start – not easy if you have 300m of perimeter fencing, but nobody says you can’t fence off a smaller space for your dogs.

So a 2 metre smooth-surfaced fence with roll-bars and an inward-facing 45° section at the top will help manage most hardened jumpers.

Digging is tougher, but digging takes time unless you’ve built your fence on loosely-packed dry sand or on fresh compost. A hard substrate is tougher to dig out from. The easiest thing to do is lay a hard substrate – cement is also a possibility – and to cover it with solid chicken wire to about a metre out, and then stones or gravel on top. You can put ground cover plants as a hedge. You can also buy rigid fencing and bury it low into the ground.

I fear for this guy’s feet in flip flops with bolt cutters right there, let me tell you. I need to do another post for Safety in the garden for Aussies in flip-flops. Dude, you live in a country with deadly snakes and spiders anyhow. Get some proper footwear.


You want something flat and wide from the fence, like a metre of chicken wire, and you want to go down, like reinforcing bars for reinforced concrete if you need something tough.

Again, if it’s too expensive, go smaller. Make a smaller penned area.

The most important thing is to tackle the motivation behind the digging or escaping.

To chase? Cats? Moles? Rabbits? I don’t need to tell you about the Boston terrier who burrowed through to next door, nipped into the neighbours’ house and got himself a guinea pig snack.

Territorial behaviour or competition from other dogs?

Fear and the desire to escape? Separation anxiety?


The desire to mate?

When you know what’s motivating this behaviour, you can then start to deal with the cause. So bored animals need some canine enrichment or occupation. Animals who are chasing need to learn some impulse control and to be supervised. Territorial behaviour can be dealt with through desensitisation or counterconditioning programmes, as can fear. Mating can easily be solved with a quick trip to the vet.

Supervision is also crucial. Most dogs don’t know not to escape. And you might tell them off, but punishing a dog only suppresses the behaviour, it does not eliminate the need behind it. It just makes the dog more likely to try to escape in your absence. I always ask if the dog is trying to escape when supervised. That is a different thing altogether. But the vast majority of dogs are escaping when they’re unsupervised which means they need supervision and a gradual, trained programme of settling when unsupervised. Don’t just expect your dog to do nothing for 10 hours whilst your at work. Build up to it and start small.

For Tobby the skirt chaser, we got to the point where he could be outside unsupervised and he didn’t bugger off through tiny holes despite advanced arthritis… although he was very good at knowing my head wasn’t in it and I’d then be chasing my Littlest Hobo through the lanes.

Of course, you don’t want to supervise all the time, so you really need to address those emotional needs to escape or dig in other ways. And you need to train them to stay inside the fence at all costs. That photo was me practising with the gate. I’m waving leads and chicken at them. That’s what I want.  A rock-solid ‘no, this is my giant big den and I’m not budging no matter how you tempt me’. Essentially, what you are doing is ‘stay on mat’ training, just with a garden rather than a mat.

But get to the emotions and train something appropriate.

Are they searching to get out to exercise their predatory habits? Scentwork, impulse control work and play are particularly helpful at putting an on-switch and an off-switch on these behaviours and giving your dog plenty of stimulation in appropriate ways.

If your dog is seeking to get out to give your neighbours and their dogs a piece of his mind, you really could do with a trainer or behaviourist who can work with you on counterconditioning or exposure therapy to help your dog feel less threatened by what happens outside the fence.

If your dog is afraid and is seeking to get out when there are loud noises or things happen in the home, working on providing a safe, quiet environment and a place for them to retreat to is crucial, as well as working on their resilience and confidence.

Please bear in mind that the emotional drives behind these behaviours can be much stronger than any punishment you may choose. Invisible electric fencing or physical electric fencing may be little deterrent at all. In fact, for aggressive dogs it runs the risk of making their behaviour worse, and for fearful dogs, they may then be reluctant to return home. Shock fencing causes more problems than it solves.

Dogs may also try to get out because they are bored, in which case your dog needs to learn how to settle in your absence and or you to make sure that you are not asking too much of your dog. Occupation, scentwork, mental games and activities should help with that too.

And dogs may also seek to get out for company and companionship. Getting another pet is not a solution, but doggy daycare, dog parks, playdates and dog sitters are one way to both manage your dog’s needs and also help make sure they are met. If your dog is not neutered, it is something to consider as to whether those needs are sexual in nature and whether neutering would curb their desire to roam in search of a mate.

So, let’s talk worst-case scenario. You’ve got a dog that, for one reason or another, has horrible aggression issues and the potential to do great damage. You’d like to be able to let them off-lead outside and you have the space to do it, but you don’t want to have to supervise (or you can’t) 24 hours a day. Or you have the world’s most persistent skirt chaser and having them altered isn’t an option. Or you’ve adopted a hound who has a million ways to get out. Or a Shelssie.

For one reason or another, you absolutely need a secure garden space.

How can you create that?

Besides a secure fence, a smooth wall is less likely to help dogs go over. Buried fence panels will stop diggers making such an easy task of it. Roll bars/45° inwards-facing fencing attached to the top will also help. ‘Airlocks’ or double gate systems can help with gate dashers. You will need a deadlock on gates to stop unwitting guests opening them by mistake. For dogs who don’t pose an aggression risk, high-vis collars/harnesses and a GPS tracker will help you locate quickly and also help motorists see them to avoid accidents on the road. Bear in mind, collars can easily be slipped and can also catch dogs onto branches, which also poses a risk. Whilst a dog may get caught up in a harness, it won’t strangle them. A high-vis escape-proof harness for all outdoor time will be better than a collar. For dogs who pose a significant aggression risk, it’s imperative that your dog is secure.

Just as an aside, if your dog is that aggressive, you will be working with someone, I know. But some things to bear in mind from fatal dog attacks…

The risks of a fatal dog bite are higher with dogs who a) live outside on a permanent or semi-permanent basis b) uncastrated males that are 25kg plus c) in groups

The victims are often physically vulnerable (young or old) neighbours or known to the family (rather than family members or strangers) rather than strangers. That, though, is for fatal dog bites, not the 99.9999% of bites which don’t kill. It is not to say that your dog is more likely to bite a child, just that it will be more serious if it does.

I think, though, that there is a lesson in there about dogs in yards.

Dogs shouldn’t live in yards if you expect them to be good ‘people’ dogs. Although socialisation is largely over by 12-14 weeks, you need to keep that socialisation going with strangers and with familiar humans through their teenage years and not deprive them of regular contact with humans in their adulthood. Becoming a yard dog or ‘resident’ dog who lives out in a yard with little contact with humans is not a good way for a dog to live. No wonder they lose touch with how humans behave! 10 years in the countryside has made me much more edgy in cities. The noise, lack of space and bad manners make me grumpy in ways they never did when I lived in the city. We lose touch with the world and with how people behave if we aren’t regularly part of it.

The other lesson is that if you have an aggressive dog who you like to give garden time to, as well you might, don’t think that the biggest threat is to people the dog doesn’t know. I suspect we lower our guard with people who know the dog, thinking the dog will tolerate them as they tolerate us. So when you’re thinking of how to keep your postman safe from accidentally releasing your dog, make sure you think too about access from the house. It’s all very well preventing your neighbours’ kids from accidentally getting in to your garden from the street, or stopping your dog getting out onto the street, but think too of how you stop grandchildren, visiting children, guests and grandmas getting from the house into the garden, or your dog from getting from the garden to the house.

This is from bite expert Jim Crosby: “Dogs belonging to grandparents or other family not living with the child full time are the most likely of the family dogs to have a negative encounter, whether a full fatality or a simple dog bite. This usually indicates a lack of frequent social contact between the dog and the particular child, coupled with a relaxation of supervision because the dog is seen as part of the family.”

I think that’s a really important message. When you set up your secure garden, make sure you don’t forget security between the house and the garden. It’s all very well protecting Joe Public from your dog, or your dog from Joe Public/coyotes/wolves/bears and the likes, but the real dangers are often likely to be ones in the home.

Barrier Frustration and Barrier Aggression

You may well have seen this video doing the rounds

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

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

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

It doesn’t end there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What your frustrated dogs need:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What your aggressive dogs need:

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

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

Kikopup with a great lead handling video

Another great video here showing how to take it at your dog’s own pace. Notice the sniffing and the visible relaxation in the dog as they turn away at the end… And also notice how, even though he’s aroused and pulling slightly, he’s far enough away that he’s a long way from being over-aroused.

And another one

I’m imagining a lot of work has gone into this back-away to get her to this point where she can walk off when a strange dog approaches. I suspect Mya, from the description, was more frustrated than aggressive, but does she look frustrated here?

And one more with a great dane

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

Some other posts that may help

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

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