Training Corner #7 Fetch!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture the scene…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far in the series:

#Hand touch

#Wait & Leave it




#Take it

Why I’m re-thinking my puppy nipping advice

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

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

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

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

Is that working for us?

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

BUT… but…

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

Do puppies and their mums really yelp and interrupt play?

Does this moderate bite behaviour?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, is this true?

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

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

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

They said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s possible.

Here’s some older beagle pups.

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

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

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

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

And some GSDs playing too…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe the problem comes later in development?

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

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

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

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

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

That’s something to think about.

Biting has been reinforced and it has increased.

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

So from all of this…

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the realm of Skinner.

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

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

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

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

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

Either biting gets more or biting gets less.

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

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

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

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

Except I don’t think it is.

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

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

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

Fair enough.

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

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

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

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

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

They’re laden with emotion.

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

Markers are supposed to be neutral.

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

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

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

But therein lies the rub.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I use incompatible or alternative behaviours.

And it works.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Training Corner #6 Take it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So get out there and start working on your holds!

Training Corner #5 Watch!

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

My eyes are up here, buddy.

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

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

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

That’s important for dogs to learn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first is with a lure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training Corner #4 Rover, come!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most important thing to bear in mind is challenge:

Start at the bottom and work to the top!

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

Don’t forget you can also play with:

Calm vs excitable

Distance FROM distraction vs Distance FROM you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless you have a Tilly.

Then food trumps everything apart from rolling in fecal matter.

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest mistake we make with socialisation and habituation

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

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

It goes without saying that socialisation is necessary.

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

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

Let me explain.

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

Imagine if we hugged them?

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

With tongues?

Twerked them or humped them?

Pinched their arse?

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

What if we yelled at them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

So, yes, this causes fights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s not okay either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do puppies need to learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That balance is vital.

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

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

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

Easy in theory, at least!


Training Corner #3: Drop, Give or Out

Why do you start preparing ‘Drop!’ before you’ve maybe even taught ‘take it!’ or ‘get it!’ ??

Seems strange, right?

To be honest, I’ve massively changed how I teach this cue in the last year. I used to use more active sessions, when dogs actually had something in their mouth that I wanted. So I’d teach it by predicting when the dog was likely to drop, and then saying ‘drop!’ …

That was pretty hard. You have to know when the dog is likely to spit the thing out. Sometimes you accidentally end up playing ‘tug’ or forcing a drop by physically removing the thing.

Then I saw Chirag Patel’s video from Domesticated Manners demonstrating a method I’d never seen before.

I watched the first five minutes or so thinking ‘What are you up to, fella?’ That dog has nothing to drop!’ and then, when I saw the dog spit a hot dog out I had such a penny-dropping moment that I’m surprised I didn’t injure myself.

This is now the ONLY way I teach drop. I might swap to a toy eventually, but I always start with this method. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never teach drop in more traditional ways at all.

You can call it ‘Give!’ or ‘Out!’, or whatever floats your boat. I realised that it sounded a bit like ‘stop!’ so I was getting some accidental behaviours instead of drop. I changed my ‘stop!’ cue to ‘stand’, which is very different. Worth bearing in mind!

It’s worth watching the video a few times for the explanations, which are incredibly valuable.

Why I love this so much is it’s more of a ‘get back to me now and you need an empty mouth!’ than a taught ‘drop!’

You can also change the cue later to differentiate between times when the dog has something in its mouth (Drop, or Out) and times you just want them to know there’s a food party at your feet (I use ‘Surprise!’ for that) but you may need a bit of time for the dog to learn the difference between ‘Drop!’ and ‘Surprise!’ if you want to have a different word for each situation.

You can see Nando Brown using it here, and also using a toy

Imagine how much easier this is when you’ve done the groundwork that Chirag Patel demonstrates?! There’s no need for mouthing or holding on. There’s none of the breath-holding moments when the dog holds on or decides that the trade isn’t good enough. I taught drop using traditional tug games, like Nando demonstrates, and that I’d seen other trainers use, but I’ve had much more reliable results from the Domesticated Manners version. You can make the toy boring, you can use a treat in front of the nose, but I promise you, it’s just not as great as the speed with which a dog will absolutely spit out a treasured toy when they’ve learned that Drop means they need an empty mouth.

Plus, the Domesticated Manners version has other benefits.

It really, really helps with recall. ‘Drop!’ is one of the only cues I rarely take off 100% reinforcement. That said, I won’t use it as often. I do it ten times a day in various situations until it’s flawless. Then I do it in harder and harder situations. On lead. Then off lead. And then I maybe only use it a handful of times, until I get to the point where I am only using it where I need it.

Keeping it with 100% reinforcement has drawbacks and benefits. The benefit is that there is ALWAYS something in it for the dog. It’s how I keep it as a ‘Boom! I’m back here! Here’s me!’ from the dog. It’s how I get my dogs to have an immediate and wonderful reflexive recall to feet. It’s a wonderful way to distract your dog too in an emergency, and you can use it with ‘What’s That?’ or emergency scatter feeding (where you toss a bunch of treats on the floor to avoid accidents). So ‘drop!’ is coincidentally ’empty your mouth’, but for all intents and purposes, for the dog, it’s a ‘get back to my feet because there is amazing stuff there’. That’s when there’s a difference between ‘Surprise!’ and ‘Drop!’

For instance, with Harry, a dog-reactive pointer at the shelter, an emergency ‘Drop!’ is a great way to avoid the stress of another dog coming in the opposite direction. Now you know me – I’m about teaching, not management – but there are times when you know your dog is going to go nuts if it sees what you see, and it gets that nose right down on the ground.

I also like this method of ‘Drop’ because it mimics a displacement activity – sniffing the ground. It’s non-aggressive and non-threatening. Now, it only seems as if your bonkers barker is a lover not a fighter, but it truly works. I’ve managed to avoid full-on confrontations between two dog-aggressive or reactive dogs simply by having one of them at my feet hunting for food. When you’ve got an amazing ‘Drop!’, you can use it to stop your dog charging ahead or you can use it along with ‘Leave it!’. It’s amazing to have a reflexive response (which you want this to be) when you have a problem situation. For instance, once I was handling a really dog-aggressive dog and another one was coming the opposite direction. A quick game made it look like my dog was avoiding conflict and the other dog-aggressive dog passed with a ‘watch’ from his handler…. but he wasn’t fussed because it seemed like the other dog was minding his own business. When you’re faced with a face-off over a 200m stare-down, a solid behaviour is vital. Drop is as good as any for that.

It’s also a brilliant thing to teach to dogs who have potential resource-guarding habits, who guard their food or toys. For this, having your hand near the food really helps. Not something to do with a hardened resource guarder unless you have done a bit of work behind the scenes, but it’s still a vital skill. It’s the very first thing I teach a dog who’s grumbling about giving things up.

You can see this with John McGuigan:


Very useful for dogs who enjoy running off with your stuff and evading you. A must for terrier owners!

So Lidy in the picture had a ‘Drop!’ and then a ‘Wait!’ and then a ‘Get it!’ with that pig’s ear. Sometimes we have a ‘Drop!’ and then a ‘Leave it!’

How great is it when your dog will spit out their toys so quickly and race back to you in expectation of unexpected gifts from above?

If they’re struggling, start with something really, really high value. Stinky cheese or salmon usually brings them right back. I’m a fan of stinky stuff – it’s so much more appetising than chicken or turkey, which doesn’t have the same smell. That’s not to say they’re not as fantastic for your dog, but I know smell in food is one way to get a dog interested in it if they aren’t usually. You can also use toys, but it’s less practical because at the beginning, you want to use a large number of small treats. All I want is the habit to come back and use their mouth to pick up food from your feet.

To make it more challenging, change location and practise in a number of places.

Then change the distance and say ‘Drop!’ from further and further distances.

Add distractions! Can you get your dog to drop a hot dog or a pig’s ear and come back to you? Start small and work up.

From time to time, I add a real jackpot reinforcer. Nothing like something disgusting but amazing like sliced liver to make that behaviour really, really quick. And as I said, I switch to ‘Surprise!’ for ‘Party at my feet!’ with 100% reinforcement, but rarely used. I keep ‘Drop!’ for ‘give me that thing in your mouth!’

Those methods make ‘Drop!’ or ‘Out!’ a really bomb-proof skill for dogs who are really amped up. With ‘Wait!’ or ‘Leave it!’, you’ve got a combination of cues that mean you are really maximising your dog’s impulse control.

Now get out and get busy with your Drop!

Socialisation & Habituation: how you need to take breed into consideration

Last week, I posted about socialisation, habituation and the difference between them. This is in response to a particularly ‘contagious’ post doing the rounds about why you don’t need to socialise your dog. I think she meant why you shouldn’t flood your young puppy and overwhelm it with stimuli – which I agree with – but I’m very much in the ‘yes you do need to both socialise and habituate your dog’ camp – because I work with problem dogs who haven’t had the basics they needed, and because I know what has gone awry.

When you hang around animals, you can see those who aren’t used to other dogs, those who haven’t been socialised with other dogs, those who are not used to humans and those who have been accidentally sensitised rather than getting used to it.

Breed is a factor in that. It’s the basic ingredients that your dog comes with. What you do with those ingredients depends on what you get as a ‘finished product’. That’s the socialisation, habituation and training bit. They’re the recipe and the cooking.

I also wrote about my own dog, Heston, who I raised as a gundog and who turned out to be a shepherd mix with a little bit of gundog, rather than a retriever/collie mix with no shepherd. When I got his DNA test back, it explained some of his worst habits, things that ‘shepherds gone wrong’ are likely to show, as well as ‘shepherds gone right’.  I wrote about how training had turned him into a pretty great gundog. What I didn’t write about was how his lack of appropriate socialisation and habituation had turned him into a pretty bad shepherd.

What does that mean?

I mean, I’ve worked with my fair share of shepherds gone wrong.

What you find are what I’d call excessive breed tendencies.

What that means are all the behaviours that prize-winning shepherds have a little bit, that you can refine and shape, and that haven’t been shaped in others who end up on my books, or on my couch.

If you look at dog competitions like mondioring, French ring, Schutzhund, IPO etc, you see shepherds with these breed tendencies on cue. I’m not talking about the tracking, trailing or jumps. Those are things that other dogs do too. I’m talking about the things that make these competitions almost exclusively dominated by one breed or one group of breeds. I’m talking about behaviours which are more instinctive to your average shepherd than they are to your average spaniel. That’s to say they are doing what they usually do, just it’s under control. Those excessive breed tendencies show up, under control, in chasing a fleeing stranger, facing down an aggressive stranger, defending the handler, taking down someone who is running away and guarding an object. That’s to say more likely than a foxhound, for instance, to be territorial, to confront strangers, to be wary of new stuff, to be unfriendly around other predators (including dogs and humans) and to be capable of protecting something they consider as ‘theirs’. You’ll see these show up on reviews of James Serpell’s CBARQ assessment, which compares breed tendencies. I’m always a little cautious because surveys such as CBARQ do play into the owner biases, but I think there is enough work to show that those biases have a basis in the behaviour we see. Just as an example: the problems we get with the hounds in the shelter are different than the problems we get with terriers or shepherds. So be super cautious of breed stereotypes, but know that there’s something to bear in mind… it’s why dogs do different jobs and why they excel in different competitions. Who wins field trials? I’ll give you a clue. It’s never been a Jack Russell.

Those shepherd breed tendencies seen in ring competitions also show up, not under control, in dogs who chase or ‘intercept’ joggers or cyclists, dogs who will charge up to a stranger, circling them and barking, biting if they make any movement, dogs who won’t tolerate a stranger coming into the perimeter of the owner or home, dogs who bite you as you’re moving away and dogs who are excessively territorial or have excessive resource guarding habits.

The difference between those who have the behaviours under control and those who don’t depends on a lot of things.

It depends on the emotion. Heston running up to and cornering a guy who’d come onto my property ‘to look for scrap metal’ had the emotional intensity that some top competitions look for. He didn’t look like an R+ trained dog playing a find-the-intruder game. Dogs on cue probably won’t do it with the same emotion. He did everything that competition dogs do – just without me asking unfortunately. He ran up, he held the guy in position, he barked fiercely and angrily. When the guy tried to move, he circled him. When the guy yelled at him, Heston barked more intensely. There was no contact. He did everything a mondioring dog does – without training. Now, I’m not proud of this and it’s not a “whoo, look at my untrained dog’s skills”. I am just saying that in competitions, you see the same behaviours, just without the self-employment bit. A trained dog does it as a simulation. An untrained dog does it for real.

What’s the difference between this:

And Heston finding a stranger in the garden?

Control. Training. Teaching. Cues. Handling. Management of emotion. Impulse control.

I am in no way condoning these behaviours. He could well have done them with a person who had every right to be on the property. I had to go over and physically restrain my own dog. I don’t think it is in any way an acceptable behaviour, and once I’d seen it, I manage the situation much more carefully and we’ve done a lot of training around strangers – though less than I’d like about ones who come on to the property, just because of the nature of my lifestyle. One self-employed moment was more than enough. I had no way of knowing he would do this with a stranger on my property. I hated that moment. I looked back on how it had come about and how I could prevent it. Just because I have no doubt that the man was scoping my property for whatever he could take doesn’t make it acceptable. It is the worst side of my dog – the one that brings me the most heartache. But he is just doing the same behaviours as a great, well-trained shepherd – just in an entirely real scenario – luckily without the biting and sadly without the impulse control.

The difference between good and bad is whether the behaviour is under stimulus control or not. By which I mean you have to give permission for it to start and you have to tell the dog to stop and they do. A ‘good’ shepherd will win competitions. A ‘bad’ shepherd will end up with a euthanasia order for biting a passing jogger who got in range.

A lot goes into ‘good’ dogs vs ‘bad’ dogs. There are so many factors that influenced that moment with Heston that is impossible to extrapolate a single cause.

Is it the ingredients?

Is it because he came from a line of ‘off the book’ Groenendael Belgian shepherds whose owners probably didn’t care much about pedigree, history and temperament?

Is it parental?

Since I don’t know his history, I don’t know for sure. I do know there aren’t any groenendael breeders in the area he was found. There aren’t even any registered single dogs. That means ‘off the books’. I have the same small feeling of anxiety with every malinois, every GSD who comes in without ID. No ID means no traceable pedigree. No traceable pedigree means no predictable behaviour from family lines.

Since I don’t know his lines and I don’t know his parents, I can’t say. They could be practically feral and foaming at the mouth. They could be really sweet. I don’t know and will never know.

Is it the early mixing of those ingredients?

Is it his birth order or pre-natal experiences? Dogs’ positions in utero can affect testosterone levels. In utero stress can also lead to fearfulness. Is that aggression rooted in fear?

Is it because he is male? Testosterone and aggression have links that science is only just beginning to get in to.

Is it because he is entire? But being castrated can also increase aggression rooted in fear.

Is it in the recipe that’s made him into the dog he is?

Was it being hand-raised with only one of his siblings?

Was it the time at 9 weeks when one of my neighbours walked in when he was eating? He barked and barked at her and it was definitely his first ‘stranger danger’ moment. Before that, he had been great with strangers.

Was it the fence-running GSD of my neighbour who I had to get past to take him on a walk, and who barked every time any time anyone moved in my garden?

Was it the time I took him to a festival and it overwhelmed him?

Was it the time he was subject to a very threatening welcome by a number of other dogs at a barbecue?

Is it the fact I live alone and he just doesn’t experience other humans than me often enough?

Is it the fact that he really only met about ten dogs in his first six months?

Did he pick it up off Tilly, my other dog, who is reactive and fearful of strangers, who barks when people come on the property and who is also nervous with other dogs?

Is he just doing a self-employed version of the beautiful Dubion Ebony?

The fact is there are so many factors that could have contributed to that moment of excessive breed tendencies. As with all behavioural issues, a post-mortem of their cause is not particularly useful. We can pontificate all day on the whys. What matters is the what we do with what we actually have in front of us.

No good shutting the door after the Groenendael has pinned a stranger, so to speak.

That said, if you can reduce the whys, you’re going to find you can moderate what you end up with.

You can counteract excessive breed tendencies. And you should.

When you know that you have a dog of a particular breed, then it is your job when you raise it to make sure the socialisation and habituation meets the needs of the dog and prepares the puppy for situations in which you are likely to see those excessive breed tendencies. This is as true for my American cocker spaniel Tilly as it is for Heston. She came to me aged five with a handful of wholly predictable behaviours that could have been counteracted through living in the appropriate home and with the appropriate socialisation and habituation as a youngster.

It wasn’t a surprise that Tilly would urinate submissively on greetings. My grandparents had had an American cocker spaniel almost thirty years before who had done the same. It also wasn’t a surprise that she would steal food. Sunny had done the same. If you have a breed of dog who can be excessively fearful around strangers, then that’s something  a good programme of socialisation can help the dog with. If you have a dog who is nervous with strangers, that is something they can learn not to be. If you have a dog from a breed known for resource-guarding, then teaching ‘trade’ and ‘give’ is fundamental. Sadly, Tilly’s early vet notes show she had already developed these habits by the time she was 6 months old and had seen a specialist already about them. It wasn’t a surprise to see them re-emerge under stress when she moved house and family.

When you get those early experiences right, instead of having those heart-stopping moments where your dog does something horrible, you end up with dogs who buck the trend. Flika, my current Malinois foster, and Tobby, my old Mali guy who died in 2016 are a case in point. They are both super-social, really friendly and would never, ever exhibit the kind of behaviours that I have seen in Heston. They are how shepherds should be. Heston doesn’t like people. He moves away from strangers and comes back to me when he is feeling nervous. He is super-friendly with his ‘inner circle’ – people who he’s known for more than 24 hours on home territory – but he is visibly uncomfortable and stressed where Tobby wasn’t and Flika never is. All shepherds. All with the same basic ingredients and the same behaviours.

They pop out in ways that you don’t expect. Like Effel with his lawnmower chasing, and his Heston chasing…

Or Tobby with his obsession over a hound

And Flika when she saw a car moving in the distance and belted off to go and investigate.

How do you get away from these inbuilt behaviours? You habituate your shepherd to unfamiliar moving things. You take your young beauceron and you teach him impulse control around moving stuff. You take your Belgian shepherd and you get him used to seeing all kinds of running dogs. A clear, sensible programme of gradual and systematic habituation nips problems in the bud better than just saying, “Naughty dog!” after they’ve done nothing more than the behaviours they were born with.

It’s not just about chasing moving objects or whether or not they are social towards unfamiliar humans. And it’s not just about herding breeds or livestock guardians.

It’s not just about the predatory motor sequence either. Flika and Tobby aren’t just super social. Tobby formed an easy attachment to me, just as the beauceron Effel did, and just as Flika has. That’s another thing about shepherds. Loyal. They are your shadow. Our shelter boss always says it’s the beauceron shepherds who find it hardest at the shelter. She says they cry for days when abandoned. Until they find a new owner, sure. I think it took Effel a couple of days to shift to his new owner. Flika, well, within a week she was watching for me out of the window. Excessive breed tendencies aren’t always about aggression. They can also be other known behaviours which can be problematic: restless Brittany spaniels, excessively vocal terriers, predation in hunting breeds, hyperactivity in springers, aloofness in Akitas, guarding in some terriers or spaniels.

Sadly, once that socialisation and habituation window closes around three months of age, you are left with a dog who will always be ‘remedial’, who will always be playing catch up. Not impossible, but not so easy. Those early patterns become ‘myelinised’ and the brain starts laying down strong pathways for some behavioural patterns, whilst ‘pruning’ others. It’s not just about the more a behaviour is practised or not: it’s about the brain setting some of those patterns in cement. Yes, cement can be broken. You can dismantle a reinforced concrete wall with a lot of effort. But it’s much nicer if it’s a plywood partition wall. It’s even better if there’s no wall there in the first place and you can build behaviours how you want.

This was patently clear last night when I watched a video on Facebook that a trainer had posted. It was her lovely cockers doing their cocker thing and minding their own business. They were then ambushed by a West Highland Terrier who charged up and bit one of them as he left. The westie had been on lead and I’m not sure what had happened to cause the dog to get away, but that right there – biting the rear end of a retreating creature – is one excessive breed tendency that could have caused a lot of heartache. If you have a terrier and you know they can be difficult around other dogs, that they need plenty of positive habituation to dogs passing, dogs moving and dogs doing their doggy business, then it is your absolute duty to teach them that when it is young enough to become instinct. Otherwise, you are left managing your dog’s behaviour and never truly overcoming their worst, most anti-social habits. You end up with a dog permanently on lead, muzzled, who doesn’t enjoy walks in the park.

So how would my ideal S&H programme have differed for Tilly, Heston and Flika?

For Heston, my ‘stranger danger’ shepherd… He would have had lots more dog experience – all planned, careful and under threshold. I would have had a happy and steady stream of planned visitors to my property every single day being careful never to overwhelm him. I would have conditioned him not to be afraid of the GSD in the garden next door. He would have met many more dogs and I would have taught him how to respond to seeing strangers or strange dogs by coming back to me. I would have been all about impulse control and looking to me for leadership. I managed the bite inhibition fairly well (well, you do a lot of retrieves when you think you have a retriever!) and he had at least some positive experiences with strangers and other dogs, but not enough. I do wonder to myself if he doesn’t bite – and he never has, not even when faced by curious would-be thieves – because Groenendaels are not so good at the biting bit (and why Malis and Dutch shepherds rule at ring sports) and whether even the fact he doesn’t bite under attack is just the luck of the draw.

For Tilly, my guardy, grumbly cocker… she needed a proper programme to habituate her to handling, to husbandry, to ear checks and grooming. She needed to be taught ‘trade’ over and over. She needed to have a very gradual, gentle programme by which she learned not to be afraid of strangers. She needed confidence and to be taught how to make space if she is feeling nervous. She needed a secure base. Sadly, rehoming and bootcamps are not conducive to secure bases, and grabby children taking your toys are not conducive to feeling safe with your stuff.

For Flika, my separation-anxiety Mali… she needed (as now) to be habituated to time without her owner. She needed to be taught some independence and strategies for being on her own. She needed to be taught that absence is nothing to be worried about and that escape to find your owner is not necessary. Sadly, for dogs who can’t cope without their owner, they often end up being rehomed – which gives them a real event to add to their anxiety. Flika is on her sixth home that we know of. Do you think that, at 13 years old, those rehomings have made her feel any less anxious about being left by her family group?

We fail our dogs every day by not understanding their innate behaviours, their strengths and their weaknesses. It is never an excuse that a terrier bites the rump of a retreating cocker, that a spaniel guards a mouldy bread roll, that a shepherd corners a stranger and barks at them. We know very well that these behaviours exist in our dogs and which traits are more likely or less likely. Good breeders are taking these things seriously, and you won’t find nervous or highly-strung American cockers being bred by one of my friends, or guardy, grumbly English cockers being bred by another. When we get a puppy, it’s our absolute duty to use those early weeks to balance out what Mother Nature has given us, rather than saying “Oops, Sorry!” when it is far too late to effectively address that behaviour.

I did so well by Heston in so many respects. He is independent without being destructive. He handles absence. He is easy for me to handle. He loves being groomed and handled. He has appropriate ways to expend his energies that don’t involve chewing, digging or escaping. But in others, I let him down. It’s all very well to look back and understand why I let him down – and now it’s very much a management of behaviours rather than anything else – but we can’t keep making mistakes by not socialising or habituating our dogs properly.

I’ll finish by referring to John Rogerson. He is not a trainer I refer to often. But I believe one thing he said is true… that we should be running breed-specific puppy classes by experts in those breeds. Or at least, group-specific classes. One size does not fit all where socialisation and habituation is concerned. Honestly, I’d go a bit further and say it should be personalised to the home and the environment too – since adult dogs are as much a product of those factors as they are of their breed. I don’t believe breed is everything. I don’t believe that once you get a GSP that you are setting yourself up for hyperactivity or separation anxiety, or if you get a Westie, you are setting yourself up for life on the lead in case they grab a retreating animal. I know plenty of dogs who buck the trend.

Why is it that they buck the trend?

That is due to great breeding programmes and careful socialisation/habituation in their early weeks.

The ingredients that you get don’t come with one single recipe that you have to make.

All the same, if we want to eradicate those excessive breed tendencies, we need a careful stewardship of breeding AND a carefully-constructed programme that teaches our puppies how to behave when interacting with familiar and unfamiliar humans, as well as familiar and unfamiliar dogs. Not only that, we also need to habituate them to the life they will lead and make sure they don’t accidentally end up chasing the first bike they see, aged six, or biting the lawnmower aged seven.

When we address genetic history, individual history and early learning together, we have a powerful way to get dogs who won’t find living in the human world to be quite so difficult.

That’s our responsibility in our stewardship of dogs. It’s our responsibility as a breeder. It’s our responsibility as an owner. We owe it to our dogs to understand them and to help them adjust to the world in which we ask them to live.

If we did these things, we’d have far fewer moments where dogs struggle to meet our expectations.

A lot to ask for, I know.

Training Corner #2: Wait and Leave it

Last time, I looked at how a hand touch can be a really good foundation skill, but there are two other skills that can also really help you with dog manners: ‘Wait!’ and ‘Leave it!’

Just to clarify, I treat both of these slightly differently. ‘Wait!’ means you can have what you’re trying to get but you need to hold on a little, and ‘Leave it!’ means you aren’t going to have what you want – I don’t want you to touch it at all.

I teach dogs both behaviours, but I use them differently. ‘Wait!’ means ‘Don’t mug me, don’t get in my pockets, don’t pester me for a treat or a game… chill your beans a minute!’ and I use it to mean that you may get the game, treat, door open, bed, food bowl or whatever and is more about manners. Sometimes I’ll pair it with a ‘stand’ or a ‘sit’ or even a ‘down’. I’ll usually reward ‘Wait!’ with what the dog wants – whether that’s food, movement or a door open. It’s different from ‘stay’ or ‘stand’, but it implies a bit of being still. ‘Stay’ means I’m going away and I’ll come back, but I want you not to move. I think it’s important for a dog to know the distinction. ‘Wait!’ is more of a ‘I’m right here, but I need you to give me a second.’ It’s a canine pause button.

It also teaches them that if they stop, good things come to them!

For ‘Leave it!’, I don’t reward with the thing. It means you don’t touch that thing, you don’t approach that thing and you don’t get the thing.

Why do I teach them?

Because they are really good basics for impulse control and manners. A great ‘Leave it!’ means you can drop something on the floor and know that your dog won’t eat it. If you drop a pill on the floor and you have a cocker spaniel, you’re going to want a bit of impulse control. If you have a dog who eats other animals’ turds, a ‘Leave it!’ is a must as well. ‘Leave it!’ is great with food objects, but also with toys or even with other animals. I’m not sure it’s strong enough to override the starey-eyed predation behaviours of an animal who is fixated on a smaller one, but if you’ve taught it long enough and hard enough, coupled with very low level chase behaviours, you’re going to find ‘Leave it!’ may work for that as well. If you’ve got a relentless sniffer, it works there too. It’s an interruptor, like ‘touch’ that means you can ask your dog to disengage from play or from approaching people who don’t want to be approached.

Knowing ‘Wait!’ can help you build up duration on a chin touch or sit, as well as other behaviours that require a dog to hold a position. It’s also good to prevent bolting out of doors, getting in cars, patience around food bowls and so on. Knowing ‘Sit’ or ‘Down’ cues can also help, because many of the moves require a dog to move forwards, which is hard when you’re in one position.

You can also follow it with a release cue, like ‘free’, or ‘go’ or ‘take it’. I use ‘Go!’ or ‘Take it!’ depending on whether it’s an action/movement, like going through a door, or if it’s something the dog will have in its mouth.

‘Leave it!’ is obviously harder because it involves the dog understanding that I’m never, ever going to get that thing that I wanted to have. It’s not a pause, it’s a stop. ‘Leave it!’ is also different from ‘Drop’ or ‘Out’, since the dog will already have something in its mouth for that.

I teach both because if I only teach ‘Wait!’ it means my dog will be expecting the thing I am asking them not to engage with, and that can be frustrating if they are expecting to receive it which devalues the ‘wait!’ cue; if I only teach ‘Leave it!’, really I’m expecting them to disengage completely – which gives them free licence to go off and do other stuff. Why would you stay interested in something you know you aren’t going to get? I want to use that interest and focus for ‘Wait!’

Step 1 is to teach ‘no mugging’.

And you can see Emily from Kikopup doing this in the video above.

You can do this with a grabby adult dog – leather gloves and big, low value treats are ideal. Some dogs are just not used to being hand-fed. Teaching this also helps dogs get used to hand-feeding, which can be useful for a variety of behaviour modification plans.

You can also see Chirag Patel demonstrate Food Manners with a puppy. Part of this includes the notion of ‘wait’ as well as focusing on the handler or partnering it with a hand touch.

You can also see how he uses it to help dogs understand that attention-getting behaviours like barking, scratching, mugging or biting don’t work. It’s all about patience! This is important. I do hate seeing trainers accept these behaviours or just ignoring them. A dog should very quickly learn that they don’t need to engage in these behaviours to get you to work with them.

In this video, Nando Brown explains how to teach ‘Leave it!’ and why you should get the behaviour first, before you add the cue word, ‘Leave it’

And although he points out that you don’t have to shout, many of us do (oops!) when it’s something that it’s really important our dogs leave alone, so it’s worth pairing your ‘Leave it!’ with lots of different levels of tone and volume. You can desensitise your dog to your changing vocal pitch.

If your dog is finding it really hard to learn ‘Wait!’ and they continue mugging you, start when they are full (if you are using food) or when they are played out (if using toys) and use something really low value. If my dog mugs me for a squeaky ball, I’m going to dial it back a notch and use a rope which he doesn’t find as stimulating.

This is Hagrid. He came to the shelter with a big impulse control problem, a big mugging problem, a massive chip on his shoulder about other dogs, a hard mouth and a misunderstanding about hands being chewtoys.

He learned ‘Wait!’ with a pair of leather gloves, some huge, huge low-value treats and a very flat hand . It also helped him with dog aggression because we would play ‘Wait!’ with ‘Look at Me!’ when other dogs passed until it got to be a habit. Other dogs passing and him playing ‘Wait!’ meant he anticipated the approach of the other dogs. It also taught him some impulse control, some manners and some motor control over that clacky-bitey snap-snap mouth of his.

And this is Marty. He’s a teenage springer x brittany mix (there’s something you don’t want to do by accident!) and as you might imagine, he is a livewire. Impulse control is a must. Plus, he doesn’t have a particularly gentle mouth. His thing is toys. So we are learning ‘Wait!’ with toys. We started at the end of a thirty-minute play session and we started with a millisecond before stretching it up. He can wait now for about two seconds. For a springer x brittany, that’s like five hours, I promise. He also has four feet on the floor. That’s also a very big achievement.

Make it easier by: choosing a moment when your dog is less aroused, starting with lower value objects and shorter durations. If your dog is finding it really, really hard, you may also want to teach ‘four feet’ first.

Once your dog has mastered the basics, make it harder by:

  • Increasing duration: asking for longer and longer waits. Obviously, that doesn’t work with ‘Leave it!’
  • Increasing difficulty: asking for wait or leave it with a more highly valued treat or reward, or in more difficult situations. I didn’t start out asking Hagrid to ‘Wait’ when another big, posturing snappy male was going past! Likewise with ‘Leave it!’ I didn’t start with Tilly’s most prized wild boar full-body roll, I started with a very, very low value treat. To be fair, if it’s vital that she leaves it, I usually say ‘Does Tilly want a treat?’ which has been known to bring her back in an alley of rollable, treasured fecal matter. It’s hard to say ‘Does Tilly want a treat?’ with the same accidental growl as ‘Leave it!’ might.

If you are going to do agility, obedience, gundog training or other types of dog competition stuff, a good ‘Wait!’ is vital too.

So get out and get training!

Nature via Nurture: Why Socialisation and Habituation Absolutely Matter

A few weeks ago, I did a post about the importance of understanding bias and purpose for social media posts. Mostly, that was focused on the ways we take physical care of our dogs and being careful about where we seek veterinary information. I planned to write a similar post about getting to the bottom of bias and purpose in dog training, but since my gripe was really about two particular posts from one specific trainer, I thought I’d be more precise, rather than just bemoaning the state the internet.

One of the posts was a particularly click-baity one about why some trainer ‘doesn’t socialise’ her dogs. I’m not linking to it for obvious reasons. Gripes about her ethics, her marketing and her training methods aside, posts like that make my blood boil. It makes me cross that people who won’t bother getting beyond the headline will then think they too don’t need to socialise their puppies. They weren’t my main gripes though. My main gripe was with the premise of her article: that dogs don’t need early developmental experiences.

But let’s just clarify the mixed-up terms she used. Socialisation and habituation are very different things, as are gradual desensitisation and accidental sensitisation. I appreciate they are all lumped under the banner of ‘socialisation’ where puppies are concerned. But there is a difference.

Some people said that this didn’t matter.

I beg to differ.

If you don’t have a grasp of what you are talking about, how can you profess to be an expert?

That’s like me saying I don’t believe in using eggs in soufflé and then going on to talk quite clearly about something that is plainly scrambled eggs.

Am I an expert in cooking if I mix up my soufflé and my scrambled eggs?

Not really.

So, my first gripe was with the mixed-up terms she was using.

First, she mixed up socialisation and habituation, desensitisation, sensitisation and flooding. Now that’s not a crime. I’ve got a degree in psychology and I don’t expect everyone to know their Harlow’s Monkeys from their Skinner’s Rats. But for me, if your post is doing the rounds on social media, it’s kind of important to be a bit right.

I don’t take my advice on psychology from people who don’t understand the basics.

I don’t listen to people about social media who don’t understand what the difference is between Twitter and Instagram.

And I won’t be taking my advice about puppy training from someone who doesn’t understand the difference between socialisation and sensitisation.

So… with that in mind, let’s sort out that psychology nonsense.

Socialisation is the process by which we become social. It is about our interactions. That can be with your own species or with others, but the crucial thing is that it involves interaction. It is how you learn how to become a functioning member of society. For dogs, this is how they interact with us, with other dogs and with other species with which they have interactions, like cats. We don’t interact with egg boxes (or rather they don’t interact back) and so how we behave around egg boxes, metal surfaces, icecubes or sports stadium bleachers is not socialisation. Even if that’s what many people call it.

Habituation is the process by which we get used to the world around us. It is about how our reactions to the stimuli in the world around us diminish through repetition. It is about reducing the startle reflex. If you imagine hearing a loud exhaust bang outside your house, that would startle you. If you heard it all the time and you got used to it, you would become habituated. Habituation is a fairly normal process and can happen naturally. It’s how we move from conscious awareness of new stuff around us to it becoming subconscious. Like the smell at the shelter. I don’t imagine it’s any less foul than it was when I first started, but I don’t smell it any more. If you want to habituate your dog to the world around it, then your dog would be out in the world getting used to stuff. You can also habituate them to people, dogs, cats, sheep etc when your aim is not that your puppy will socialise or interact with it. I don’t want my dog to socialise with sheep. I want him to become used to the movement and presence of sheep to such an extent that they are no more interesting than a bush or a tree. But I don’t want him to interact with them. That’s habituation, not socialisation. I like French for this – ‘getting used to something’ is s’habituer. It’s easier for me to remember what it means. In French, socialiser or even sociabiliser means to make sociable, to socialise. They don’t get mixed up so easily. It’s definitely an English language thing to mix up those two very different experiences.

However, if you didn’t get used to the world around you, you might become sensitised to it. In other words, you’d never get used to it and your startle response would remain constant or even get worse. You may become anxious or fearful, living on your nerves. You might notice it and be unable ‘not’ to notice it. This usually happens with fear, but it can happen with other negative emotions too. For instance, I may mean to habituate my dog to the car but accidentally sensitise him to it. He might start panicking or vomiting. This is closely tied with flooding where we are exposed – either accidentally or purposely – and we become hyper-sensitive to something in particular. Flooding often leads to a panic state, and to panicked aggression, but it can also lead to being completely shut down.

You may then start a process of desensitisation which is a deliberate process by which you try to make something less powerful. Usually, this is done in a careful and gradual way through repeated exposure at limits that are not horrible and terrifying. Sometimes, we call this systematic desensitisation to make it clear that it’s gradual and planned.

So, now that’s cleared up, it was obvious in the post that what the trainer was actually advising was not to accidentally sensitise your dog to the world around them. So she wasn’t actually saying she didn’t help her dog learn how to interact with humans and other dogs, but that she didn’t make her dog panic about things like steps and being overwhelmed by strangers. Now I agree with her on that.

But the rest of her article was equally dubious, not least the lack of understanding of basic canine development.

She went on to say that genetics are the “major” factor in what our dogs become and that socialisation destroys the relationship you have with your dog (because hey, that world is INTERESTING and according to her, you don’t want your dog to realise that!). Now whilst I agree that it has to be a balance in that relationship between owner-environment-dog and I accept that, I want to get into a bit of discussion about genetics and the dog we have in front of us. Because it’s not as clear cut as ‘it’s either in the genes or it’s not’.

Let me give you an example.

I will show you the results of a lack of socialisation. I would share a photo but we don’t share information on social media about the dogs at our shelter who live ‘in sanctuary’.

This is a true story, though, about a real dog. He’s not that different from many of our other ‘hard to home’ dogs.

He’s a breed well-known for being suspicious of strangers and other animals. He came from a long line in that breed who had been purposely bred to be more suspicious than others. If you think these behaviours can’t be inherited, they absolutely can: aggression, neuroticism and fear of new things have a genetic quality to them. So you take a dog who already has the ‘right’ genetic building blocks. Let’s add being male to that mix as well. Then you remove him from his mother and his litter-mates at two weeks. Whether you do this on purpose to imprint him more on his owner or through some accident of rearing, the consequence is the same. You fail to socialise him with his litter-mates or his mother, and only socialise him with his owner. He is never socialised with other humans or with other dogs. What you get is a dog who cannot be around other dogs, who is selective about humans he likes or doesn’t and who will no doubt live out his days in a very limited fashion.

Don’t believe me about the genes being only the building blocks, and socialisation being the process by which they are assembled?

The breeder came to see if he could pick the dog up. He brought with him another dog from the same litter. Same breed. Same mother. Same father. Male. And that dog was the soppiest, friendliest dog ever. The breeder said he’d have liked to have taken our dog back, but there was no way he could keep him in the safety and security that he needed as an absolute guarantee.

Now you tell me what the difference is?

Life experience. Aka. Socialisation and habituation.

Socialisation matters hugely. And habituation. But socialisation is an integral part of the adult dog that you get.

For that, I’m going to be referring a lot to Matt Ridley’s excellent ‘Nature via Nurture’, and to the works of Robert Sapolsky, among others. And, of course, the enormous and epic works about socialisation from Bar Harbor in the 1950s and 1960s, which focused on dogs, among other species.

Sure, breed is important.

Of course it is.

If breed wasn’t important, you’d have beagles as police attack dogs and Jack Russells as sniffer dogs. If breed wasn’t important, people would be using bichon frise to flush out pheasant, not cockers.

Let’s step back a bit. Let’s just talk ‘Dog’.

Dogs have what is called an ‘ethogram’… a list of behaviours that they are physically capable of performing, along with their function. These behaviours are typical for that species. Different species have different ethograms. For instance, ‘climbing’ is part of the spectacled bear ethogram, by which they mean ‘locomotion on structures/trees, not at ground level’. Now dogs can climb. But do they climb trees like bears do? Do they use their tail to hook around the branch like a spider monkey? Do they grasp a branch with their paw and swing from tree to tree?

Not possible.

The canine ethogram is shared across the canine species. There are things that are very similar across all canids, and things that are different. There are things dogs do that wolves don’t – dogs are much more vocal than wolves in general – and behaviour, like a physical trait, is also subject to evolution. So all dogs have a basic repertoire of behaviours and functions. For some, those are elongated – like terriers, who have virtually every behaviour in the canine repertoire – and for some that is truncated. We focus much on the predatory patterns and how dogs have elongated or truncated patterns of predation, but this forgets that dogs do a lot of other stuff as well, and a lot of that is the same as every other breed of dog. Predatory motor patterns are not the be-all and end-all of a dog.

But yes, in terms of certain traits, it’s a law of averages thing. You’d expect to find fewer Basenjis who vocalise. Fewer salukis with a kill-bite-dissect. More terriers who’ll go from orienting on a target to the final dissection. More cockers who are interested in going into bushes and sending up birds. Fewer beagles interested in disinterring your moles. More poodles who find it easier to walk on two legs than Leonbergers.

It’s not just the predatory motor behaviours or physical behaviours that dog breeds may differ in.

It can be emotional and behavioural too.

I firmly believe – and James Serpell’s work on CBARQ will no doubt be the basis of further work on this – that breeds are more likely or less likely to exhibit other behaviours outside the predatory motor patterns of orient-stalk-chase-grab/bite-kill/bite-dissect. That might include the ‘Big Five’ of aggression, neuroticism, openness to novelty etc for instance. As an example, if you compare your average Anglo-Français hound, they certainly seem to be less aggressive, less neurotic, less afraid of novelty than your average German Shepherd. There are other things too that behaviourists and trainers will become more in tune with, anecdotally, that no doubt Serpell’s work will clarify through time.

That’s really evident in my work.

Not a surprise if someone rings me up and says they have a resource guarder. My money is on spaniel or daxie. Dog who runs off with their stuff and tears it apart? My money is on terrier. Dog who has compulsive behaviours and/or anorexic? Dollars to donuts it’s a setter. Dog compulsively licking feet?  Pointer or Dally. Dog failing to connect with you? Ancient or Asiatic breed for sure.  Dog chasing tail – could be terrier  – but if self-injuring and stressed, it’ll be a shepherd for sure. We’re beginning to unpick those genetically-based abnormal behaviours – how bull terriers will ‘trance’ and move back and forwards under branches, how Doberman might flank suck, how labradors may eat compulsively – but they tell us such a lot. Breed is important, and we know that.

Although Serpell’s C-BARQ questionnaire is based on people saying what their dog is like – and people tend to agree with breed stereotypes, like their Akita being aloof when really it may be no less friendly than a cocker spaniel – it is interesting to see behaviour patterns across breeds. The work does confirm what we’d say anecdotally about breed behaviours. That could just be evidence that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but if you live and work around dogs, you know it’s not just our biases. Your herding breeds ARE more trainable in general, your gundogs ARE less aggressive to unfamiliar dogs in general, and your toy breeds ARE often aggressive towards familiar humans – in general.

You may be forgiven for thinking Serpell’s work tells us nothing we don’t already know.

But it does.

First, they tell us that genetics is absolutely important.

Secondly it tells us that the average across all breeds is more similar than the average within a breed. That’s to say you’ll get dogs within a breed who will massively buck the trend.

You’ll get shepherds who are soppy love buckets with strangers, as Flika my Foster Mali is. You’ll get collies who defy training and seem to have ADHD. You’ll get stranger-aggressive hounds (although I have yet to meet one!)

But just because there is a trend and there are ‘outliers’, does that mean we just accept it?

IF YOU KNOW that your herding breeds are more afraid of the world around them than mastiffs, do we just accept this quirk of genetics?

Heston would say both yes and no.

Just to give you his back story, he was found in a box with his siblings at the age of 1 day, and bottle-reared. Not the ideal, I know. But not to have a lecture about the needs for mothering and puppy socialisation – they may not be perfect, but they turned out not too bad at all. The point of this is not about his early social experiences but is in fact about innate breed tendencies. So, back to the breed.

Anyway, litter of 7. Several short-haired with white toes and chest patches, several fluffs. All of them were black with occasional patches of white on chests or toes.

The vet – as best as any vet can do with tiny pups – said collie x labrador, which made sense given the size, weight, colour and hair. As they grew up, several people who’d had flat-coated retrievers thought the long-haired ones were more like that, but a labrador is not far removed from a golden or a flat-coated retriever, and instead of thinking differences, I thought in terms of the group… retriever! Once or twice, groenendael shepherds were mentioned, mostly because Heston’s brother Charlton was pointier in the nose, but given the ears, the shape, the size, the weight, the popularity of labradors and their crosses, I raised him as a retriever. He didn’t look like a shepherd and given the rarity of Groenendaels and the high frequency of retrievers, it seemed more likely.

Plus, some of his behaviours fitted.

I mean, he loved retrieving.

He learned early on about game and loved to go off and flush out game. His fun ended when the chase ended. He was clearly not a ‘run off and dissect’ terrier of some type, or a ‘kill bite’ kind of dog either. We did collie-style heelwork and stuff, but what floated his boat was gundog stuff. It was his preferences as much as his looks that shouted retriever.

He is an immense dog for scent and chase, loves retrieving… finds me dogs all the time.

His brother looks a lot like him, just more pointy. One of his sisters also did. And a couple looked like fairly standard black labrador hybrids of one form or another. He didn’t have any collie behaviours that I could see. No stalking, herding, eyeing… but lots of retriever stuff. So much so we did lots of gundog stuff. He lives for blind retrieves and quartering, tracking and airscenting.

You know where this is going.

One DNA test later and 50% of those Heston Genes are shepherd. Much of him is groenendael Belgian shepherd. Suddenly, that ‘stranger danger’ barking, that distrust of anyone ‘not Emma’, that ‘love my flock, everything else worries me’ behaviour all made sense. It doesn’t make sense to have a retriever that doesn’t like people. Sure, they exist. But in general, the retriever breeds I meet are all ‘Hail Fellow Well Met’ types, not the ‘Get off My Land!’ types.

Huh, I said as I read the report.

Well, it all made sense!

And yes, there’s a bit of labrador in there, and a bit of cocker spaniel too if you believe it. Enough gundog stuff to make sense. Zero collie.

But what difference do those genes make?

According to Serpell’s research, a stranger-wary dog who is spooked by novel things in the world around him. Fearful of strangers and unfamiliar dogs, highly trainable, higher-than-average levels of energy, lower-than-average aggression to household members.

Which kind of describes Heston.

But a lot of that describes Tilly, who is an American cocker spaniel. And a little of it describes Tobby and Flika, my malinois-mutt pensioners – also both Belgian Shepherds. But they aren’t aggressive to strangers. They are highly social, highly trainable, not aggressive…. and yes, malis – highly energetic even with very genetic crippling degenerative conditions and in their twilight years.

So part of me feels like reading breed characteristics is like reading a horoscope. It hits a big target market if you hedge your bets. I’m happy to write off the heart-breaking behavioural similarities between Tobby and Flika as coincidence. Yes, they both had or have separation anxiety, but he shadowed me and she doesn’t. His was isolation distress rather than anxiety related to me, despite the shadowing. Yes, he was an escape artist and so is she – and so, for that matter, is Belle, the mali x GSD at the refuge. But then so is Shelssie, and she is an American Staffordshire.

So… the deck you are dealt genetically is of course modified by breed and by being a dog, but your dog has more in common with other dogs than they have differences.

How would knowing Heston’s shepherd background have influenced my socialisation, habituation and training?

Well for one thing, I truly believe life can make up for genetic inadequacies, or it can worsen them. If you have behavioural qualities that are less than desirable, I believe a proper programme of socialisation and planned habituation can help overcome those. I think that’s absolutely vital with herding dogs, terriers and toy breeds. If you know your dog is ‘aloof’, then it is your one goal in their development to make sure that you teach them how not to be. Within reason. I’m not saying you turn your Shiba Inu into a setter. But they sure as hell could do with being a little less aloof to get them through life.

Now that’s a fine line, I know, and I know it’s a delicate balance between habituation/socialisation and accidental sensitisation. That’s for another post altogether. How you teach a dog not to be, how you keep those genes from switching on… that is the stuff of books, not internet articles.

But you need to be aware of those breed tendencies, and you need to be aware of the flaws that don’t fit in with our modern society. That’s where habituation can smooth off the rough edges, It’d be nice if more breeders were breeding for temperament, but that’s by the by.

Looking back on two critical moments where I ended up flooding Heston rather than habituating him, I would have been more conscious of that if I thought I was raising a shepherd. There’s no way I would have let him be ambushed by a pack of six unfamiliar dogs and no way I’d have taken him to some of the very busy events I did. One of them, around the 16 week mark, was the first time he was reactive. He got over it – he does. But I took him to a very big event and it was too much. I should have been more careful and I didn’t think I’d have to be.

I’d never have done that to him, knowing what I know now about socialisation, about shepherds, about dogs. I doubt I’d do it to any dog other than a super chilled hound or bombproof gundog.

But I could never say ‘it’s in the genes’, like I would say ‘it’s in the stars’ as if it is pre-ordained, a matter of fate. Neither would I say ‘no point trying’ with any dog who has less than perfect parents. Matt Ridley’s excellent ‘Nature via Nurture’ revisits a lot of ideas I studied as part of Developmental Psychology…

Genes are designed to take their cues from Nurture

In other words, they change and are influenced by what our dogs experience. Not only that, there are cut-off dates for that where pretty much everything you do after is remedial. Our innate behaviours are switched on, or not, by the world we encounter.

Niko Tinbergen, the great ethologist who won a Nobel Prize for his work showed that innate behaviours must be triggered by an external stimulus.

If nurture doesn’t matter, all puppies from one litter would grow up identical in behaviour and appearance. If worldly experiences are so unimportant, our dogs’ behaviour would not only be much more predictable than it is, but it would so be much more fixed than it is. They would be more like their siblings than they are.

The debate is not about Genes Vs Socialisation/Habituation.

It is about how socialisation and habituation affect the genes. It is impossible to say which is the cause and which is the effect. They are so tightly woven into one another that we can’t just dismiss socialisation out of hand. But to say ‘it’s all in the genes’ is a bit of a flat-earth view to be honest. And likewise to say ‘it’s all in the life experiences’. It’s not an argument about to what extent it’s one or the other. It’s both. We know this. It’s about that interplay between both of those things, about how genetic, innate factors are influenced or suppressed by experience.

So, back to the dog I started this piece with. Can he learn to be friendly to people? Sure. He has many more friends than he had when he arrived. And friendly to other dogs? Not so much. Mainly that’s because it’s really, really hard to get those other dog to modify their behaviour in the same way we can.

Would it have been easier when he was 6 weeks old? Sure. By the time myelinisation starts to happen, turning synapses into super-highways or pruning them back, setting habits in cement, we can already have done a lot of work. The extensive work of psychologists in the 50s and 60s on human and animal development shows when those windows open and when they are fairly closed. If you want to know about dogs, read the works of Scott and Fuller, and the lab in Bar Harbor, Maine, where they worked. If you want to know how canine development happens and when it stops, their work is instrumental. What they showed is that breed is part of it: how dogs play, when they bark, when they open their eyes, how they behave with humans and with other dogs. But what they also showed is how vital those early weeks are for teaching puppies how to interact appropriately with other dogs.

But it doesn’t end with puppies.

It’s not a closed door at 12 weeks, although much of what has happened between 4 and 12 weeks will influence the rest of the dog’s life.

Research is showing now that you can take the most genetically impoverished creature – and it doesn’t matter the age – but an enriched environment helps them grow new neurons. Robert Sapolsky refers here to a rat that had been purposely tampered with to have the crappiest biology for learning. Scientists had pinpointed the exact bit of the brain that is responsible for remembering, and they’d switched it off. They’d previously made a Super Learner, and now they did the opposite. And what they showed was that, in an enriched environment, it almost made up for that crappy biological deal. We know this is true for young animals, but enrichment is also a factor in keeping the brain ticking in old age as well.

So what do we know?

It’s ALL important: breed, line, heritage, prenatal experience, early socialisation, habituation, enrichment. It’s a Gordian Knot of infinite complexity. Each experience switches on genes – or not. It lays down patterns – or not. There is a degree of instinct in learning – in why Heston finds it easy to retrieve but also to bark at strangers – but there is a degree of learning in instinct, too. Fear and aggression, in particular, are such a mix of genes and learning that you cannot separate the two. It is easy to get a dog to fear another dog. It is not so easy to get a dog to fear the sound of a fridge opening. Some of those fears will be encoded in their genes: why they find the smell of onions aversive, why electric shock does not need to be taught as painful, but many of those fears are switched on, or not, by learning. A dog has to learn to be afraid of a knock at the door; the approach of strangers, the fear of being alone – they are fears dogs find it easy to learn. Learning is about strengthening connections already in use. Socialisation is about making sure those connections are solid in the first place. Habituation is part of that process.

There is nothing inevitable about innate or instinctive behaviours.

If I believed that, I wouldn’t have the world’s first Gundog Groenendael X.

Life and experience – including socialisation and habituation – flick the switches on behaviours. Some of those switches flick easily: you don’t have to work hard with a spaniel to get it to use its nose. And some of those switches are ones you’d prefer not to flick, like Heston’s fear of strangers.

So there’s no point saying ‘Don’t socialise your dogs’. It is a fallacious argument. Unless your dog grows up in a bubble, it will be socialised to the individuals around it. It will habituate – or not – to the world around it. But if you have a dog with inbuilt switches for certain undesirable behaviours, you want to do your utmost to use socialisation to make sure they are not scared of strangers or unfamiliar dogs, that they are habituated to stimuli in the world around them. Learning can smooth the rough edges of genetics. And habituation means that you don’t end up carrying your 30kg 4-year-old dog down the stairs because it didn’t cross your tiny mind that a dog might not get what stairs are, less when they’re marble and spiral and slippy and steep.

You can see now why I find it dangerous to post articles with headings like “Why I don’t socialise my puppies.”

Firstly, yes you do socialise them. Unless they live in a box, they are learning how to interact with you. Secondly, what you mean is that you don’t accidentally flick on the switches for fears. Thirdly, if everybody believed that early developmental experiences were so unnecessary, we’d have a much larger number of dogs seeking sanctuary. Thank goodness most people value the importance of early experience. I needn’t really add that the writer of the article has shepherds herself. I wonder why she thinks some of our shelter shepherds are such an unholy behavioural mess if it’s all in the genes? Maybe she would like to try and do some remedial desensitisation and socialisation with a 9-year-old mali who never had the benefit of an enriched puppyhood.

From a shelter point of view, a message that suggests you deprive your dog of early social experiences and that “it’s all in the genes”, is a very damaging one for us. Most of our hard-to-rehome dogs are missing in vital experiences: positive experiences with unfamiliar humans, positive experiences with unfamiliar dogs, experience of novelty and how to cope with it. Not exposing dogs to these things is dangerous and costs them lives. I am not saying this for effect. If your dog is so afraid or aggressive towards unfamiliar humans, many shelters will refuse to take that dog on and that leaves owners with only one choice: euthanasia.

We all need to be aware of the factors that influence canine behaviour. To advise people not to do the one thing that can smooth over the cracks is dangerous. To suggest that it is all in the genes is fatalistic. I believe whole-heartedly that the early experiences of dogs help shape who they become as adult animals. It is our job as their care-takers to make sure we get the balance right between socialisation/habituation and accidental flooding or sensitisation. This is especially true when we know the breed characteristics of the dogs we love. It is our job not to blindly accept those glitches as if we can do nothing about them, but to plan a careful and safe environment in which our young puppies can form a secure base.

It is also our job as dog behaviourists and trainers not to put out information as clickbait just to get people to visit our site. I’m sure the trainer in question has profited enormously from the publicity of her post. Good marketing, perhaps, but certainly not good science and definitely not good advice.

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