A client asked me a really good question in the week.
Should she teach other behaviours when her dog hadn’t mastered the one she’d been working on yet?
And why was it so hard to teach when he’d learned other things in a snap?
We’ve been working on mat behaviours so that her dog knows what to do when people move about. He’s also been working on recall when he’s barking in the garden. My client wanted to know whether she should persevere with one when he’d not quite got the other.
My answer was yes. I don’t know why but it’s kind of a myth that dogs can only learn one thing at once. I remember doing one behaviour at a time with Heston when he was a puppy, as if he couldn’t possibly have coped with the confusion of more.
There are lots of reasons, though, why it takes dogs longer to learn some behaviours than others.
#1 The complexity of the behaviour
The more we ask, the more challenging it gets.
Complexity can be about how many components there are to the behaviour. It might have lots of bits that need to be added together. There might be more muscle groups involved, for example, or there might be more parts to what they need to do.
For instance, if you want your dog to recall from the fence, it needs your dog to listen to your cue, to disengage, to turn away and then to come back to you.
If you ask your dog to sit, it just needs them to listen to your cue and plonk their bum on the floor.
Complexity is not just about the number of components to the behaviour but also other factors too. It may require duration. The dog may be asked to do the behaviour for a long time, like walking to heel or walking on a loose lead.
Imagine that you’d asked your dog to sit for 40 minutes and you can begin to understand why asking them to walk to heel for 40 minutes can be such an issue. Some behaviours like a retrieve require your dog to have loads of skills such as following, finding, picking up and then holding an item, carrying an item and then coming back to you to return it and then dropping it. No wonder it’s hard! It has at least seven different components.
Solution: train each bit separately and build up duration through training.
#2 Asking dogs to make complex choices
Some behaviours are easy to teach because we’re not asking the dog to choose between two complex things.
Learning to sit for a biscuit is not that challenging when you’ve got a choice of standing about and getting nothing, or sitting and getting a biscuit.
Learning to recall is hard because they can involve two competing situations. Do I go and sniff? Do I come back?
It’s all about how valuable those two competing situations are. Is sniffing that important? What’s in it for the dog if they come back?
Everything we know about behaviour says that dogs do the thing that has been most rewarding and most rewarded in the past. Each choice of THIS or THAT involves subconscious processing about the desirability of what consequences there have been in the past.
Dogs probably aren’t involved in complex decision making where they’re actively and consciously weighing up the benefits of one action over another. It’s not like me in the grocery store with a five-pound note deciding which coffee will be a better choice. Should I go for flavour or quantity? What does £3.60 for 500g work out in comparison to £5 for 750g?
Even without this level of complex, active and conscious reflection, there are still calculations being performed. The answer is always the same: Dogs Do What Works, as educator Jean Donaldson would say. Or, Dogs Do What Worked More For Them In The Past And Is More Likely To Work To Get Their Needs Met Right Now.
Not as pithy, I admit.
But if the dog isn’t feeling particularly curious or in need of investigating smells and sniffs, calling them away to give them a treat is going to be less challenging than if they really, really, really want to get to that smell right now.
Take yesterday. 300 delegates in a room. Lunch the day before had been a long and arduous process and there hadn’t been enough food. Some people didn’t even get to eat and had to queue for 30 minutes even so.
What happened at 1.30? A huge rush to the buffet.
What if I’d called one of those hungry delegatess back to do paperwork?
Perhaps I’d have found that selective hearing we complain so much about in dogs…
There can be competition between two good results: do I sniff or do I come back for a biscuit?
There can also be competition between a good result and a bad result. Do I go sniff or do I go back and get my lead clipped on?
There can also be competition between two bad results. Do I stand at the fence shouting at this dog which feels bad or do I go back and get reprimanded by my guardian?
How does our behaviour choose?
Firstly, by doing the thing that is most rewarding or doing the thing that is least unpleasant.
Our behaviour also chooses by doing the thing that meets our needs in the moment.
Do you think there would have been such a rush to the buffet table yesterday if we weren’t so late for lunch?
And what about people like me who’d had too much coffee? Toilet first or food first?
We do the thing we need most, all things considered.
So do dogs.
The same is true of many canine behaviours. THIS or THAT? Walk on a loose lead or pull to get to a smell? Come back from shouting at the fence or stand there making a racket? Chase the pheasant or come back to my guardian. Drop the dead pigeon and get a biscuit or continue carrying it about?
Dogs Do What Worked More For Them In The Past And Is More Likely To Work To Get Their Needs Met Right Now. Remember that.
Solution: when you’re training a new behaviour, make sure there are as few competing choices as possible.
#3 Owners not being aware of choices
So often, we don’t even realise that our dogs HAVE a choice to make, let alone that they are making a difficult choice.
It doesn’t cross our tiny, selfish, egocentric minds that it MIGHT be more fun for a dog to sniff a crow feather than come back for praise.
Also, we don’t make it easy on the dog because we ask them to choose at the moment the choice is more difficult. We rarely ask them for loose lead or recall when the going is easy. We rarely reward them for these things when the going is easy. We ask when the going gets tough.
When did I ask for loose lead this morning? When my incredibly predatory cat-attacking dog had just seen a cat run behind a bush.
Many guardians are then despondent because we don’t think we can compete with the other choice. Loose lead or stalk cat? I mean, it’s like if someone asked me to do twenty burpees or eat cake. Literally it’s like that.
BUT we fail to understand that it’s not about the size of the potential reward but about the frequency the behaviour has been rewarded in the past.
Why did Lidy choose to walk to heel and eat biscuits instead of lunging at the cat this morning?
Because chasing cats is NEVER rewarding (because she’s always been controlled around cats with a lead for the last two years) and walking on a loose lead past distractions has been FREQUENTLY and HIGHLY rewarded in the past.
Because I know just how thrilling it would be to chase cats and because I have practised and practised, Lidy chose to walk nicely and to eat biscuits.
We need to understand that walking on a loose lead will never be as rewarding as chasing cats UNLESS… we make loose lead walking frequently rewarding and chasing cats never rewarding. That means management and paying out.
Sadly, many guardians seem to have a mental block on both. If chasing stuff is sometimes rewarding because they sometimes get to do it, and if loose lead walking is never really rewarding because we don’t pay out much, then we shouldn’t be surprised that our dogs will choose one very rewarding option over the other.
Solution: understand what your dog really wants and how that balances out with what is on offer.
#4 It involves significant cognitive processing
The more involved the dog is in doing whatever they are doing, the tougher it will be to ask them to remove their attention from it.
For instance, if they are very involved in following a scent trail, then asking them to come back to you needs them to be able to disengage as well as then choosing to do a less rewarding thing.
This involves significant cognitive processes. First, it requires them to have a brain that is ‘online’ for inhibition. That requires two components. They need to be at points in their development where that the bit of the brain that has oversight over inhibition is functional. If you’ve got a young puppy or a teenage dog, then that will be a significant challenge.
That point of development will also affect how much they want to do the other thing instead. Ask a human teenager to make a choice between a boring family occasion or going out with their mates, it’s a literal no-brainer for a teenager, whose brains at that period in their life are wired to be more stimulated by peer contact than familial contact. Stupidly, sexual maturity comes before social maturity in both dogs and humans, and therefore teenagers of both species are interested in non-familial interactions, not family ones.
To ask dogs to switch on the override switch at these times in their life is tough.
Likewise, inhibiting your own behaviour requires skills. Take people who are dieting, give them a hard sum, offer them the choice of an apple or a cake afterwards and watch their willpower crumble.
And that’s human beings, with their huge neo-cortexes and enhanced brain power for inhibition!
It requires practice.
Take for instance cars aquaplaning or going into a slide. It takes a lot of practice to do the opposite of what your basic, primitive brain is telling you to do. Your foot is telling you to brake and steer out of trouble, where your inhibition is telling you to simply ease up on the accelerator and hold back on steering out of danger. Often, we make situations worse because we have to have training to do the opposite of what we think we should do. Why do drunk people often not break hands and wrists when they fall, even if they would when sober? Because alcohol impairs your reflexes and inhibits your impulse to put your hands out.
Inhibiting the very thing a noisy, shouty part of our brain is telling us to do is very hard. It takes being at the right point in development and it also takes conscious, controlled practice.
Impulse control and inhibition are fundamental parts of why dogs will sometimes struggle to do one behaviour and not another. One behaviour simply needs less brainpower than the other.
Solution: stop expecting so much from puppies and teenage dogs, and set them up to succeed.
#5 Some behaviours meet needs more easily
I like trick training. I like cued training. I think it’s important that dogs respond to things we ask them to do. But we need to acknowledge that sitting for a biscuit doesn’t really meet any specific need.
Sure, it’s nice to get a biscuit or a treat. That’s great. But if it compares to ringing a bell to go out for a wee, well one of those behaviours will be easier to acquire because one meets a need. The dog needs a wee. They don’t need a biscuit.
In the past, this has led some trainers to deprive dogs of food in order to make them more motivated by food. Programmes like Nothing in Life is Free operate on this process, where unless the dog ‘works’ for their food, they don’t get anything. If we manipulate those things to train behaviours we want, like asking dogs for a sit-stay before they get fed, then we may find that they learn those behaviours more quickly because the stakes are high.
It can also make it very difficult for the dog to understand that they should still do the behaviour outside of that context. They may struggle for example to sit and stay when it’s not mealtimes.
Sadly, this then makes us think our dogs are stupid or stubborn, instead of understanding that we’d simply got a good behaviour because the dog needed what we were withholding more than at other times.
Often in behaviour work, the dog wasn’t doing anything for food in the first place. A dog barking at the neighbour’s dog is not doing it for Scooby snacks. A dog jumping up on guests isn’t doing it for food.
Thus, when we try to use food to teach different behaviours, it’s not so easy because the dog needs to do the other behaviour more but whatever we’re asking, not so much.
Solution: use what the dog really wants as a reinforcer, making sure you don’t deprive them of it.
Now put your knowledge into action
These five reasons can make training some behaviours much more complicated. Training behaviour is often simple in theory but much more complex in reality. Sure, it looks easy on paper, but a lot depends on what we’re asking dogs to do.
Most of the time, we don’t even have to think about why some behaviours are more challenging to teach. In fact, it can also work to our advantage where behaviour consultants are simply teaching guardians what the dog needs, then training the dog a behaviour that gets their needs met.
These five reasons can also be reasons why dogs sometimes fail to respond to our signals.
At the moment, the UK media seem to be filled with accounts of bites and deaths as a result of dog bites. In fact, several French news agencies have picked up on hospital numbers in the UK, coupled with several tragic deaths of children and are reporting it higher than ever.
But are we really suffering an epidemic of dog bites as the media would suggest?
And where does breed-specific legislation fit into all this?
Breed and bite
In the past month, yet another study about breed-specific behaviour was published. Morrill et al. (2022) found that there was limited evidence of a link between behaviour and breed.
This report comes on the back of 90 years of research that shows that behaviour is much more complicated than simply ‘breed’.
Yes, there are genetic components to some simpler behaviours, and yes, there are genetic components to some traits and aspects of personality, but behaviour is so much more complex than that.
When we talk about genetics, the most important genetic factor is species. Our dogs have canine behaviours. Then it’s about parents. Our dogs inherit much that their parents give them. But not everything.
It’s also about pre-natal stress. It’s about maternal nurturing. It’s about early socialisation. It’s about how the dog lives. It’s about learning history. It’s about relationships and it’s about how the dogs are kept.
What we know from all of this is that behaviour is complex.
The demonisation of specific breeds also complicates things. In France, for example, the dogo argentino is not a breed subject to legislation. Unlike the rottweiler, the Tosa, the Boerboel and the American Staffordshire, the dogo argentino is free to live a life without restriction on who can own them, who can walk them, how they should be walked and where they should live. I have met and known a great number of dogo argentinos – all great dogs despite some of the hideous things that have happened to them.
Yet in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the dogo is a banned breed.
More interestingly still, in Ireland, the dogo is not a banned breed, or one subject to legislation. Thus, in one place, you can own and walk your dogo argentino only metres away from a place where they are legislated against.
I’m not sure what happens when you cross the border…
In fact, if you look at legislation across Europe, you’ll find pockets where governments decided the dogo argentino was a dangerous breed, and other governments who decided the dogo argentino was no more dangerous than any other breed, all of them cheek by jowl.
Unlike the dogo, some dogs are legislated against with more consistency. The Japanese Tosa is one of those breeds. The Tosa has yet to become popular in the same way as the dogo argentino is, and certainly has a long way to go before they compare in numbers with other breeds subject t legislation. Despite widespread evidence of their behaviour, the non-pedigree pit bull and the pedigree American Staffordshire Terrier are widely legislated against, if not banned.
All this when there is no evidence in Europe or the UK that pit bulls or dogo argentino or rottweilers are more or less dangerous than any other dog…
In fact, the idea of danger also complicates things. Often, there are few bite statistics that relate to breed. Where there are, they have relied on the victim identifying the breed. Just to give you an example, one case I worked recently, one local paper reported that the dog was a malinois. The other reported that the dog was a pit bull. The dog was actually neither. One paper’s source was the victim who had misidentified the husky as a malinois, and the other paper’s source was a police statement from a witness who identified the husky as a pit bull. I kid you not.
There’s also the fact that, unless the bite results in hospitalisation, little data is collected on breed anyway. This is complicated by the fact that certain population groups are more likely to seek hospitalisation because bites are often more severe for them. The same dog biting at the same strength will do more damage to a child than to an adult, for example. It’s also complicated by the fact that smaller dogs don’t tend to hospitalise people. I always joke that the dog I know with the most prolific bite history is a Shih Tzu, followed by a miniature pinscher. Neither sent anyone to the hospital despite biting people three or four times a day for many years.
Sadly, this does mean that large dogs biting small or fragile humans tends to make the news whereas small dogs biting able-bodies adults tend not to make the news. This skews our perception of dog bites and breed, as well as dangerosity. It doesn’t help when vets put out viral posts that say they won’t treat large dogs any more because large dogs won’t submit to coercion! Large dogs are held to much higher standards and even a single non-injurious bite in a ten year period can be a death sentence, where smaller dogs are often held to much less exacting standards even if they injure someone.
Much data about breed is also based on the most severe cases, where individuals die. This gives us good data about fatal dog bites, but very little data about the ordinary experience of being bitten by a dog that doesn’t end up with such a tragic end.
Whatever we think we know, we really don’t.
And what we do know says that everything about breed specific legislation is wrong.
The failure of breed-specific legislation
Its first failure is that there is no real link between breed and aggressivity. It is therefore based on fundamentally flawed information.
The second failure of breed-specific legislation is that it has not protected the public. The opposite in fact.
Although the numbers of people owning dogs has stayed relatively static, dog bite statistics seem to have increased. This may not, in actual fact, indicate there are more dog bites. The better societies get at capturing data, the more it seems to increase from days when data wasn’t kept. Some bites are reported twice, for instance if the person is transferred from one site to another. So even the numbers of bites is not accurate.
Certainly, though, on a superficial level, dog bites have increased.
Third, for the dogs who are involved in fatal attacks on humans, those breeds who have been legislated against rarely figure. Perhaps that is to do with better safety, since many breeds are supposed to be walked on leads and wearing a muzzle at all times, if they have a legal right to exist at all. But given the number of non-muzzled off-lead American Staffordshires and pit bulls I see, I can’t think that these measures are taken particularly seriously.
Fourth, legislation completely fails to address the social issues behind people’s choice of breeds. Ban pit bulls and find people buying cane corso. Ban cane corso and find people buying Neapolitan mastiffs. Ban Neapolitan mastiffs and find people buying Dogue de Bordeaux. Breed-specific legislation turns some dogs and their lookalikes into coveted breeds, adding to their commodification and value.
Ironically, as someone who has worked with dogs who have bitten for seven years now, I’ve never worked with a breed that has been legislated against.
What dogs have bitten that I’ve worked with? Cocker spaniels, beagles, golden retrievers, labradors, malinois, German shepherds, bichons, Shih Tzus, Jack Russells, miniature pinschers, doberman pinschers, Airedales, huskies, malamutes, collies, cattle dogs, Australian shepherds, dachshunds, Chows, Yorkshire terriers, Japanese Chins, French spaniels, German Wirehaired pointers, German shorthaired pointers, lhasa Apsos…
Breed-specific legislation fails our dogs. It both popularises and demonises certain breeds and their lookalikes. It fails to protect the public from dogs who might injure them. It leads the public to think that certain dogs are ‘safe’ but others are dangerous. In fact, given the recent comments on a post involving dog bites, where the media failed to report the breed, there was a frenzy of enquiry and speculation about whether it was a pit bull or not. It wasn’t.
So what would work?
Firstly we desperately need better data. That has to include accurate information about the dog and the victim. It needs to also have a way to include bites that did not result in hospitalisation. If there are lines of dogs within breeds or even families of mixed breed dogs who are struggling to cope, then that matters hugely.
Second, we need to understand risk better. Jim Crosby identified crucial risk factors in fatal bites in the USA which should inform further research, but has not.
We know that dogs who live external to the family come with a high risk. We know that it is rarely family members who get bitten, and nor is it strangers: it is often children who are visitors to the property. We also know that many of the dogs who killed fatally were tethered or on their own territory.
This involves education at two levels, and perhaps even legislation. Firstly, it’s going to necessitate the end of dogs living chained outdoors. That in itself is complex because it involves cultural and societal behaviours from groups that are often marginalised anyway. For instance, disenfranchised and marginalised young men often have dogs like this removed from them and their behaviours are frowned upon if not legislated against. Compare that to, say, footballers, who buy £40,000 trained protection dogs to guard their mansions. The difference between those groups? Income and the cost of the dog for a start, and a whole load of social issues for another. The difference between a rottweiler guarding a travellers’ site and a rottweiler guarding the home of the rich is nothing other than money and social norms. It will also mean changing policing procedures. That will mean accepting that the rural and urban poor deserve both protection and policing, rather than being left to their own devices.
What we do need people to understand is that once a guard dog has missed the vital socialisation that facilitated their skills, then the likelihood of those dogs going on to accept another family or someone entering their territory is low.
We also need people to understand another fatal aspect: the education of young children. From my own experience, I know how hard it is to keep young, confident, dog-loving children away from dogs even if you’ve done everything you can to keep them separate. It reminds me of a situation in a neighbouring area where a toddler was killed. The dog had been locked away for the evening and had spent 4 hours ‘safe’. As the evening wore on, the adult guests had more and more to drink, and the children got more and more bored. It only took two minutes of passive supervision late in the night for the children to find the key and let the dog out. It took little longer for the night to end in tragedy.
Thus, the education of guardians and the education of children is vital. When we’re raising properly socialised dogs who have learned bite inhibition because they’ve had hundreds of opportunities to engage with other dogs and with humans of all colours, shapes, ages and sizes, then we’re less likely to have the kind of fatalities that cross the desk of investigators like Jim Crosby.
For me, I think we’re much less likely to have even the hard bites that hospitalise. It’s not just about socialisation. It’s also about helping dogs learn to control their actions and behaviour as well as learn how to manage frustration. Perhaps the worst bites I’ve ever seen have not been as a result of anything you or I might class as aggression, and that is also very tough to understand. Dogs raised in family homes during their formative weeks and months, rather than shunted out to a yard do not, in my experience, bite as hard. That involves educating breeders and completely outlawing puppy farms. If municipal authorities were then to offer low-cost or even free high-quality, regulated puppy classes in vulnerable geographical and economic pockets of their communities, we’d be more likely to raise dogs who can cope better with whatever life throws at them.
Instead of all the money spent on legal trials for dogs who have literally never put a paw wrong, those funds could go into the community. Instead of spending thousands on kennelling innocent dogs for months or even years, those funds could support education programmes at a grassroots level.
There has to be a cultural push though to end puppy farming and to end legislation that is ineffective. We can also push for landlords to have to provide for dogs so that fewer dogs need to change hands – it’s often in that change of hands that fatal bites occur. If people didn’t have to get rid of their dogs because they can’t find rented accommodation that accepts animals, then we’d also have fewer issues. I saw a charity in my home town appealing for landlords who accept cats this morning. The more legislation exists to protect landlords and not renters, the worse the problem will become. People will still own dogs but then be able to keep them instead of rehoming them if they need to move. Transient lifestyles do not lend themselves to secure homes for dogs.
That would mean, though, that governmental, federal or municipal authorities have to open their eyes and see the problem holistically, rather than taking a knee-jerk reaction that actually makes the situation worse.
We also have to understand that there are many things in life more dangerous than dogs. That list includes DIY, swimming pools and cars. If the media were to take a more responsible approach to reporting and stopped reporting on ‘epidemics of dog bites’, it might go some way to stopping the pearl-clutching panic and demonising particular breeds.
I can dream!
If you are a dog trainer looking to up your skills with all flavours of humanity, feel free to check out my book. If you’ve read it already, feel free to pop over and leave a review so that other trainers know if it’s likely to float their boat. I’m delighted that it’s been so well received!
Many dogs really struggle to cope when walking past homes where a dog is loose in the garden.
In fact, there are two dogs struggling here.
One is your dog as you valiantly try to get past. The other is the dog struggling to cope with other dogs outside the property.
There are lots of people who are trying to find ways to stop their dog barking at pedestrians and dogs outside the property. If you’re on the inside of the fence, you can use my alert and alarm barking protocol.
This ten-step protocol will make a difference, I absolutely promise you. There’s no way I could live sanely in a densely populated area with a very large number of dogs around the neighbourhood who bark periodically if I didn’t have this protocol in place. It’s been a sanity saver, if not a life saver.
If you want to know how to stop your dog barking when people pass by with their dogs, bookmark that page and follow it to the letter!
I will say one thing: if every guardian where I live had this in place, there wouldn’t be a struggle trying to get past.
The big question for those of us with dogs who react as they walk past fences is: do you avoid, do you hurry past or do you try to do some training to help your dog cope?
Avoiding the home with the dog barking behind a fence seems like a cop-out. We don’t thnk our dog is learning anything. We know we’re not helping our dogs out if we don’t help them cope.
Hurrying past is also a huge challenge. I know dogs who freeze when dogs behind fences start barking at them. One person I know has to then pick his dog up and carry him – all 20kg of dog – past the offending barker.
As someone who has 60kg of dog on a lead, trying to get past when they’re lunging and barking at the fence is a nightmare, let me tell you. I’d love to hurry past! It takes me at least three times as long to get past these houses as it does to get past a normal house.
Even so, slowing down to do training with a dog while a dog outside a home is going nuts is not without its problems.
So which is the best option to take?
When to avoid homes where dogs are barking behind fences
Humans feel a surprising aversion to avoiding places where there are dogs running fence lines and going nuts.
It’s almost like it’s our superior human right or something.
I say this as I was once asked to do a webinar to a triathlon group about what to do if dogs attacked. I explained a lot about territorial behaviour. One man said that he’d been repeatedly attacked by the same dogs as he rode his bike past them every day. He explained that they were unfenced and he wanted to know if pepper spray would be enough to deter them.
I explained that pepper sprays are notoriously unreliable and dependent on wind conditions – he was as likely to get a face of pepper spray as the dogs would. I asked if he had any other route to go. Yes, he explained.
Why didn’t he take that route instead?
Because it was the way he wanted to go.
The detour would have taken him a couple of minutes. That’s all.
He’d rather have got bitten than change his route.
Unlike this gentleman who had a pathological hatred of both dogs and their guardians, as well as a sense of his God-given superiority over animals (although he admitted he wouldn’t ride through a field with a bull in it…), you’re a dog lover. At least, I hope so!
One of my neighbours had a Brittany spaniel who spent most of his day in a fenced yard. The dog had an (ineffective) bark collar. The dog would bark, whine, bark, whine, bark, whine… all while throwing himself against the fence.
Now I don’t know about you, but I am not at all a fan of giving other dogs shocks. I’m certainly not a fan if it’s actually not making a stick of difference.
So, I didn’t go that way.
I also had a neighbour whose dog had an invisible perimeter shock collar. Now that mostly kept that dog from getting out of the garden, which was also surrounded by a couple of horse fields with electric fencing. I say mostly because… once when we walked past, he decided to go for it anyway. He got zapped by his collar, zapped twice by the high-voltage electric horse fencing itself and we very luckily avoided a fight because I was able to secure my own dogs quickly.
So I did not trust that home or that invisible perimeter shock collar. I did not trust that high-voltage electrified fencing either.
It is not some crushing defeat to choose another way. It is not a crushing defeat to wait until the dog is inside. If avoiding their home also avoids penalties and punishments for the dog who lives there, and you have other routes to go, put your human superiorities and foibles to one side. Do yourself a favour and take the easy route.
And, just because there are no shock collars or shouting owners who come out and punish the dog, it doesn’t mean that you have a green light. Sure, you can possibly train the dog who lives there to accept you going past by throwing them treats or whatever, but you also have to consider if the dog has allergies you don’t know about.
Also, even if you were to change your passing into an event that caused paroxysms of joy, you may well cause just as much jumping up and barking which is just as difficult for your own dog to cope with.
When to do training outside the home of a dog going nuts behind a fence
I’m guessing you’re hoping the fence is secure.
Again, your dog may well be able to cope with it, but you have to consider that the other dog cannot.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not so selfish that I’d stand there in front of a fence with my own dog eating biscuits driving another dog nuts.
You know how I judge my dog-walking neighbours?
By what they do when they go past homes with dogs barking in windows and at fences.
You know when I fell in love with my neighbours and their Frenchie? When the dog was dawdling a little and his guardian said, ‘Come on. You’re winding those dogs up!’
You know when I realised the two women who walk their dogs were not my kind of people? When they stood outside a home gossipping for ten minutes while the dog inside was losing his mind. Plus, they also didn’t bag up what their own dogs left behind… said it all.
Take heed. You’re judged on your choices by mean old ladies like me.
You may feel like you’re doing your own dog a favour and teaching your own dogs how to cope, but please remember that to do so comes at the expense of the other dog’s peace of mind. It’s not their fault their guardians don’t know about the alert and alarm barking protocol.
Also, it’s likely to be highly aversive for your own dog.
When to hurry past
If there’s literally no other way you can go and you are safe to pass. If it’s a regular spot, either change your route or change the time you walk. Sometimes, it’s just that the dog is out there at particular times. In rural France, there are plenty of places where dogs live outside in permanence, and that can make it tough. If your dog is likely to lunge and bark too, then it’s definitely time to give it a miss.
I’d be tempted also to hurry past if the dog only has a very small area where they can see you. If you’ve got to try and hurry past a dog who is racing 300 or 400m while you try desperately to get your own dog past, you’ll know it’s much easier to get past a solid stone wall that has a 1m wide ironwork gate and you’re not going to cause either dog distress for long.
‘But there’s no other way we can go!’ or ‘I want my dog to be okay in case of emergency!’
There are those of us who would never be able to get out of our homes if we avoided every other home with a barking dog living permanently outside. Not all of us have dogs who are happy in cars. Not all of us have cars. Not all of us want to use our cars just to get our dog in and out of the neighbourhood.
There are also those of us who have relatively peaceful neighbourhoods, and then the odd time there’s a dog outside.
The first thing to realise is that if you are trying to work with your barking and lunging dog as they’re fence-fighting with another barking dog, you are asking far too much of your own dog.
What you want is for your dog to be able to work with you in a structured way around distractions. It shouldn’t matter what those distractions are, but you will have to acknowledge that walking past a home with a large, ferocious dog fence-running and barking for 200m is the pinnacle of focus work.
One important thing can be to have a dog that can walk on both sides of you. If you’ve got a narrow pavement between you and the dog, if you can’t cross over the road or you don’t have much space, being able to keep your own dog away from the fence is an essential. Although you are not much of an obstacle, it’s better to position yourself between your dog and the fence than it is to have the two dogs separated only by the fence.
Having a dog who can u-turn under pressure is also an important skill. Trying to move any dog around who’s already in the process of yelling at another through the fence is not the easiest.
You may also want to keep them moving with a hand touch. Amy Cook has her lovely ‘Magnet Hand’ where she has a hand full of treats that she keeps just in front of her dog’s nose as a lure in case of emergencies.
Whatever you do, though, will need some thought and practice in a variety of contexts, including around other dogs and other fences where there are dogs less bothered by your presence.
It needn’t be a complete trauma to get past your noisy neighbours, but a little bit of preparation will definitely help you out.
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Some of my clients struggle when it comes to getting their dog to focus on them outside on walks. That can make their real-world training really tough.
I just can’t tell you how helpful it is to have a dog who’ll take food when you’re trying to teach recall, loose lead or even when you’re trying to work around challenges like wildlife, livestock, cars, humans and other dogs.
#7 You don’t have a training relationship with your dog
#8 You’re using your hand as a plate when your dog is miles from you or focused on other things
#9 Your training is too hard
#10 You’ve wrecked food for your dog and they don’t trust you
Today, I want to look in more detail at number 8. Where and how we deliver the treats is absolutely crucial!
These three secrets from the world of professional dog training can really skill you up.
#1 Know WHEN to deliver from your hand*
*AND also know its drawbacks
When you deliver food from your hand, you’re asking your dog to do a lot. First, this needs them to break their focus on whatever it was they were doing, whether it’s sniffing or staring. Then it needs them to turn away from whatever it is that is invariably better than whatever you’ve got in your hand. Then it needs them to move away.
This demands a huge amount of control and inhibition.
Imagine my lovely Lidy this morning as we came around a corner to find two young cats, frozen. Lidy finds cats immensely exciting. She has attacked cats before she came to the shelter and of all the other animals, cats are the one that give her the biggest thrill.
Can you imagine if I ask her at that point to come back to me, to eat from my hand?
‘Here, Lidy… yes, I know those cats are IMMENSELY thrilling and you would very much like to jump start them into motion and chase them. Please refrain from doing THAT and come and eat this stale old ball of flour from my hand.’
1. Stop looking at them. 2. Turn around. 3. Come back to me. 4. Eat a stale biscuit.
In cases like these, using your hand as a plate while you feebly try and cue your dog is likely a lost cause.
Delivering from your hand as I’m doing here is BOSS level mastery of skills. It requires training. It requires practice. It requires focus.
Those are its downsides.
It demands a high level of cognitive control from your dog. It’s tough. It requires patience to teach. Of all the places I deliver food on walks, from my hand is the hardest.
You do this BEFORE things hit the fan. If I would 100% guarantee that my dog will not cope without me supporting them, then I will use a cue to get them to come back and then I will keep them looking at me while I survey the world on our behalf and keep the dogs busy with my hands.
The best way to get it? Find a behaviour that involves your dog targeting some part of your body and then consistently deliver from your hands. They can use their eyes to target (like ‘Watch me!’), they can use their nose (like ‘Touch!’ where they touch their nose to your hand) or they can use a body part (like ‘Lean!’ where they target their shoulder to your leg).
Start small in the kitchen or home and scale up.
Delivering from my hand has helped us avoid deer, joggers, cyclists, hedgehogs and cats. When I see something and my dogs haven’t, I step up. This also requires a couple of behaviours where food reliably comes from your hand. I cue ‘touch’ because that always means the food will be delivered from my hand, and I cue ‘watch’ which means the same. Don’t vary where the food is delivered from and pick a behaviour that your dog is enthusiastic about. Lidy loves hand touch. Heston loves spin.
Delivering from your hand is a great way of stepping up and supporting your dog if they need help distracting themselves.
This is a video I’d made as part of a series on loose-lead walking. What we need to realise is JUST how hard focusing on a human can be when there’s a lot of environmental challenge, and that eating from the human’s hand requires a high degree of control. This control *will* need scaffolding and you *will* need to build up to it.
#2 Know WHEN to go to the dog and feed from your hand
When I’m working on paired learning, I quite often feed from my hand. I don’t do much respondent counterconditioning, where we’re changing the dog’s feelings about a conditioned stimulus using food as a way to elicit an incompatible physiological, emotional and behavioural response, but I’ll quite often stick it right in with a massive great big jackpot when the dog does something I want to build on.
For instance, yesterday, Lidy was calmly watching two lambs moving and also watching their mum who was staring at us. I went to her and I fed her a huge jackpot of about 10 great treats. Today, she came back to me instead of me going to her. She’s smart. She knows who has the treats.
To have asked her to disengage, to turn around, to come back to me and do some voluntary behaviours rather than everything her instinct was telling her to do was too hard. She could eat, but the other bits were too hard. I went to her. She needed to do nothing than open her mouth and chew. That was hard enough. She kept her eye on the sheep and she didn’t change anything about her own position or posture. She just ate.
Going to the dog and feeding from your hand is a useful step in scaffolding behaviours that will eventually become voluntary disengagement and u-turns.
Too many of us, however, expect the dog to listen to our cue, to disengage, to turn around and to come to us. Much easier if you’re working on a lead or long line if you go to the dog. If your food reward is big enough, you should find that within two or three trials, your dog will disengage to eat.
This intermediate step shouldn’t take very long if you put aside your inner Grinch, pay up and pay out a jackpot. You might only need to do it once before you can then start shaping those moments when your dog naturally turns away to see why the food is late.
It can be very useful if your dog will eat but the other bits that you’re asking are just too hard.
#3 Make the food move so that the environment pays up
So many guardians aren’t making the most of their dog’s specific talent. If you’ve got a dog who visually fixes on things, make the food move visually by rolling it or throwing it so that it catches their eye and they have to visually track it.
This makes it much more fun for the dog and stops you fighting against all their inner urges. What did Lidy want to do with the cats this morning? Watch them run, catch them and grab them.
Food can do this if you make it. It moves fast, it can be caught and grabbed.
No, a bit of ham or cheese is absolutely not the same as catching a cat. But Behaviour has this helpful friend called Habit. Dogs do what has reliably been reinforced in the past. If it’s a small dose of the stuff they enjoy, so much the better.
It can also be used to break up a dog’s visual fix, keep them moving and keep the pace up.
If you’ve got a dog whose nose is to the ground and enjoys scentwork, using longer grass can give their nose a work out as well.
This is another video where the environment is reinforcing the dog, not really me. The movement of the food, finding the food, sniffing it out if necessary – those are all ways that we can make training more fun for a dog. It’s much more dynamic and fun for the dog.
Where I wouldn’t use this method is with dogs who are in an environment where they need a bit more support and direction. Of course, this can also require dogs to disengage from one target and fix on another so it’s not as easy as it looks from the dog’s brain’s perspective.
Using food from the environment also takes the pressure off dogs who are sensitive to humans or who have a fear of human hands. It’s useful for dogs who are overcoming guarding and distrust with their guardians but also for dogs we’re not familiar with.
Lidy here models one way people can use food to encourage closeness from dogs without adding the pressure of making them approach a scary human.
I very often use Suzanne Clothier’s Treat and Retreat with dogs, but with nervous or shy dogs, it means you have to throw the treat and that gesture in itself can be something they struggle with. Here, they’re encouraged to move in by two things: the food AND by the human moving away.
By the way, this is also great for recall and loose lead practice. Simple, easy and reminds the dog that being near you comes with benefits.
#4 Added bonus: use the food delivery position to test whether the dog still wants to engage
When Lidy first arrived, I had a hell of a time grooming her. She would bite the brush, grab my hand and generally do everything she could not to be groomed. I’ve worked with some malinois who are so excited by human hand movement and contact that they bite and grab straight away. Throwing the food away from you and the brush gives them a chance to reset AND if they want to come back, they will.
Throwing the food away from you and letting the environment cough up is a good way to reinforce at the end of muzzle training, mat training, platform training, training the dog to stay in their bed. I even use it to teach loose lead. When the dog has walked near to me for a planned number of paces, I mark their success with a marker word ‘good!’ and then the treat goes away from the dog. When they come back and get in position again, that shows they truly understand what it is that’s getting the treat. It also ensures that they’re consenting.
Here, you can see me do it with Lidy and her brush. You can also see me do it with Heston as we practise some loose lead walking skills. Yes, I know we have no lead. You don’t need a lead to teach loose lead skills!
Allowing the environment to pay up is an ideal way of testing whether the dog is comfortable with what you’re doing and the position you’ve asked them to take.
Ultimately, you can really make a difference to your dog’s engagement with what you’re asking them to do by considering where you will deliver the treat, and how.
PS Many people worry unduly about dogs eating anything from the floor. Heston’s treatment with phenobarbitol for his epilepsy has meant that he is a constant scavenger. Cat poo and roadkill are particular favourites.
One thing I do NOT find is that food going on the ground increases their likelihood of scavenging; In fact, rewarding from the hand when they choose to ignore a likely pavement food source is a great way to work through this.
On our walks, there is one cat who never buries his turds and who always goes at the same spot. This is quite attractive to Heston. I reward from me as we walk past this place and he deliberately chooses to disengage. This has stopped him fixating on that place and pulling to get to it each morning. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush as they say. Or, a treat from the hand is worth two turds on the grass, perhaps.
Now, as we get to that place on our walk, he comes to heel without cuing and I feed every three paces from my hand until we’re past.
No other dog I’ve ever worked with, including a very large number of beagles, labradors and spaniels who are often life’s natural scavengers, has ever started scavenging as a result of dropped, hidden or thrown treats. If they were scavenging before, feeding from the hand can help them if they need structured support to disengage and has actually diminished their scavenging. Because of the training history and habit, they’ve been much easier to call away from things they might pick up.
It matters how and where we deliver food for our dogs. We can use those factors to our advantage if we’re sensible and improve our training success. In the home, garden, shelter, kennel or car, remote controlled treat delivery systems can also remove the need for throwing. They’re much neater too!
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Regulation means the way in which we modulate our physiological reactions. For instance, that might mean how quickly we calm down after a shock or something exciting. A way we might see this in dogs is how long it takes them to relax again after a loud noise. Where dogs can’t modulate their physiological reactions, we might see them taking an extremely long time to recover from sudden noises like fireworks, or being unable to dial it down a notch in play.
Regulation also means how we modulate our emotional reactions, learning to cope with frustration, to channel our anger or excitement. We might see this in dogs if they choose to go and busy themselves with something else if they can’t do what they want. Where dogs are less able to modulate their emotional responses, we might see them engaging in intense behaviour or engaging in noisy or disruptive behaviour if they can’t have their needs met instantly.
It means how we modulate our behaviour according to the context. For instance, we learn that we can run outside but we are supposed to walk inside. We might see this in dogs if they choose to walk on lead rather than trotting or running. Where dogs are less able to modulate their behavioural responses, we might see them choosing much more intense behaviours than are required, such as biting if they can’t escape quite minor restraint.
Many dog trainers think that regulation is an internal process for dogs, rather than something that is social. Social regulation is an important part of being a social species. We learn because others help us shape ourbehaviour.
The arbitrary categorisation of physiology, emotion, individual behaviour and social behaviour can also be unhelpful. They are intertwined and often difficult to separate.
For instance, if my dog snatches a toy out of my hand when we’re playing, she is not moderating her physiological, emotional, behavioural or social response appropriately. To try and separate them from each other is like trying to separate the whites from the yolk when you’ve cooked an omelette.
Dogs aren’t born knowing how to manage their responses.
It’s also an interactive process, meaning that we learn through the support of others, not through some magical and astonishing appearance of these skills at some developmental milestone.
These skills are taught to children by parents, peers, other adults, by society and also shaped by cultural expectations. Just as an example, some American guests I had a few years ago were amazed by how quiet French children are in restaurants and how well they waited patiently at the buffet table. We forget things like noise levels are cultural constructs. Back in the UK, it takes me a while to adjust to how noisy British people are.
Because we forget how important social interactions and parenting are on the development of these skills in our own species, we sometimes run the risk of forgetting how important it is to scaffold and support our dogs in acquiring the ability to self-regulate. Sadly, we often overestimate how good puppies should be at regulating their physiology, their emotions, their behaviour and their social interactions. House training and coping alone are just two simple, basic activities where many guardians expect more of 10-week-old puppies than they are cognitively or physiologically capable of.
The same is true, though, of our adult dogs.
Just as an example, my girl Lidy finds sheep enormously challenging to be around. It’s my job as a guardian to help her learn to manage her own behaviour.
Unfortunately, some trainers who dislike coercion see support for regulation as an imposed structure. It’s important to remember that co-regulation is an essential step in developing the ability to do it ourselves.
Understanding co-regulation is actually an important step in working with dogs whose behaviour is sometimes less appropriate than required in the cultures we live in.
Co-regulation, where we vary the level of support we offer to our dogs to help them choose the appropriate response, is not some simple one-size-fits-all support. It happens when we share responsibility for regulating emotions and behaviour.
This support has layers and levels.
If you don’t understand these layers and levels as a trainer, you’ll not know, for instance, when you need to mark and move in BAT 2.0, or when you need Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games. You’ll not know when you just need to set up the right situation for the dog or when you need to offer a much more rigorous layer of support.
Understanding the layers of co-regulation helps me on a daily basis.
For instance, Lidy often struggles with all moving stimuli and any novelty. This morning she struggled to cope with a dropped tissue on our walk, for example. It took her a good two minutes of processing to make sense of it.
As her guardian, I need to know when she is going to really struggle. For instance, a horse and rider went past us less than 2m away the other day. That is too huge a trigger and at too close proximity for me to expect her to keep her cool.
I also need to know when to let her process things and when I need to help her move on. She struggles a great deal with impulse control and, as a shepherd dog, she’s had a lot of selection of behaviour to work in partnership with a shepherd. Some types of dog are more in tune with human behaviour and more responsive to human cues.
I would say that often, Lidy would make the worst possible choice, if given the choice.
It’s my job to help her learn to make better choices. At the same time, understanding the following four layers of co-regulatory actions can really help.
Often, dog trainers and guardians think of distraction as a time when no learning is occurring. I know I’ve certainly advised guardians not to use training as distraction.
We might worry, for instance, that our dogs aren’t processing the environment if we’re occupying them with cues and keeping their attention on us. There’s a very strong movement in dog training to let dogs process the environment. Give them more time to process, the argument goes, and they’ll make the appropriate behavioural response.
The only problem is that real-life dogs aren’t always like that.
Giving dogs time to process is great when they’ve got a short behavioural history, where there’s space, where there’s sufficient distance, when you’re working with an independent dog and when the guardian has historically been putting dogs in over their head.
In fact, these trainers are suggesting you use a much more cognitively complex layer of co-regulation: reappraisal.
Many of the dogs I work with need more support than simple opportunities for reappraisal. They may have a long history of explosive behaviour that has worked perfectly to keep others away. They may be a dog who actually needs instruction and support.
Also, even if your dog is making better decisions when reappraising, there may be times when you need to distract even so. Like if you turn a blind corner and there’s a horse 2m from you. Expecting a dog to coolly reappraise in those circumstances is to overestimate a dog’s cognitive skills to voluntarily inhibit their responses, kind of like expecting us just to be able to stop hiccups simply by calming ourselves down. You know, sometimes I can do that with my hiccups. Other times I need to intervene. It’s the same with dogs.
Dogs ARE learning when distracted. They may be learning to focus their attention on other things. This morning, Lidy voluntarily offered her focus to me when we were right next to a field of nervous lambs and adolescent starey sheep. Distraction is a very underrated skill!
For instance, we may choose to distract ourselves if we’re anxious. I remember one time being away from my epileptic dog and having left him with my dad; I couldn’t get hold of my dad and I was in a mad panic worrying what had happened. I think I called him 50-odd times! What helped me manage my anxiety? Deliberately choosing to go and sit with a group of people and chat with them. Taking our minds off things is a crucial skill. It’s one I learned… with a clinical psychologist to help me manage my anxiety!
How many times with toddlers do we help them cope with excitement by helping them distract themselves? How many times do we help them switch focus?
What we pay attention to is not arbitrary. When we can regulate ourselves, we can have that extreme focus. It’s part of what top athletes learn. Imagine going out on to a football pitch and being upset by everything the opposition jeered?
But these skills are taught. They don’t magically just happen. Try teaching primary school on a snow day if you don’t believe me.
So as guardians, we need to help our dogs learn to re-focus on other stuff. We need to help them learn what to pay attention to, and how to shift their attention when required. We need to scaffold this process, so that we pass the baton for who controls their attention from us to them. We also need to know that at some times, it’s useful for us to pick up that baton to help them out.
Instead of thinking of distraction as some kind of avoidance of learning, we need to see it as a key coping skill that needs scaffolding through to independence. Asking for behaviour and focus on us rather than on vehicles, wildlife, livestock, strangers or unfamiliar dogs can be one way that we teach dogs to shift their attention. We can also help dogs learn how to do this voluntarily without cues or prompts.
If we play games like Find it! or Pattern Games like Ping Pong, it can also encourage dogs to disengage and refocus.
Some dog trainers see these as avoiding the trigger for behaviour. We might do better if we reframe it and think of behaviours like these as ones that help dogs learn to disengage and re-focus their attention.
Just as a caution, the more you expect a dog to do to distract them (like turn away or move away), the harder it can be. Amy Cook’s ‘Treat Hand’ or ‘Magnet Hand’ where she lures the dog with a handful of high quality food, is one example of a fairly undemanding behaviour that doesn’t ask much of the dog.
The harder the distraction behaviour we ask is, the harder it will be for the dog.
This is especially true if the behaviour we are asking for has a high level of demand. If the dog has to coordinate their body, override their instincts, move their attention away and also refocus on something else, that demands an awful lot of cognitive power. Ask something simple in easier circumstances and watch your ability to shift your dog’s attention increase exponentially.
Remember also that behaviours are habits: practice makes perfect.
The more practice you have at distracting your dog, the easier it will become.
Many training programmes to help dogs cope with things they come across involve reappraisal. Grisha Stewart’s BAT 2.0 is largely reappraisal with some support through marking behaviour and moving when appropriate. Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That and LATTE are reappraisal AND attention shifting. This is partly why I love it so much. As with so much in Leslie’s Control Unleashed, it works on a gazillion levels and every single one of them turns out to reflect some core skill.
When we help dogs to reappraise threat, especially when we do so without requiring them to do anything, we help them learn that things are not so threatening. Sometimes, we just watch and reflect.
Lidy did that this morning with that naughty dropped tissue. I swear she stared at it for about two minutes. I just let her take it in and work out for herself that it is not a threat (or anything else). She was just working out what it was. As a guardian, my role is to distinguish between things she may need help refocusing her attention away from at times (like starey sheep) and things where she simply needs to reappraise (like dropped litter, or sheep eating or resting). I don’t always get that right. However, I don’t leave the deciding to her because she doesn’t have the skills yet.
Where dogs have highly impulsive behaviours or they are predatory in nature, reappraisal generally does not go too well. I mean, looking at a pheasant for a long time will usually just end in a reappraisal that, yes, that would be FUN to chase. Reappraisal is not a particularly useful strategy in that case. This is where we need to consider other layers of support. The same is true with most forms of chasing or excitement behaviours. It generally leads to frustration, because the dog can’t have their needs met.
Where reappraisal is really useful is where there isn’t any threat. For instance, that tissue was no threat at all. If your dog misidentifies inanimate objects as a threat, reappraisal can be really useful. Giving dogs time to think about stuff where it poses no risk or threat at all can be a great way for dogs to learn the skills they need to decide whether things are a threat or not.
Reappraisal is also particularly useful with superstitious behaviour, where the dog thinks (or, at least, the behaviour thinks) that what they do makes something else happen. For instance, if a dog who is barking and lunging thinks this behaviour keeps strangers and unfamiliar dogs away, when in fact, they’re just passers-by who would have gone away anyway, reappraisal is a very useful skill.
Marking and reinforcing self-chosen behaviours
Most behaviour works on an intake-output pathway. The individual senses something and then the central nervous system passes that information on to various motor systems and muscles to act upon it.
You know. Oh, crap! Tiger! Stand still, play dead or run? And the body prepares us for the course of action we’re about to take.
Distraction works on the sensory perception stage. Can you take your attention away from the thing?
Reappraisal works on the cognitive processing stage. Can you make better sense of the thing?
Marking and reinforcing self-chosen behaviours works on the motor stage. It is one of two strategies we can use that help the dog move to independent regulation without any of our support. Can you behave differently in response to the thing?
Marking simply means signalling to the dog that they have done something at that moment that, in your opinion, was socially appropriate. The mark may be a word like ‘good’ or something like a clicker. It also serves a way of letting the dog know that something reinforcing will arrive.
A reinforcer is something that makes the behaviour more likely in the future. They’re not the same as a reward, which has no effect on the behaviour itself. Rewards can be great, but it’s only a reinforcer if it makes the behaviour more likely in the future.
As an example, we might mark and reinforce looking away. You’ll know this if you’ve done ‘mark and move’ where you immediately acknowledge the behaviour you like, and then move away or move on. The potential reinforcer is moving away, which is often what many fearful or reactive dogs want.
If you do the engage-disengage game or Suzanne Clothier’s Treat and Retreat, you are also reinforcing behaviours you want to see, like engaging, and then using the place that the food is delivered to encourage disengaging.
We should remember that these are not cued or prompted. That’s to say we don’t ask the dog to do anything. We don’t encourage them. We don’t move them away with a lead.
We’re simply noticing what they do that we’d like more of, and we’re strengthening that behaviour, making it more likely in the future.
Kathy Sdao’s wonderful SMART 50 can also work really well here too.
An example of how I used this during the week was with the close encounter with the horse; I marked Lidy’s good choices and I fed her copiously. She chose the behaviour, to look and not react, and I let her know that this was great.
There’s a certain view that this is the pinnacle of enlightened dog training but we need to remember that we are in fact reinforcing alternative choices and we are extinguishing the dog’s preferred behaviour. It is only our very human view that the behaviour the dog chooses is ‘better’ or ‘more appropriate’.
It’s our decision that this is better, and that is loaded with bias and snobbery if we think that it’s ‘best’ if we shape our preferred versions of what the dog chooses to do. Just because we aren’t telling the dog ‘move’ or we aren’t telling them ‘leave it’ or ‘heel’ or any other thing doesn’t make it some virtuous and holy improvement on training where behaviours are taught and cued.
Just as French children are certainly more quiet in restaurants than British or US children because that will have been reinforced, or noisy behaviour punished, does not mean it’s somehow intrinsically ‘good’. No doubt some British or US people would find the quiet disturbing and coercive, just as some French might find noisy children wild and uncontrolled.
When we identify what we think of as socially appropriate behaviours, we shouldn’t think that taught and cued behaviours are any less coercive than ones we’re building without cues.
In any case, where snobby and saintly trainers have shared their work, they’re invariably using gestures or even their own body weight or posture to cue the dog’s response, like if I begin to move away and Lidy feels the lead pressure alter slightly or senses me move.
Cuing and reinforcing taught behaviours
The fourth skill we use when helping our dogs learn how to regulate is teaching them a taught skill separately and then cuing that behaviour. This can be really useful for dogs that get ‘stuck’ and need a bit of prompting.
As I said earlier, we shouldn’t be snobby about this and see it as inferior to the dog seeming to make their own choice (which is simply one we’ve decided, in our infinite wisdom is superior to whatever they were doing).
A cue might be a verbal cue, like ‘move away’ or ‘watch me’, or even ‘Find it!’
A cue can also be things like the movement of the lead or our own movement away.
It can also be something we do.
For instance, I sometimes lob a treat over Lidy’s head so it skitters on the floor. Though I don’t say anything, this cues her to break her gaze, to look to the floor and do something else like use her nose to sniff a treat out.
The delivery of the reinforcer itself (for walking and looking, not lunging) is a cue for her to break her gaze and disengage.
This little prompt encourages her to do another behaviour.
Sometimes these behaviours can be taught separately, like a u-turn or a hand touch, and then we can prompt the dog to engage with us in return for rewards which may then strengthen the behaviour.
In practice, guardians who are supporting their dog’s emotional wellbeing will use a blend of all four support mechanisms. We will do so in a way that is appropriate for that individual dog in that individual environment.
There will be times when I appreciate how difficult the situation is for my dog. Lidy struggles to cope with cats, especially those who run. If I see a cat, I will use our training history to distract her and help her focus on something else. That might be me or it might be something else. For instance, I could cue a ‘watch!’ or a ‘follow me!’ or a ‘u-turn’. If I scatter food and cue her to find it, then I am helping her focus on something else.
There will be times when I give her time to reappraise, as I did this morning with a man and his dog. They were moving away from us and far enough away that I was sure she could cope. I also gave her time (!) to reappraise the clearly out-of-place tissue.
At other times, I shape behaviours I’ve decided are appropriate, like disengaging and walking on. Sometimes I do this with praise and sometimes food. I did that this morning as we walked past the starey adolescent sheep. They were static as they appraised us, so I knew that if she did not appear to be a threat, they would remain still or even go back to eating. I used praise and food to keep her from staring back and kept her moving forward without pulling.
There will also be times when I cue those behaviours. For instance, when we went past the gambolling lambs in the first field this morning, I told her to ‘find it!’ when she got a bit stuck, and directed her to do other things. In reality, this is also distraction too.
Knowing our dogs and when they need what level of support is the most important thing. As you can see, I did not talk about my other dog Heston who needs none of these things, even with the starey sheep. He looked. He disengaged. He’s regulating his own reactions and behaviour without my support. Though he loves chasing wildlife, he not only knows the rules about chasing livestock but he also doesn’t pay them any mind. He does not even pay attention to them. It is as if they are not there. I don’t know if Lidy will ever live without at least some support, but it’s not important. She depends on me to help her out when her behaviour would be dangerous or destructive, let alone socially inappropriate.
That’s what I’m here for, so she can lean on me.
Whenever we’re talking about regulation, it is so important that we do not forget the role of co-regulation. It is the behaviour of a supportive social group, not the imposition of an autocratic dictator. We also need to consider that regulation itself is not an individual thing. For social species, it is a a social thing. It’s not a sign of weakness that we sometimes need support for our own emotions and behaviours. It is a sign that we are a social species. That’s all.
Let’s not forget that dogs are a social species too, and that we are part of their support network. Also, let’s not assume that regulation just happens. It doesn’t. It’s our responsibility to help our dogs become more self-sufficient when it comes to regulation. It’s not the sign of a poor guardian or a poor trainer if the dog needs more support and guidance; it is the sign of guardians and trainers helping their dogs learn for themselves.
Thanks for reading! If you’re a dog trainer and you’re looking for ways to help your clients co-regulate (because they’ll need it too!) then my book will help to give you ideas.
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One of the mistakes I think that dog trainers make when talking about regulation is supposing that it’s only an internal process. So much about regulation for companion animals relates to external, social processes. It’s about time we acknowledged this.
Today, we explore the concept of co-regulation. Co-regulation is a social process. In the relationship between dogs and their guardians, co-regulation could be described as the social process between the dog and the guardian. The process is a fluctuating one of give and take. We alter our actions with respect to our dogs’ actions. They alter theirs with respect to ours.
For instance, if I can see one of my dogs struggling to cope with an oncoming dog, instead of doing nothing but continuing with my walk, I might change my actions. I might step aside and give my dog some treats to help them cope.
If you think about it, walking on a lead should be a process of co-regulation, where the dog slows their pace with respect to ours, and we alter our normally flat pace to stop when the dog sniffs or needs more lead. We’re moving together, and that requires both of us modify our behaviour in respect to the other.
Walking on a lead also gives us examples of more egocentric walking. Sometimes, it is the dog leading the walk where they make no attempt to regulate their own pace with respect to their guardian and we see dogs pulling their guardian over as they try to get to a chip packet or another dog.
Other times, it is the human who entirely controls the pace of the walk, where the dog is drilled to subjugate their needs completely to that of their guardian.
Instead of walking with the dog or walking with the human, co-regulation would involve walking together.
It is the ballet of interactions.
Most of the time, when we talk of co-regulation, we actually mean emotional co-regulation, where we work to support our dogs. Occasionally, as guardians, we may need to do more to support them. Other times, we may choose to co-regulate by giving the dog less support and structure and letting them make decisions for themselves.
Ideally, we’d like our dogs to be able to self-regulate behaviourally and emotionally, but the reality is that given dogs’ cognitive capacities and development, this can be a struggle. To assume that they’ll magically just learn to self-regulate at 9 weeks of age is a huge mistake, and yet this is what many guardians do.
The idea of co-regulation also poses problems to some dog trainers.
On the one hand, many modern dog trainers do not like the idea of imposing structures on dogs. They may not even like the word trainer. They definitely don’t like the notion of external rule structures. The idea that you might ask a dog to sit and wait while their food is prepared is an anathema to them. Teaching dogs to cope with frustration, to control their bodies and impulses… pffft.
The problem with this view is that it is based on a faulty understanding of the structures within which social mammals live. It is often accompanied by an idealised view of canine cognitive capacities too. It overestimates what dogs are capable of being.
I’ve had this dogmatically explained to me by grown-up human beings who seem to have zero awareness of the fact they’ve really not understood the social mores of their own species very well. Worse, they’re also not that able to modulate their own behaviour accordingly.
What hope is there if actual grown-up human beings, firehosing others on the regulatory skills of dogs, are unable to modulate their own behaviour?
If you, oh delicious and delightful human being, can’t open up your own rigid and dogmatic beliefs in order to entertain the possibility that there may be more to regulation than you imagined and that dogs may struggle with it just as you are, then it’s a case in point.
I love dogs *very* much and I appreciate them in all their splendid dog-ness but idealising their ability to control themselves and forgetting that they are social beings doesn’t help us live with them much and also places hugeexpectations upon their ability to restrain themselves and fit in to a group.
Understanding the social rules in play and moderating your behaviour accordingly is a very important part of development.
Whenever we put dogs in situations where they need to moderate their behaviour with other animals, that requires social regulation. When we interact with others, we need competencies in social behaviour. If we expect dogs to confidently and appropriately deal with intraspecies conflict, to regulate their own emotions and behaviour around other dogs or humans, or to even cooperate in joint activities like play or walking on lead, then it requires they exercise a high level of cognitive control over themselves.
Dogs are not born with these skills.
They don’t magically occur.
Neither is regulation simply an internal process. Dogs, like humans, are social beings. Regulation is also a social-emotional process.
Caregivers contribute hugely to this process as puppies develop.
As always, it’s important to remind ourselves that these skills are developmental. That’s to say that puppies are not born with them. They emerge at certain points as they age.
These skills are also about our ability to generalise and understand that these rules are important on this occasion, but that other rules are in place at other times. You know, like we play ball outside, but we don’t have quite such big behaviours inside. We run outside, but we walk on the left in corridors… Ironically, we help children remember these rules all the time, but many of us just expect dogs to have been magically born with them and remember them even on snow days and windy days and birthdays.
Understanding rules requires us to be able to generalise and understand our social group. It also requires us to understand context. These are tough skills for dogs!
I often hear that dogs don’t generalise well. Generalisation is simply the ability to understand both abstract and concrete rules and infer that they may be applicable in other circumstances.
Puppy trainers often remind puppy guardians, for instance, that what their puppy learns in class will also need to be practised at home because dogs don’t generalise well.
I’d like to offer a refinement rooted in comparative psychology.
Dogs don’t generalise as well as humans can.
When we say dogs don’t generalise well, we often forget to add ‘in comparison to us’.
Dogs generalise very well compared to other species.
Also, it might be better to say that dogs are more contextual than humans.
This reframing allows us to remember that the ability to generalise is more developed in humans without denigrating animals whose cognitive processes are more context-dependent than ours. We’re the outliers, not dogs. The situation matters more to dogs. Ironically, play outside and not inside will make MUCH more sense to them than it will to a five-year-old. On the flip side, if we’re trying to teach them they can actually also play in the dog park as well as the garden, it might not make much sense at first. It’s hard for dogs to think like that.
Most trainers understand that the ability to apply old rules in new contexts is a key stumbling block for our teaching. I’m not entirely sure we truly understand what it must feel like to be more contextual in our thinking. It can only be akin to trying to imagine what it is like to be dyslexic when you are not. That is a significant cognitive hindrance for us. We forget that dogs are more dependent on context in learning than we are because we simply can’t imagine it.
This is very important when it comes to rules and regulation, especially where these may differ.
HERE but not THERE rules can be tough for humans and easier for dogs.
No ball play in the house. It’s fine in the yard.
NOW but not THEN rules are also tough for humans but easier for dogs because of the contextual nature of their experience.
Walk to heel when we’re going past the neighbours’ dogs but sniff later.
Dogs are actually better at that than we are.
I speak as someone who struggled with the seemingly abitrary application of rules growing up. Like why can’t you wear make-up in school if you wear it out of the home? Why was it okay to wear mascara and blusher when I was on stage but not when I was in French class? Why was it appropriate for grown men to gawk at me in a leotard but not to wear fitted clothes in public where men may gawk at me? Why did it matter if a boy was in my room at night compared to the daytime? Why did it matter if I came in at 10:45 compared to 11pm?
I was an obstreperous teenager, according to my Nana.
I’m now an obstreperous adult.
For those of you who’ve seen The Breakfast Club, you’re probably seeing me as a John Bender character right now. You know… How come Andrew gets to get up? If he gets up, we’ll all get up. It’ll be anarchy.
I understand rules that are there for social cohesion, public health, the good of the community. I bag up and bin dog poo. I’m quiet after 8pm. I don’t use power tools on Sundays. I don’t speed. I stop at traffic lights. I wear my mask. I am also in favour of rules that stop people exploiting others. I like these rules. These structures are important.
I do not understand whimsical rules. No. That’s not true. I understand them very well. I do not like them. There is a difference.
Ironically, whimsical rules, as long as they are consistent, make more sense to dogs once they’ve learned them.
What we can never do is forget that dogs are a social mammal, just as we are.
Learning to be a social mammal is part of developing regulatory skills.
Sometimes, we regulate things from the inside; other times, regulation occurs as a result of social structures.
At first, those social structures are small. Our parents, grandparents, and, to some extent, our siblings, support us as we move from being egocentric individuals to social beings. Our extended family may be involved in that growth.
As we grow, we become part of a wider network of individuals. Non-familial relationships become more important.
In the wild, wolves do not often make that leap other than in choosing a mate. Their mate may be the only non-familial bond they ever form. In glorifying wolves, we often forget that they have very clear rule structures about interactions with non-familial conspecifics. A wolf out of territory encountering another wolf risks an enormous amount. Wolf researcher Rick McIntyre documents that the most common cause for death in adult wolves is to be killed by a rival pack. Even the fact that wolves form long-term pair bonds is unusual. Only 3-5% of mammalian species do that. Dogs don’t, usually, when left to live unrestricted lives.
Dogs, then, are more ‘human’ in their management of encounters with other dogs but don’t have some of the tight family-driven social codes of wolves.
We also forget that life within a family group may not be perfect for wolves and also for street dogs. McIntyre documents life for three sisters in a wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park. The ranking female terrorised her sisters. He documents that in Yellowstone, no son had forced their father out of the social group, but that it was not infrequent that daughters would either force out or kill their mothers. He says that the ranking females ‘set the agenda for the pack: where to den, when to go out on hunts and when to travel.’
What we in the writing and studies of many wolf scholars and conservationists is a description of life where family structures determine life.
That dogs are more gregarious than wolves is perhaps a story written into their biology. Dogs don’t form a family group as other canids do. The whole reproductive biology of the dog is deregulated compared to the wolf’s. The structure of social groups is different.
Nevertheless, to live in social groups, you need rules.
I’m reminded of the John Wick films. ‘Rules, John. They are the only thing that separate us from the animals.’
As if animals do not have social rules of their own!
I think this human superiority that we are the only species with codified social rules is perhaps why so many people seem unwilling to see that social factors also help our dogs understand that rules apply in certain situations.
We also have ridiculously high expectations of dogs to be able to manage these things themselves.
For instance, expecting a 10-week-old puppy to regulate their own need to play compared to the need of an older dog to sleep…. or expecting an adolescent dog to cope with the social intricacies of interaction with unfamiliar dogs… As a colleague said beautifully this week, guardians overestimate puppies’ skills in many respects, and underestimate them in others.
Being more gregarious is not just biology. It is the very important work of socialisation. Neuroscientist and primatologist Robert Sapolsky describes biology as giving us the ‘how’ of behaviour, where socialisation gives us the ‘when’ and ‘where’. Socialisation also tells us the magnitude of behaviour we’d need. It’s a vital part of the canine experience, just as it is the human experience.
Leaving it all to the dogs is to misunderstand what helps dogs thrive.
I have lived with dogs who didn’t like each other much. Amigo had a terse relationship with all my dogs other than Tobby. He guarded toys and he needed help around food bowls as well as beds. The beauceron Effel who I had in foster for 18 months (and would have adopted) had many issues with Heston.
Anyone looking at what happened in our home probably would not have seen the small things that made a difference. Meal times were not regimented in terms of behavioural expectations, but I did make small tweaks to make it easier on my dogs. Heston ate last because he had the best manners and was the most patient. Amigo ate first because he struggled.
Effel struggled with excitement and energy levels. He struggled to regulate his own behaviour around Heston at such times. For instance, if Heston ran out of the door, Effel would chase after him. I didn’t even walk them together because if Heston was off-lead, Effel was unable to break his visual fixation on Heston. If Effel was also off-lead, he would chase Heston. A few times, Effel nipped Heston’s face.
Effel also struggled with small, animated dogs. He would chase them compulsively and struggle not to bite if he caught up to them.
What did I do?
I set up the situation so these things couldn’t happen. I walked Heston separately from Effel. I made sure my small fosters had a safe space to play.
All this is just simple management that I’m sure you’re already conscious that you do yourself.
I also set up scenarios in which Effel could learn how to regulate himself with intervention where necessary. At first, that meant restorative socialisation with staid, large, calm adult dogs. Then we included large, lively adult dogs. Then we included smaller dogs with great social skills.
The truth is that some dogs are masters in coaching others.
Heston is my master on this score.
You saw him already with a small puppy who was struggling not to bite her littermates really hard. Here he is with a Newfoundland who’d not been socialised. He struggled to cope with other dogs and he was incredibly shy when he arrived. Beyond any play he’d had with his litter, he’d had nothing for a year.
Watch how he coaxes the Newfie into a game of chase. This was the first time this big dog had played. Look at how Heston speeds up and slows down, keeping an eye on him.
This may seem like very one-sided play, and it is *here*. What is he doing though? He’s leading the play by taking the role of the chasee. He decides. He speeds up, he slows down.
You can also see my lovely Amigo who did not understand dog play at all and struggled to cope.
Who’s regulating him?
Why? Because managing him (shutting him away) would not have exposed him to play. He’s learning that he doesn’t have to go and put an end to it.
Should I have left him?
Well, there’d have been a fight if I did.
Should I have put him away?
Well, I’d be completely removing his skills to learn to do this without me calling him or telling him to go.
A short clip but one that supports a couple of points…
Social dogs can be amazing at teaching others through play. They are quite literally coaching other dogs when this happens well.
Some dogs need us to help support them. It doesn’t happen by accident. It can also go very badly wrong when we don’t take this role seriously. Regulatory skills don’t happen in some fluffy, wonderful ‘Ain’t Nature Grand?’ kind of event.
Some people consider the way in which dogs lead captive lives to be a problem, as if street dogs, village dogs and strays all co-exist in a divine and happy world. This is not the case. Unrestrained dogs are particularly territorial. Their behaviour is also hugely shaped by the environment and the people in that space.
More and more studies emerge year on year looking at the ranges of street dogs. There is also evidence of forced dispersal, where street dogs will force a hanger-on to disperse through violence or even death. Most truly unrestrained dogs in urban settings do not live long enough to reach social maturity and so it’s very hard to take lessons from what is essentially an idealised group of dogs in different cultures from our own most of whom don’t reach sexual maturity let alone social maturity.
Where restricted lifestyles do count is as we have seen in the pandemic with lockdown dogs, dogs like the Newfie above who had no social contact with his own species for 11 months after he went to his permanent home.
Regulatory skills involve social skills when they involve turn-taking too. Watching Effel was to watch a dog who did not understand turn-taking in play. In my opinion, this can be exacerbated by breed, age and hormones. He chased. He tried to manage the excitement levels of other animals, just as a good beauceron is bred to do with errant sheep. He never offered to be the chasee, as Heston does.
Heston is also a good example because his greeting skills are rubbish. I mean they’ve got better but he really, really struggled with greetings. Shepherds do when they have careless guardians. *Cough*.
He also had his moments. Considering he is intact, he’s not much of a one for typically “male” behaviours but there have been times when he was far too interested in young females. Just because you can be a great Uncle with sharky puppies and a great Older Brother to shy dogs and wonderful with flirty old ladies does not mean you’re great at it all.
Turn-taking is tough.
Many of us think this is innate. It’s not. It’s taught. Whether a dog learns to wait their turn might be the result of great and largely unconscious social processes with humans and dogs, or it may be more structured than that.
My girl Lidy, for instance, struggles when there is petting available and she is not the recipient. Learning not to come and shove her fine shepherdy nose into our petting is part of her social education. She struggles and so it is my job to support her in kind, nurturing and consistent ways.
Understanding turns also requires a lot of executive functioning skills – which aren’t always onboard until we reach social maturity. Even then, as a populous social species who mostly manage to be harmonious in incredibly densely populated areas, we human beings can struggle. As an English person in French queues, let me tell you, I feel that Gallic impatience seething out of every pore. Let’s not even talk about Italians and queues or those hideous Black Friday videos from malls in the USA…
We learn to take turns through the patience, consistency, understanding, and thoughtfulness of adults. This is one reason I think the most important dogs that puppies can meet are adult ones. Whether our dogs are learning from human adults or canine adults is kind of moot. To learn to take turns, we need to know how to handle our frustration when our needs are temporarily thwarted. We need to know how to control our bodies. We need to understand social rule structures and to know how to generalise. Just because we queue to hang our coats up and we take turns asking questions in story time does not mean we automatically understand why we should not push in at the buffet table. We also need executive functioning skills to coordinate all this complex thinking.
In reality, regulation of all sorts is scaffolded. We support early attempts to self-regulate and we help puppies grow by supporting them in emotionally challenging situations. This is what good caregivers do.
We are not doing that if we put the onus on the puppy. We are not doing that if we put the onus on a dog having a very large emotional response to a situation they aren’t adequately prepared to cope with.
Passing from co-regulation to self-regulation is a gradual process. It is also an unstable process, where sometimes we will help our dogs more than others.
So when do we co-regulate our dogs?
When we offer distraction if they are struggling.
When we set up situations to help them reappraise and reconsolidate their learning.
When we help them learn to soothe themselves, or when we soothe them.
When we help modulate their responses.
If I see another dog approaching us and I know my dog will struggle, the most scaffolded thing I can do is to distract them. I’ll take them to one side and we’ll eat biscuits. That’s distraction. We don’t look at the dog. We don’t think about the dog. We just do something else.
As we progress, we will remove that immediate layer of support and help them reappraise. Oh, look! There’s a dog! Isn’t that great? Just a dog, going on their daily business!
We may also add in prompted soothing. Good girl! Well done! Great stuff! Can you look away? Can you look at me? Can you take a breath? Can we play here? Can you eat?
As we move into self-regulation, we will also prompt our dogs through cues. Leslie McDevitt’s perenially excellent ‘Look at That!’ does exactly this. Look at the dog! Now you need to disengage and look back to me when mark your behaviour. Here, we’re helping our dogs modulate their behaviour.
Finally, we’ll move to dogs who will look and then disengage without the need for a prompt. That’s self-regulation.
My two dogs are a great example of where we’re at on this scale.
We’re surrounded by sheep where we are now. Heston spent 8 years with cows. I don’t think he’d actually ever seen a sheep. Even so, he made that transition from cows to sheep admirably. I didn’t overestimate his contextual skills and I did go slowly, but he self-regulates around sheep and he has from Day 1 of seeing them.
This is not by accident!
At 12 weeks or so, he barked at cows and tried to chase them. By 4 months, we’d ironed out the problem. We moved from reappraisal at a distance to prompts to self-regulation. The one or two times cows did something unexpected, I helped him cope by prompting him.
Lidy is incredibly predatory of all moving things. She’s also hypersensitive to environmental change. Yesterday she was eyeing up an unexpected soil bag, for goodness sake! I may still need to distract her from time to time if the sheep are particularly lively and giddy. Getting stuck in an escaped flock was *much* fun! But most of the time, I’m helping her reappraise by giving her distance, supporting her decisions, occasionally prompting her to move away if she gets into struggles. We’re not, and we probably never will be, at a point where she’ll self-regulate completely even in giddy-escaped-flock situations, but we walked past at 20m today and she exhibited THE MOST self-regulation. I mean she looked at them, then looked away.
It’s important to understand that self-regulation is the end-product, if we’re lucky. We’re not being overly prescriptive if we occasionally support our dogs when they need it. We are being good caregivers.
We also need to stop overestimating dogs’ cognitive abilities and coping capacity. The *whole* point of being a social species, as Bill Withers would say, is having someone to lean on.
That’s our job.
In next week’s post, I’ll look at practical ways we can scaffold regulation so that we can act supportively as our dogs move to independence.
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If you want to support me further or you want to know more about supporting the human end of the lead, you can also pick up a copy of my Dog Trainers’ guide to Client-Centred training. I’ll let you into a secret; a lot of it is about that same support and scaffolding for our clients. Whenever we are emotionally overwhelmed, we definitely need someone to lean on. If you’ve read it already, could you do me a huge favour and leave a review? It helps people decide if it’s for them! Big thanks!
As you will have read in the previous post, regulation is not a unitary, singular thing. There are many separate aspects of what we think of as regulation and they are usually dependent on developmental processes.
This week, a few people have shared their thoughts on the previous post and it’s clear that their view of regulation is lots more narrow than regulatoray skills probably are.
Being able to control your behaviour is one facet of regulation, but using your own body to control the behaviour of others is another. We can’t say regulation is simply this or that, and anyone trying to give a 50-word explanation on social media really hasn’t got a very thorough understanding of just how complicated it can be.
Another reason I wanted to write this series of posts is that a lot of trainers talk about regulation in adult dogs, forgetting that we don’t know enough yet about it in adult dogs, let alone the processes involved as puppies develop. Trainers who talk this way, as if dogs are born adults and all have adult levels of regulatory skills, are missing the point.
These skills are developmental.
That’s to say puppies are not born with these skills; they acquire them through life just as children do.
Also, as you’ll see, that process is long and can be complicated. Some trainers in the dog training world seem to see puppy development as complete at 12 weeks, as if to say there aren’t complex, connected biological and social processes at work through adolescence as dogs reach sexual maturity and move on to social maturity.
As you’ll see today, even one single developmental aspect of behaviour underpinning regulation can be much longer than we consider.
Even though the single developmental process we’ll look at might not seem to be very connected to regulation at first glance, the ability that dogs have to regulate certain aspects of their physiology, emotions and behaviour very much depends on their age; understanding the processes behind this one single behaviour help us understand how other regulatory processes might also develop.
Let’s take a look at one simple developmental process, that of object permanence.
What is object permanence?
Object permanence is the idea that a physical object still exists even if you can’t see it. For instance, I know my mum still exists even though I can’t see her. I know the coffee in my fridge exists even if I can’t see it. I know that nail in my car tyre threatening to become a puncture still exists even though I’m not looking at it right now and I can’t see my car.
Object permanence sounds like a really, really trivial thing that we just take for granted, but it’s actually a fairly complex cognitive process that has some clear developmental stages. Also, as you can see, it can tie in to anxiety. I’m worrying about my car tyre even though I can’t see it. It would be quite nice if I could come away from the tyre and forget all about it.
Understanding how dogs acquire a sense of object permanence is especially vital if you train or live with working dogs. It’s also vital if you do any kind of enrichment activities with dogs, from scentwork to using food toys. It’s essential for understanding issues of stranger anxiety and separation anxiety too, so it’s a useful thing for trainers, breeders, puppy fosterers and guardians to understand.
Object permanence is a developmental process. It’s not something that puppies (or babies!) are born with. In humans, object permanence occurs for some learners by the age of 3 months, and in others by around the age of 2. As with all developmental processes, there are norms that define how likely it is that the population will have acquired that skill by a certain age, but these norms shouldn’t imply that these skills are ‘normal’. All individuals are different. It’s the same with puppies as it is with humans.
Object permanence is actually a critical developmental skill in human infants. What’s interesting about it is that it often happens around about the same time that children typically develop anxieties related to separation from their caregivers and also anxieties related to strangers.
The same three behaviours develop in puppies in the same developmental windows.
Why is it important to understand object permanence?
If we understand that puppies develop a sense of object permanence, we can understand other behaviours better, like why and when young puppies might whine or howl if separated from their mother or from human caregivers, and why they might struggle to be left with strangers.
When we understand when these are likely to occur, we can take steps to mitigate the potential damage they might cause.
Sadly, these are developmental problems that we often just expect puppies to get over.
I know, for instance, when Heston was small, I didn’t even really consider how challenging it might have been for him as a 7-week-old puppy to be left without me or why he might panic if he couldn’t see me. As it is, we managed just fine, but it was more by accident than on purpose.
When we understand when puppies develop object permanence and when they might therefore be likely to develop separation anxiety and stranger anxiety, it helps us understand why some puppies really struggle in their first few weeks as they move from their first home with their breeder or foster carer.
It also helps us understand why it’s so important to help structure puppies’ experiences with strangers.
We can also understand ways we can help them cope better with these experiences during this developmental window.
In other words, it’s normal for puppies to struggle with anxiety when left alone and it’s normal for puppies to struggle to cope with strangers. We need to understand ways that we can help puppies cope with these very normal experiences other than leaving them to cry it out which can cause lasting trauma. When I read “trainers” recommending guardians leave 8-week-old puppies to “cry it out” or crating puppies for long periods, this is nothing short of abuse. This is a critical developmental period for object permanence and separation anxiety, and it is likely to cause lasting damage if you do this. It reveals nothing more than wilful ignorance about canine development.
How do we know when puppies are developing object permanence?
To develop a sense of object permanence, you need to be able to see things. That goes without saying. So object permanence can’t truly develop when the puppy’s sensory system is not developed. However, what we know about object permanence isn’t always really understood in other species, as most of the work done on it is with humans. We don’t know, for example, about the way odour works to affect puppies’ sense of object permanence.
We do know that dogs don’t adapt to smells as humans do. For instance, if there’s a bad smell (or a good one!) you get used to it. Your nose adapts until you can’t smell it anymore. I used to wear a lot of perfume. Now, because of my dogs, I don’t wear perfume at all. Even the smell of fabric freshener or washing powder can be really strong to me these days. I’m no longer habituated to the perfumes I wear.
Dogs don’t adapt to odours. Their nose works differently than ours does. For our noses, it’s almost as if smelly things cease to exist over time. That’s not true for dogs. They don’t adapt to odours in the same way because of the way their nose is designed.
Thus, just because they can’t see an object doesn’t mean they think it’s ceased to exist. Indeed, one theory of separation anxiety in dogs is that as the humans’ smell fades over time, the dog becomes increasingly panicked or distressed. This is evidenced by the fact that some dogs seem to find things that smell very strongly of us like our beds or couches or clothes to be comforting during prolonged absence. Some dogs collect socks, underwear or shoes belonging to us and make a nest of the things that smell most strongly of us. This behaviour might be explained by the fact these things smell strongly of us as the rest of our residual odour fades.
Of course, work with dogs and young puppies has often focused on visual object permanence, not olfactory object permanence. We still have a way to go in order to truly understand developmental processes in dogs.
Why is this important?
Young puppies (less than eight weeks) might not be able to find things that are covered up or out of view, for example.
That has implications for how we raise them in the home and also for what kind of enrichment activities we give them. Unless, for instance, we give them very strongly smelling food, we may find that they’re not interested in finding hidden objects before they’ve developed a sense of object permanence. Hiding biscuits in ball pits may not be an easy thing for young puppies to find because what we know about when puppies develop skills to know that things are still there even if they can’t see them hasn’t fully developed yet.
It may also mean they might panic if they are separated from their mother or from caregivers even by a blanket covering a whelping pen or a puppy pen, for example.
The importance of object permanence
We shouldn’t expect puppies to be able to cope if their mother, siblings or caregivers go out of view, especially if the odour of those individuals is also blocked off. It’s perhaps one reason why breeders and fosterers find it useful to include a cloth item that smells of their family as the puppies move to their new home. Even so, separating puppies from their caregivers and their mother too early may cause the puppy to suffer lasting damage if it’s not handled properly.
Understanding object permanence can also help us understand what is difficult for puppies and what might cause them to panic.
One form of recall training I’ve seen is where the guardian goes out of view when on a walk. This causes the young dog to panic. When they find their human or their human reappears, it causes relief. Some trainers use this method to teach the dog to keep their eye on their guardian at all times and keep following the guardian.
If we don’t understand that our puppies aren’t developmentally mature enough not to panic when we go out of view, we may be causing them a high degree of emotional panic and causing long-lasting trauma. It may absolutely work to keep dogs close to us on walks but the consequences to our relationship and also to our wider life can be devastating. Do we really want our dogs to panic every time we go out of view?
Forgetting, attention and object permanence
Losing things is not related to object permanence. Not being able to pay attention to objects or tasks for long periods of time is also unrelated to object permanence.
There’s a myth out there that people with ADHD don’t have a sense of object permanence. This really is a huge myth. It’s really important as we begin to understand canine cognition and how dogs’ attention works that we don’t confuse all these terms, labelling a dog as an ADHD dog because items don’t keep their attention for very long or they are easily distracted.
Object permanence and forgetting are two entirely different things.
Just because a dog forgets where they left their favourite toy does not mean they think their toy ceased to exist. You’ll see shortly a video in which my spaniel Tilly shows she has object permanence. She forgot where the object was for a while (3 days!), but even though she couldn’t see it, she still knew it existed.
It sounds completely trivial to us humans who don’t even really think about what a complex cognitive skill object permanence is, but we should remember it’s actually pretty amazing.
It takes a lot of brain stuff to happen to even have a sense that things still exist even if you can’t smell, hear or see them. It involves having symbolic thoughts and all kinds of complex cognitive processes that are pretty mindblowing when you really think about it. We couldn’t have search and rescue dogs or detection dogs without dogs having a sense of object permanence and understanding that intensity of odour relates to the closeness of the object, for example. That’s some heavy duty cognition.
Just to be able to understand that objects that have historically been hidden in one place and compensate for that is a complex skill. Sometimes, we have literally no idea how hard the things we are asking of our dogs actually are. To be able to compensate for the various different places in which objects have previously been hidden and overcome your past learning history, ignoring where you previously had success, is a high level skill and one we ask of all dogs in detection and rescue work, for example.
When does object permanence develop?
As you’ve read, object permanence in children develops anywhere between 3 months and 2 years.
Here’s a man torturing his young child in the name of science.
As you can see, the baby has no idea where the cucumber is, and will probably grow up with some trauma about his cruel father who has made a YouTube video instead of helping him get his needs met. I’m only kidding. Luckily young children’s brains are inoculated to traumas such as these and we can certainly appreciate the child’s surprise that the cucumber appears as if by magic.
Object permanence is difficult to truly understand in dogs because of the fact humans don’t have particularly good olfactory skills. However, you can understand why it’d be important for a wolf to know that a deer that’s just hiding is still there, or a beaver that’s gone into his den is still there. It’s not magically disappeared because it’s out of view. Literally all your dinner would be able to trick you simply by disappearing out of sight.
Kind of, ‘Oh no! I was chasing a deer and now it’s gone! No dinner for me tonight!’
Of course, wolves, like dogs, can still smell prey so they know it’s still there. That makes it harder for humans to understand object permanence in dogs and when it truly develops. We need to make our science experiments harder because even very young dogs are are more skilled than the baby simply because of their more complex olfactory skills. You couldn’t fake out a dog in the same way because the dog can still smell the cucumber even though its hidden under the coconut. Even so, unless we understand canine cognition better, we still might be giving frustrating and even impossible ‘enrichment’ tasks to our puppies who don’t understand that the food or toy is still there.
I’ve seen a lot of videos on social media where puppies are given food enrichment tasks, for example, that requires them to understand that hidden things still exist. Of course, the puppies aren’t very interested in the task then. They also don’t know what to do. We need to be careful even with tasks like this that we are not making it too hard and that we scaffold such activities to support development.
When does object permanence develop in dogs?
Object permanence develops in stages.
Visual tracking of objects is one part of this. Search skills are also a part of it.
Visual tracking develops first and there is some evidence that this differs between different breeds and also between wolves and dogs.
After a puppy learns to visually track an item, they will then be able to begin searching for it as their bodies develop.
Next, they’ll learn to track partially hidden objectswhen they’d begun the tracking before the object was hidden.
For instance, if you’d begun to move away from a very young puppy, the next stage of development of object permanence would be that they could find you as long as they had already begun tracking you before you disappeared and hid.
The next developmental stage of object permanence is when the dog could find you even though you’d disappeared from view when they weren’t tracking you in the first place.
The next stage of development is in being able to find you when they expect to find you where you left.
You can see that a lot of dogs in this video are at that stage. It violates their expectations that their guardian is not in the same place they were when they left. Perhaps they understand their guardian didn’t cease to exist, so they understand that objects are permanent. Even so, not all of them have reached the next developmental milestone of going to investigate other places their guardian might be. I did this to my dogs. They didn’t care a single bit. Perhaps this is simply because they have a sense that I’m permanent even if I disappeared.
The Frenchie at a minute in has object permanence but hasn’t moved on developmentally, where the Golden retriever at 1.15 isn’t that surprised and goes to check out where their guardian has gone. In fact, the Frenchie actually investigates the blanket, not the doorway. The Golden is surprised but then investigates alternatives.
Sometimes, when I’m at the park and Lidy is on the far side, she’ll look up and look for me. If I stand really still, I know she can’t see me especially if I’m upwind of her. 600m is a stretch when things aren’t moving and the air currents are not in your favour. However, I can see her looking for me. That she’s even looking for me when she can’t see me depends on her skills of understanding that there’s something permanent about me even if she can’t see or hear me. I bet most of us haven’t even thought about what a big chunk of advanced cognition that is. We might expect, though, that a younger dog would panic if they couldn’t see us.
The Golden in the video is a good example of the development of object permanence. Looking for the guardian is a step up from simple object permanence. That’s also understanding that the human hasn’t simply disappeared and they’re not hidden under the blanket, but that they might actually be somewhere else you can’t see. Clever golden retriever!
You’ll also see a bemused cat in the video too. This actually highlights an interesting finding in Gagnon and Doré (1994) which is that dogs may have slightly more developed cognitive processes than cats where object permanence is concerned.
However, no research exists exploring heritability of object permanence as a trait, comparing it to behaviour of wolves and studying behaviour across breeds.
It may be that understanding things you can’t see are still there and that they might not be where you last saw them, able to make a cognitive leap and predict where they now might reasonably be may have had importance in human selection for canine behaviour in certain types of dog.
This is not an unreasonable thing to think since puppies’ eyes open at different points on average.
Of the five breeds studied by Scott and Fuller, 94% of the beagles and the cocker spaniels had their eyes open at 14 days, compared to only 31% of shelties and 11% of terriers.
They found the day on which eyes opened was heritable, meaning that some spaniels and beagles had their eyes open a full week longer than terriers. The opening of the eyes is the first developmental change as puppies move into the critical development period, and clearly that it earlier in some breeds than in others, giving them a developmental head-start.
I’m sure it seems completely trivial to most of us that dogs have this skill. Every morning, I hide one of Heston’s toys and ask him to find it while I get dressed and prepare to take him out. The fact that he can do this shows he has the cognitive ability to understand object permanence: just because he can’t see it doesn’t mean that it has ceased to exist. The fact that he continues looking for his toy shows a high level of skill, not just in the development of his object permanence processes. It also shows other regulatory processes including resilience, persistence and an ability to work productively through frustration.
These are all critical developmental skills.
If you’re interested, by the way, in your dog’s cognitive skills, if you find Triana and Pasnak (1981), you can easily follow their simple tests and find out what level of development your dog’s object permanence is at.
Gagnon and Doré (1994) looked at when these skills emerged, since earlier research had simply looked at skills in adult dogs. What they found was that between eyes opening and 28 days, puppies behaved like the baby with the cucumber: out of sight meant the object had ceased to exist. Objects were not permanent for 4-week-old puppies.
At 5 weeks, puppies could track and find partially hidden items though if something distracted them in that process, they couldn’t find the item.
Puppies could only find completely hidden items at 6 weeks, but only if they started looking before the item was completely hidden.
By 8 weeks, puppies could find completely hidden items that had been hidden while they were distracted. From here, their development was relatively stable and most dogs, like the ones in the video where people disappear from behind the sheet, don’t understand that an item or person hidden in one place might actually be somewhere else.
However, at 12 months, research showed that dogs could manage to find hidden items that were in unexpectedly surprising locations (ie they weren’t using odour to track it) as long as they’d had experience doing so. Maybe the golden retriever in the video has just had an environment where he’d been asked to solve problems and work things out?
What the research showed about the way that object permanence develops in dogs is that there wasn’t much change between what they knew at 8 weeks and what they knew at 7 months. Around 8 months to a year, in the right environment, dogs began to pick up more complex cognitive skills.
It’s as if a final block of development comes online during adolescence. The foundations were established by 8 weeks, but the final blocks came into play much later. This has profound implications about the complexity of tasks we ask young dogs to complete.
The significance of these skills
The significance of these skills is simply to serve as a great example of just how much we expect of young puppies; I was hiding relatively odourless things for Heston and asking him to find them way before he hit a year old and really that was too complex for him. I could have caused him a lot of frustration. I was expecting a 10-week-old puppy to do things that were beyond the grasp of 10-month-old human babies with their enormous cognitive brains.
We ask a lot of young dogs.
We also see that there is a hiatus between 8 weeks, when they’ve got the rudimentary big blocks of learning and their understanding by a year. Wolves, of course, stay with the family group to this age and this makes sense because they perhaps wouldn’t yet have the cognitive skills to help them survive and thrive where predation is concerned. Puppies, of course, generally rely on humans to feed them.
This has very important implications for the kind of food enrichment tasks we give to dogs younger than a year. Of course, food is smelly and we make it easy enough, but if you’re putting biscuits that don’t smell much of anything in a ball pit that smells hugely of plastic, don’t expect the puppy to be able to cope easily.
It also has implications for why we shouldn’t be teaching recall by hiding from our young dogs.
Object permanence also has relevance for puppies in terms of separation anxiety and also stranger anxiety. From 5 weeks onwards, puppies understand that you are absent when they can’t see you and may struggle to cope with that. Since the evidence about the development of object permanence in puppies suggests they’re fully ‘online’ by a year, it may be that we need to approach our puppy programmes for separation much more cautiously. Any trainer that tells you to leave a crying puppy simply does not understand that you are likely to cause permanent trauma. We need to be working on helping young dogs cope with separation on a gradual, safe and progressive programme, not freaking them out. Expecting them to cope is to completely misunderstand puppy development and capacity.
This is also going to be true from 5 weeks onwards to a year where puppies are going to need support to help them cope with their anxiety about strangers. Since object permanence is linked to separation and stranger anxiety in human infants, and since object permanence in puppies develops in the same way as it does in human infants, we should expect that, since dogs are also social mammals, these three regulatory processes no doubt echo each other. However, Gagnon and Doré’s work suggests that development is quicker for puppies at the beginning, as they reach milestones at 8 weeks that human infants only reach at 8 months, and then it is slower, where puppies only reach milestones at a year that human children reach proportionately more quickly. Perhaps the most important stage in which puppies develop coping skills to handle both separation and strangers will be the 5-8 week one. This, of course, has profound implications for breeders and puppy fosterers.
It’s also important to point out that these processes of object permanence are also tied up in attention, salience and motivation. It’s delicately and finely nuanced, beautifully complex in its finesse.
We fail to appreciate just how complex puppy development of regulatory skills can be. The information we have on puppy development is clear evidence of that. The first developmental period of object permanence in puppies between 5 and 8 weeks coincides with the emergence of the first fear period, and then the second developmental period of these skills between 9-12 months coincides with what tentative evidence we have about the emergence of the secondary fear period.
This supports the notion that we need to approach canine adolescence more thoughtfully as well as being gentler with our young puppies. We need to be more realistic in our expectations and more careful in how we scaffold activities to help puppies cope with the absence of their social group.
Expecting young dogs to have the skills to cope with what you’re asking may well go against their cognitive capacity for their age and developmental stage.
It also gives us a good insight into just how smart some of our dogs are. This my little cocker Tilly, a dog I’d always considered to be of very little brain.
She would quite often guard bones and the likes. I would distract her and hide the offending item, often putting it on the mantlepiece and then moving it when she wasn’t looking. Sometimes, she would see me put it on the mantlepiece. Here, I’d put something on the mantlepiece days before and then thrown it away. There can’t have been much residual smell, if any.
Yet not only is she telling me quite categorically that she’s recalled after 3 days where her bone went to, but she also enlists my help in getting it because she can’t. That’s some advanced cognition! At 0.58 and 1.01, she looks right to where she thinks the hidden object is (3 days after it had been removed and forgotten about!)
Worse still is her anxious glances towards the bigger dogs who a big part of me thinks she suspects might steal it. Sometimes, when we’re working with dogs who guard resources, as Tilly did before she arrived with me, it can be tempting to think there was ‘nothing there’ – what if there *had* been something there, just days earlier?! Our beliefs that dogs don’t have the cognitive skills to do this may very well get in the way of understanding the problem. What if, when dogs seem to be guarding the invisible, they’re really guarding what they think is a hidden item obscured from view?
We write off canine cognitive processes as more simple than ours, but Tilly clearly believed the missing bone really was on the mantlepiece. If that’s not object permanence at work, I don’t know what is. I always had to lift her up and physically put her on the mantlepiece. Even so, Tilly is no Lassie: her behaviour is still egocentric. That’s her bone up there she wants. I’m not sure she’d come and tell me a boy was down a well. That’s a cognitive leap too far. Also, she hadn’t got the next level of development that humans often go on to reach but dogs usually do not: the idea that things that disappear in one place might be somewhere else instead.
We’re only at the beginning of our journey to understand when and how and why these skills develop in humans, let alone in dogs. What we do know is that they’re intricately entwined in other developmental processes and we need to remember that our young dogs might not have the cognitive capacity to do what we’re asking yet.
As their caregivers, we need to support our puppy’s development in a consistent, calm, kind and gentle way, understanding what they are capable of, what they need support to learn and what is beyond their grasp.
We also need to support them and scaffold their learning, understanding their limitations and their capabilities, remembering that cognitive development is taught not caught. Dogs don’t learn by accident or genes: they learn because they’re in the right environment with the right support to do so.
In the next post, I’ll be looking at other aspects of physiological, behavioural, emotional, social and cognitive regulation in dogs as we work towards considering ways in which we can support dogs in their development.
In short, given what studies like that of Gagnon and Doré tell us, a little bit of consideration of what puppies and juvenile dogs are actually capable of wouldn’t go amiss. Dialling back our expectations and being realistic about dogs’ learning will certainly help. If you wouldn’t expect a toddler to help you solve mysteries fit for Sherlock Holmes, don’t expect your young dog to either.
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In the last six months or so, there’s been an increasing amount of talk in the dog world about emotional regulation in dogs.
It’s not a term that many people have really sat down and thought about. As a result, it runs the risk of being just another buzzword. Some trainers have already started using it as a synonym for impulse control. This seems to be because they don’t like to use the word ‘control’, perhaps because it smacks of coercion and force. This is sad because they’re just dressing up fairly coercive practice in buzzwords, hoping that they’ll somehow magically become more positive.
Other trainers have jumped on this trendy buzzword and taken it to mean things like dogs learning rule structures and complying with human requests or commands. Sitting nicely and being calm or coping in a crate for hours on end are sometimes erroneously taken to be examples of how dog trainers are ‘teaching’ dogs self-regulation strategies. This is not teaching puppies how to regulate their emotions: it is using control to manage developing animals and ignoring their needs.
If you’re a dog trainer starting to throw this term into your work, have a read of this before you go any further. If you’re a guardian, this article should help you understand this crucial skill for dogs.
Emotional regulation in animals is actually not that well defined. It’s been relatively well defined in children in recent years and it’s no doubt the fact that it is the latest buzzword in Early Years education in the UK that’s driving dog trainers to pick up on the trend. For that reason, I’ve been picking the brains of my former colleagues in Early Years training in the UK to help me get my head around it. We were ably assisted by a post-doc educator who teaches through opening up her students’ eyes to the world around us and who could help translate a concept meant for human development into more general principles about other species. I have to say that as a result of these weekly conversations, my mind has well and truly been blown. Humans are such a young species: we could do with watching and listening the world around us a little more, that’s for sure!
So what is regulation? Self-regulation is an individual’s ability to moderate their own energy levels, emotions, behaviours and attention in ways that are socially acceptable.
What might that look like in dogs?
Managing energy levels
One thing is knowing when you’re tired and you need to put yourself to bed. My boy Heston has always been very good at putting himself to bed in the bedroom when he’s had enough. Around about 7pm, he wanders off to the bedroom and puts himself to bed.
Another way might be a dog who interrupts play. We can’t know that dogs consciously interrupt play because things are getting too much. But we do see dogs self-interrupting when things get a little too arousing.
I’m going to share here one of my favourite videos of Heston with a young puppy. She was 8 weeks old. I’d had to separate her from her siblings because she was not able to interrupt her play and manage her energy levels. She was biting her siblings very hard. They were squealing and it was becoming more and more intense. Here, she’s playing with Heston who knows how to help her manage her energy levels without letting her get too over-aroused:
What you can see is that as she gets more intense, Heston stops play politely, gets up and disengages.
What he’s doing, in other words, is managing his own energy levels. In fact, I’d argue that just like any good uncle, he’s helping her learn to manage her emotions as well. It is one of his most magnificent skills.
Self-regulation is also about managing our own emotions. This is where it gets complex for dogs because the first step of managing your emotions is recognising that you’re having them and then taking steps to acknowledge them, accept them and decide whether or not to behave as they’re directing you to.
Let’s just be clear: humans are not very good at this all the time. Young children are not very good at this. Tantrums are a perfectly normal example of how difficult it can be to manage your emotions. Teenagers are also not particularly good at this. I’m reminded of that scene in The Lost Boys where, when Jason Patric sees Jami Gertz and starts following her through the fair, Corey Haim playing his younger brother badgers him into admitting he’s chasing her: ‘I’m at the mercy of your sex glands, bud!’
Also, given the current state of social media, adult humans are also not particularly good at managing their emotions either. Recognising what’s pushing your buttons, what’s driving you and then managing it seems to be beyond a whole heap of people.
Is now a good time to admit I’m on a 12-hour temporary Twitter ban for calling an MP a made-up rude word?
None of us are angels on that score, I bet.
It’s tough to know whether dogs recognise their own emotions. As ethologist Frans de Waal might remind us, it’s very hard to test whether they do.
As my educator friend would say, though: What Do You See?
Well, I see dogs who moderate their bites in anger ALL the time.
Not a day goes by when I don’t work with dogs who have bitten. That’s my speciality. One of the hardest things for guardians to accept is that there was actually a whole heap of emotional management in the bite. Even dogs who fight usually exhibit a whole heap of restraint. That restraint is my evidence of emotional management. Inhibition is a very good indicator that animals are regulating their emotions. Whenever you see a dog inhibit their response, that for me is evidence that they can and do regulate their emotions.
Just as an example, Lidy doesn’t particularly like it if she’s resting and I touch her foot by accident or I move a bit. She usually hops off the couch, jumps back on again and repositions herself further away. For me, what I see is a dog who is irritated by my clumsy behaviour and who, instead of biting me in the face and killing me, chooses to get up, reposition herself and de-escalate the situation. My emotional dog handling her emotions a whole lot better than many of us on social media….
Physiology, emotions and behaviour are a big, tangled knot. They are each other. Physiology is behaviour and behaviour is physiology. It’s a bit difficult to separate out those three concepts from each other.
That’s why in managing her irritation, my dog Lidy then manages her own behaviour.
We see this all the time in restraint and behavioural inhibition.
A fairly regular occurrence in my house is that Heston will spend 7pm onwards stretched out on my bed. When Lidy and I go to bed, he’ll often get off the bed and go in his own bed. Sometimes, however, he stays on the bed. He’s a pretty big dog and my bed is small. Lidy alters her behaviour around him. Usually, if he’s not on the bed, she’ll jump right up and lie down. There’s plenty of energy in her jump and she usually does it the moment we go into the bedroom.
Yet if Heston is on the bed, she’ll usually sit and wait. She’ll look at him patiently, look at the space left, look again, stand up, put her front paws up tentatively, sit back down again, maybe stand up and turn in a circle. Only when she can see that a) he isn’t going to move and give her the whole bed and b) he’s not going to have any issue letting her up will she then hop onto the bed. It’s a beautiful, communicative dance.
He does the same back to her if she is on the couch and he wants to get up. He’s so tentative and restrained. Whenever dogs manage themselves in turn-taking, they are regulating their behaviour.
When my friend asks What Do You See? I see dogs modulating and modifying the intensity of their behaviour.
Another feature of self-regulation is managing your attention. One thing that is fairly common in Early Years scenarios is that young children find it hard to focus their attention in distracting environments. As we grow up, we sometimes get better at doing this, but it very much depends on the intensity of those distractions. I find it very hard, for instance, when there are significant events happening around the world not to check in on news sites regularly. I find it hard to manage where my attention goes if I’m hungry or if I’m tired. If the topic hasn’t truly grabbed me, I find it hard to keep paying attention to it. I’m supposed to be writing some stuff about learning and memory right now but it’s not as interesting as this regulation butterfly I’m chasing, so here I am.
We ask dogs to manage their attention all the time. That can be hard as it involves complex cognitive processes such as executive function and working memory. Have you ever thought for a single second how hard it is for assistance dogs and service dogs and working dogs to *not* go off and do this:
Managing our attention means being able to prioritise. It means being able to manage multiple tasks and do a number of things at the same time. It means decision making. It also means being able to ignore things and turn off distractions.
About emotional regulation
So far, I’ve been writing about self-regulation, something that Early Years educators expect young children to be in the process of acquiring if they fit average human age + stage developmental milestones. It’s not something we’re born with. Nor is it one-size-fits-all.
A very large number of humans do not fit this ‘average’ mould as children or as grown-ups.
What’s hard is seeing just how many humans expect dogs to be able to manage their energy levels, emotions, behaviour and attention to higher standards than we expect of our own species. You know, the species with the large bits of the brain dedicated to helping us regulate ourselves.
It’s also really, really hard to see just how many humans expect very young dogs to simply know how to self-regulate.
We’re not born with the ability to regulate ourselves. Neither are puppies. Regulation is a developmental process if our bodies conform to some kind of average. It’s frequently thrown off course by hormonal changes and neurodevelopmental changes. It’s even thrown off course if we’re tired, stressed or hungry. If you’ve ever clenched your fists because someone was going slowly or you’ve ever thought to yourself, ‘Come on!’ when someone is taking too long at the checkout, you know how very easy it is for our ability to self-regulate to be thrown off course. Yesterday, I spent the day a bit agitated because my socks were too tight and I had a fat hair bobble in because I couldn’t find my skinny hair bobbles and it didn’t hold my hair in place satisfactorily and there may have been hormonal influences at work as well and it was also a bit windy and my couch just didn’t seem comfortable like normal and…
You get the picture.
Dogs’ ability to regulate is developmental as ours is. It is also subject to neurobiological changes, hormonal changes and the effect of the environment around us.
For humans, learning to self-regulate is important. It helps us learn to be resilient, to be tenacious, to cope with frustration, to be patient. It stops us all ending up in prison. It helps us manage stress and protects us from chronic long-term stress. It allows us to make friends, to form attachments, to be empathetic and compassionate.
The same things are true for dogs. Like young children, dogs are natural explorers. They are movers. Their learning is embodied. What that means is that learning things like ‘sit’ aren’t simply cognitive concepts, they are physical. They involve the body. Dogs are active learners. This is especially true of young dogs, whom we often expect to regulate their bladders, their bowels, their vocalisations, their actions, their needs to an incredibly high level at an incredibly young age.
What we need to remember is that babies of all species rely on their parents to regulate for them. Puppies can’t even regulate their own body temperature. As they develop, social mammalian species rely on adults to assist them. This process is called co-regulation and it has much more relevance for our dogs.
Co-regulation occurs as individuals move from dependence to independence. We get support from the social group in order to help manage our energy levels, our emotions, our behaviour and our attention.
How many parents out there are furious at the grandparents for sending home a child hopped up on sugar, a child who hasn’t had their afternoon nap? Young children rely on adults to help them manage their energy levels. Pre-schoolers don’t put themselves to bed when they’re tired, do they? They don’t help themselves from the fridge when they’re hungry? Even if you’re a parent who used structures like baby-led weaning to help your child move to independent food choices, it’s not entirely baby-led, is it? I mean, you don’t let your baby pick out everything they’d like in the supermarket? Which parent lets their child do the shopping? I know some of my friends don’t let their husband do the food shopping! If you give someone a shopping list, that is in itself a form of regulation.
Like young children, young dogs are still learning about their bodies, their likes, their dislikes, things that scare them, things that are fun. They’re learning how to behave.
What we can’t do as responsible, social beings, is leave this entirely up to the puppy. The development of social individuals is a social process. It’s the whole point of parenting for the first few developmental points and then it requires wider social structures. Developing individuals of any social species learn how to make friends, how to accept others, how to resolve conflict successfully. They learn coping strategies that help them deal with disappointment, with frustration or with anger. They learn about their bodies and how to use them. They learn how to care for others and how to enjoy life. They learn to laugh, to relax, to play.
To assume that these just happen is to misunderstand the whole point of being a social species; these skills do not develop in isolation and they are all highly individual. We all have individual developmental needs where the guidance of adults helps make up for our personal deficits and our weaknesses, scaffolding our attempts to become a functioning individual.
As with everything in life, it’s always a fine balance: the balance between prescriptive and permissive guidance, the balance between individual needs and societal expectations, the balance between immediate and delayed gratification. It’s our job as trainers and as guardians to help our dogs with this, not expect them as if by some universal magic to develop these skills without familial and social support.
In the next few posts, we’ll be looking at puppy development and behaviour. We’ll look at developmental transitions. We’ll consider what happens when regulation fails. We’ll alsco consider ways in which we can help our dogs learn the skills they need to be members of their own species as well as members of interspecies social groups. We’ll explore the importance of predictable, consistent routines and clear boundaries for emotional security and safety, as well as ways we can create environments in which our dogs can flourish. All this will mean listening to our dogs’ needs, acknowledging their feelings and valuing them as individuals as well as creating a supportive environment in which they can flourish.
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Some of the hardest cases to resolve are those that involve fights between dogs in the home. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the occasional growl or appropriate discussions between dogs here; today, I’m discussing the kind of fights that end up with dogs being taken to the vet. These cases often have the worst prognosis simply because the dogs may need to be heavily managed and also because, unfortunately, many guardians wait until it’s too late to get in touch with a qualified professional.
This is worsened by the old-fashioned view that dogs need to have a fight to sort things out. This is simply wrong. For some dogs I’ve worked with, the single fight has been the fight that killed them. So let’s not continue to perpetuate myths that dogs need to have a fight. This view is often tied up with ideas about pecking orders and hierarchies. I’m not going to go into detail about how complex, nuanced and complicated canine relationships are, suffice to say that what we know suggests that rank and status are given, not taken. That’s to say where a pair of dogs do show unidirectional behaviours which are typically understood to be those of dominance or submission, status is not earned by thrashing your subordinates. Status is given because you’re affiliative. Anyone telling you within five minutes that your dogs are fighting to sort out a pecking order and it’s all about rank isn’t qualified to work with your dogs. Please do not take their advice if they recommend you support one dog or another, or that you punish behaviours. These usually increase aggression, not decrease it.
All this said, surprisingly little is actually known about fights in the home. There have been two studies that cover this. The first is Sherman, Reisner, Taliaferro and Houpt (1996). They looked at 99 case studies from 1983 – 1993. While they didn’t discriminate between dogs who’d just been put together and dogs who’d lived longer together, most of their findings will resonate with what I’m going to discuss further – particularly one trigger which they categorised as ‘excitement’ where 51 of the 78 dogs who’d fought in the home did so in whatever we might unpick from that label. I think that’s my most significant take away from this paper.
The other study is a 2011 study from Wrubel, Moon-Fanelli, Mananda and Dodman. They looked at 38 cases that came to the behaviour clinic in a year.
Because of the sparsity of studies or any academic literature whatsoever, I decided to look at my own case history for the last eight years and to identify key features of the situations. I picked out 100 cases where the dogs had lived together for more than 6 months. I don’t think it’s fair to say that dogs who fight the first time they meet or in the first few days are really familiar with each other. Most of the dogs I work with where there is very severe injury or where one dog has killed another have actually lived with each other for a relatively long period of time.
Both of the published papers are very interesting, but I didn’t feel like they gave us the whole picture. It certainly gave me numbers to confirm or question. Sherman et al. found breed links in their 78 cases, where toy breeds and gundogs were less likely to engage in household conflict, and herding and working breeds more likely. This certainly isn’t replicated in my work, where some of the worst injuries I’ve seen have been between Asiatic breeds and spaniels, as well as terriers of all sizes. No dog breeds were exempt from causing injury and no dog breeds were frequently targeted.
There were other aspects of their paper that I did find to be true in my own case histories, though. They found same-sex pairings much more likely, with females more likely to be involved in in-home fighting. In my 100 cases, I only had two cases of intersex aggression where the fights had ended with one dog going to the vet. They also found that 42 of the 73 instigators were younger, the average age was 4.2 – so these are not babies squabbling – and 43 of the 73 were more recent arrivals in the home. That’s not to say they’d just arrived, but that they’d had less time in the home. My own case studies were more nuanced than this.
Wrubel et al. really consolidated these early findings, bar one or two points, just as my own case history does. They differentiated helpfully between date of onset and date of arrival at the behaviour clinic. The average onset was 36 months – so right on the cusp of social maturity for many dogs – and that the younger dog was often the instigator. The late onset of fighting may suggest then that social maturity is a key factor rather than sexual maturity.
I found there were two age clusters in same-sex injurious fighting. The first cluster happened where an older dog significantly harms a younger dog. The older dog is usually older than 2 years; the younger dog is between 7-11 months. In these situations, the older dog can’t necessarily be said to be the instigator. The younger dog has been engaged in ebullient or exuberant behaviour at times of high energy, such as when guardians return home, when it’s mealtime, when guests arrive. The older dog will often, and with little apparent warning to the guardians, rush over and attack the younger dog. This happens when the younger dog is coming to sexual maturity, and it didn’t matter if the dogs were sterilised or not. There’s often a similar history: a fairly relaxed home where the younger dog hasn’t had much by way of obedience training, and the relationship between the two dogs has been left to them to manage. The older dog has usually been engaged in ‘policing’ or ‘schooling’ the younger dog for some time, often using their bodies to corral or block the younger dog, in the absence of guardian intervention. There haven’t been any fights because the younger dog has always acquiesced, but even so, the behaviour has not decreased. Then, in a hotspot or at a flashpoint, the older dog seems to lose all inhibition and escalates. Many of the wounds are to the head and neck.
The second cluster happens nearer to the two published studies’ average age, when the dogs reach social maturity. In wolves, sexual maturity is often the point at which adult wolves will disperse, or be forced to disperse, from the family group. They reach social maturity long before that. For dogs, the big changes relate to reproduction: they reach sexual maturity when they are still socially immature (kind of a bit like humans!) and it seems to be as the younger dog reaches social maturity that the major problems occur. In these cases, it’s often the older dog that is sent to the vet, and it is also the older dog who instigates the fight. Again, there is a history where the younger dog has been repeatedly ‘policed’ or ‘schooled’ by the older dog, where the older dog has used their body to cut off the younger dog, to block the younger dog or to manage the younger dog. What’s different is that even though these fights also tend to happen in hotspots at flashpoints in the day, the younger dog is relatively well-mannered. Remember, free-ranging dogs and wolves might naturally disperse if they were being threatened by another individual, and dogs in the home can’t do that, so there are issues here about how we manage that. That said, anyone who tells you that free-ranging dogs don’t fight within their group probably hasn’t looked at a lot of footage. Fights do happen, and we have no data to say how that compares to dogs who live their lives fully restrained by fences, gates, walls and doors. If I had to assign any kind of motivation to these fights, it’d be a younger dog who has tolerated antisocial or harassing behaviours from an older dog for a long period of time and then just gets to the end of their tether.
A third common factor often relates to the health and role of peacekeepers. In France, it’s not unusual for many people to have more than one dog, unlike the UK. We should always ask about dogs who were not involved in the fight and what their role is. It’s not unusual, although it’s not very common, to find that an older dog has been playing peacekeeper between two dogs who really don’t seem to have a smooth relationship, but when their health changes and they aren’t keeping the peace, fights break out. You can see why people might interpret this as something to do with a pecking order and make up fictions about how the two younger dogs are fighting to be top dog. It’s not the case, but we do need to realise that sex hormones are important, otherwise the fights would be random between sexes and they are not, and that age is also important, otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing these repeated patterns of behaviour across families. In my opinion, these two factors are much more important than breed.
While we may think that dogs who guard resources like food or toys, or who have trouble accepting other dogs in their space when they are resting or being petted, are probably the issue, this isn’t often the case. These situations can often be managed relatively easily in my experience, as long as we know what’s causing it. Sensible dogs who have good canine codes will always be aware of the situation. Just as an example, my two current dogs have never, ever fought. There are occasional growls both ways, but Heston has such wonderful understanding of other dogs that he is always respectful. For example, if Lidy is on his preferred couch and not on her own, and he wants to get up there, he stands looking at her for a couple of minutes and then gingerly, with such care and caution, he gets up very slowly when he can see she is watching him. One of my DoGenius students sent me a wonderful video of an elderly female dog who had a bone and a younger male terrier who wanted it. He let her know he’d really like it, without being obnoxious (okay, a little, as only socially immature individuals can be!) and she relinquished it. My favourite moment was just how slowly she relinquished it and just how slowly the terrier went in to get it. Both are examples of how dogs are aware of what the other will find offensive and how they moderate their own behaviour so as not to cross the line. I always feed my two in different rooms if possible, and if Lidy hasn’t quite finished, or Heston hasn’t quite finished, both will wait patiently until the other has got up and moved away.
We can always manage our dogs by teaching them moderation around other dogs or by giving them clearly defined spaces. Never, ever have I let a dog go and stick their face in the bowl of another, for example. Never expect dogs to just be naturally polite. I grew up with siblings and, out of the view of our parents, any goodies on our plates were fair game unless we protected them. My brother still has the scars from where I stabbed him with a fork. There’s a lot of talk about ‘self-regulation’ in the dog world at the moment, mostly from people who don’t really understand it and use it as a more politically correct version of ‘impulse control’. For reasons I don’t quite understand, teaching dogs to control themselves seems to be going out of fashion, mainly for the same reasons that I don’t like leaving dogs to police the behaviour of younger, more exuberant dogs, I guess. Because teaching impulse control perhaps smacks of coercion, it’s fading out of fashion and some dog trainers are now calling it ‘self-regulation’. It’s not, and they’re different, and we’ll get into that in the next post, but co-regulation is a thing and we perhaps need to be remembering that we don’t expect human children to self-regulate without scaffolding their attempts through co-regulation first. More on that to follow, I promise! Needless to say, since I know Lidy finds it hard to let Heston jump into the car after her and she’ll often growl at him perhaps because he’s exuberant and excited by the car, and it takes a bit of energy for him to hop up these days, she goes in second. He gets in first because he has no problem with her hopping in after him, and she goes second. If I had to explain it, I’d say she probably is afraid he’ll bounce her. He won’t, but her growl reminds him not to. I’m sure someone else would explain it as her guarding her space, so you can see why I’m not a fan of explanatory fictions. I don’t know why she growls if she goes in first: she just does. This is resolved by her going in second. Whatever the cause, the solution is the same.
Resources, space and access to human attention were three relatively common triggers across the two published studies and my own case history, but all were trumped by what Sherman et al. called ‘excitement’. For me, we need to unpick this a little. In my own case histories, fights often happened in predictable spaces. These spaces were small and narrow, like doorways, windows, under tables, behind chairs, in corridors, on landings, in hallways, at gates, in cars or at fence-lines. I know it feels a bit ridiculous to think that a fence-line if it opens onto a 4-acre garden is a ‘small and narrow’ space, but the fence acts as an invisible magnet in many cases. I call these places hotspots.
Coupled with these hotspots, a flashpointis a change of energy or emotion, or the introduction of an environmental change. For some dogs, that could be someone walking past outside the window, or their guardian returning home. It could be guests arriving, or doorbells ringing. It could be cars going past or the excitement of going on a walk. Sometimes, it’s something as trivial as a guardian standing up. I’ve worked with dogs who were sleeping peaceably in their beds until the guardian stood up and then they attacked each other. Managing these flashpoints and hotspots is a key factor in facilitating healthy relationships within the home.
Working with dogs who are fighting in the home is far too complex to discuss in a short article such as this, and it’s incredibly individualised. It’s about the dynamic between the dogs and the relationship they have with their guardian. It’s fuelled by hormones and social bonds. That said, good management and support from the humans can avoid dogs having to sort it out for themselves, particularly where the stakes are high. It’s not a solution, but it can be preventative. We need to be mindful of those hotspots and flashpoints, as well as resources, space and human attention.
You may have noticed my absence over the past couple of months… I’ve been working on two things and I’m so very thrilled to be getting to the point where I can share them.
The first has been working with a team of Early Years specialists in the UK, colleagues from another lifetime, on understanding what we know about regulation in young children. We had the privilege of working with an educator whose work defies categorisation and labelling but she works with young children to help them learn from the world around them, from fungi and plants to other human beings. I’ll be posting some things about that work on emotional co-regulation and how it might relate to dogs over the coming weeks.
I’ve also started work on a project I’ll be launching in August that builds on this. I’m hugely excited by this, I have to say. It started off as a book but it got too big and too readerly, so it’ll be an ongoing blended project that I hope will bring a joyful, energising and inspiring twist to our work with dogs who are struggling to adapt to our modern world. Lighten Up Dog Training feels like the beginning of something very fresh and also very important. I work so often with dogs who are struggling to cope emotionally. Be it predatory impulses, lack of behavioural inhibition, poor social skills, fractured or fraught relationships, anxiety, fearfulness or frustration that often culminate in all kinds of maladaptive behaviour, having spent eight years specialising in improving the lives of dogs like these, I feel ready to share. Or, at least, I will be by September. I’m in the final stages of putting everything together, but it will be truly multimodal with dedicated troll-free chat groups, live sessions, coaching, technical guides, vidoes, How To sheets and case studies. Yes, it’s massive. Yes, it scares me! Yes, it’ll be HIGH quality and cheap as chips. Some bits and pieces will be going out before the big launch in September, so feel free to share if you see them and you value them!
It also means that I’ll be able to keep Woof Like To Meet open to support rescue dogs and rehomed dogs as I originally intended it.
I’ll be sharing stuff over the next five months in anticipation of the big launch so keep your eyes open!
Don’t forget you can also buy a copy of my bookClient-Centred Dog Training if you’re a dog trainer looking to improve your relationship with your clients and improve your results. I have it on good authority that it’s not too bad at all.
In the past three posts, I’ve been taking you through some ways that you can use free work. Sarah Fisher championed the use of free work in her animal-centred education. Although it has many uses in terms of exploring preferences and posture in dogs, helping veterinarians, physiotherapists and chiropractors consider the role of undiagnosed musculoskeletal issues in the way dogs move, it is also useful from a behaviour perspective.
Free work can be used retrospectively, once patterns of behaviours have emerged. It can be used as part of a programme to help frustrated dogs learn to cope without immediate gratification and it can smooth the edges off the negative feelings they have. It teaches them to persevere and it builds resilience.
Free work can also be used retrospectively with noise sensitivity, helping desensitise dogs to noises. For dogs who are nervous around things that make noise, you can use free work to build in control and safety so that the dog feels comfortable exploring situations that might make noise.
Wouldn’t it be great if free work could be used proactively though? Couldn’t we use free work to teach puppies how to build the skills they will need to cope with life right from the beginning?
Free work can be an incredibly useful add-on for puppy guardians and puppy classes. It can help build crucial life skills that help them cope with absence, that foster independence and that build optimism, tenacity and resilience whilst helping puppies learn how to cope with disappointment, delay and distraction.
It can be used to help them learn to cope with absence and to structure the young dog as they learn to be independent. It can help them learn how to navigate the world without fearfulness or nervousness.
It also teaches the guardian about their puppy. It helps us understand the things our dogs like and the things they don’t. It helps us identify where the puppy will need more support whilst helping them learn. Especially where young puppies are concerned, we shouldn’t be thinking about self-regulation and self-management. Co-regulation, where the guardian scaffolds the puppy’s engagement with the environment and provides structured support as they begin to learn how to self-modulate, is arguably the most important role for a guardian. Certainly, using free work with litters that are still with the breeder or fosterer from 3 weeks to 8 weeks and beyond can help us understand the emerging personalities of young puppies, matching them with the right home, supporting where necessary and helping build behaviours to ensure puppies have the skills to cope with life.
Short, structured bursts of carefully thought-out free work can be central to the development of puppy skills.
#1 Teaching the guardian to observe more
It goes without saying that all free work should be actively supervised. Free work is not a babysitter. The point of free work is for the guardian to gather information and to spend time learning. As you will know from the first post, we can learn about our puppy’s preferences, about the choices they make, about the things the puppy chooses to engage with.
Since puppy development happens in such a short period, it can be easy to miss the genesis of behaviours that will become increasingly problematic, like guarding resources, destruction, frustration or noise sensitivity. Just in one session, the new puppy guardian might be able to see that their puppy struggles to engage with any part of the session and that, potentially, their puppy might become increasingly dependent on the guardian. Another guardian might be able to see that their puppy gives up quickly and doesn’t seem to persevere.
What we observe, we can address in future sessions. Free work demands that we supervise, so that the puppy doesn’t ingest something they shouldn’t, so it’s an ideal time to sit back and let the puppy talk.
If the puppy needs support and cuing, we can do that, bearing in mind that our next session should be simpler.
You wouldn’t think that people need a reason to sit and watch their dogs, but they do. Prompting them to do so and to make videos of sessions helps build up those crucial observation skills that will help us navigate tricky moments in the future.
#2 Scaffolding interruption
The bane of any puppy class is the puppy who won’t or can’t disengage. Some puppy class trainers scaffold the session to avoid this problem, giving puppies a bit of free time at the end of the session to play and leaving it to guardians to interrupt the session, often physically by removing the puppy by coercion.
While managing puppy classes in this way avoids the embarrassment of the tenacious puppy who wants to play and can’t cope when not allowed, it’s a bit of a cheat. What can guardians need more from us than knowing how to interrupt their puppy at the most exciting moment? What can be more important than teaching puppies to cope with the frustrations that come from not getting what they want either temporarily or more permanently? And what can be more important than showing guardians how to manage puppy arousal without relying on coercion?
I can’t think of more important skills.
Sure, there will be those who say, ‘Oh they’re puppies! Let them play!’ or ‘They’re puppies. They can’t cope with this yet.’
So how do puppies learn to interrupt?
It doesn’t happen by magic, that puppies have some switch that happens on their 14-week birthday. Just as we would (or should!) with small children, it’s our duty to help puppies learn these skills. I’d argue that enormous damage is caused because guardians think that emotional regulation happens by magic, that it’ll just grow when the time is right.
Go to Wacky Warehouse or TGI Fridays and then tell me if you’re seeing children who know how to stop when they’re getting aroused, or if you’re seeing parents you wish would help their children and actively teach them. Putting the burden of learning complex self-management skills and social skills onto a puppy is laying the groundwork for a problem teenager who’ll need guidance at one of the worst times to learn.
Before you start free work, having some growing automatic behaviours like the Counting Game or Drop from Chirag Patel will help you interrupt your puppy before you need to.
Because ‘Drop!’ is so carefully scaffolded in Chirag’s videos, it helps the puppies build up slowly to the full behaviour without any force or coercion. It also doesn’t rely on notions of trading, which puppies can very quickly learn means the end of fun.
I’d also be looking at interactive play, especially tug, as ways to teach puppies to disengage when asked.
Starting these skills a few days before you plan on more complex free work sessions will ensure you’ve got some habits building that will enable you to interrupt your puppy.
In true free work, you’d only interrupt if the animal was in danger of ingesting something they shouldn’t or if they were struggling. However, if we use free work thoughtfully as part of a teaching package, interrupting the session a few times can also help you build up recall around distractions as well as teaching puppies that they get more for being interrupted on top of what they already had. It’s win-win for them.
#3 Build independence
Many puppies struggle without guardian assistance and they can develop fearfulness around novel items. Free work can be part of a package to help habituate puppies to novelty.
We walk a fine line with puppies as to the right amount of intervention and independence. Puppies who are used to living a completely unsupervised life can end up frustrated and destructive, responsible for their own fun. This generally isn’t a problem until they grow up and then they can’t be left alone because they do as they like. They also respond poorly to both punishment and reinforcement. These are the dogs we end up labelling as bad mannered, pushy, rude and uncooperative. By the time anyone comes along to even attempt to shape these behaviours, they can decide that they really don’t want anyone intervening in their fun. They may become avoidant of humans, if humans attempt to impose structures or rules on them. They may also struggle to build relationships with humans, struggling to build bonds. Sometimes, these dogs go on to develop stereotypies and compulsive behaviours, dependent as they are on meeting their own needs and unused to looking to others for support or comfort. I’m going to stop here before I end up describing myself as this sounds maddeningly like me. Still, my family fostered independence and I do rely on them when I need them. I’m not a complete sociopath.
On the other side, puppies who are completely dependent on us and who have no idea what to do without human guidance to help them. They are unable to cope alone, not knowing what to do. They may be distressed in our absence and never truly develop a sense of themselves. They are reluctant to explore and show little curiosity when their guardian isn’t there. The guardian is not just a safe haven: the bond with the guardian becomes a type of prison from which the puppy is unwilling to stray. In many ways, they remain dependent on their guardian, never truly growing up or developing adult skills.
Thus, guardians are left looking for the ‘Goldilocks’ level of independence and attachment to others: not too much independence that the dog isn’t interested in anything the human has to offer, and not too strong an attachment that the dog can’t cope without them. I think, coming back to the fiercely independent description earlier that verged on having me as its poster girl, my family fostered that independence and confidence. They got the Goldilocks bit almost right… I rely on social support when I need to. I guess this is what we hope our teaching of our puppies is like: they rely on social support when they need it, but they’re confident and independent on the whole.
Free work for puppies can help scaffold independence, encouraging puppies to explore, but also providing a safe and risk-free environment in which to do that. It teaches dogs confidence, but it also gives them parameters that are established by the guardian.
#4 Develop self-occupation skills
Many young dogs have little idea of what to do when left alone and not given specific occupation. I think of myself here again, and how I’m not particularly good with time off. I’ve not had a holiday in ten years or so and I don’t think I’ve had much even by way of a weekend off here and there. Doing nothing is not my style. Do I know how to occupy myself? SO well… I might flick through a gazillion YouTube videos, music videos, photos, pick up my knitting, start learning something, read a book, garden. I’m never bored with my own company. Lockdown was just fine for me.
For others who are highly dependent on others to make their entertainment, I imagine lockdown was tough. I also think that being an adult who was taught how to entertain myself made it easy to cope with having to do so. This is not true of children. Child me couldn’t have coped with months of having to keep myself busy without social support.
Puppies are at the first step in the ladder of learning how to cope alone. They need support and they need structure. They need management, but they also need teaching. We need to teach dogs how to cope in our absence and not destroy our stuff, pull the sofa apart for kicks, learn out how to work locks and open doors then go off and gad about the neighbourhood.
These skills are not innate. They are taught. They are shaped and nurtured.
Free work allows you to scaffold your puppy’s first attempts to entertain themselves with sanctioned items provided for them. At the end of free work, there comes a time when the food has thinned out and there’s little left to investigate. Being able to shape those moments when your puppy lies down and settles calmly of their own volition and gradually stretch them out, you’re shaping appropriate choices and you’re shaping settles. Combining this with interruptions and returns to the free work area also helps you build skills that will help you intervene.
You may find that things like chews or longer feeding toys that can’t be consumed quickly lend themselves to structured settling, where the puppy takes the chew and goes to lie down. Having observed thousands of hours of free work sessions with both puppies and adult dogs, I’d say that dogs often choose to leave such things until last, as if they know well which will take them more time or need them to lie down. The good thing about those moments is the dogs often disengage voluntarily and settle down fora short nap. The aim of puppy free work shouldn’t be to tire puppies out mentally, but even so, it’s not unusual to find feeding sessions followed by sleeping sessions. That’s how the body is designed. Use that knowledge.
#5 Habituate puppies to noises
As you may have read in the last post, you can use free work with noise sensitive dogs. By using the same strategies, you can also help puppies build up tolerance for noises. Gradually including noisy toys, noisy fabrics and noisy surfaces can help dogs build up to real-life experiences like walking on gravel. You can also help them learn to cope with household noises by pairing up washing machines or distant vacuum cleaners with free work sessions, as long as you make sure there are plenty of sessions where puppies are free from coping with them. It’s also an ideal way to build up noise tolerance outside the home. A few outdoor sessions while there is traffic, pedestrian noise or even aircraft noise should help your puppy develop great skills.
#6 Teach puppies perseverence
Guardians have another Goldilocks task ahead of them with puppies: finding the right balance of perseverence. On the one hand, we want puppies to learn to keep going. On the other, we don’t want them to become so fixated that they can’t leave something alone.
Thoughtful free work can help with that.
Firstly, it teaches puppies to keep going if you include one or two toys that are more challenging. You can also help them regulate by interrupting sessions, moving the puppy away, and then revisiting things. Knowing that quitting can be rewarding can be a very useful skill. By including unfamiliar items, things that smell of other animals or people, unwashed clothing or towels from family members, neighbours and friends, you can build up olfactory activities around human and animal smells that will help introduce them gradually to unfamiliar smells. This builds their natural curiosity and engagement with the world.
#7 Reinforce puppies through buffering
Buffering is a concept from Early Years education and parenting. Basically, guardians buffer unpleasant or challenging experiences, helping youngsters cope better. You know how it is when you are small: having a parental figure with you helps you do all the scary stuff. As you age, your social group becomes more important, and I don’t think there are many of us who wouldn’t call on a friend to help us cope with a stressful situation.
Yet research suggests that it might actually be better for children to experience mildly aversive situations without their guardian and then to be rewarded by their guardian’s presence afterwards. The same may well be true of other animals than us. Having an adult figure present all the time through life’s minor unpleasant experiences may not actually help us cope better. What might be more successful is experiencing mildly aversive situations like frustration or dissatisfaction, and instead of being rescued immediately by a parent, working through it and then being able to return to the parent later.
Certainly my own anecdotal experience with dogs supports this. Having met many fearful hounds who rely on the pack as a kind of barrier to interacting with humans, they can let the other dogs do all of the social heavy lifting and never truly develop their own skills. They become very reliant on the group. Bonded dogs may well have similar behaviour patterns underneath their dependence on one another. It’s not psychologically healthy for this to happen, and what can be more useful is for dogs to face mildly challenging situations, cope with them and then be rewarded by returning to the group. Our lives work the same way. Think of those stressful days you’ve had where you ended up nailing it, and you rush home to celebrate with your friends or family.
Of course, we don’t want our dogs to face unpleasant situations, but including some small degree of challenge and removing yourself to a distance or behind a barrier can help your puppy learn to triumph, and then you’re there to add to their relief and joy afterwards. What could be better than the mild challenge provided by the right free work session?
#8 Teach early proprioception
I think we forget that young muscles are learning. Having seen a 7 year old dog try to jump a ditch and fall right in, compared to his friend who’d been jumping ditches all his life, we should remember that muscle coordination, balance and awareness of our own bodies is a learned skill. Of course, we want to do this in ways that promote and support healthy bodies, not by encouraging our puppies to leap ditches.
Including free work that has balance pods, BOSU pads, inflatable ‘peanut’ style physiotherapy cushions, wobble boards, appropriately stepped surfaces, narrow balance beams and things your puppies can climb over, squeeze under, get into or walk on can help them habituate to unfamiliar surfaces but also learn muscle skills that will pay dividends in later life.
Incorporating yoga bricks and blocks, non-slip aerobic steps, wobble boards, inflatable wedges, balance pads and balance pods that your puppies have to navigate can help them build up skills with surfaces. Make sure you check with your vet if you’re going to do anything that would stretch young muscles. The aim is not to exercise but to provide puppies with the kind of unstable surfaces that they’ll come across in life as well as tools you can use to help develop or strengthen muscles later.
#9 Build up gradually
The biggest mistake trainers and guardians make is that they make it too hard. Instead of starting with a ball pit or ball tent absolutely filled with balls and including one or two floury treats, it’s better to start with two or three balls and lots of high value treats so they are scaffolded in their first attempt. After that, they’ll know what to do. You want things to be fun, not the Krypton Factor.
#10 Make it portable
One of the biggests gifts to sensitive, emotional, noisy, hormonal teenagers who can’t cope with the world is Steve Mann’s Rucksack Walk. I’m not going to tell you how to do that if you don’t know: his books are less than the price of some coffee-house coffees. The Rucksack Walk can easily be blended with some of your puppy’s favourite free work activities and it helps build up calm skills in the outside world so that your puppy can take the world in without feeling the compulsion to engage with every single thing that moves.
A rucksack walk every day and two very short free work sessions, and you’ll have gone a long way to helping build a dog who can cope with the world.
In the final post, I’ll be looking at using free work with fearful dogs. Don’t forget to sign up if you want these delivered to your email inbox.
If you’re a dog trainer, feel free to pick up a copy of my book. I think it’s pretty good, but don’t take my word for it. If you have read it already, could I trouble you to leave me a review? It all helps others decide if it’s something worth buying.