Helping your dog cope better in the real world

Whether you live with barky, lively, bouncy dogs or you live with anxious or reactive dogs, you may find your daily walk to be a bit of a problem. You may even find training sessions to be impossible. You know that sinking feeling when you realise all the food in the world isn’t going to help your dog cope…. and you’re just hoping your dog won’t go TOO nuts, won’t bark TOO loudly, won’t panic TOO much… just because some paperboy is coming full pelt towards you. 

The thing that helps me best understand my clients’ problems walking their dogs is living with two dogs who are a bit of a challenge on walks. To be fair, Heston is only a challenge in that his meds make him less focused than he used to be, and his seizures aren’t the best way for the brain to keep hold of all the things he’s learned in the past nine years. Lidy, though, she runs the gamut.

Fearful? Got that. Full on panic attack because someone left a shopping basket on the pavement this morning.

Predatory? Got that. Cats, pigeons, livestock, wildlife… it’s all game for her as far as she’s concerned. Let’s just stick cyclists in there as well shall we? And cars sometimes.

Reactive? Got that. She’s suspicious of any people or dogs we see or smell on our walks.

If it moves, it’s a potential trigger. If it just lies there, out of place, like that lost shopping basket, then that’s a potential trigger too.

Many of my problems are solved simply by the time I walk the dogs and where I walk them. I don’t walk in busy places and I know that too many triggers are just overwhelming.

In all honesty, I don’t do as much training with her as I’d like to, simply because I don’t leave Heston home alone if I can help it. I’d never forgive myself if he had a seizure and I wasn’t there to help if he didn’t come out of it quickly enough, or if he injured himself. My intentions are good: I’d happily train Lidy for hours to help her. But life has other plans. I suspect most of my clients are in a similar boat.

And that’s perfectly fine.

Yet there are times when I’ve worked with her or I’ve worked with a client’s dog and the situation has just been too overwhelming, even though we had time to train.

Clients often tell me that their dog won’t eat on walks. Eliminating all the problems related to food that you can read about here, I usually find that the dog is just hugely over threshold.

Yet where we live or how we need to work our dogs isn’t easy. Some dogs are over threshold the minute they’re out of the door.

How can you work with dogs who are so fearful or so excited?

How can you even manage dogs who are so fearful or so excited?

The easiest way is to understand about vistas, panoramas and flats!

Knowing about these three things can help you manage your daily walks better. They can help you improve your counterconditioning or desensitisation no end, and they can also help you improve your training. If your dog is that over threshold, however, and you haven’t got any variation at all – there are absolutely no moments at all from the moment you go out of the door to the moment you get back in, and you are taking all the usual precautions, you need to think about behavioural medication and see a vet. Your dog is panicking and it’s a welfare issue.

I find, however, in most circumstances, that walking when there are fewer people and dogs about, even driving from your usual environment to do so, and spending time actually practising the habit of eating outside are the three things that mean there’s a little variation in the way the dog behaves at least. There are calmer moments.

If there are calmer moments, then we can work.

I also find however that people who aren’t getting the results they want are working in panoramic settings where the dog is visually triggered by any change at all. That’s why and understanding of vistas, panoramas and triggers can make such a difference.

Honestly, understanding these three things is the difference between successful behaviour modification that can happen in minutes as opposed to trying diligently to change your dog’s feelings about stuff in ways that takes months and months.

When people tell me, for instance, that they’ve been using counterconditioning for months and it still hasn’t made a difference, or that they’ve been trying desensitisation for weeks without seeing any progress, or where things have got worse, I can almost guarantee it’s because they’re being hindered by the environment rather than being helped by it.

Let’s first define our terms.

A vista is a long, narrow view, as between trees, cars or buildings.

Here’s one vista: trees on either side and a narrow path down the middle.

Here, you can see how the walls block out much of the view, so all there is left is a narrow little window at the top.

A panorama, on the other hand, is one of those wide sweeping views.

Flats are the name for mobile things on a stage that can be used as screens to block off various bits and pieces.

Flats can help make vistas out of panoramas. There’s a sentence I bet nobody has written in the history of ever. Certainly nobody talking about improving your work with anxious, sensitive or excitable dogs.

You may now worry I’m encouraging you to make portable screens. I am not, but I’ll explain how the world throws us screens that can help us.

Dogs who like chasing things like livestock, wildlife, domestic animals, joggers, bikes and cars, or dogs who are fearful of things like people or other dogs struggle most in panoramas.

I’ve said before that long-nosed dogs have a binocular advantage over short-nosed dogs. Their whole head is designed to see a wider panorama. Greyhounds, podencos, collies, German shepherds, Beauceron, Belgian shepherds and even little dachshunds are designed to see life in wide angle. Short-nosed dogs are designed to see straight in front, like a vista.

That’s the first thing.

The second is that some dogs – those who are herders, for example – have a horizontal streak of light-detecting cells across their eye, just like wolves. Other dogs have light-detecting cells scattered all over the retina, like we do. Those dogs who have a horizontal streak are literally motion detecting dogs. They may not be good at colour vision like we are, but they can see up to 700m with ease.

Don’t believe me? My one-eyed 16-year-old malinois could see cars moving 400m away. She had a cataract in her one good eye as well.

So where people tell me their dogs aren’t trainable, that they’re chasing things, wound up by cars or by cats moving, or they see people moving 400m away, I absolutely believe them. The problem is that most people also then start trying to train their dog 20m away. The dog couldn’t be more overwhelmed.

The problem is that most of us don’t think how these panoramic views can contribute to our dog’s problem. Of course, if they see something 400m away and that thing is going to take 2 minutes to get to you – or more! – then the dog is going to be reacting. It’s inevitable. Whether they’re overexcited and wanting to chase or whether they’re fearful and now they’re starting reacting aggressively or panicking, the time things take to move across a panorama or move towards you causes real problems.

If you’re trying to distract your dog, that leaves you with two minutes to try and do so.

If you’re trying to do counterconditioning, then you’re going to have to feed-feed-feed your dog for two minutes.

If you’ve got a panorama behind you as well, make that four minutes for distraction, counterconditioning or training.

If you’ve been in that situation, you know that those minutes sometimes seem like hours.

Vistas make life much easier. You remember I said my one-eyed malinois could see things 400m away? She’d react to cars that far away 100% of the time. Yet stick a vista in there and we could work at 50m. In fact, most of the time, we could work at 5m.

Once, when walking along this road, a deer hopped from one side to the other. Because it was a vista, she came and went within seconds. I’ve been in so many situations like this where the trigger has been in view for a couple of seconds, maximum.

Another time, a family of wild boar ran across this lovely scene. It took them almost ten minutes to get from the small coppice on the left across the fields and into a small coppice about 2km to the right of the photo. Ten minutes of trying to distract four giddy dogs who were watching wild boar over 300m away run in a broad arc across this divine panorama.

Which scenario do you think was easiest to cope with?

If your dog wants to chase, then every moment the trigger is approaching is adding to their anticipation. If your dog is fearful, every moment the trigger is approaching is adding to their fear.

That’s as true with the trigger departing too. Every moment adds to an excited dog’s frustration. Every moment adds to a fearful dog’s concern.

If you have a dog who has been specifically bred to control the movement of livestock, then you’ve got all that time to try and cope with their frustration of not being able to do the thing they were created to do: control the moving things.

If you’ve got a dog bred to protect lifestock, then you’ve got all that time to try and cope with their frustration of not being able to do the thing they were created to do: keep stuff away from the group.

Well done, guardians of mainland European shepherds. You’ve got a heady mix of both! And you wondered why your dog was reactive!

Maybe you’re looking at my countryside photos and thinking how ace it must be to be able to access such vistas and panoramas… it is as long as your dog isn’t mad about wildlife and livestock and distant cars which are all really much more salient because everything else is pretty still.

Towns also provide their fair share of vistas.

On Thursday morning, I walked my dogs at 5.30am. Mainly, this is because Heston’s bladder won’t go much longer and he’s awake at 4am. I draw the line at walking excited dogs at 4am unless it’s summer. At 5.30am, we had 5 dogs to cope with, 3 cats, 2 random people walking to the bus stop, 2 buses, several cars, 3 paperboys on bikes, 2 men leaving the shops and a guy who seemed determined to follow us around the whole estate. 18 things, at least, that Lidy hates. At one point, we had a big dog coming up behind us, a barking spaniel in front of us and a cat in the garden next to us.

How did we cope?

By narrowing the vista.

We tucked ourselves up between two large conifers, I stood facing the trigger, so the dogs were facing me. We ate our biscuits while a dog went past less than 5m away. Did Lidy react? No. To be honest, not sure if she saw the dog, but I know Heston did.

That was a particularly bothersome walk. I had to pop into one ginnel*, stop between two parked cars, nip up a side street, go up one person’s path, tuck ourselves in against a fence and a car. All I was doing was creating a very narrow visual vista in which the troublesome trigger was in view for seconds, not minutes.

Did my dogs see the triggers? Of course. I’m all about sneaky in-situ real-life training. We had biscuits and the vista meant that the situation was neatly and perfectly controlled. Although Lidy will react to things hundreds of metres away, using life’s visual screens meant that I wasn’t trying to train her for five minutes.

We can’t expect our fearful or excited dogs to control themselves for five minutes.

But a few seconds?

That’s manageable.

And if I want to make it tougher, because we’ve made progress? We get closer to the opening of the aperture. We can also choose places where the trigger moves more slowly across the gap.

Maybe you live in one of life’s places full of panoramas and no vistas, Idaho or Norfolk, for example.

You can use flats to help make vistas. I’ve used two parked cars before now. I’ve also used portable windbreaks, like you get for the beach, and I’ve even used umbrellas. Life tends to provide us with these portable flats that turn panoramas into vistas: parked cars, fences, bushes, crops. I’ve even used baled hay before now to tuck ourselves in against.

It doesn’t have to be person height, just dog height.

You may be asking how you can use very small things like a hay bale to break up a dog’s visual fixation on an incoming target.

Move around it!

This was a very unfortunate moment… This lovely (albeit tiny in this photo) couple had turned onto this path I was walking two of my dogs up. The path is about 800m so I could see them even though my dogs hadn’t clocked their rather giddy malinois. I could see them hesitate as well so I knew they were about to bring their bonkers dog straight down a path towards my bonkers dogs and that all of the bonkers dogs would clock each other about 400m and then there’d be two people trying to hold on to three bonkers on a path that’s less than 3m wide.

What did we do? We moved behind a hay bale. All the dogs saw each other for a few seconds as the couple passed, and I completed my very slow 180° trip around the haybale. We started with it between us and the dog, moved round as the dog drew level and then moved round the third side as the dog went past. No fear. No frustration. No pulling, growling, barking, lunging…

This morning as a guy in black walked past us? Same thing. This time with a conifer.

The aim of using the world to create more narrow vistas is not to distract your dog. Our dogs aren’t learning anything if they can’t see the trigger. We have no idea if they can cope better than they were. The aim is that the dog is exposed to the trigger for a very brief moment in time, that food arrives or training happens, and then it is over.

This narrow time and view doesn’t just make it more easy for the dog to cope, it also makes training more salient too. It’s hard for guardians to pair up triggers with food if the triggers are in sight for 5 minutes. I mean you literally have to be feeding the dog for 5 whole minutes. It’s much more salient for the dog if it’s a simple 2 second blast. What I mean by this is that it’s more obvious to the dog: ‘Ohhhhhhh…. THAT happened and then you gave me sausages??! Right!’

One other thing really makes the difference…. keeping the dog moving. I simply have no idea why people ask their dogs to sit if they want to chase or flee. It’s aversive in both cases. You’re asking your dog to perform a behaviour that is not only impossible but also making them feel unpleasant. If I see Keanu Reeves with a bundle of beagles, ask me to sit and wait and see what happens. You expect me – a rational human being with an amazing neocortex designed to help me control my impulses – to sit and wait? Really? And then you think a dog – more emotional and responsive with a tiny bit of brain dedicated to impulse control – if they can do the same when they want to chase wildlife or livestock or machines? Insanity that way lies. It’s aversive and it’s too big a thing to ask.

Likewise, if I see zombies walking towards me… you want me to sit and wait? Ok then.

Let’s stop asking our dogs for static behaviours when they NEED to move. Not only that, it becomes a massive cue that bad stuff will happen. My dogs sit and wait when cars go past because neither of them is bothered about cars. Cars predict biscuits. But if I only ask for a sit – or I mainly ask for a sit – when something exciting or fear-inducing is going to happen? Well, you’ve got a nice cue there for your dog to become excited or fearful.

Not only that, if you ask after the dog is fearful or excited, you’re much less likely to get a sit.

You’re training the impossible. Keep the dog moving.

Counterconditioning should not take weeks and weeks. If you don’t have a snappy head turn as soon as the trigger appears within five or six trials or so, your dog doesn’t know what you are doing. Get your set-up right and your dog will get it in those five or six trials. Pavlov wasn’t still trying to pair up metronomes and salivation 6 months in to his trial. The thing that annoyed him was that dogs made those associations quickly. If it’s not happening quickly, then that’s because the pairing isn’t clear to the dog.

How can we make the pairing clear to the dog? By being snappier and cleaner in our pairing. How can we do that? By narrowing the time the trigger is in view and limiting the other things in view. That also takes the emotional sting out of things and makes it easier for dogs to cope.

It also means we can train nearer the trigger. I don’t like training Lidy 3m away from young guys walking past us. It’s far too close and the risk of her reacting is huge. But life is like that. People are going to get 3m away and I’m going to need her to be able to cope. If she’s got to have people 3m away, I’d rather it’s for 5 seconds than 5 minutes.

The good thing about practising this method is that it works. Practice builds the habit that sometimes, you’re going to step into doorways or between cars or haybales. Sometimes, you may stand near a tree or a street bin. Once, Lidy and I ducked into a small pathway and she ate paté as dogs and people went past in both directions. That was at the shelter with all that this entailed. She coped. I coped. No reacting, no lunging, no barking. All that made the difference was me not expecting her to cope with scary stuff approaching her for five whole minutes while she tried to work out a strategy about how to cope with it. If I can countercondition dogs in a shelter environment, you can do it wherever you are. I’m a barely average trainer. I’m lazy. I’m sloppy. But you can make it easier by blocking off visual access to stimuli until the time they’ll be in sight for is seconds, not minutes.

The other thing is that high school maths is in your favour. The further away from the vista you are – that narrow aperture where things are in sight for a milisecond – the less you’ll see. The closer to the vista you are, the longer things will be in sight for. It’s really easy to adjust the exposure. That makes it much easier to keep the dog under threshold yet also create a programme of gradual exposure. I get around being sloppy and lazy by picking the right spot for my training and using vistas and flats to help me create it.

I’d also say you need to add one other tool to your kit beyond your ability to look for life’s vistas and use flats to help create them: get savvy about evacuation points.

Evacuation points are just places you can get off the main drag if things are approaching you while you’re walking or training. Nothing is harder for dogs than having to face things that are coming up on them – whether that’s in front or behind. If you’re on a road with high walls on each side and you’re busy watching cars go past 10m away, but then a car is coming up behind you and is going to be less than a metre away, you need an evacuation point. These temporary escape hatches where you can slot yourself will really help. Shop doorways, alleyways, driveways, sidestreets, spaces between parked cars… all can be temporary escape hatches.

Instead of trying to work with your dog where they can see everything for miles and miles, where cars are in view for minutes before they pass you or where joggers are visible from 500m away, narrow your vision and let the environment take the sting out of the things that bother your dog. Whether you are managing your dogs, whether you are just doing some on-the-spot in-situ training as you go, or whether you are setting up a full training programme, you’ll find it a lot easier when you work with the environment rather than against it.

PS. If you’re a dog trainer, I’ve got a book out. You should buy it. It’s really good. Even my dad says so.

* a ginnel is a beautiful invention from the north of England, a passage or alleyway between two buildings.