In dog rescue, particularly in what the French like to call the ‘Anglo Saxon’ world, there’s a mindset that I don’t often see in the French families who come to adopt our cats and dogs. I think it’s very specifically a dog thing, and you’ll see what I mean later, and very specifically an English-speaking phenomenon. I don’t know why that is, but I do know it gets in the way of our relationships with our dogs.
It’s about the dog in front of you.
This is Heston.
I know everything about Heston, after the day of his birth. I know where he was found. I know how many other puppies were found in a box with him. I know what his life was like up to six weeks of age and I know every single event that has happened to him in his seven years of life.
I know his DNA. I know which breeds got in there and what makes him 75% shepherd. I’ve got both Embark and Wisdom panels so I can fill in the bits I don’t know from his life before 1 day old when he was found in a box.
I know his medical history.
I know his best qualities and his worst.
So let’s take a ‘problem’ behaviour we’ve been working on since he was about 12 weeks old (and yes, I can tell you categorically when he had his first fear period involving humans and his first fear period involving other dogs). Heston can be a bit of a tit with joggers. We’ve largely mastered the sudden and unexpected appearance of Apex Predators on walks. We’ve mastered the sudden and unexpected appearance of Apex Predators mushroom-picking. We’ve mastered the sudden and unexpected appearance of Apex Predators on bicycles. We’ve mastered the sudden and unexpected appearance of Apex Predators and their packs of hunting dogs.
But joggers… Well they still bring out the worst in Heston.
Now, I can navel gaze as much as I like. I can look at the jigsaw that make up his pieces and say, well, groenendaels tend to be good at barking at threatening strangers (witness how easy it is to train their differently coloured Belgian brethren in protection sports) and I can say, well, he’s a dog and they can be protective of human resources, as well as territorial. I can say, well he’s a dog and predators don’t like bigger predators running at them. I can say, well, he’s a groenendael, and like many breeds or types of dog, he’s been bred to go in rather than hang back. If it comes to fight or flight, he’ll pick fight 100% of the time.
Or I could say, well, he maybe had fearful parents.
Perhaps it was a bad breeder.
Perhaps his mother had a third trimester stress experience that sensitised him to stress in utero.
Perhaps he was the first male in the womb and got a bigger dose of testosterone alongside that stress experience.
Perhaps he’s lacking in good maternal care. Maybe it’s because he was bottle fed.
Perhaps we should have kept the litter together.
He definitely needed better habituation to strangers. We live in a rural area and he didn’t see a jogger until he was way into his secondary fear period.
If I’d adopted as an older dog, perhaps I might have thought he’d been harmed by joggers. Perhaps he’s having flashbacks to some previous experience with people in lycra.
I’m being silly of course. I know this never happened.
But I can analyse Heston from his DNA up. All that’s missing is that early history. I can wonder if he’d be more accepting of large lycra-clad predators running at him had he been raised by a mother rather than a particularly spooky cocker spaniel.
I can pull apart Heston in a Philip Larkin fashion, wondering in what ways he was f%*ked up by his mum and dad, and which faults they passed on.
I can look into his eyes and wonder about inherited trauma.
I get a lot of this kind of questioning from the Anglo Saxon owners who approach me for behavioural work. Why are they like this? What’s going on? What caused it? As if by understanding cause, you can change behaviour.
I show them this:
This ‘soup’ is what makes up a dog (and more than this, believe me).
We hear often ‘no dog is a blank slate’ as if genetics are the be-all and end-all of behaviour. And we hear too trainers who claim they can change all behaviour as if genes and history don’t matter.
The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.
It all matters.
And, as I said, more too.
This diagram kind of picks up where the other left off… it’s what contributes to a dog bite. But it’s actually what contributes to ALL behaviour. That social environment is crucial. It all matters. Heston is a rural dog in a land where joggers don’t understand not to run at dogs. He doesn’t see joggers. He doesn’t know joggers. I have to drive 30 minutes to even see joggers in any predictable way.
Your dog will be influenced by these things too for their behaviour.
So when people ask me why their dog is ‘like this’, my answer is this:
“You can know every single piece of the puzzle and it still won’t change behaviour.”
The truth is that we Anglo Saxons torment ourselves with the whys and wherefores. That’s especially true when we have a rescue. We make up stories to fill in the gaps… they came from combat rings, they were abused, they’re street dogs, they were neglected, they had a traumatic second fear period…. ad infinitum.
This poses a challenge for two reasons. The first is that, as I said, it doesn’t change behaviour. It doesn’t actually help you understand the behaviour of the dog in front of you. It’s frustrating and without cease. The problem is that when you start unpicking causes, you start apportioning blame. If only he’d had a better socialisation period. If only those knobs didn’t leave him in a box. If only I’d not taken him to that market that time. If only….
In therapy, this is known as the ‘tyranny of the shoulds’. Karen Horney said in her writing that these prevented us from moving on. They weighed us down, gave us unreal standards to live up to and prevent us from change. Shoulda Coulda Woulda.
The second reason, apart from the frustration of never being able to put that spilt milk back in the bottle or lock the stable before the horse bolts, is that it gives us built-in excuses.
‘Oh he’s like that as he had a traumatic event during his primary fear period’.
It’s an answer.
But it’s a reason too. An excuse. A statement that says ‘I’m sorry: the milk was spilt and it wasn’t my fault. Please excuse my dog who is behaving like a bit of a tit.’
Both of those things prevent us from moving on. They prevent us enjoying the dog we have, taking stock of how wonderful they are and saying, ‘do you know what – let’s sort out this problem behaviour’ no matter its genesis.
Heston very much enjoyed sniffing in bushes last time we experienced the sudden and unexpected appearance of Apex Predators jogging in too-tight fluorescent lycra. We play ‘find it!’ when joggers come by, and strangely, this game avoids the need to behave, well, like a dog.
I’m going to take away my pride at my work and my canine ‘offspring’ and his ‘journey’. It’s a simple recipe of gradual desensitisation paired with food reinforcers (Pavlov) that turned environmental threats into a cue that a game would begin (Skinner). All pretty good practices endorsed by the best clinical animal behaviourists.
I’ve never known this recipe fail to modify behaviour when done properly under supervision of someone who knows what they’re doing.
So, instead of passive acceptance and instead of naval gazing, I now have a dog who feels like joggers are just random cues in the environment that treats will suddenly rain from the sky. A dog who looks forwards to the presence of joggers when he is in my company because, well, that’s nothing for us to be bothered about.
It’s about looking at the dog you have in front of you – one exhibiting a problem behaviour at least – and asking, ‘what can I do to make the world feel safer for you?
Sometimes, I admit this is not always possible to a complete degree. I can’t make Flika feel completely safe in storms. She’s had 14 years of working it out for herself, I would guess. But I can shut the shutters, stick on some Bob Marley and read her a book. Last storm, she only tried to eat the door once. Small progress counts. That’s better than trying to eat the doors without stopping for 30 minutes.
Instead of wondering if she has PTSD about times she was shut in a warehouse or left outside on patrol during a storm, I move away from deep causes. Identify triggers, change behaviours.
The truth is that we Anglo Saxons enjoy a bit of navel gazing and puzzle solving. I’m not suggesting you ignore your dog’s history and never try to make sure you understand all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. What I am saying is that we need to stop this holding us back from working on behaviour problems that show our dog feels uncomfortable with the world, and we need to stop excusing it.
Those excuses mean that we allow our dogs to continue behaviours that feel unpleasant but necessary to them.
It stops us finding solutions.
And also, we don’t do this with cats. We do this with dogs because they occupy a unique niche in our world as quasi-humans. We want to understand all the components as if they were human. We don’t do this with other species.
‘Oh that elephant is just acting out because it had a traumatic single learning event in their secondary fear period.’
‘My rescue cat was obviously abused by lycra-clad joggers.’
‘That beaver’s mother must have had a traumatic third trimester.’
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about whether animals have memories, whether they can conceptualise the future and whether they live in the moment. More so than ever with dogs. You know, quasi-humans in their ‘special’ relationship with us.
Look to your dogs. They will tell you. You don’t need science to prove this stuff. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Watch your dogs. Tilly found a big bone once in a field. She couldn’t carry it back as it was too big. Over 3 months, on each walk in that area she would progressively move it closer to the house and rebury it for safekeeping. 100m every few days. If that’s not both memory and planning, I don’t know what is. But sure, dogs live more in the moment – and so should we. Live in the now, look at the dog in front of you right now and instead of vivisecting behavioural causes to the nth degree, look to how you can move forward. Especially when you don’t have all the pieces.
Say, ‘Oh well!’ to that history. Tant pis.
Solutions, not excuses and ballast that stops you progressing.
Think ‘Gonna’, not ‘Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda’
You will never put spilt milk back in a bottle, but if you keep spilling it, you need to ask yourself how you can change so that in future, less is spilt, or none at all. When our horses bolt, it makes no sense to lock the stable behind them. But it’s a good reminder to lock the stable door before they run off next time.
Look at the dog in front of you right now, not the pieces of their history, and know that you will never understand everything. Even if you do.
Let’s stop psychoanalysing our dogs, vivisecting every aspect of their behaviour, looking to explain it all with deep-seated biological, neurological or historical reasons that can’t be changed. Say ‘Oh well!’ and work on what would make the world better so those behaviours would be surplus to requirement. Let’s stop talking about ‘traumatised’ dogs and live more in the moment with them, helping them to cope with the future. After all, we’re all heading there, dogs included. The past and the future, time’s dual arrows, are predicaments of human beings, not animals.
Next time, I’ll be writing about building resilience in dogs to help them for that future.
“It’s simple, really…” I found myself saying. “Your dog has a small sink. She overflows easily and doesn’t drain well…”
It made sense to me at the time, but it sounds like awful nonsense without a justification.
The sink metaphor is one I use frequently though with owner to explain why their dog isn’t coping with life.
You might very well be wondering what sinks have to do with stress and why some of our dogs don’t cope with the life they lead, or why they ‘suddenly’ seem to find life so hard.
Why are some dogs ‘bomb proof’ and some dogs on a hair trigger?
Why does it take some dogs seconds to recover from things, and other dogs seem to take days?
Why do some dogs seem to tip over more easily into fearfulness or aggression, and why isn’t it a good idea to flood your dog?
Your sink is your body. The taps are the centres of your body that control the release of hormones, neurotransmitters and other bodily chemicals. I imagine them like water – adrenaline, cortisol – all those fancy biological bits that our brain turns on or off, that pour into our bodies and make us ready to fight, to freeze or to run away. There are certainly more taps running into our sinks than adrenaline or cortisol, but these are our ‘stress’ chemicals, that help our body deal with life.
Lots of factors decide how much pours out of those taps and how well your sink is able to handle the flow. You might, for instance, have a ‘normal’ flow of adrenaline and cortisol and your sink may just not be able to drain them quickly or efficiently. It might be too small, overflowing at the smallest fright. Tilly is a bit like that. It doesn’t take much for her to ‘flood’ – and the puddles that go with that are a much more literal vision of a ‘sink’ that floods too easily. Tilly doesn’t cope well with stress. When her sink floods due to a stressful event, she alarm barks and she pees.
You might have a fairly big sink that drains well – coping with life admirably. But what happens when your ‘taps’ release more of those chemicals than usual? You might also overflow too. One reason a body will do this is if you’re subjected to something acutely stressful. Chronic stress can do this as well – when it just accumulates and accumulates. Dogs also get illnesses such as Cushing’s – there are many reasons they may get Cushing’s. But Cushing’s tells the body to produce lots and lots of cortisol, like leaving the tap running at full flow all the time. Steroids can also have the same effect. Addison’s disease is the flip side of that coin, where not enough cortisol and adrenaline are released.
What largely dictates the size of your sink, how well you are able to cope with the flow of cortisol and adrenaline, is dependent on a number of things.
Genes are one. Bombproof parents are more likely to have bombproof babies. Breed is also a factor for dogs: it is without doubt that some dogs are more nervy and less able to cope with stressful situations or change than others.
A lot of that determines how big a sink you’re going to be born with.
Then socialisation (between 3-12 weeks and then continued more gradually up to adulthood) also influences the size of your sink and how well you cope with stress. Sadly, we know very well the risks of not socialising dogs and not inoculating them against stress… you can take a dog born with great parents and from a rock-steady breed, and if you don’t expose your dog to the world they’ll need to live in, you’ll end up with a dog whose sink size shrinks.
Sometimes, that’s just a little bit.
Heston, my shepherd, came to me aged 6 weeks. We had lots of exposure to cars and the outdoor world, not enough to people, vets, groomers and dogs, and none to stairs.
You’re wondering why I said stairs.
Didn’t cross my tiny mind that his fairly usual-sized sink might not be able to cope with stairs. Full-on fear overload because I forgot I might not live in a bungalow or have bungalow-dwelling friends all my life. Think of me carrying my 30kg dog down a spiral marble staircase as he literally pisses himself… and you’ll realise why I forgot to make his sink big enough to cope with stairs and why that posed a problem.
Habituation (getting used to things in life), desensitisation (getting used to the scary stuff gradually) and socialisation (knowing how to interact with people, dogs and other animals) are crucial influencers on the size of sink your dog ends up with.
A dog born with a fairly small sink may, for instance, expand their sink through a careful, planned, gentle programme of habituation, desensitisation and socialisation.
You have got a very brief period of time with a puppy to make the most impact – from 3 weeks of age to around 12 weeks. After this, your job is much tougher.
However, a lot of people do the early stuff (and get it wrong by accidentally overwhelming their young puppy) and forget to keep doing it – a lot of the good work you can do early on can be diminished by stopping at 13 weeks and not keeping it up at a gentle rate. But if you only start at 13 weeks – illness and vaccinations are two common reasons this step might get overlooked, but lack of understanding in puppy rearing is also a big factor too – then you are facing an uphill battle.
As we age, the size of that sink gets much harder to change. It’s much more fixed.
That’s not to say I can’t grow it gradually (I didn’t just give up to carrying Heston upstairs or accept that Tilly would pee every time anyone came to the house) but it’s a task-by-task scenario that can take weeks or months. I can’t turn that tiny hand sink into an enormous Belfast kitchen sink once that socialisation period is closed.
And that’s also not to say it can’t shrink overnight. A one-off traumatic experience can be enough to change your dog’s catering sink into a hand-basin. Those kind of events are rare though. Let’s make that clear.
So a small-sink dog might be a poorly-bred puppy-farm-raised nervous nellie of a -doodle whose owners followed vet advice to the letter and never took the dog anywhere until it was 16 weeks.
It might be a dog who started out with a great big sink, but who was over-exposed constantly to stressful situations and lived in chronic stress.
It might be a dog in pain or ill-health, suffering from acute stress.
And your big sink dog, well, we don’t put enough into making dogs with big sinks in my opinion. That takes a lot.
Rock-solid temperaments in parents, great genes, careful breeding programmes, thoughtful socialisation up to 12 weeks and beyond…
Genetics, breed and parentage fix a lot of the size of a sink. Not all, but a fair whack. Socialisation from 3 – 12 weeks fixes a lot of the rest.
What happens when that sink floods is what worries us most about dog behaviour. Aggression. Fearfulness. Running away. When our sinks flood, we’re in dis-stress. And stress affects so much more than just causing Tilly to pee when guests arrive.
Stress makes it easier to learn a fear association and turn it into a long-term memory. A flooded sink makes us hypersensitive to the environment and to remember it. It’s why we have flashbacks and develop phobias.
Stress makes it harder to unlearn fears. All the time, those flooded sinks are telling us that being safe is our number 1 concern and we should ‘save ourselves’. Fight. Flight. Freeze.
Stress sticks us in a rut and makes it harder for us to change our ways.
We go more easily to modal action patterns like chasing, circling or barking.
Hence compulsive disorders in dogs. I never see a compulsive barker without seeing a dog who isn’t coping well with stress. Nor a tail-chaser.
What do we typically do during a stressful time when something isn’t working? The same thing again, many more times, faster and more intensely— it becomes unimaginable that the usual isn’t working. If barking normally makes the bad stuff go away, it’s unimaginable that it’s not working, so our dogs bark more frequently, bark more loudly.
Stress also makes it hard to learn new responses. When we have a small sink, it makes it harder for us to learn. How rubbish is that?! The world conspires against us in so many ways. A small sink is biologically useful as it keeps you alive. It’s the bit that says ‘run away!’ if you’re in a war zone, or ‘fight!’ if you’re a mum protecting your children. It’s not biologically useful if you’ve had a car crash and now you have a panic attack every time anyone pulls up quickly at a junction. That last example is me, by the way. My sink shrank exponentially when a guy cut across me and caused a car accident.
Stress also lowers our inhibitions. It makes me want to get in street brawls with drivers who came to a squealing stop at a junction or pull out too soon onto a roundabout. Sometimes, I’m physically restraining myself from getting out of the car to yell at someone whose driving was marginally worse than the majority.
We see this in dogs too: dogs who usually have really good bite inhibition whose sink floods and then suddenly bite; dogs who normally have great recall and panic when they hear a gunshot; dogs who jump up more or bark more when they’re stressed out.
Sustained stress also makes us really bad at assessing risk. A guy coming to a roundabout at 5 miles faster than he should have, and being 2m closer than I’m happy with is not endangering my life. It’d be a fender bender at worst. Yet I react as if he’s got me at gunpoint and he’s Howling Mad Murdock in the A Team. A distant gunshot is nothing to most dogs. A storm isn’t life threatening. But small sink dogs aren’t good at assessing the risk of these.
Small, overflowing sinks are a recipe for displacement aggression as well. When I was fifteen, I watched a guy called Oggy punch a wall until his fist bled. Displaced aggression. I used to come home from work on a Friday and get into a fight with my boyfriend. Displaced aggression.
And we wonder why our dogs will turn around and bite us when stressed?
I was thinking about it the other day – every single contact a dog has made with their teeth on my body – has been ‘unpredictable’ in that there was no growling, no hard eye, no closed mouth, no lunges, no snarls. I’m sensible around dogs who have the slightest sign of fear or aggression. But I’ve had a fair few nips in over-excitement and on leaving the kennels or in handling dogs who are in pain. No warning kind of nips. Not loads and loads. I’m not some fool-hardy bite freak. But I’ve been on the receiving end of that displaced aggression in dogs enough times to know that stressful situations (leaving kennels, needing treatment, being in pain, being handled) can cause lowered bite inhibition and displaced aggression. Small sinks at work.
So when I say a dog has a small sink, what I mean is they don’t have the genes or the experience to cope with everything life throws at them. They ‘flood’ easily. Aggression or fearfulness are easy, automatic responses for them at times of stress.
Now you don’t have to live with this. Neither does your dog. You don’t have to say ‘oh well… small sink… can’t cope…’
You can do so much. You can limit triggers and stressors – the things that get the chemicals flooding in in the first place. You can also continue a gentle programme of gradual systematic desensitisation or exposure therapy. Those two things together can help your small sink dog cope with what life throws at them. Creating a safe, secure environment, teaching your dog autonomy and using both mental and physical exercise to help you ‘unblock’ the sink can also help your dog become more independent.
The very best way I’ve found of overcoming a small sink is to build a partnership. A dog who sees you as a secure base, who trusts that harm will never happen when you are there and who has a history of being safe when with you and when at home is a dog who is able to learn new strategies to cope with life. A dog who trusts you has a built-in overflow mechanism to help them cope. You. We all do better in life when we can depend on our friends and family. It’s no different for a dog. The right social systems and networks are enormous confidence boosts, and can help build resilience in your dog. You’re never going to make your Nervous Nellie into a Bombproof Brian, but the beauty of behaviour is that is doesn’t have to be fixed forever. Being realistic about what your dog can cope with and becoming a trusted base for them is a lifeline for many anxious, fearful or aggressive dogs. Life may have handed them a small sink, but it’s very helpful when your best friend is a plumber.
It’s no secret I love the oldies – Since 2014, I’ve always had a pensioner, or two, or three, milling about the house. Right now, I’ve got Miss Flika Flirty Knickers, whose knee and ankle joints are not at their best. She came to the shelter in pretty poor health – missing eye, cystitis, kidney infection, arthritis and she’d had a stroke one night. I didn’t think she’d still be here nine months later, but she’s still rampaging through retirement without any sign of slowing down.
I’ve also got my little Tilly Popper, who came to me as a 5 year old some 8 years ago, and has been plagued by almost 2 years of ear problems. Started with mites and fungus, cleared up, got other things, and finally in April, a virulent antibiotic-resistant infection that we’re fighting hard. Sadly, with a heart murmur, it’s not easy to clean it out – and the only operation worth doing may not work anyway. Tough call. She had a stroke a month ago, and then another last week. But we’ll see.
Today’s post is about Amigo, my old boy who died back in March. His old age crept up on me after Tobby died in 2016. Barely 2 months after I’d lost Tobby to degenerative neurological problems, Amigo had a stroke one night.
His recovery was slow. Although he was only supposed to be nine years old (I’d adopted him when he was 6, but he came from the pound, so we had no idea really how old he was), the vet realised he was much, much older than that. His balance came and went. His breathing got worse – he had two bullets in his chest from his first life – and pulmonary fibrosis set in. Most of his hearing went with the stroke, if he’d had much before, and it marked a real deterioration in both his mental and physical health.
During the day, he was fine. Happy to trot on walks, if a little happier to bugger off. More time on lead and less time romping through fields. He was slower, too, but not noticeably. Amigo was always the one who told me it was breakfast and it was dinner time. He didn’t bark more, he didn’t seem lost. He just seemed a little older, if anything. As sweet as he’d ever been.
His appetite didn’t change much, although I thought I’d lost him in September 2017 when he had a bout of colitis. We x-rayed him after an ultrasound and I was expecting cancer. I think he sensed the relief in the room when the vet said it was colitis, and he jumped off the x-ray table with all the vigour of a dog who hadn’t just seemed like he was at death’s doorstep.
But it was the night-times that were tough. He’d sleep in the evenings without any issue – happy to curl up next to me while I worked. Come 11pm and he would not settle. The pacing would start. Then the panting. Some nights, he would pace and pace until 2 or 3 in the morning. And he was always up by 5am. After 11pm, he changed. It was like he wasn’t himself any more. He’d try and get in other dogs’ beds – while they were in them! – and even then he wouldn’t settle. Being deaf didn’t help – the others were growling and he couldn’t hear them. I could let him out – he didn’t want to go out. I could pet him – he wasn’t bothered. He just wandered and wandered.
Eventually, I got a salt lamp. Whilst I’m not some ancient hippy believing every alternative health story, the pink light was better than leaving lamps on all over the house so that Amigo didn’t fall on things or crash into other dogs. It was certainly better than trying to confine him, which made him much more distressed. It was also better for my sleep than leaving lamps on. Whether it’s hocus pocus or not, there is some small-scale evidence that these can help with mood in animals. And if it’s hocus pocus, the low light wasn’t offensive so I could get some sleep at least.
That lamp also stopped him crashing into other dogs, at least. And on the nights he had an accident, it also stopped me slipping in it afterwards. Always a bonus. Obviously, keep them out of reach of dogs tripping on them or licking them – that goes without saying.
Because it was related to sleep, I also tried some sleep aids with the guidance of my vet. We didn’t want to sedate him, so it wasn’t a case of giving him a sedative like valium (although I had some of that here for other health issues for him) Melatonin had some effect and it certainly fitted with other things, like his alopecia. Don’t try it without checking with your vet: there are potential side-effects especially for diabetic dogs or those with a heart condition.
A thundershirt and Ttouch also helped. With the melatonin and a few other things, a combination of massage, some Ttouch movements, melatonin and a thundershirt, we all got the best night’s sleep. He went right through from 11pm to 6am without a wander. I think managing decline can be a lot like that – a combination of thing can accumulate.
A vet friend of mine had also recommended MSM for another of my dogs who was suffering from arthritis. He says that a lot of the supplements we give are for mobility but are not anti-inflammatory as such, and offer no pain relief. It’s not a medical anti-inflammatory, that’s for sure, but the nights when I’d given him MSM seemed to be the most peaceful ones. There are some small-scale studies which are ‘limited but encouraging’ and it certainly seemed to help with both his hair, his movement and his night-time restlessness.
There are other sleep aids you may want to try out in discussion with a holistic veterinary practitioner. Valerian and passionflower were two I tried. I didn’t see any difference, but that’s just one dog. Zylkène, Nutracalm, Pet Remedy, Adaptil and Anxitane may also help with anxiety, and it’s worth checking them out with your vet.
Also, like a baby, I figured it was also about poor sleep training. He was sleeping when he should have been active in the early mornings and at dusk, and then not sleeping through the night. So I made sure he had a good amount of physical exercise – not too much because I didn’t want him restless because he was hyped up on adrenaline or because his knackered old body hurt – but I tried to make sure he had a little trot about about an hour before bed. I also made sure he had plenty of mental enrichment, and I’ll tell you about that later.
However, it’s important to remember that you can tire your dog out and you can give them natural (or pharmaceutical) sedatives and sleep aids, but it doesn’t get to the underlying causes. Sometimes that’s canine cognitive dysfunction (and you can get supplements for that too) but often it’s a physical thing. When I could see on the x-ray the shrinking size of Amigo’s stomach as his lungs expanded as a result of fibrosis, his colitis was without doubt worsened by the fact that his whole body was out of sync. He often had tummy ache. I wonder how often the wandering and restlessness was caused by gastro-intestinal problems. I had trapped wind last night (overshare!) and I was restless.
Sometimes that wandering is caused by pain, so a comfortable bed can help with that. That said, both of my oldies who’ve had crippling arthritis have both been ‘go to bed – stay in bed’ types. I often wondered whether Amigo’s bed hopping was related to the need to find the most comfortable sleeping spot. Sometimes I think we overlook the physical problems that may be causing our dogs restlessness, thinking it’s cognitive decline when in fact, they’re just uncomfortable. Pain relief can be a really important factor in treating sleeplessness.
That said, many dogs do suffer from cognitive decline, and pharmaceuticals do exist to help with that. Sedatives aren’t the only option. Anti-anxiety medication or anti-depressants can be prescribed by your vet if they suspect it may help. Remember these are not sedatives and they won’t change your dog overnight. Prozac and Selgian are two pharmaceuticals you may find your vet prescribing to help with other cognitive issues.
Just as mental enrichment and stimulation can slow down decline in humans, so it can in animals. Where his body couldn’t cope with physical activity in the same way as it had when he was younger, I put in lots of mental enrichment. From Sprinkles to Kongs, food toys to snuffle mats, Pickpockets to puzzle toys, hide-and-seek to scent work, trick training and husbandry training kept his mind busy and allowed me to keep him occupied as well as track decline. Forgetting learned tricks is a quick way to see that decline is setting in.
We played lots of games outside to keep him occupied, and lots of slow ‘sniffari’ walks too.
Mental enrichment not only helps re-train your dog to better sleep patterns, but also uses up some of that mental energy they don’t use up through physical activity as they used to. It also keeps them thinking, seeking, puzzling. It keeps them curious. It was a vital part of our old age regime and continues to be so for Flika and Tilly. Just because they spend a lot of time asleep doesn’t mean they are well-occupied.
It’s also all very well to speak about how wonderful it is to love a dog with canine cognitive dysfunction, but we also have to remember that it is hard. We are not saints. It’s often frustrating and depressing. Taking care of yourself is vital. If that means finding a pet-sitter so you can catch up on some sleep yourself, then do it. Some of the best nights I had were when I had taken all those sleep supplements and left Amigo, securely, to wander. It’s a long journey with a sad destination, and that’s not made any easier if you are exhausted and upset. Remember to look after yourself. In the long run, Amigo’s decline happened over 14 months. That’s a long time for any human to be sleep-deprived. Be kind to yourself and to your dog. Use sitters and use your friends/family to help you out: you would if you were dealing with a newborn.
Finally, Eileen Anderson’s wonderful book, Remember Me? is an absolute must-read for anyone with an ageing dog. You can buy it on Kindle if you don’t want a physical copy. For well-researched information about diet, housing, medication and much, much more, it’s a real treasure to have at your side as you navigate the problems that age-related cognitive decline can pose.
This post is the final one in a series of three about keeping your dog safe.
The first post, keeping your dog safe on walks, is largely aimed at dogs who like walks but who don’t like certain things that happen on walks, such as strangers appearing or other dogs charging up to them. It’s also aimed at dogs who treat the outdoor world as a picnic buffet and like to ingest all sorts of things they shouldn’t. It’s aimed at dogs with predatory drive that isn’t manageable and dogs who are fearful but are in the process of being gradually and gently habituated or desensitised to the outside world. It’s for car chasers and bike chasers, jogger-haters and scooter-fans. Reading a sad story about a dog who impaled itself this week during a walk, it’s also for dogs in high risk areas such as traffic, dangerous wildlife or man-made risks like traps. Deaf dogs, blind dogs or dogs with dementia would also benefit from the suggestions, no doubt.
The second post, keeping your dog safe in the home, is aimed at door dashers, family and household incidents, dogs with separation anxiety, dogs who are aggressive with family members or other family animals and also puppies. For newly arrived dogs who’ve never lived inside, it’s also useful.
Today, I’m looking at how you can keep your dog safe in the garden. For dogs who may escape or dig out, who have high prey drive or like chasing skirt, it’s a must. As with everything, there are times when management is your main goal and there are times when teaching is more sensible. For 14-year-old skirt chasing Tobby, it was a bit of both. When you’re 14, there’s a time investment involved in teaching new behaviours. Management may sometimes involve financial costs, but it can be used at any point in a dog’s life.
Why might our garden be dangerous for our dog?
If you’ve got an escape artist, it’s often easier to escape from a garden than a house.
If you’ve got a digger, they can break claws, tunnel to victory or unearth roots or plants that could poison them.
If you have a pedigree dog that is a status animal, an unsupervised garden can be an easy place to take them from.
People outside may also open gates inadvertently where they wouldn’t open your front door.
If you’ve got a territorial dog, a fence may not be as secure as you think it is in terms of protecting passers-by.
Also, whilst you may have the most perfectly trained pet who’d never wander off site, it doesn’t stop other animals getting in. When you’ve seen your 45kg shepherd having a fight with a badger, you realise that fences are not just about keeping things IN, but also keeping things OUT. Badgers, by the way, even old, sick ones, can cause a lot of damage. Learned that by experience. You don’t have to live in more exotic parts to meet animals that might decide your dog is a tasty snack, that’s for sure.
And we have all heard tales of animals poisoned by food thrown over fences, or, here in rural France, animals shot by hunters accidentally.
Lots of reasons then that your outdoor space could do with a bit of thought.
Also, we tend to adapt our houses to suit our dogs when we’re out. A couple of chewed books and boots and I got really, really good at tidying up. An overturned bin one day and I was vigilant about putting the bin under lock and key. If we’re in and our dogs are in the house, we tend to be supervising them – passively if nothing else. If we’re on a walk, again, our dogs tend to be on a lead or within earshot. Certainly, they should be, even though I know this is not always the case.
But we leave our dogs unsupervised a lot out in the garden.
In rural France, a lot of dogs are outside, unsupervised 24 hours a day.
For many dogs, even a slight boundary is enough to keep them in, even if it doesn’t stop other things coming into the garden. A 1m high chicken-wire fence is all I’ve got along one of my boundaries. Any determined dog would make short work of that.
My first question for escapees is over or under?
Are they jumpers or diggers?
I prefer jumpers. So much easier.
Shelssie was a jumper. This 30-cm-high staffie cross could scale a 3m fence. I saw her. A flat, featureless fence that my champion rock-climber friend would have trouble finding a foothold on. She could easily jump 2m and even with a grille across the top of the kennel run, if unsupervised, she would spend her time jumping and headbutting weak spots until she made a gap or got a loose bit, and then she was off. So a roof kind of slowed her down, but didn’t stop her. I’m pretty sure she could have scaled 4 or 5 metres even.
Butter wouldn’t melt, would it?
Don’t believe me?
Now I’m not a fan of dogs training like this – oh the physical damage they can do to themselves! – but is it really any better for Miss Shelssie who freelanced? Forget this dog’s 2-hour training sessions and treadmills, Shelssie practised whenever she was unsupervised, which was a good 10 hours a day sometimes.
Coyote roll bars are a good start – not easy if you have 300m of perimeter fencing, but nobody says you can’t fence off a smaller space for your dogs.
So a 2 metre smooth-surfaced fence with roll-bars and an inward-facing 45° section at the top will help manage most hardened jumpers.
Digging is tougher, but digging takes time unless you’ve built your fence on loosely-packed dry sand or on fresh compost. A hard substrate is tougher to dig out from. The easiest thing to do is lay a hard substrate – cement is also a possibility – and to cover it with solid chicken wire to about a metre out, and then stones or gravel on top. You can put ground cover plants as a hedge. You can also buy rigid fencing and bury it low into the ground.
I fear for this guy’s feet in flip flops with bolt cutters right there, let me tell you. I need to do another post for Safety in the garden for Aussies in flip-flops. Dude, you live in a country with deadly snakes and spiders anyhow. Get some proper footwear.
You want something flat and wide from the fence, like a metre of chicken wire, and you want to go down, like reinforcing bars for reinforced concrete if you need something tough.
Again, if it’s too expensive, go smaller. Make a smaller penned area.
The most important thing is to tackle the motivation behind the digging or escaping.
To chase? Cats? Moles? Rabbits? I don’t need to tell you about the Boston terrier who burrowed through to next door, nipped into the neighbours’ house and got himself a guinea pig snack.
Territorial behaviour or competition from other dogs?
Fear and the desire to escape? Separation anxiety?
The desire to mate?
When you know what’s motivating this behaviour, you can then start to deal with the cause. So bored animals need some canine enrichment or occupation. Animals who are chasing need to learn some impulse control and to be supervised. Territorial behaviour can be dealt with through desensitisation or counterconditioning programmes, as can fear. Mating can easily be solved with a quick trip to the vet.
Supervision is also crucial. Most dogs don’t know not to escape. And you might tell them off, but punishing a dog only suppresses the behaviour, it does not eliminate the need behind it. It just makes the dog more likely to try to escape in your absence. I always ask if the dog is trying to escape when supervised. That is a different thing altogether. But the vast majority of dogs are escaping when they’re unsupervised which means they need supervision and a gradual, trained programme of settling when unsupervised. Don’t just expect your dog to do nothing for 10 hours whilst your at work. Build up to it and start small.
For Tobby the skirt chaser, we got to the point where he could be outside unsupervised and he didn’t bugger off through tiny holes despite advanced arthritis… although he was very good at knowing my head wasn’t in it and I’d then be chasing my Littlest Hobo through the lanes.
Of course, you don’t want to supervise all the time, so you really need to address those emotional needs to escape or dig in other ways. And you need to train them to stay inside the fence at all costs. That photo was me practising with the gate. I’m waving leads and chicken at them. That’s what I want. A rock-solid ‘no, this is my giant big den and I’m not budging no matter how you tempt me’. Essentially, what you are doing is ‘stay on mat’ training, just with a garden rather than a mat.
But get to the emotions and train something appropriate.
Are they searching to get out to exercise their predatory habits? Scentwork, impulse control work and play are particularly helpful at putting an on-switch and an off-switch on these behaviours and giving your dog plenty of stimulation in appropriate ways.
If your dog is seeking to get out to give your neighbours and their dogs a piece of his mind, you really could do with a trainer or behaviourist who can work with you on counterconditioning or exposure therapy to help your dog feel less threatened by what happens outside the fence.
If your dog is afraid and is seeking to get out when there are loud noises or things happen in the home, working on providing a safe, quiet environment and a place for them to retreat to is crucial, as well as working on their resilience and confidence.
Please bear in mind that the emotional drives behind these behaviours can be much stronger than any punishment you may choose. Invisible electric fencing or physical electric fencing may be little deterrent at all. In fact, for aggressive dogs it runs the risk of making their behaviour worse, and for fearful dogs, they may then be reluctant to return home. Shock fencing causes more problems than it solves.
Dogs may also try to get out because they are bored, in which case your dog needs to learn how to settle in your absence and or you to make sure that you are not asking too much of your dog. Occupation, scentwork, mental games and activities should help with that too.
And dogs may also seek to get out for company and companionship. Getting another pet is not a solution, but doggy daycare, dog parks, playdates and dog sitters are one way to both manage your dog’s needs and also help make sure they are met. If your dog is not neutered, it is something to consider as to whether those needs are sexual in nature and whether neutering would curb their desire to roam in search of a mate.
So, let’s talk worst-case scenario. You’ve got a dog that, for one reason or another, has horrible aggression issues and the potential to do great damage. You’d like to be able to let them off-lead outside and you have the space to do it, but you don’t want to have to supervise (or you can’t) 24 hours a day. Or you have the world’s most persistent skirt chaser and having them altered isn’t an option. Or you’ve adopted a hound who has a million ways to get out. Or a Shelssie.
For one reason or another, you absolutely need a secure garden space.
How can you create that?
Besides a secure fence, a smooth wall is less likely to help dogs go over. Buried fence panels will stop diggers making such an easy task of it. Roll bars/45° inwards-facing fencing attached to the top will also help. ‘Airlocks’ or double gate systems can help with gate dashers. You will need a deadlock on gates to stop unwitting guests opening them by mistake. For dogs who don’t pose an aggression risk, high-vis collars/harnesses and a GPS tracker will help you locate quickly and also help motorists see them to avoid accidents on the road. Bear in mind, collars can easily be slipped and can also catch dogs onto branches, which also poses a risk. Whilst a dog may get caught up in a harness, it won’t strangle them. A high-vis escape-proof harness for all outdoor time will be better than a collar. For dogs who pose a significant aggression risk, it’s imperative that your dog is secure.
Just as an aside, if your dog is that aggressive, you will be working with someone, I know. But some things to bear in mind from fatal dog attacks…
The risks of a fatal dog bite are higher with dogs who a) live outside on a permanent or semi-permanent basis b) uncastrated males that are 25kg plus c) in groups
The victims are often physically vulnerable (young or old) neighbours or known to the family (rather than family members or strangers) rather than strangers. That, though, is for fatal dog bites, not the 99.9999% of bites which don’t kill. It is not to say that your dog is more likely to bite a child, just that it will be more serious if it does.
I think, though, that there is a lesson in there about dogs in yards.
Dogs shouldn’t live in yards if you expect them to be good ‘people’ dogs. Although socialisation is largely over by 12-14 weeks, you need to keep that socialisation going with strangers and with familiar humans through their teenage years and not deprive them of regular contact with humans in their adulthood. Becoming a yard dog or ‘resident’ dog who lives out in a yard with little contact with humans is not a good way for a dog to live. No wonder they lose touch with how humans behave! 10 years in the countryside has made me much more edgy in cities. The noise, lack of space and bad manners make me grumpy in ways they never did when I lived in the city. We lose touch with the world and with how people behave if we aren’t regularly part of it.
The other lesson is that if you have an aggressive dog who you like to give garden time to, as well you might, don’t think that the biggest threat is to people the dog doesn’t know. I suspect we lower our guard with people who know the dog, thinking the dog will tolerate them as they tolerate us. So when you’re thinking of how to keep your postman safe from accidentally releasing your dog, make sure you think too about access from the house. It’s all very well preventing your neighbours’ kids from accidentally getting in to your garden from the street, or stopping your dog getting out onto the street, but think too of how you stop grandchildren, visiting children, guests and grandmas getting from the house into the garden, or your dog from getting from the garden to the house.
This is from bite expert Jim Crosby: “Dogs belonging to grandparents or other family not living with the child full time are the most likely of the family dogs to have a negative encounter, whether a full fatality or a simple dog bite. This usually indicates a lack of frequent social contact between the dog and the particular child, coupled with a relaxation of supervision because the dog is seen as part of the family.”
I think that’s a really important message. When you set up your secure garden, make sure you don’t forget security between the house and the garden. It’s all very well protecting Joe Public from your dog, or your dog from Joe Public/coyotes/wolves/bears and the likes, but the real dangers are often likely to be ones in the home.
Last week I did a post about keeping your dog safe on walks. That related to all kinds of issues from chasing small critters, chasing cars or joggers, fearfulness or spookiness in public, aggressive behaviour in public or even those dogs who just like rampaging up to picnickers, scoffing the lot and racing off with the tablecloths. If you have a dog whose recall is poor or unreliable, or whose behaviour puts them (or others) in danger, that’s your first place to start.
Whilst a home should be a safe place, so many incidents take place there that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a major hazard zone. Whether you’ve got a puppy, a dog with anxiety, a dog who’s aggressive or unpredictable towards unfamiliar people, other dogs in your home or towards guests, giving your dog a safe place is absolutely vital.
And that will need to be a place we can secure, from time to time. We can’t just teach our dog ‘Go To Mat’ and hope they’ll stick at it, not unless we work at it like mental. I’ll never forget seeing trainer extraordinaire Susan Garrett and her five collies. The doorbell rang and all five of those collies ran to their beds and sat there like their butt was glued to the bed. Oh how I wish! Not so easy with dogs coming and going here all the time and so very many years of practice at ‘alternative’ behaviours like jumping, barking or even peeing on the floor when guests arrive.
Teaching ‘go to mat’ or teaching your dog to go to a space when things happen is great though. It’s definitely something I’d put on a puppy’s ‘thing to learn’ chart and it’d certainly stop a lot of door dashing.
But a puppy can’t be expected to be glued to a mat twenty hours a day. So they’ll need a safe space as well as this behaviour unless you plan on supervising them every waking moment.
Why do puppies need a safe space?
Because you can’t supervise them twenty-four hours a day. You need a place that can act as a physical babysitter, so that you can have a bath or go in the kitchen without worrying about whether your puppy is dismantling the sofa, surfing the counters, peeing on the furniture or eating the wires. A safe space is about navigating early learning so that newly discovered ‘fun stuff’ doesn’t become the beginnings of a very bad habit. Why do we take kids to soft play and ball pits and jungle gyms? Because they’re fun and they’re safe. We don’t take them to antique shops or Wedgwoods outlet shop to play around china do we? We do stuff all the time to stop our kids breaking things or touching things they shouldn’t. If you’re not doing the same for your puppy, then you really need to look at your values about this family member. Are you seriously expecting a puppy to just deal with all those wooden chair legs that look so very much in need of chewing? Or those shoes that are just weird pieces of leather that absolutely must be designed for chewing? Don’t expect your puppy to be any more sensible around your Villeroy and Boch fine dining tableware when your kids eat off plastic plates and you give them a drink in a beaker.
What about older dogs?
Ah, this is where I remember my old Ralf with fondness. Ralf, a 13-year-old former guard dog who lived with me for a brief but love-filled seven months back in 2014. Ralf who could take tin cans apart with his teeth. Ralf who ate a kilo of sugar. Ralf who destroyed all my packs of pasta, decided he didn’t like them and left their contents over the kitchen floor. Ralf who was the reason I had to put all my dog food under lock and key.
Yes it’s cute. Yes, it can be dangerous. I came home one day to find Amigo with his head stuck in a biscuit bag and Tilly guarding the kitchen from three dogs who were at least three times her size. I was lucky. I shouldn’t depend on luck to keep my dogs safe.
So the food went away. The kitchen found a door. Ralf’s foraging days were over.
He wasn’t the only one of my dogs who could open doors. Effel the beauceron did a good job ‘trying’ to open the door. One wrecked door later and the dog food found a new home.
So just for your common-or-garden dogs who have no particular bad habits, a secure space in the home is an essential. Ralf, Amigo and Effel were great dogs, but to expect them to resist temptation when I’m absent is a big ask.
After all, even by the age of five not all children will wait for a bigger reward later – and that’s for human children with their developing ability to understand consequences!
So expecting a dog to leave the marshmallow when there are no better consequences if they leave it til later… quite frankly that’s just ludicrous. In Ralf’s case, have sugar now and have food later too. Those two things were not linked in his head. Neither were ‘have sugar now and have tummy ache later’.
Also, you wouldn’t punish a four year old for not being able to delay reward, so punishing a dog who understands even less is just so irrational of us as humans that you’d have to ask if we actually have any sense of theory of mind or understanding of other species’ capabilities at all. Would you really go into that room and tell that little girl off for eating a marshmallow? Or wetting her bed?
Yet we expect more of our dogs than we do of five-year-olds in many cases!
It’s not just about learning to delay rewards.
Dogs also learn by trial and error: jump at the door handle often enough and one day, you’ll press the lever and be free! Flika is a devil for opening doors. There is some evidence that dogs learn by watching and mimicking (although not like apes do) and Heston learned that delightful trick from her – something I have to keep my eye on.
And that’s just your normal dogs doing normal everyday kind of stuff… opening front doors and gates, foraging in cupboards and chewing shoes.
A safe space is vital.
For fearful dogs, having a secure space is absolutely essential. It may only take the door being open that split second and a loud bang for the dog to choose flight over all other reactions. I know I don’t need to explain how many fearful dogs run off during thunderstorms. Living with the noise-conscious Flika has given me more of an insight… low flying planes, noisy motorbikes, tractors, lorries going too fast, cyclists, people chatting… they’re all enough to spook her even when she’s in the house. Luckily, she chooses fight over flight, barks at the thing and – surprise, surprise! – the thing goes away. Very effective for Flika. But for fearful dogs, the risk of flight is huge. For dogs with severe separation anxiety or hyper-attachment, it’s not uncommon to find them trying to escape to get to you. I’ve had two that can do this.
This image from Caring for rescued ex-street dogs shows just how many things can set off a fearful dog outside the home.
Do you think it’s much different INSIDE the home, especially for a dog who has never been in a house?
For dogs who’ve lived outside, claustrophobia can be a real issue. Imagine being trapped in a prison you can’t escape from with noisy machines and hoovers and pings, beeps, alarms. Let’s not forget the television and the people. Can you imagine if you were fearful of dogs and being trapped in a house with four big dogs?
Now imagine being a dog who is scared of people and being trapped in a house with four big, hairy scary humans.
For aggressive dogs, a safe secure space is also vital. Aggression is part of the normal canine behaviour repertoire. That dogs are territorial shouldn’t come as a ‘Breaking News!’ kind of story. That some dogs don’t like new stuff, don’t like unfamiliar people or don’t like unfamiliar dogs is not newsworthy either. But you don’t want a dog barrelling out of your front door to bite the postal worker or your Auntie Dot’s bichon, make sure your dog is secure.
It’s also true of dogs with predatory behaviours – even if the worst they’d do would be chase. Do you think an open window is much of a hindrance to a greyhound who’s just seen a cat jump over the fence?
Needing a secure space is also necessary for dogs who are curious with low fear levels. Call it foolhardiness or just plain stupidity, but I once watched a dog about to jump out of a third-floor window because her owners were outside. Dogs naturally should be fairly fearful of big drops, but not Maya. If you have a dog who is curious and a risk-taker, security will be paramount.
So very, very many reasons why homes might not be as secure as we think and why our dogs need to have a secure place. We just can’t expect the ‘perfect’ dog who doesn’t chew in our absence, who doesn’t pee on things, who doesn’t stay put. We’re not Susan Garrett with her fabby collies. And our dogs might be able to manage a 10-minute ‘go to mat’ exercise, but we shouldn’t expect them to be able to hold that for five hours when we have guests.
We don’t think, either, that we might need our dogs to be secure when they’re older in ways they never were as a young dog. Maybe we have the perfectly behaved dog (oh my Heston, you are such a good boy!) who doesn’t escape, who doesn’t chew, who isn’t fearful, who isn’t predatory and who can cope with open gates as long as nothing too untoward happens on the other side. Yet dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction (doggie dementia) can suddenly need a safe place in ways they didn’t when they were young. Amigo would pace and pace in the night – and it wasn’t safe with other dogs about since he was deaf – he couldn’t hear their growls and couldn’t see them. I wished then that my other dogs were crate-trained so that I didn’t worry about a fight. You can’t crate train a dog with dementia… it’s hard enough to be losing your understanding, but to be put in a crate as well?
And that brings me on to another reason to keep your dogs secure. Some of the worst dog/dog injuries I’ve seen (and even dogs who’ve killed another dog) have been during owner absence. Redirected aggression over an exciting moment like an owner’s car pulling up or someone knocking on the door or a cat passing the window have been the triggers for some pretty hideous fights. I don’t ever – never, never, never – leave a new dog alone with all my others. I don’t leave dogs of disproportionate sizes alone in my absence. I don’t leave anxious pacing dogs alone with my others. When I first leave a dog with my others, I do so for five minutes and I video. And then for ten or fifteen minutes, again with video. That way I can see for sure what’s happening.
So as you can see, there are so very many reasons why you need a safe, secure place.
That boils down to ‘Dogs are dogs’.
No wonder so many dogs end up being banished to a yard. Being in the house unsupervised is really, really hard!
So what can you do to secure a space for your dog?
This is where baby and toddler stuff can be really useful.
Baby gates are great if you have stairs. And if your dog can jump them, put another one above the first. Make sure there is no gap and if you have a very determined escape artist or a gap, a roller at the top is a bonus.
You can make ones with steel or aluminium tubing as well if you’ve got Man Tools.
Of course, doors are a bonus. But doors can be easily destroyed… unless you fit metal plates to them or buy a security door. No they don’t look pretty. Who wants to live in a home that looks like a workshop? But your dog is safe. And you only need one room to do it.
Some people may change handles to knobs. Just a word of caution. It is VERY easy for a dog to jump and get their collar caught on a doorknob. I know seven dogs who died last year as a result of this sadly very common situation. If you have an escape artist, you’re going to want a collar with a tag on it, but those can so easily snag on a knob. I’d either remove the collar and have them chipped or wearing a harness with a tag on it, or stick to flat handles. Our shelter used to have a gate with a flat handle which pointed to 6 o’clock so that our resident guard dog Belle couldn’t open it. One at 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock is easy to jump on. One at 6 o’clock pointing downwards can still be operated by humans, but not so easily by a dog. Belle never managed it.
Hook and eye locks or sliding bolts are useful too, although I know dogs who can flick hook and eye locks or pull sliding locks with teeth. Fitting one to the upper part of the door where it’s out of reach of a dog’s height when standing on back legs is straightforward enough.
But for most dogs, a simple closing door with a handle and a simple lock if necessary is more than enough. Add a baby gate for stairs or wherever and you’re probably more than secure.
I’m talking about the super-dog escape artists.
Metal panels attached either side of a door can stop them tearing through partition walls. A handleless metal-plated door with security locks is not a door that can be opened by a dog, teeth or claws, jumping or trial and error.
I work on a ‘two-door’ system as well. I want there to be two doors between a dog and whatever its target is. Got a super territorial dog with a bite history that you love dearly and want to keep from a mandatory euthanasia order? I want two dog proof, lockable doors between it and the postal worker. The dog is safe, the postie is safe.
Crates are great for small dogs, but be sure to get a sturdy one. I’ve had a 5kg minpin with severe separation anxiety wreck a crate in minutes. Make sure you train it and desensitise a dog to it: don’t expect them to like being in a crate especially if they can see or hear you.
X-pens are also useful. Baby parks and playpens are fine for little dogs who can’t clear it, and rollers around the top will stop them getting leverage on the edge. These are not very secure, so you need to bear it in mind that they can easily be knocked over.
If you have a dog who is such a risk that you’re thinking of rollers and double-locked double-door systems with ‘air-lock’ type entries, then it’s vital you get help too. If this need is caused by fear, then medication should be an option here.
If your dog is so aggressive or presents such a risk to guests that they need such a system, then you need to be working with great behaviourist or trainer who knows how to work with these in fear-free ways. Intimidation, threat and coercion will only suppress emotions. I don’t have to tell you about the owner who used these methods to stop his predatory huskies chasing his cat. He usually kept the animals separate, but one day the huskies got out and he came home to a dead cat. A secure area and caution would have managed the situation much better. But because he thought that his “no!” training had worked, he stopped taking precautions. All that had happened was the dogs learned not to chase the cat when the owner was present. The owner relaxed and got a bit careless. And the huskies cottoned on to the fact that when no-one was present, they could do what they liked.
Just a note of caution about ‘containment systems’ using shock or static, vibrations or otherwise. These tend to give a level of confidence that is unwarranted and unmerited. I’ve seen broken wires, mains failures, dogs who barrelled through them anyway. When the stakes are high, these are not secure and a dog will risk it for a biscuit. Plus, they work by building in fear of punishment, pain or discomfort. If you have a fearful dog, do you really want to make them MORE afraid? If you think that a predatory dog will put aside automatic behaviours or even be put off by a shock, you need to hope that never fails. And a hope is all it is. Batteries die. Mains power has cuts. Plus, the desire to chase or kill can be so powerful that punishment would need to be ramped up really high to work. And if you have an aggressive dog whose target is on the other side, what effect do you think adding a punisher will have? Either suppress the behaviour and never overcome it, or even increase the fear or anger that leads to the aggression in the first place. There are so many, many reasons not to rely on ‘electronic’ containment systems, and the devices fail more than you know. Fitting them is an art in itself. Too loose and you could end up thinking it wasn’t working, so amp up the shock. Too tight and you can do some nasty burn damage. The stakes are too high to have confidence in this equipment.
Ultimately, a dog who is contained within four walls with a secure area filled with great, chewable, dissectable dog stuff and no access to things that could hurt them is a dog who is safe. There are many things that kennels are not great for, but keeping dogs safe is one of their virtues. When keeping a dog safe from the world (or even the world safe from it!) is of paramount importance, don’t take risks. I know we have an emotional response to a dog in a secure kennel run, to metal doors and rollers and airlocks. It makes us think of prisons and that makes us sad. We don’t want to think of our dogs being deprived of freedom or living in such ‘unwelcoming’ an environment. But our pretty wallpapered walls and parquet floors are aesthetically pleasing only to us. They pretty up OUR lockable secure prisons. A dog doesn’t care if you have metal panels on walls or if you have Sanderson’s Harlequin ‘Quintessence’ in lagoon blue and cerise from their ‘Standing Ovation’ line. It’s just a wall. Unless you have no doors, no fences and no gates, and your dog roams everywhere doing whatever they like, upstairs and downstairs running through the town like Wee Willie Winkie, then you already secure your dogs somehow. It may make you wrinkle your nose with distaste at the thought of a secure dog space that has had carpet or vinyl removed to stop them chewing it, but you won’t be getting home to find your dog has munched its way through your best Axminster carpet and is now in need of a very expensive surgical intervention to clear a stomach blockage.
If you have the kind of problem that baby gates, rollers, pens, crates and doors can’t solve, then you really need to find a good trainer or behaviourist to help you out. Sometimes it may be that you need to keep them very safe just for a short while as they learn to overcome the issues that require heavy-duty lockdown.
And if you have the kind of problem that baby gates, rollers, pens, crates and doors CAN solve, then you’re likely to find that your dog can quite easily be taught boundaries in positive ways that they actually respect when you are not there too. You’ll find a trainer can help with those things!
Here are three of mine who were learning not to gate-dash. I was behind the camera waving leads and chicken at them. When you find being inside much more rewarding than life outside, then you’ve cracked it!
None of my current dogs have any problem being given the run of the house. They no longer need supervision. There have been times when I’ve needed to secure a zone for one reason or another, but doors are more than enough. Heston had the beginnings of a chewing habit, so a door and tidying up nipped that in the bud. Tilly had problems with housetraining for a few months when she arrived, and being restricted from less familiar rooms put an end to that.
Flika is a little different. She WILL destroy doors in a bid to escape during storms or when I’m absent. We’re managing that through medication, supplements and through desensitisation, as well as through babysitters and her coming with me. But she’s 14. My hopes of a positive prognosis for her ever learning how to be on her own in the house for an extended period are low. Were she younger, I’d be making more of an effort to help her cope rather than adapting my life to suit her. This reminds me to finish with an important statement…
Keeping your animals safe is crucial. Preventing them from practising behaviours when unsupervised is vital. But nothing will change your dog’s underlying reasons for needing this security unless you invest in a programme to overcome it.
That means understanding the reasons behind it and getting to grips with the underlying emotional causes of their desire to break free. Whether it’s anxiety, full-blown phobias, boredom, not knowing how to be on their own and settle, territorial behaviours, predation, chase behaviours or even that they see the best defence as a good offence, you need to understand what’s driving those needs and deal with that. Then you may find that you don’t need to turn your home into Alcatraz.
I make no bones about it: I love a challenge. And I work with some dogs with pretty challenging behaviour. Sometimes that means making some adjustments in the dog’s life, be that for the duration of the training programme (with an aim of phasing those adjustments out) or for the duration of the dog’s life.
What I’m exploring today is how you can keep your dogs as safe as possible without compromising your daily walk.
Why am I even thinking about this?
What I love about dogs is that they are so utterly predictable. What I hate about people is that they aren’t.
For instance, I know my Heston. Crowds, he can handle. Hunters, he can handle. Joggers at the lake in groups, he can handle. Isolated joggers running towards us when he’s spotted them coming over 200m away, he can’t handle.
And I can predict what he’ll do. First he’ll see them and stop. He’ll assess the situation. He’ll decide they’re a threat. He’ll start pulling towards them. He growls. He’ll back and bark as they go past and if they’re too close, there’ll be lunges as well. He doesn’t snap or bite. To be honest, with a bark like his, he doesn’t need to.
So predictable I’d put money on his behaviour.
But people aren’t predictable. Never bet on what a person will do next.
Like last week when I saw a jogger coming towards us about 300m away or so. I turned round, backtracked, slipped behind a fence and waited until she’d gone past. She saw me and I have no doubt she saw me trying to clip Tilly back onto the lead and wrestle Flika who decided the best way to avoid going back the way she came was to stage a sit-in.
The jogger went past, and I came out and continued with my walk…
Only then to hear her coming up behind us and running back towards us! No matter that it’s a full circuit and she had no reason to turn and about face that I could think of.
And not only that, we’ve so lost touch with what might be frightening to an animal that we’ve lost sight of the fact that for every other species, if a predator runs head on at you at speed, it has one intention: to threaten or attack.
Bulls know that when dogs run up to them, it’s threat or attack.
The only reason a predatory species would do that to a prey species ends with being attacked or killed.
I did feel like asking the woman what the bloody hell she was playing at, but people are so unpredictable I don’t know how it would have ended.
But I had done my bit to keep my dogs safe. Both my dodgy recallers are on leads. And Tilly was on the lead because I’m respectful. I don’t know how that jogger feels about dogs. She could be frightened of them.
But my dodgy recallers stayed on the lead long after the jogger had disappeared over the horizon.
Yes, that’s pretty much permanent. Sometimes they’re on 3 metre leads and sometimes 10 metre leads. Unless Heston is working, he’s on the lead. He’s not savvy enough to know when working is and when he’s not supposed to freelance.
No, I don’t feel like I’m depriving my dog of the primordial experience of galloping free through nature because guess what?
Yes, that’s my 14 year old mali girl with chronic arthritis and hyperattachment buggering off across a field like a greyhound out of the slips.
Luckily, there were no cars, roads, cows, dogs or people hanging about. Flika is super friendly with all of those things.
Flika’s recall – or lack of – is predictable. Cars, cows, people and dogs are cause to bolt. Cows are pretty predictable. I know where they live and in a world without cars, people and dogs, I could happily let her gallop off and hope that she’d come home eventually as long as there were no cow fields along the way. In actual fact, she’s practically by my side most of the time and if I felt lucky, I could let her off lead.
But I also know what she’d do then. The first is find animal crap. The second is to roll in it and the third is to test if it’s edible.
Those are disgusting if not particularly dangerous, right?
Well, rolling in stuff requires a bath. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried bathing an old mali who’s got rickety bones? The less I have to manoeuvre her and manipulate her, the better. Every time I do, it takes out a huge withdrawal from our trust account and one day that will end badly, I know.
So I could do without unnecessary baths.
And eating animal crap isn’t the end of the world… until she comes to some poisoned meat, or gets worms… Or worse. Decaying corpses aren’t too good for the health, really.
Could I teach her? I guess. A solid recall. A solid leave it. Counter-conditioning around cows, cars, people and dogs?
But she’s 14. She got here 6 months ago and we’ve got our head around not pulling like a husky and not wandering all over like a beagle.
So she walks on a lead. She pootles. We hang around. I follow her nose. She is safe and alive and I don’t have to wring my hands after a terrible accident and say, ‘if only that cow hadn’t kicked her to death’ or ‘if only that car had seen her coming!’
Yes, you can accuse me of exaggerating in the name of making an argument. Except I’ve picked up dead dogs from cow fields and I don’t need to tell you how many lost dogs end up as dead dogs due to poor road sense.
And even if it doesn’t end up like that, I respect cows enough to know they don’t need a batty old mali cantering around after them to kiss them/chase them/whatever. My dogs are not more important in the universe that they get the automatic right to chase stuff.
And that’s my normal non-aggressive dog. Flighty Flika. Lead on.
Tilly has her lead on sometimes. Past vegetable plots and cow fields mainly. She is a spaniel and foraging for tomatoes, strawberries and cow pats is second nature. Again, mildly annoying, but she’s practically deaf now.
Amigo had his lead on most of the last few months. Canine dementia and deafness don’t tend to end well when they meet up with roads or forests.
Heston has his lead on most of the time. Whilst his prey drive is under control, he is too predictable with unpredictable joggers. That may only be 10 days out of 365, but even so. Lead off where I can see for miles. Lead on where I can’t.
What worries me though is this thought that many people seem to have that a dog ‘deserves’ to be off lead, that it ‘needs’ to be off-lead or that it has a right to be off-lead. I know I don’t have to share the story of the spaniel killed in Manchester for running up to two dogs. Sure, worst case scenario and rare, I know. Heston has never had a scrap with an off-lead dog running up to him, but every single time one runs up to him, it doesn’t do him any good at all. It’s not “friendly”. It’s over-friendly, it’s over-confident and it’s rude. A dog who rampages up to other dogs hasn’t got good manners and isn’t sociable. It is rude and bad mannered.
And I’ve had a battle with some clients to get them to understand that. Your dog is not friendly. It’s the equivalent of Donald Trump at a Playboy party.
Not only that, if your dog is fearful and might bolt, if they’re predatory and they might chase, or they’re aggressive and they might make a bit of a scene, you owe it to your dog to keep them safe. If they can’t be trusted not to eat rubbish, if they can’t be trusted not to chase a bike, if they can’t be trusted not to trot off into people’s veg plots and steal tomatoes, they need to be on a lead.
And the faces on clients when I say this!
It reminds me of an episode of some pet show whose name I can’t remember. Trainer Craig Ogilvie was working with this out-of-control labrador. The woman was horrified when he suggested she kept the dog on the lead to stop it barrelling up to other dogs and getting in scraps and to stop it eating animal excrement. It had already seen a vet for a number of reasons, gastrointestinal problems being one. She seriously looked as if giving the dog up would be a better solution than keeping it on lead. Mind you, seeing the dog walking on lead made me realise why she let it off so often. Our fearful, aggressive and predatory dogs, or those who like eating from Nature’s Buffet, can pull like steam trains and forget their learning.
You’d really rather relinquish your dog than put them on a lead?!
It’s too horrifying to think that they might be able to enjoy life beyond the house to somewhat less of a degree than the rule-less mayhem they were living in before?
Yes, I’ve had an argument with the owner of a German shepherd who had a nasty car-chasing habit. That was going to end really, really badly. But put him on a lead?
Deprive him of his freedom?
I said, ‘what would you prefer? 2000€ vets’ bills? A dead dog? or a safe dog?’
I don’t think that’s a ridiculous decision.
Yet it was as if I was suggesting the dog be locked in a glass prison like Hannibal Lector.
And there is also a vision that it will be forever.
It may be.
I’m not going to lie to you.
Certain problems may warrant the permanent wearing of a lead when out in public. A dog who has killed another animal is one. A dog who has bitten is another. Predation is a third reason as it can be really, really challenging to stop that automatic motor pattern. And a dog who is fearful and may disappear is another.
I always start out with that as my baseline. They may have to be on a lead on walks for the rest of their natural born lives to stop them getting splatted/kicked/bumped/squished/squashed/attacked/bitten/euthanised … and I can live with that.
After all, I clunk-click every trip.
My ‘freedom’ to not wear a seatbelt pales in significance with being alive.
But instead of seeing a lead like we see a seat-belt, as a useful thing that is a bit of a restriction but keeps us safe should the worst happen, we see leads as some kind of mobile prison.
I don’t understand that.
Not only that, if I am working with dogs on their fear or aggression, the last thing I want is them practising it.
We have this vision, don’t we, that ‘they’ll get used to it’, they’ll ‘get over it’.
Nope. They never get used to it. They never get over it. They just keep doing what they’re doing, getting better at it every time they practise.
From the relatively safe world of Tilly, who is practically always off-lead once away from cars, I also deal with dogs at the other end of the spectrum. Dogs who present an elevated level of fear, predation or aggression that it is so pronounced that they present a danger to themselves, to other animals or to people.
For incredibly fearful dogs like this, I would wonder if walks were beneficial, but I can envisage scenarios in which they may find pleasure in walks. And aggression too.
But these dogs don’t necessarily have to be completely deprived of a walk.
The first step is to ensure a two-lead system. One lead attached to a secure collar and to a secure joring or canicross belt. A secure harness (ruffwear webmaster is great – six buckles) that is regularly checked for safety and to make sure the buckles don’t fail. One dog I worked with has a harness that, even if the buckle fails, he’s still secure in it. A dog who is doubly attached – with lockable carabiner clips securing the lead at both ends – is a dog who can’t get away. They need to be walked by one person – a person whose entire focus is on that one dog. No phones. No music. No other dogs on lead. Balance harness, front attaching harness or even a conditioned head halter if necessary, although I hate these. Dogmatics is the only one I recommend or would use and only after extensive desensitisation to wearing it.
If they’ve a bite history or potential to bite, then a muzzle they’ve been gradually trained to wear is also a must.
And the final piece of the puzzle is a safe walk away from triggers, threats or prey. Drive if you have to. And if you get there, do a circuit in your car if necessary.
Never, ever lower your guard, even if you think it’s safe to do so without having had a really good risk assessment first.
One of the unpredictably aggressive dogs I work with lives like this. He has hundreds of great walks every year. His owners walk him three times a day. They drive to a number of pre-planned, pre-approved walks where they can predict and anticipate things that Niro sees as a threat. They have a great harness, a canicross belt with one bungee lead attached, a really great fixed length 3m lead and a muzzle.
And their dog is safe.
He enjoys his walks. He loves that time with them. He potters. He sniffs. They do some tracking work with him and scentwork. His aggression levels have dropped so significantly that we can now try other walks.
But as his owners said, “He’s never going to enjoy walks with other people or other dogs. He can cope now because of the training plan when he does see people or dogs. We even had a small terrier run up to us but because we always walk him together, my girlfriend went off to intercept the terrier and I walked off with Niro.”
Is that such a bad life?
In rural France, it’s definitely a possible life.
Sure, he is no longer wandering around town frightening old ladies or grabbing bikes by the tyres. He’s not barked at anyone on a walk for over 18 months. He doesn’t have the right to wander all over the place like he was, but he definitely wasn’t very good at doing that and the time he attacked a cat put an end to it.
In the meantime, because he’s not practising the behaviours any more, we can work on other things. One day, we might get to a one-lead situation, but we don’t have that as a goal. To be overly-ambitious or overly-confident about your dog’s ability to cope in the outside world is to place their safety and the safety of other people or animals in jeopardy.
This is absolutely one time when you’re better safe than sorry.
So don’t test your dog if you do have 100% recall. Keep a lead handy. I shan’t tell you about the annoying labrador man who goes jogging round our end without a lead. And his dog certainly does not have 100% recall.
Expect that, in the course of a dog’s life, that recall WILL fail at some point. Are you in safe enough circumstances as Flika was that it doesn’t matter? I promise you that what causes a recall failure won’t usually be a ‘safe’ situation!
Keep working on your recall and keep it strong and well-rewarded.
If you see dogs or people, ask first. Don’t let your dog run up first and then recall them. Those people may be happy to say hi to your dog, and if they’ve got a Flika, their dog may be glad to say hi. Ask first, that’s all.
And if your dog is bordering on 100% lead on, it’s worth investing in a behaviourist or positive trainer to help you overcome these issues.
In the meantime, no practising. There are so many ways that you can keep your dog safe without depriving them of exercise or stimulation, without them living like a hermit or a prisoner.
It may not be forever. You might just have to do this for the life of a modification plan.
But if not, it’s not the end of the world, is it? Safety trumps unlimited, ungoverned rule-less freedom every time.
Next up: how you can keep dogs safe in your home and garden if you have a dog with elevated risks of aggression, predation or fear.
Why is “Down” one of those tricks that dogs really need in their repertoire?
“Down” (meaning lie down, not ‘get off’ or ‘get down’ – I use “Off” for that) is a great behaviour to help your dog learn how to settle, how to respond appropriately. It also helps them manage their emotions. An excited dog will find it hard to stay in a down, but equally a dog in a down will find it hard to stay excited.
Once you have a “Down” and a “Stay” (or a “Down” and a “Release” or “Break”/”Free”) then you can do distance work. It’s great for dogs who are hyperattached to you, who shadow you or follow you about. It’s also great for separation anxiety, and you’ll find a lot of programmes for separation anxiety ask you to train this behaviour. It’s brilliant for manners. A dog in a down is not jumping over your guests, or thieving from the table. It’s all about impulse control.
You’ll find down in competition work as well, if you want to do obedience or ringsports. It can be a way for dogs doing scent work to show that they’ve hit their target too. It’s not just a staple for basic manners. If you have a working gundog, a down is vital – you don’t want your dog getting in the way of the other animals or the guns. A down is as much about a settle and about impulse control as it is anything else.
You’ll find also several positions of down. One is the sphinx down.
This is the one you’ll find most in competition or in command work. Some dogs lie like this more naturally without being taught
And others have a more “side saddle” approach or a relaxed down, that won’t wash in competition but is great if you don’t fancy winning any medals
Some dogs also have a kind of “spatchcock chicken” or froggie leg down
Whichever works for your dog is great if you don’t have a preference. I think they’ll tend to choose the one that is most comfortable. I’ve never seen any of mine except Tilly do the spatchcock chicken one. She never does a sphinx one. Heston does sphinx and side-saddle, and so did Amigo. You can always also teach both. I like a side-saddle down for a relax, and a sphinx down as a down that means “you’re still on the clock, dog!” simply because side-saddle seems to be easier on the joints and is more akin to a normal resting position. My sphinx down is just “Down”, and my soft relaxed down is “Settle”.
So whatever works for you is fine unless you are doing competitions. It’s the stillness that counts.
If you are planning on doing obedience, you might want to follow a special programme to help you with positions and making them exact from the beginning, but for the rest of us, it’s not such a big deal. If you’re planning on doing competitions, you’ll want to be working on transitions and you’re better off checking out with an obedience competition trainer before you even start this behaviour, as the way they do it is a hard habit to change or break.
So, how do you teach a “Down?”
The fastest way is to lure a couple of times with a treat in your hand, and then to fake the dog out, use an empty hand as a lure and then reward in position. Where you reward is vital. If you are standing and you don’t reward in place, you’ll end up with a dog who ‘pops up’ quickly and finds it harder to do a sustained down.
Something to be aware of: if you’ve already taught a sit, you can lure from a sit, but your dog may always think it has to sit first.
You want your dog to know down from a standing position as well as down from a sit.
Just a note: trainer extraordinaire Kathy Sdao says that “Down” is very close to “Bow” in sound, so if you’re teaching a bow first (which well you might) you might want a word or phrase that is different. She uses “Queen” in “Who’s your Queen?” and “Tah-dah!” for her dog bows, which is pretty cute.
If you have a little dog, putting them on a table or higher platform can really help you. Then you can see what you are doing. Groomers’ tables are great for this, but you can just as well use the kitchen or dining room table. I like to do this with my big dogs as well – some vets insist on using a table and nothing is worse than trying to yoink a 30kg dog onto a table in the vets. If you’ve got an ‘on’ and a ‘down’, you’ve got a dog who can do it by themselves. Stick a chin target in there and you’ve a dog who has three perfect behaviours in the vet office
Once you’ve taught this behaviour, you’re in a great position to teach down at a distance, down in areas with more distractions, down on a mat. You can teach them to cross their paws too, which is also cute.
You can use it for down in their bed and teach new behaviours that are rooted firmly in this behaviour. It’s also good for ‘roll over’ (called ‘show me your wiener’ and ‘show me your lady’ in this house) which will be another trick to teach in the future as it’s GREAT for all kinds of animal husbandry, nail clipping and undercarriage maintenance. You can also use it to teach a ‘play dead’ or a full roll-over.
Once you’ve taught it, you can build it up until it’s a really strong behaviour in all kinds of environments and for all kinds of variable durations. Add distractions, add things that are going to make them want to pop up, and practise – practise – practise!
So, you’ve already learned nose-to-hand touch, and if you’ve got a young nose bopper, they’ll have taken to it straight away. Why would you also want a chin target?
The answer is pretty simple. A nose touch is great fun for bopping. But generally, I’ve found it pretty hard to get a sustained nose target where your dog holds their nose there for a longer period of time. For masters of clicker training, it’s fine. If you’ve got great timing and a patient dog, you can prolong those nose targets for longer and longer periods.
But for us mere mortals with shouty dogs or teenage dogs, it’s not so easy.
I think there’s a reason for that. I want you to imagine those poor children in the past who were sent to stand in the corner as a punishment. Not looking at things and being up close to a surface is not pleasant in itself. I think Lidy likes bopping things with her nose. She bops me with her nose often enough. But to train her to sustain that nose targeting would be hard work and not particularly rewarding for either of us. It’d be like standing in the corner with nothing to see as a punishment.
A chin target is much less difficult in that it asks the dog to do something that is much less unpleasant in itself. Therefore, I think the psychology behind why it’s easier to build it up so your dog can hold their head there is much more straightforward: it’s not unpleasant. They can see you. You can get eye contact with them. They have more freedom to see the world around them.
Chin targeting to a hand is sometimes called a ‘calming chin target’. In reality there’s nothing particularly calming about it. It just asks a dog to hold a position. But it has the bonus of calming too, for many dogs. It’s all that being still.
Because we mere mortals can get a sustained chin target more easily, where we want to keep a dog in place, it’s great for getting your dog to be still. Chin targeting is great for vet visits, animal husbandry, clipping nails, and it can be pretty cute if you train it to other places as well. Who can resist a dog who comes up and places their chin on your lap? It’s an inoffensive and quite charming way to get attention in ways that don’t involve barking, dancing, humping, yapping, pawing or mouthing. If you have a dog who likes to get your attention, it is a nice target to teach, providing you have a dog at the right height! If you have a little dog, you can also teach them to target to a foot.
This is Chirag Patel using what I’d say is a half and half chin/nose target for vet stuff… so you can see how useful it is. Also a very good one to teach for muzzle training too.
Since the dog can remove their head at any point (it’s their choice to place it there), you can then use it for consent with handling, vaccinations and so on. It stops their eyes wandering and minimises panic. A chin targeted on my hand is a way of communicating between you. Your dog’s head on your hand is a way for your dog to say, “this is okay. I’m fine with this.”
It’s also nice for many dogs too, because many dogs like the under chin petting or scratching. They seem to prefer it much more than the old pat on the head that so many people are so fond of.
Most of us are just going to use this to encourage calm behaviours especially around distractions, but it can be good also for therapy dogs or assistance dogs.
For chin targeting, you need a good cue. You can, of course, use ‘chin’, but if you’re going to teach ‘spin’ later, you might want something less similar. Luckily, the actions are very different, so it’s not perhaps as confusing as ‘down’ and ‘bow’, for example.
I use the word ‘place’ for Lidy and Heston. Amigo’s cue was ‘Be Cute!’ as he targeted my knees with his chin. I use ‘Chin’ with Tilly because I have no desire or need to teach her how to spin, and I taught her last. I have no idea why I didn’t stick with ‘place’, but that’s humans for you. You can have different cues for different places you want the dog to target. I think ‘Be cute!’ would be a nice one to follow on from ‘Place!’ or ‘Chin!’
You will need also to make sure that your dog knows what to do with the rest of its body. Do you want them to sit, stand or lie down? A down and a chin target on your knee leaves your hands free for all sorts of things. You can ask for a down and then a chin target very easily.
Chin targets are another way, along with Watch! or a nose target, that you can keep your dog focused on you if they are aggressive, reactive or fearful. If you have an over-excited dog, it can help with that too. I really like this behaviour for fearful dogs: it really seems to offer them security to have that contact, but you may need to do a little work to get them used to your hand approaching them.
Since you need your dog to be calm, you may need to think about what you’re using as reinforcement and how you are marking the behaviour you like. If the food is really too overexciting, you can use less valuable food, or try this after they’ve had a good meal with some of their regular food as the reward. Using a toy is not particularly a good tactic unless you are working with a super-focused dog who has impulse control in the bag. Not impossible but one to save for those times where you want to give more of a challenge.
Remember, don’t lean over your dog or crowd them.
If your dog already has a good hand touch, it’s easy to slip your other hand under their chin and hold your target hand a little away from their nose. You can also use your Wait! or your Watch! commands as part of it. It’s easy to lure the behaviour at the beginning to help your dog understand what behaviour you want them to do.
You may find, as with a nose-to-hand target, that your dog tries to paw you, especially if they’ve already learned ‘paw’ as a command. This is why I don’t teach paw until much later in the sequence. Once you’ve taught paw movements, there’s no going back, and it can lead to a lot of trialling with pawing. I find dogs learn to distinguish quickly between this and a nose target, because your hand is in a different position completely. If you have already taught paw, you may find that bringing your dog closer to you so that they can’t move their paw up so easily may help you.
You can also teach your dog to place their chin on other things, like chairs or low tables. As I’ve said, I like a lap target. Can you just imagine if you walked into a busy vet surgery and every dog was docked on their owners’ lap like Amigo was with me? How easy would those vet visits be?!
This great video also shows you how to capture only behaviour where there is no paw offered.
You can also use a mat or towel as part of the learning process too, which will also stop dogs offering the behaviour all the time. As usual, if the behaviour is on cue (ie you only reward it with food or petting when you ask for it) you’ll stop that behaviour popping out willy-nilly, spilling out whenever you don’t want it. Nobody wants a dog coming and sticking its chin on you when you’re fast asleep!
As you can see, it’s a great and versatile behaviour that allows you to do all kinds of animal husbandry and grooming once you’ve built it up. It’s also one of the most endearing ways to teach your dog a polite way to get your attention. A dog who jumps all over you isn’t great, but a dog who places his chin on your lap is a dream. It’s a nice way for your dog to say ‘hi! I’d love a bit of a fuss please!’
In tribute to my Amigo, who died on March 29th 2018.
Last week, I was looking at “Take it!”, which is a great behaviour to teach a dog as part of programmes to keep their mouths busy. It also teaches them to wait for permission before putting something in their mouths. If you’ve taught “Wait!” then “Take it!” is the perfect cue to let your dogs know that now is the time that they can get what it is they’re waiting for, if it’s a toy or a food item. “Take it!” and “Leave it!” are great skills to help dogs understand what they can and can’t have. They’re both great for impulse control and for helping your dogs understand about patience.
“Take it!” is also great for avoiding potential guarding problems. A dog who is adept at “Drop!”, “Wait!”, “Take it!” and “Leave it!” is a dog who is happy to learn how to trade with you. A food or toy guarder, by their very nature, has already learned to use their mouth to help them out, and so putting those behaviours on cue and making them fun helps you avoid all manner of self-employed robbery, pick-pocketing and menacing later in your puppy’s life.
Once you’ve got “Take it!”, you can use it so easily every time your dog eats even if you feed from a bowl twice a day. That’s at least 14 trials of “Wait!” and “Take it!” every single week, even if you don’t play much with your dogs.
“Fetch!” is another really useful behaviour, as well as a trick. Whilst holding stuff in their mouth, carrying it and giving it up are great, “Fetch!” is lots of fun and takes it that bit further.
Obviously, you can’t teach fetch without a good hold!
When I first got Heston six years ago, nobody thought to tell me that it’s easier to work backwards. Luckily, he quickly got the notion to bring things back to me. It’s one of the reasons I was convinced he was a retriever X. And he has a bit of labrador in those genes for sure. But if you have a terrier, how many of us throw a toy for our puppy only for them to teach themselves a M-A-G-N-I-F-I-C-E-N-T new game… a terrier’s favourite game… “Chase me!”
Picture the scene…
You throw a toy. Your terrier runs after it delightedly. It picks the toy up. You call your terrier back… and…. it runs off into the distance to dissect it under a bush.
Some terrier owners have got savvy to this and use flirt poles and tug toys, knowing that a terrier can’t run off with a flirt pole and they love a game of tug almost as much as they love a game of “Chase me!”
Other dogs don’t get that they’re meant to a) grab the toy or b) bring it back. Effel my foster beauceron spent weeks chasing tennis balls happily, never even nosing the ball. Not a chance he was going to pick it up and bring it back.
Tobby my ancient old rescue mali got as far as “Take it!” before he arrived here and never wanted to relinquish, chase or retrieve.
Not everyone is lucky to have themselves a Heston who learns forward first by chasing a ball, picking it up and bringing it back.
But fetching stuff is such a great skill. If you don’t fancy a walk, if they’ve got a burst of energy, if you want to keep your dog near you when off-lead, if you want a part-time assistance dog who can pick up your washing and bring it to you, fetch is a skill that makes the most of our human-canine bond. It gives dogs a helpful job to do at times. At others, it keeps them occupied and helps them burn off steam. You can see why so many people who have working scent dogs use ‘Fetch!’ with their dogs.
Pair it up with “Find it!” or scenting and you have a very, very good game of hide-and-seek that can be used for so many reasons. First, it’s a great game to keep your dogs busy. Second it’s a very useful thing. Attach a special keyring to your keys and if you’ve got a dog who’s been trained to find it and fetch them, you’re never going to lose your keys again.
“Fetch!” has practical applications in all sorts of dog activities: obedience, ringsports, frisbee, gundog trials to name but four. It’s such an addictive activity that many professional trainers use it as the reward for their detection dogs. When you see a dog searching an avalanche for humans, you might not even wonder why they’re doing it. Often, why they’re doing it is that their game (whatever it is) is based on successful location of an item. They may work for hours on bombsites or on earthquake sites, in busy airports or in nightclubs simply for a game. Along with tug, it’s one of the tricks up the sleeve of many professional trainers, and you can often see a sneaky tug toy or ball on handlers. And if you’ve got a dog working around drugs, excrement or human bodies, you can see why you need a game and not a food reward.
A dog who has a mild obsession with “Fetch!” is a dog who is hanging around you on a walk. Guess how far Heston is from me on walks when I have his favourite squeaky rugby ball? For many dogs, toys end up being a much more powerful reward than food. It also fulfills very different needs. It’s not about eating. It’s about play. It taps into predatory behaviours. A dog who has a good “Fetch!” has a behaviour that you can use instead of food.
And that is the side-effect of games like this: they can be highly addictive to your dog, so be aware of that before you start. As with all physical games, make sure you are on even terrain, that your dog is in good health and that you are not playing two hours of Fetch with a young dog whose bones are still growing. It’s one reason why I like to teach a dog to come around the back of me and chase the ball or toy rather than dancing around in front of me waiting for me to throw it. They at least have a chance of seeing where they are going, and yes, I know dogs daft enough to run into trees or over the edge of a slope or cliff because they are that fixated on the target. It’s one reason I prefer ‘Find it!’ and ‘Fetch!’ eventually, because that way you a) aren’t being pestered as often to throw something and b) your dog isn’t that fixated on a ball that they’ll run into a fence.
To teach “Fetch!”, it’s really helpful to have a “Drop!” cue and a “Take it!” behaviour so that the dog is used to taking things in their mouth and they’re also used to giving them up. If you’ve taught “Give!” as a separate behaviour to “Drop!” you’ll find your dog more able to give to your hand and differentiate between that and spitting something out on the floor. That might not seem so important until you’ve got a really bad back and you don’t understand why your dog keeps dropping stuff on the floor instead of putting it in your hands. You may also want to think about teaching “Take it!” as a cue that means “take from hands” compared to “Get it!” which means “take from wherever it is”. That is also useful for precision. In themselves, they aren’t massively different to us, but they are to a dog. That can help you with troubleshooting, and also with a ‘business retrieve’ for competition work.
A dog who thinks “Take it!” means always from your hands won’t perhaps generalise that it also means they can get things from the floor, from a table, from under a bush. This is why I use “Get it!” as well. “Take it!” is for things on my person. “Get it!” is for things that are not on my person.
A dog who thinks “Drop!” means the item must go on the floor isn’t going to understand why you keep holding your hand out. “Give!” is a nice way to get them to give it to your hand rather than “Drop!”. You might not think that is important until you have a dog who’s brought back a mangled pheasant or you want to spit out half a clod of chewed-up cowpat.
Here’s a great video on training the whole “Fetch!” behaviour, back to front.
Start with mouthing and holding the object, then holding it for longer periods of time.
You then start throwing the object short distances before increasing the distance.
One of the biggest problems can be getting the dog to hold the object for longer periods of time. If that’s happening, you will need to slowly shape that hold, so that the dog is doing it for longer and longer periods. Make sure you choose something that is easy for the dog to hold (which is why I started Effel on tennis balls even though I don’t ever use tennis balls when playing fetch) and that the dog is rewarded for holding.
Once you have a great fetch behaviour, you’ve got a brilliant way to encourage recall, to keep a dog working with you in your space instead of buggering off and to keep your dog fit. For your dog, there are two types of reward: those you have to teach them to like, and those you don’t. You don’t have to teach a dog that sausage is yummy. You do have to teach them that fetching is fun. Some of these ‘secondary’ reinforcers that need teaching at first then become ‘primary’ – you don’t need to keep rewarding a dog with hot dog for it to still be fun. It’ll always be fun whether it comes with hot dog or not. Whereas normally, an taught reinforcement, like Pavlov’s bell, stops meaning anything fun once you break the connection with the primary reward. If you ‘de-couple’ hotdogs and bells, the bell stops making the dog salivate. That happens if you stop pairing your clicker or your marker word with a reward. That’s not true though when you de-couple hot dog and fetch games. Then fetch is fun all on its own.
For many dogs, a game becomes much more fun than food ever can be.
That’s why Heston’s Game Face looks more excited and interested than his Food Face.
Now that Game Face is great for focus – and it’s what handlers look for in competition, in agility, in trials, in work. Don’t get me wrong, some dogs are happy with food. My cocker spaniel Tilly is one of those. But other dogs have other drives. Playing fetch is a great way to tap into those.
Besides, even the most crass of the punishment-based trainer accept that game play is a happy middle ground. Although if you follow these methods, you’ve got no need for old-fashioned ear pinches or other cruel and unethical methods!
Here’s Philippa Williams’ amazing gundogs at Crufts showing what you might do with your “Fetch!”
But you could also use it as a base to help your dog find your keys, fetch their lead, bring your slippers, fetch the newspaper or just enjoy a good old game in the garden! A ‘Fetch!’ junkie has a very reinforcing behaviour in their repertoire that you can use as a reward for all sorts of other behaviours.
As always, be careful with what you ask your dog to fetch. With rebounds and direct catches, there is a risk that the item can get lodged in the dog’s mouth. Ropes can get all yucky and germy. Frisbees can be awfully heavy. Make sure you check out safety concerns, don’t use tennis balls or small balls that could end up choking your dog, and make sure you keep the objects clean. It’s a good time to check out a canine first aid course so you’re prepared for small hiccups when you start doing anything remotely energetic with your dog.
As with many things in my dog world, a confluence of experiences has led me to re-think puppy biting. Two of those are an 8-month old JRT that I’m working with at the moment, who is a horrendous landshark, and an 11-month old labrador who is giving quite hard bites to his retriever friend during play. Another two are two young dogs at the refuge, one a seven-month old husky and the other a young pointer cross, who haven’t learned to play nicely with their friends or with humans. Couple that with having had a fair few puppies here in foster, what I do with kittens to help them get over a bitey stage, and a video of a malinois puppy in a park clearly having the time of her life biting her owner’s trousers…. and then a facebook thread that really defined it for me.
But it’s that video of the 8-week old malinois that got me. You know I have a soft spot for them.
The man was doing all the things I would have advised – say “ow!”, walk away (but he was completely unable to in that case, with his puppy on a lead in a park). To be fair, whilst I was laughing a bit, there was nothing inherently “wrong” with what he was doing – other than the fact he maybe shouldn’t have had a malinois if he didn’t have a bag of 50 tricks up his sleeve to stop them turning into landsharks. It’s all advice I’ve handed out glibly in the past. Maybe saying “this breed” or “that breed” is too challenging for most owners to teach bite inhibition to isn’t working and we really should be asking why our methods of teaching puppies what to bite and what not to needs a bit of consideration instead of glibly-given well-meant advice about yelping and withdrawing.
Traditional wisdom says that puppies learn from their litter-mates and that their siblings’ yelping is the thing that helps them moderate their bite. And I think there is a lot to be said for that. Should we biped apes also yelp or have a word we say to signal the end of play, then walk off?
Is that working for us?
It’s certainly advice that’s handed out ALL the time.
Is that really true, or is it just something we say that may be true and we don’t really know how it functions – it just seems to? Is it functioning as well as we think it is?
Do puppies and their mums really yelp and interrupt play?
Does this moderate bite behaviour?
Does it moderate bite behaviour in the way we think it does?
And if it does, is it valid that we should use the same methods?
Those are all very big questions that need asking, and they’re questions I’ve been asking myself. Experience seems to be taking me down a different path. Also, when I really reflected on it and started processing those thoughts, I didn’t like the answers, reasons and justifications I was finding.
Because I’ve had litters of pups here who did very little biting at all. How do they learn bite inhibition if they never do it?
And I’ve had puppies here who I’ve had to split up because the risk of injury is huge. One puppy pinned and bit her brother so hard that he squealed for a good minute before his siblings came in and it ended as an all-out gang war.
And why does my lovely Heston have such great bite inhibition if he only grew up with only one sibling for his first six weeks, and no mum to correct him? How, in those two weeks of being truly mobile before he came to me, did he learn an inhibited bite? Certainly, he never, ever made either Molly or Tilly squeal. They never told him off. Though he bit me by accident a few times in play, it really was an accident. I can say categorically that no squealing happened under my roof.
Traditional wisdom would say that Heston would have poor bite skills. Yet he has had five contact ritualised fights with three dogs in among the hundreds of dogs he has met and lived with, and never put a tooth on them. Not even when one of them was my bitey foster beauceron who had been boisterous when he shouldn’t have been and there was 80kg of black fur flying over a bit of doorway bouncing.
He played primarily with adult dogs from week 6 to week 16. The only other puppies he met was his brother and sister, and they never had yelpy fights. But he never hurt those adult dogs. They never yelped. He never got pinned or barked at. How did he grow up with such precision biting and great inhibition even in anger or fear?
Let’s look at the first line in the argument for yelping and disengaging as a teaching method.
Puppies learn to moderate their bite by their siblings yelping and disengaging.
First, is this true?
For the first weakness in the line of argument that supports us doing the same is that a) this happens and b) this happens for the purpose we say it does.
Now I don’t doubt that puppies yelp. I’ve seen it. I know some litters who’ve been shouting balls of yelping hot messes by six weeks, and some litters who’ve not uttered a peep, nor engaged in the kind of biting that would lead to a yelp. JP Scott and John Fuller are the “go-to” guide with their 1950s and 1960s work about socialisation. Scott was first and foremost a behavioural geneticist, as was John Fuller. They worked at Bar Harbor in the Jackson Laboratories. The laboratories were 30 years into a career of genetic research, and Scott and Fuller’s work was conducted over many generations of breeding. That they used dogs to explore how behaviour is inherited is kind of coincidental. They took five breeds, raised them in a variety of situations and raised them and their crossbreeds in a variety of situations. It is the biggest single piece of research on socialisation and it has given canine science its understanding of sensitive periods, canine development and genetically-driven behaviours.
Their work allows us to understand a bit more about bite behaviours and play.
“Playful fighting appears early in the transition period (from 3 weeks). At first the young puppies seem to be acting in slow motion, clumsily pawing and mouthing their litter mates without producing any real damage. As they grow older their teeth become longer, and a puppy which gets hold of a sensitive spot, such as the ear, may be answered by a yelp of pain.”
They noted that development is different for different breeds, with terriers in their study being more developmentally advanced at a younger age. The cocker spaniels and shelties were quite a long way behind. Some crossbreeds developed fastest of all. Two things happen around Day 21 and 22: a startle response and first teeth start coming in. Play fighting undergoes a massive increase at this time as well, and by day 27, most breeds and crossbreeds were play-fighting. There are some other interesting observations about reactions to shock and food, and a suggestion that younger puppies (3 weeks – 6 weeks) are in some way protected from the psychological impact of pain.
Does this mean they can bite at a young age and not have psychological fallout maybe? But what’s the implication for doing it when that bubble of protection from emotional fallout is over?
As they age, we get to the really interesting bit. The socialisation period. Observations suggested that motherly growling and puppy yelping was more to do with their attempts to continue nursing. This certainly fits with the litters I’ve had here and those we’ve raised at the refuge. Mum is increasingly less tolerant of puppies’ attempts to nurse and she’ll growl in their face. Not to do with play fighting, then.
Some of the bitey play-fighting is perhaps about breed, and Scott and Fuller’s work makes that clear. No prizes for guessing that the yelpiest, most bitey bunches of my fosters were bully mixes or terriers.
You can see a litter of Golden retrievers here (first video on Youtube when I searched puppies playing in litter):
Now there’s some vocalising and whining – and some mouthing. I don’t think the vocalising and whining is actually directed at a biter. Focus on one or two pups and their mouthing, and see how it stops. I can see four or five times when the puppy targeted just turns away. Here, fellow, this is my rump. I saw that – leaning away and turning to give a rump a few times following a bite.
But maybe they’re too young to be yelping and their teeth are not painful enough? Maybe they’re yelping all the other 1398 minutes of the day?
Here’s some older beagle pups.
Lots of vocalisation, mostly related to the barrier. Maybe they too are doing their bite-yelp learning in the other 1392 minutes of the day. As for the other vocalisation, Scott and Fuller note that confining or separating a puppy can elicit all kinds of vocalisation:
“A puppy left alone in a strange place yelps loudly and continuously, producing the maximum number of vocalizations when it is 6 to 7 weeks old”
There’s lots of distress vocalisation on the beagle video (it’s the first non-musical Youtube video I got when I searched 5 week old puppies playing in litter) but you see some play too, including bites. But these are not puppies who are teaching each other bite inhibition through the strength of their bites. Are they too old or too young then or do we just not see it in this clip? Several of those play incidents involving bite are unreciprocated and the other puppy just walks off. Now I don’t know about you, but I guess that means the bite already didn’t hurt in play at 5 weeks of age. You do get a lot of ‘grrr grr grrr’ practice growls though. I suspect that a lot of the distress is the fact of the person videoing on the other side of the barrier, or maybe mum.
More beagles with playing. Lots of airsnaps and grr-grring, but no yelping.
And some GSDs playing too…
Then I went looking for more of these supposed yelps, but despite a good hour of various videos (many with music over them – grrr!) I found very few. Not a surprise. Who’d upload a video of their puppies squealing on Youtube? Mind you, plenty of people upload videos of their dogs and kids engaged in all kinds of uncomfortable play, so I’m sure it’s not the only reason I found so few.
It comes back to that lovely conditional that Scott and Fuller use. Puppies may yelp.
It’s a may, not a must or a will. May. As in, they might. It’s possible.
So in answer to my first question, puppies may yelp when bitten. But it’s not a given or an essential part of the learning curve.
But learning theory tells us that either classical associations or operant learning are reliant, at least at the beginning, on a high ratio of ‘this then that’. Over 90% for classical conditioning, and a fixed ratio of reward for operant. Can a puppy who is getting spasmodic feedback at best about his bite strength really be using that spasmodic feedback to influence their learning?
It’s a question. I don’t know the answer. I suspect I know, but I don’t have any data. I’d think the link between yelping and learning is too infrequent to be the major contributing factor to why a puppy learns to bite its siblings more gently. Plus, those goldens are already, at four weeks, showing bite inhibition.
Maybe the problem comes later in development?
Scott and Fuller noticed a problem emerging around 7 weeks, one I noticed myself with a couple of litters…
“At about 7 weeks of age (the time when final weaning from the breast begins and mothers begin to threaten their offspring), puppies left with their mothers begin to attack each other in groups. The animal against whom the attack is directed is sometimes a small and weak individual, but it also may be a large and aggressive one. In most breeds this “ganging up” is temporary and playful.”
That sounds normal. Except for their notes about the fox terriers, one of the five breeds of dog in the trial.
“In the fox terrier breed, however, such group attacks are persistent and become so serious that the victim has to be removed in order to prevent serious injury”
Now that suggests something about bites. It suggests that for some breeds, groups or individuals, biting increases, not decreases.
That’s something to think about.
Biting has been reinforced and it has increased.
We might want to go as far as saying that biting is – dare I say it? – pleasurable or rewarding.
So from all of this…
Do puppies yelp? Why of course they do. Maybe less than we’d think though.
Is the purpose of yelping to communicate the end of play? Nope. Highly doubtful. I yelp because it hurt. It’s not to tell you that it hurt but because it caused pain. It’s not some feedback-loop where I’ll let you try again. Does the other puppy learn from it? Maybe. I’d suspect it’s the end of play that they learn from, which may or may not be related to biting or bite strength. Sometimes when one of my terrier pups hurt the other, all hell would break loose and it would end in an aggressive retaliation. Is that something we might want to try just because puppies do it? Aggressive retaliation definitely says, “bro, you bit me too hard!”
So just because puppies yelp doesn’t automatically translate that it’s a code to help their siblings modify their bite. Some puppies don’t learn to modify their attacks with their siblings and bites spill over to aggression that is so severe that groups have to be separated. But nothing says those puppies go on to have a hard mouth with humans.
Whether or not puppies yelping and finishing play relates to learning about bite inhibition is a notion I’m not entirely sold on.
And even if it were, it raises ethical issues for me.
Can we really take our cues from how puppies and their mums behave with each other? Since the yelp and disengage comes right from the ‘this is how dogs behave with each other’ school of thought. That is, if you accept the premise that a) puppies do this with each other frequently enough to learn from it and b) it is designed to aid the other puppy modify its bite.
My problem is that I don’t like that school of thought about mimicking canine behaviour. It starts with yelping like puppies and ends with justifying Cesar Millan and alpha rolls. And even if puppies were to yelp and disengage (which I don’t think all do, and certainly not as frequently as they’d need to for some sustained learning) then should we be copying that? That’s the school of thought that gives us “scruff your dog because the mother dog does” or even “spit in their mouths because the mother dog does”. I kid you not. It’s the justification for prong collars, and the ‘pinch’ of a mother’s jaw in punishment. It’s the justification for all sorts of human attempts to communicate with dogs in “their” language. Why is it that we don’t mimic the pro-social things dogs do with each other, but we want to mimic those that are punishers? I don’t get it.
Now I’m not equating yelping with prong collars, but the logic is the same. Dogs communicate this way, so I’ll use this method to communicate also.
And whilst you might be happy with that, it doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t growl or airsnap at my dogs, hump them, lick their penises or sniff their arses. I don’t lick their wee and do Hannibal Lector face, nor do I wag at them with a pretend tail. I thought positive dog training had come further than this.
So that put paid to the ‘puppies do it to each other’ logic of the argument for me. You might feel differently, I know, especially if you’ve found it to be effective.
Now let’s talk about the human-canine learning loop. Is it effective learning? If so, how does it work?
It took me back to learning theory. Sorry. This is going to get a bit technical. I apologise.
It’s all about consequences, this yelping and disengaging business. The consequence is that a noise is made, play stops and the other party disengages. We’re not talking antecedents and reflexive behaviours, bells and salivation. We’re talking behaviours and consequences.
That’s the realm of Skinner.
Press red lever, get reward. Press yellow lever, get shock.
In other words, play nice and play continues. Play badly and play ends. It’s the puppy’s choice.
That got me thinking about training methods, ethics, emotional fallout….
We know behaviour does two things: increase (or maintain) or decrease.
That’s it. It doesn’t get simpler than that.
Either biting gets more or biting gets less.
A yelp or sound and a disengage is intended to make the biting diminish. I’m not using it to encourage good play to continue, except as a by-product of learning that play stops if you nip me, puppy.
That belongs to the ‘punisher’ side of learning. Something aversive is applied which makes the behaviour decrease. Or good stuff stops which also intends to make behaviour decrease.
We know that if behaviour decreases, then it’s got to be aversive. It has to be, otherwise behaviour wouldn’t decrease. Call it what you want: unpleasant, disagreeable, bad… whatever word you use for a ‘punisher’, that’s what this behaviour is doing.
Some people are going to say that a ‘yelp’ is a No-Reward Marker. Like a click marks a good behaviour, the yelp marks a bad behaviour.
Except I don’t think it is.
In fact, I was surprised to see an article about yelping and disengaging on Karen Pryor’s clicker training site, to be honest.
A marker is a signal that was once neutral but has come to be a way to communicate to an animal that what they are doing right at that moment is exactly what you want. It’s also known as an ‘event marker’. Clicker trainers like the precision and the neutrality of the click and we all know that a click always and always absolutely has to be paired with a reward. Another name for a marker is a bridging stimulus, which signals ‘good stuff’ or ‘bad stuff’ is coming. A click, or a yes, or a good is a signal that something will happen that’s reinforcing to the dog – play, petting, food and so on. Some people use negative ones too as a warning. The beep before electric shock is one example.
Now a no-reward marker (NRM) is, in the words of Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training site, ‘a signal that says ‘no, that’s not what I want, try again.’
I don’t use no-reward markers in training because they can be frustrating, can provoke aggression and they can hinder learning. There’s only really one study about NRMs, Rotenberg (2015) who concluded that using them wasn’t as effective at helping dogs learn as just ignoring mistakes was.
That’s right. No-reward markers are pretty useless and they hinder learning.
If you like Kathy Sdao, and I do, listen to her talking about using NRM over speakers with dolphins. She doesn’t like them either.
A no-reward marker should be neutral, like a click is for marking a behaviour. It’s like the beep on a shock collar. You could equally have a different kind of noise or a meaningless word like “snip” as a NRM. You don’t need a yelp or a no or an ow. Many people use No as a no-reward marker, but that doesn’t sit well with me.
No, ow, yelping… they’re not neutral sounds.
They’re laden with emotion.
For example, I do a lot of marker training with Lidy the mali at the shelter. She is super-savvy and very operant. I use ‘nice’ or ‘yes’, and it’s so precise. I made the mistake of flipping from practising holds with object in one session to practising nose targets with objects on the next. That was stupid of me and I got a bit of biting and picking up the object. Lidy didn’t know what I wanted her to do. By marking just before she picked the object up, she quickly cottoned on to the fact I was asking for a touch not a hold. So precise. Over time, yes means great things and I can get away with the occasional marker without a reward, but ‘yes’ or ‘nice’ are meaningless to Lidy, and so if I stop rewarding, they’ll lose the association much more quickly than you’d expect.
Markers are supposed to be neutral.
Now I said ‘no’ to her the other day, and I said ‘Let go!’ – she’d grabbed something she shouldn’t have. Wow, did that take a lot out of our trust account! The look on her face! It really said, “Bitch, make me!” Needless to say, I didn’t get what she’d taken. I said “Out!” and she dropped it straight away and I said “yes!” and gave her some ham.
Because our words have tone and tone expresses emotion. It’s why animal trainers like clickers and why I like ‘yes!’ (because I can go “yeeesssssss!” when she really gets it, and I’ve always got my mouth with me).
So if you’re going to use a no-reward marker, don’t pick a word that conveys emotion. Pick something meaningless like “try again”.
But therein lies the rub.
A NRM is about trying again, about keeping going, about perseverance until you get it right.
Yelping or saying ouch then disengaging is not giving a dog a chance to keep going.
So it’s not a no-reward marker. It may well be a warning that good stuff will end, like a threat before a time out. And that’s most likely what that yelp should be. If you’re using an NRM, then you should give the opportunity to try again, not stop the play completely. Even a shock collar gives a warning for the behaviour to change.
So if the yelp is not a warning and it’s not an NRM, what are we using it for? We might as well just leave and have a temporary time out.
My problem with time outs is that they are frustrating. You’re stopping the good stuff. You’re also doing it with a young animal who is aroused. Arousal doesn’t tend to dissipate so easily when you’re frustrated. In fact, it just makes you more aroused and more frustrated. Just a thought, but is there a connection between frustration and arousal and dogs who bite you as you leave? I’m not saying time-out training is growing monster dogs, but what are we teaching our dogs if we walk away and they’re feeling bitey? I’ve had a good few stories of bites in the butt that mark that perfect combination of frustration and arousal.
So the time-out may come with emotional fallout, especially for a young puppy who hasn’t learned much about impulse control yet.
On the flip side of that ‘P’ quadrant, the absence could also be a punisher. Remember Scott and Fuller’s comment about distress vocalisations in young puppies? Plenty of puppies think that the group splitting up is distressing.
It leaves me, whichever way I cut and slice it, firmly in the ‘P’ section of the quadrant, along with its nasty side-effects and fallout.
I hate that. Not a quadrant I like to operate in unless I absolutely have exhausted reinforcement first.
And a yelp and a disengage/temporary time-out are often proposed first before any other intervention!
Of course, you want to decrease biting and bite strength. That leaves you on the Punishment side of the quadrant.
You have to rephrase it if you want to increase stuff, like increasing soft bites, increasing no biting and increasing non-human/animal biting.
Then you can use your R+ methods… all that good stuff.
The quickest way to replace an unwanted behaviour is to build up a wanted behaviour, like biting a toy. That satisfies the bite urge perfectly. I’d use caution here. John Rogerson says don’t teach tug if you haven’t got a perfect ‘drop’, and I second that wholeheartedly. Do you know what I do prefer? A bit of chase and bite. The first parts of retrieve.
Do you know why? Chasing a ball or a toy gets the bitey young landshark AWAY from you. It’s a perfectly incompatible behaviour. Can’t bite if you’re on the other side of the room. It also helps with retrieves, practising that chase and bite. It satisfies the bitey urge in ways that absence and ouches do not. You can use this with a toy or with food even, if you haven’t got a great ‘drop!’ behaviour.
Some people are going to say that if you redirect a dog onto a toy – either in tug or in chase – you are rewarding the biting. Do you know what? The same argument could be made about ALL behaviours where the dog is doing something inappropriate and you ask it to do something else which you then reward. Don’t bite me, bite this. Don’t jump on me, give me a sit. Don’t bark, carry a toy. It’s not entirely ludicrous. If you only ever use a tug toy or play chase when your dog is biting you, then your dog may superstitiously end up thinking that it needs to bite to get the reward. Kathy Sdao talks also about how she accidentally trained dogs to think they must jump up before a sit. I’m sure she’s joking – she is far too good a trainer to make such an error, but it is a small concern nonetheless.
There is a very simple solution if you share this concern about following biting with a toy.
Don’t connect the alternative or incompatible behaviour with biting. Don’t make the bite a perfect predictor of a toy.
If 90% of chase, fetch or tug relates to non-bitey situations, you’ll never be in a situation where the dog thinks it has to do A in order for B. If you’re often chasing, fetching or tugging, why would you think you need to bite first if those things only accidentally coincide 5% of the time?
Another thing kicks in. Matching law. This is the science that says when we’re presented with two choices, we choose that which is most reinforcing or least punishing. If you make chase or tug more reinforcing than biting, you are onto a winner.
So I don’t behave like a dog, I don’t use dog-style punishers.
I use incompatible or alternative behaviours.
And it works.
There have been times when biting has been more fun than chasing a ball or playing tug. We’re talking about predispositions to pleasurable behaviours here, and biting feels like lots of fun. Don’t judge your dog for enjoying fighting or playing at fighting. Boxing matches aren’t much more than a ritualised way for us to enjoy hurting each other or watching others get hurt. Most sports satisfy some primitive primate need in us to battle in ritualised ways, even chess. We humans shouldn’t be judgey about dogs who enjoy scratching some ancient behavioural itch.
There are dogs who really do need to learn that biting is not socially acceptable, though, who are happily redirecting onto a toy where human biting is concerned, but biting their friends WAY too hard.
That’s where the other advice comes in about socialising the puppy with other puppies is often given with the expectation that the other puppies can teach bite inhibition and bite strength, as if it’s some kind of canine bushido.
I kind of agree, but I also know dogs. Some puppies’ biting increases with others, meaning it is reinforcing – dare I say something unscientific like pleasurable? They are learning that hard biting is so much fun and that people and dogs squeal and that’s a lot of fun as well, and that then they panic and try to escape, and that’s fun as well. It all sets off the automatic modal predatory behavioural patterns that are a ‘click whirr’ as an almost instinctive pattern kicks in and the conscious brain switches off. Have you met a terrier and their favourite tug toy?!
In other words, some puppies might be all samurai manners and the rules of engagement… but others are dirty little cage fighters who get off on biting ears off and think nothing of giving you a rump bite if you won’t engage. Others still are trapped in some other part of the sequence like my beauceron foster and his love of chase, where he is always the chaser and never the chasee. Not every puppy comes equipped with the full set of Canine Bushido rules, that’s for sure. Someone had definitely torn out the pages in Effel’s copy when it came to role reversal. And he wasn’t a dog who got off on biting.
What’s it doing to those other puppies – who are still learning Dog Bushido themselves – to be practising their Katas when a young Hannibal the Cannibal is in the room?
The truth is that puppies can and do play rougher than adult dogs ever do. But I don’t think it does them any favours to spend most of their time with other puppies who enjoy hurting each other or who are still at the beginner end of the behaviour spectrum.
Think about it.
If you grew up with lots of children as your friends, and little adult supervision, you may well grow up not really understanding why you don’t pinch people or give them skin burns. The adult world is different from the world of children – and if the only adults you meet are your mum and your siblings, you’re up for a dysfunctional view of the world from the start.
Not only that, if good puppies have to be responsible for teaching bad puppies, something is wrong with that picture. Why entrust something important to beginners? It could end badly for those good puppies happily doing their yellow belts with fun-time fox terriers if some pup comes to class with a very stabby set of knuckle dusters and a nunchaku.
I don’t think puppies playing with other puppies is entirely the answer to bite inhibition.
I think it has a role to play, but I think that exposure to adult dogs and adult dog behaviour is vital too.
Take the wonderful puppies belonging to a friend. Neither had a particularly advantageous start to life. They were born in foreign countries, shipped miles to a better life, and one in particular has had a run-in with a dog at some point before she arrived that has damaged her eye. She spent the first two weeks back and forward at the vets. She has some lead frustration – it is her fundamental right to meet all dogs, in her opinion – which is massively improved through some particularly expert and sympathetic socialising. That socialising has been with lots and lots of unfamiliar adult dogs and with an older sibling who was already rock solid.
Whilst their meeting here with my adult dogs was noisy and muddy and humpy (oh Heston!) a puppy who is brusque sometimes in meetings and plays hard understood that you don’t bounce Tilly or Amigo or Flika, and that Heston doesn’t mind it if you grab his mane and bop him in the nose or tell him off for humping your sister. Puppies don’t have those social skills yet, just as human children don’t, and if all they meet are other puppies, then they aren’t able to pick up those nice dog manners or the nuances of behaviour that older dogs have. What I liked most was how she completely ignored my oldies who don’t appreciate bouncing. Not a one of them had to tell her off.
So… is the answer to puppy biting more time with other puppies?
Perhaps it would be better spent with some fabulous older dogs who can disengage gently.
This is Heston with Lisa. I’d had to separate her from her brother as his squealing was not only not working, but it was also turning into something fun. She was 8 weeks old in this video.
Now as you can see, Heston nicely self-handicaps to allow Lisa full access to him, and contrary to one person’s comments on a Facebook thread, his paw at the end is not a pin or a grab or a punch. It’s not discipline. It’s just a very gentle ‘enough’ that she can get out of without problem and then he stands up and they disengage. No yelping. You can see she’s learning mouth control. You can hear those full clacks of teeth that show she’s not got full control of her jaw yet.
Adult dogs play like this where puppies may not. That yelping wasn’t working at all with Lisa’s brother. She did need to learn how to play and when no means no, but her brother wasn’t helping. All he was doing was bringing out the inner bully and teaching her that it feels mighty fine to hurt other dogs.
So, in answer to the original statement, I don’t yelp, yip or say ouch and then disengage. I am not a dog.
I don’t even know if puppies really do learn bite inhibition and manners in that way.
I don’t like the school of thought that we should do as dogs do.
I also don’t like using punishers with dogs, especially with ones who are weeks old and perhaps not quite as switched on to operant learning as we might think. You might understand you can sit for a biscuit, but there’s a whole lot more to learn.
I don’t think yelping is an effective warning and it’s not a no-reward marker. A no-reward marker says, “try again” not “stop”. Teaching better behaviours through redirecting to a previously taught object like a toy is great, and beginning retrieves might satisfy other urges whilst meaning that your puppy is physically unable to shark you.
I don’t think you can easily cause a puppy to superstitiously learn that they need to bite to get a toy unless you are on a 1:1 ratio of always following biting with a toy, and never using that toy at another time.
I don’t think puppies socialising with other puppies will cure biting. I think it could have fallout for those who know the rules. Why should nice puppies put up with a biter who gets reinforced by doing so? All we’re doing is reinforcing bullying and breeding problems for the future.
I do think we should teach a puppy a better behaviour than biting, or to bite things that are appropriate. I’m with John Rogerson once more (and you wouldn’t believe how infrequently that happens!) in that I don’t think dogs should put teeth on humans or really on other dogs. I don’t mind a bit of mane-pulling or mouth-wrestling, but I don’t want to see teeth on the skin of any live creature, thank you very much. Body slamming, jaw sparring, leg wrestling, hip checking and over-aroused games of chase are one thing, but teeth are entirely another.
We should be reinforcing incompatible or alternative behaviours long before we start using punishers, especially with 8 week old puppies. It’s unethical to start in the P side of the quadrant when you haven’t tried out the R side.
Puppies should also hang around a lot of expert older dogs who might not be masters of Canine Bushido, but who play by the rules. That’s not because those Bushido Masters are going to teach through punishment, yelping or disengagement, but because they know how to end things gracefully. I most love how Heston realises that Lisa is getting overstimulated and disengages before it gets worse. That’s pretty cool for a dog found in a box at one day of age, who only knew one sibling until he was six weeks old, and a terrier puppy found in a box with her brother at six weeks old. You don’t need puppy parties, and we shouldn’t be trusting puppies to teach each other about good behaviour. We need the experts of good behaviour to teach that, and by their very nature, those dogs are not puppies.
Anyway, that’s my long and waffly take on why I won’t be yelping or saying ow ever again, or letting puppies hang around exclusively with other puppies. I know it’s controversial. It shouldn’t be as controversial a view as it is in the force-free world; I simply think many of us have taken this piece of advice and run with it without thinking about it too deeply.
You may of course disagree and think that ouches and brief time-outs are the best method ever for teaching bite inhibition. The truth is that we’ve only anecdote to go off. But having spent a little time reflecting on it, I’m sure you understand why I feel as I do. You may even find this advice on other parts of my website – I’ll be updating if I find them, I promise. I don’t think, having really thought it through, that I can go back to giving the advice about yelping and disengaging anymore.