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Training Corner #6 Take it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So get out there and start working on your holds!

Training Corner #5 Watch!

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

My eyes are up here, buddy.

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

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

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

That’s important for dogs to learn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first is with a lure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training Corner #4 Rover, come!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The most important thing to bear in mind is challenge:

Start at the bottom and work to the top!

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

Don’t forget you can also play with:

Calm vs excitable

Distance FROM distraction vs Distance FROM you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless you have a Tilly.

Then food trumps everything apart from rolling in fecal matter.

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest mistake we make with socialisation and habituation

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

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

It goes without saying that socialisation is necessary.

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

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

Let me explain.

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

Imagine if we hugged them?

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

With tongues?

Twerked them or humped them?

Pinched their arse?

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

What if we yelled at them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

So, yes, this causes fights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s not okay either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do puppies need to learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That balance is vital.

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

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

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

Easy in theory, at least!


Training Corner #3: Drop, Give or Out

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

Seems strange, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus, the Domesticated Manners version has other benefits.

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

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

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

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

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

You can see this with John McGuigan:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now get out and get busy with your Drop!

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

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

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

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

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

What does that mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the difference between this:

And Heston finding a stranger in the garden?

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

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

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

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

Is it the ingredients?

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

Is it parental?

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

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

Is it the early mixing of those ingredients?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can counteract excessive breed tendencies. And you should.

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

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

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

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

Or Tobby with his obsession over a hound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is it that they buck the trend?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot to ask for, I know.

Training Corner #2: Wait and Leave it

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I teach them?

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1 is to teach ‘no mugging’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So get out and get training!

Nature via Nurture: Why Socialisation and Habituation Absolutely Matter

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

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

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

Some people said that this didn’t matter.

I beg to differ.

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

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

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

Not really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me give you an example.

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

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

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

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

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

Now you tell me what the difference is?

Life experience. Aka. Socialisation and habituation.

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

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

Sure, breed is important.

Of course it is.

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

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

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

Not possible.

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

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

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

It can be emotional and behavioural too.

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

That’s really evident in my work.

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

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

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

But it does.

First, they tell us that genetics is absolutely important.

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

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

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

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

Heston would say both yes and no.

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

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

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

Plus, some of his behaviours fitted.

I mean, he loved retrieving.

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

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

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

You know where this is going.

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

Huh, I said as I read the report.

Well, it all made sense!

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

But what difference do those genes make?

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

Which kind of describes Heston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genes are designed to take their cues from Nurture

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

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

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

The debate is not about Genes Vs Socialisation/Habituation.

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

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

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

But it doesn’t end with puppies.

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

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

So what do we know?

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

There is nothing inevitable about innate or instinctive behaviours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training corner #1: Hand touch

Most people never want or need to get past ‘sit/down/stay’, but if you’ve got a smart dog, a teenage dog or a dog who you just want to stretch a little further, I’ve been posting some behaviours you might want to teach on Facebook. Time to do the sensible thing and post them somewhere more permanent!

This week, it’s the hand touch.

Why is hand touch the thing I teach straight after ‘sit’ and ‘down’?

In fact, why might you even use it to teach sit or down?

What are the drawbacks and what other things might it interfere with?

When a dog can come and touch your hand with their nose, you’ve got an instant way to get a recall. It’s also really great because then you can use it to shape other moves, like twist, spin, through the legs, weaves, stand in between your legs, jumps, walking to heel … you name it, if you can move the dog’s nose, the rest of the body will follow. If you have a hand touch, you can even shape a down or a sit more easily.

So it’s great for trick training, agility and obedience.

But it’s also great for husbandry as well. It can start off your dog on a great pathway to standing still for nail clipping, grooming, injections, thermometers – although be mindful with these because if you’ve got a dog with a history, your hand in front of them might be the best thing to bite for redirection or for pain. This is why I prefer a chin touch for those, or a hand touch in a muzzle.

It also gets a dog conscious about touching you with various bits of their body. Dogs don’t generalise well, but once they’ve mastered this, you’ll find it easier to get them moving onto chin touches, foot touches, hip touches and chest touches. If you have a dog who will happily touch your legs with their hind quarters, will press into a hand against their chest and place their chin on another hand, you’ve got a dog who is more secure for vet care or grooming without being restrained. I saw a video of a tiger doing this on Facebook for a voluntary blood draw from its tail. It kind of puts us to shame when a tiger will let you shave its tail and take blood. Yes, there were bars between, but the tiger could have moved away easily. And there we are in the vets restraining our animals or wrestling with them like they’re alligators! A hand touch is a gateway ‘trick’.

Touch is also a great one for dogs who are reactive, for dogs who are chasers, for dogs who are overstimulated. If you have a dog who can touch your hand in all kinds of circumstances, they’re looking at your hand, not at whatever it is that is freaking them out. It is one of the first things I teach dogs who aren’t coping in the world. It can be great to build up to for ‘stranger danger’ dogs, for dogs who have a fear of hands, for dogs who don’t like to approach people. It’s a versatile behaviour for so many, many things in a dog’s life. If you have a dog who is jumping, who needs distracting from chewing, or who is doing something else undesirable, it’s a great interruptor that means you can control where the dog’s head (and therefore the rest of its body) is.

It’s also good for wriggly dogs to get them harnessed up, or to train them to wear a muzzle.

Words of caution:

  1. Put it on cue. You don’t want your dog bopping your hand all the time with its nose. You are not a treat machine that is operated by your dog’s nose. Make sure your dog is clear about the word ‘touch’ (or whatever word you are using!) When you hear the macho Alpha trainers whining about ‘touch’ as a behaviour, it’s because they think that behaviour is just spilling out of a dog all the time. It won’t if the dog understands there is a sequence. Present hand – say touch – dog touches  – mark the behaviour – give reward. Always in that sequence.
  2. Be mindful that a dog who already knows ‘paw’ can find this hard and will keep giving you their paw. You can work around this by teaching this first or also by putting your hand up higher.
  3. Make sure you have a distinctive and unusual hand ‘shape’ like a gun or presenting two fingers, or asking for a flat palm. This will also help your dog distinguish between other cues later on which also use a hand.

Some videos for you…

Emily from Kikopup.

If you’re having trouble getting the first movement towards the hand, put something smelly like fish paste on your hand – just enough to smell, not to lick.

Make sure you’ve got contact and that you mark the behaviour at that precise moment. To mark, you can have a clicker, but you can also have a word like ‘yes’.

Make sure also that you practise this in the home, in the street, in the car, on a walk, in the vet’s… everywhere you go with your dog!

In the next video, you can see Nando Brown doing the same. I like his tip about starting with the side of the face, and using ‘Yes’ – only because I’m more of a verbal girl than a clicker girl – simply because most of where I teach is In Real Life, and often that’s out on the street. If you have a lead in your hand, you don’t always have a clicker.

He also starts talking you up to taking pressure. I do love a good firm nose bop.

When you have a good hard nose touch, you can build up the duration of the hand touch as well.

Then you can put in distractions. You can see Nando using it for getting dogs onto scales or handling in the vets.

You can also use then a target stick or a spoon, which can be useful for all kinds of trick training and also for things like dogs who are afraid of strangers.

Donna Hill has some great tips in her video:

I love how she starts with a still dog and then gets the dog to move to her. I also like her explanation of how not to turn it into a ‘grab’ exercise!

Last video from Dog Charming:

If you’ve got an ‘Advanced’ dog, teach them a sustained hand target whilst you try and distract them with ham or a hot dog in your other hand.

Now you know the how tos and the pitfalls… get training your dog!

Poisoning your Rewards and Devaluing your Punishments

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking at why order is so important in Dog Good Stuff and Dog Bad Stuff.

Seeing a few posts on Facebook reminded me why I needed to do the follow-up post about common training mistakes.

The first was a video of a ‘balanced’ dog trainer showing his dog walking with a muzzle on and finishing with a game of tug. I was laughing because this guy likes to sell himself as tough, the Alpha of his dogs, and there he is using positive reinforcement and a conditioned pairing. Also, using flooding, since the dog was clearly uncomfortable in the muzzle, but hey. Nothing the trainer would have found quite so offensive as being thought of as a positive trainer! Clear case of Dog Bad Stuff followed by Dog Good Stuff meaning the power of the Bad Stuff is not quite so BAD!

The second was a post about a bin-dipping GWP. The owner had been using something called ‘training discs’ (which sounds like another word for dog frisbees but sadly is just a bunch of some horrible noisy little cymbal-type things) and was disappointed because they weren’t working. Clear case of Dog Bad Stuff (noisy metal things supposed to discourage behaviours) followed by Dog Good Stuff (ill-gotten trash). Once again, the Bad Stuff was not quite so BAD (and the dog was photographed in amidst its ill-gotten gains) because it was followed by some major good stuff. The post unravels with various suggestions of other Dog Bad Stuff which are equally doomed to failure, including using mouse-traps, duct tape and pans. There are lots of people saying ‘put your bin away’ too, which gave me some hope for humanity. One person said they should rent their puppy out to potential owners. Now there’s a pairing! Human Good Stuff (cute puppies!) followed by Human Bad Stuff (constant vigilance and cleaning up) which I thought was funny. There’s nothing like a bin-obsessed puppy to take the edge off the ‘Awwww, puppies!’ feeling.

The third post was one sharing the despair of a good trainer that her client had sought out the ‘superior knowledge’ of Facebook for a Magic Bullet for a behavioural complaint and had a long list of painful ways to stop a behaviour that would be doomed to failure too.

And the fourth was a ‘cute’ video of a weeks-old Mali puppy who was not deterred in the slightest from biting her owner, who was telling her off and yelling ‘no!’, trying to shake her off and yelping. Mixed up Dog Good Stuff and Dog Bad Stuff = devalued, meaningless punishers.

As I explained in the previous post, I’m substituting the term Good Stuff for ‘reinforcers’ because it’s just less jargony. Good stuff includes all manner of sensory and behavioural rewards that we might consider icky or annoying, as well as those we’d traditionally think of as good. Dog Good Stuff runs the gamut from rolling in festering wild boar diarrhea (which will pull my cocker from a heel to go and find it, wherever it is) to beef treats. It includes games such as tug, chase, hide-and-seek and fetch, tapping into their natural canine behaviours like searching, chasing, biting and dissecting. It includes behaviours such as moving forwards on a walk, seeking, licking, jumping or barking. Whilst we might give our dogs a lot of Good Stuff, some of that comes from within. Heston, for instance, my Groenendael X, loves nothing more than the sound of his own voice. Like his owner, no doubt. He has such joy in a fanfare of barks, a volley of vibrant shouting. In fact, when one of my friends died recently, and we had a very windy day, I walked Heston to the top of a nearby hill and did a bit of yelling into the wind. Heston looked at me with a look that can only have said, “Now, see how good THAT feels!”

Bad Stuff is things dogs don’t like or may have to be taught to like. That depends on your dog. For my pocket cocker, that is Baths, Haircuts, Nail Clipping, Eye cleaning, Ear cleaning… any kind of husbandry is offensive to her very spirit. What dogs don’t like depends on their experiences but many of those things don’t have to be taught. You don’t have to teach a dog to avoid pain, for instance. You don’t have to teach them to avoid shocks. If I drop an onion on the floor, even the greedy pocket cocker isn’t interested (though it’s different if cooked). Naturally aversive things are equally sensory – smells, tastes, sensations, noises and sights. Sight is a little bit different. I, for instance, think the thought of Naked Donald Trump to be very aversive. If you papered my bedroom with that image, I’d avoid it completely. I don’t think that works in the same way for dogs. That said, the sight of that blessed shouty terrier down the road is aversive to two of my dogs who try to avoid him. Likewise for me, the sight of a police car in my rear view mirror is enough to make me squirmish and evasive.

If you need to recap learning, have a look at this post.

Just to make it clear – I don’t choose to use Bad Stuff in my work. But I get many clients who come having devalued their Bad Stuff and want to know why:

a) spraying a dog in the face isn’t stopping it humping

b) using a citronella collar isn’t stopping them barking

c) why their dog hasn’t learned to walk to heel with a choke collar

d) why they’ve had to turn the bark collar up to full

e) why their very expensive ‘invisible’ electric fence isn’t working

f) why saying ‘no!’ and yanking on a dog’s collar isn’t making them less reactive

And so on.

I don’t think punishers work. I think it’s easier to hype up the value of a reward than it is to maintain the value of a punisher. I think the potential fallout of punishers is too much of a risk. And finally, there are no circumstances in which management or positive reinforcement hasn’t worked for me yet. But that’s not to say I’m advising you on how to keep a range of brutal, deeply unpleasant punishers valuable. In theory, the best way to keep them valuable is to barely use them at all. (I’d say never!) That way, you can keep something mildly aversive (what Ian Dunbar calls ‘ugly face’ or a ‘no!’) and keep the power of it because you use it so infrequently. Then you never need to use the ‘heavy artillery’ of shock, chokes or prongs. The worst thing about punishers is the more you use them, the more you need to use them.

Just so you are clear.

I’m all about turning the bad stuff in dogs’ lives into neutral stuff, or even good stuff.

So last time I was writing about how one of the worst things we can do is accidentally remove the power of the Good Stuff and the Bad Stuff that we can offer our dogs. And also how we can accidentally turn something neutral into something wonderful or something horrible. It’s all about pairings.

Dogs are good at working out the meaning of things when things happen in patterns. And they work out whether that’s a good pattern for them, or a bad one.

Keys >>>>> walk

Boots >>>>> walk

Keys >>>>> you going out and leaving me

Boots >>>>> you going out and leaving me

They are SO smart like that. Can you see how you can take something that is absolutely meaningless to a dog, like a key, and turn into an object that predicts Most Excellent Dog Stuff or Most Bogus Dog Stuff? We do this every day.

We also know that we can remove the power of something that is Most Bogus Dog Stuff… I don’t yell (much!) in the home. So when I stubbed my toe at 4am the other morning when I stumbled, sleep-deprived, out of bed to let out my dog with dementia for a pee… let’s just say all four dogs shot back to bed, including the dementia dog who half the time doesn’t seem to know where he really is. But when you pair yelling with Dog Good Stuff, as I’m doing at the moment to help prepare a young dog for his trials with customs officers, every time someone yells, that dog thinks it is a bonus predictor of a game of ball. Pairings are powerful ways to take the sting out of the bad stuff.

So we know that stuff works backwards.

If Good Stuff comes last, it makes the stuff before it into Good Stuff too. Things that had been meaningless like boots, cars and harnesses now become things that Spark Dog Joy.

If Bad Stuff comes last, it makes the stuff that comes before into Bad Stuff too. Things that had been meaningless like a vet’s room, a travel crate or a car now become things that Crush Dog Spirits.

So if we follow a prong pop (Bad) with continued walk (Good) the prong pop can become a signal that good stuff will happen.

If we follow a ‘Come on! Good Boy!’ for coming back (Good) with being put on the lead (Bad) then ‘Come on!’ can become a signal that bad stuff will happen.

And we use this all the time in counter-conditioning to teach dogs that a horrible, icky thing that they’ve had a bad experience with is not so bad after all…

It’s not so tough.

When neutral stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same good stuff, it becomes good stuff too.

When bad stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same good stuff, it becomes less bad and eventually might become good.

When good stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same bad stuff, it steals the joy from the good stuff.

When neutral stuff is always followed (fairly immediately) by the same bad stuff, it turns the neutral stuff into a sign that bad stuff will happen.

But you want to know how that works in real life.

Today I’ve got ten unexpected pairings that probably won’t work as they mix up rewards and punishments. The first includes my cat, Basil, who taught me a very important message.

Problem #1: aversion to food

Tuna (Good) followed by Pill (Bad) = turning my cat off Cat Good Stuff.

Before I knew about this powerful crazy Pavlovian magic, I only ever broke out the tuna when I wanted to give my cat a pill. At first that worked. Tricked into eating the pill. Then it didn’t. He’d eat round the pill. Then I tried to force the pill down. You know how that went. Scratches, blood, angry cat. It takes a lot to ‘poison’ a primary reinforcer (things you don’t need to teach an animal to like) yet I managed it. Not only that, I managed to take the sound of the tin opener and turn it into a cue for Basil to hide somewhere unreachable. How to turn Cat Good Stuff into a great predictor of something that is Cat Bad Stuff in one fell swoop.

Solution: teach cats about lots of foods as a kitten (since palettes are hard to expand for cats), give tuna lots more so that it is no longer a 100% predictor of ‘The Horrible Pill Experience’, use lots of different foods so that no single food is a 100% predictor of a pill.

Problem #2: pulling despite physical pain

Leash corrections (Bad) followed by continued walk (Good) = making leash corrections pointless.

I see this all the time. People who walk the dog with a Pop-Pop-Pop on the collar. It is their primary reason for spewing that “Prongs/Chokes don’t hurt” crap. “It’s not working, therefore it can’t be painful.” No, they still hurt. You’ve just made it so that you have gradually desensitised your dog to the experience by pairing it always with a reward. In fact, I was smug about the Master Balanced trainer and his muzzle training because he had to pop his GSD five times in 30 seconds when the dog was ‘heeling’. In fact, I shouldn’t have been smug at all. But can you see how that goes? The more you pop, the more you’ll need to, if you pair it with continued Good Stuff. And the more intensity you’ll need. If your leash corrections aren’t working, why use them?

Solution: teach loose-leash walking. Don’t use Dog Bad Stuff on a walk because it will inevitably be followed by Good Stuff (the walk) so there’s no point.

Problem #3: Bin dipping despite noisy Training Discs placed on top

Crashing training discs (Bad) followed by Bin Treasure (Good) = making training discs a necessary nuisance before revelling in discarded trash

So why did those training discs work once or twice and then stop? Because once the noise is predictable – and it’s always predictable on your third or fourth try – if it’s not more aversive than the treasure is rewarding, it’ll stop working. That crash is a predictor that you have completed the challenge of getting to the trash and you can take home your delightful garbage reward to enjoy at your leisure.

Solution: put the bin away. Put safety locks on your cupboards. Be tidy and don’t be cross at a dog for scavenging. They are being very good at Dog Stuff as far as they are concerned, whereas you are being very bad at predicting Dog Stuff. The mess punishes YOU, so YOU need to learn from it – not the dog.

Problem #4: Counter surfing despite sticky tape or tin foil on surface

Sticky tape/tin foil (Bad) followed by Counter-foraged Chicken carcass/Birthday Cake (Good) = making unpleasant experiences a sign that there is something really good up there.

If your dog can get to Counter Swag, your aversive is just a predictable hurdle. If they manage to get the chicken carcass, it’s a hurdle worth overcoming. Don’t forget: jackpot learning, where there is a 1 in a 100 chance of Very Excellent Counter Swag, can be more powerful than 1 to 1 rewards. Tilly my cocker knows this. Last night, she swagged two diet crackers from the table. Do you think despite their disgusting inedible qualities that she will stop hopping onto the table in my absence? Hell no. I have lived with her 7 years and whilst she only gets swag once in a while, it’s more than enough to reinforce the habit.

Solution: Tidy up and restrict access to counters. If there is never anything good on the counter, there is no reason to think it might contain Dog Good Stuff and for your dog to be seeking out some kind of treasure. A dog who never does this behaviour never learns to. Ironic that my only dog who needs a chair to assist her is the only one who does it. Thank God my bigger dogs didn’t. When I had the handsome 45kg shelf-surfing Ralf and he used to get onto the kitchen shelves, I put stuff in sealed boxes.

Problem #5: Getting on the couch despite obstacle course

Obstacle course/falling chairs (Bad) placed on couch followed by 3 hours of lazy afternoon napping on DFS’s finest corduroy couch (Good)

Another one that isn’t technically a devalued punisher (like the one before) since it depends on the fact that you need your aversive to be more powerful than your reward. But if the reward is 3 hours of comfortable napping (or even fairly uncomfortable between the obstacles) then it takes the sting out of the punisher and devalues it. A clatter of falling chairs might be enough to scare the dog a handful of times, but if the incentive is big enough and the punisher is predictable enough, it’ll soon stop being a reason not to get on the couch. Then you’re left with another situation in which you need to up the level of punishment. Mouse-traps, anyone?

Solution: make sure your dog is never allowed on the couch and that they have a very comfy bed/couch of their own. Teach them to get on or off when asked. Or crate train them. Make sure they never learn that couches are for dogs. Take my dining room chairs, for example, my dogs don’t sit on those because they have never been invited to. Or, do as I have done today and foster a very stinky, menacing Yorkshire terrier and put him on the couch in question. Strangely, the couch that he is on is empty (except for him) and the dog beds are all full. Kidding, of course. If your dogs have learned that couches are comfortable, and you have aided and abetted that, be prepared to teach them on/off when asked and allow a bit of couch time, restrict their access to the couch and make their own bed so good that a couch seems redundant.

Problem #6: thinking Ape Good Stuff is Dog Good Stuff

A dog comes to you for contact (Good) and then patting it on the head (Bad)

It wasn’t until I went in for a ‘coochy-coo’ squishy cuddle with Tilly that I realised the lip-licking, the head-turning were evasive movements. She did not like that coochy-cooing. You can use this effectively for a dog who attention-seeks. Amigo, my senile old griffon dude likes to rest his head on my knee. The problem is that he does it ALL the time and he often comes in for it when I’m sitting with my other dogs who then think he isn’t respecting their boundaries which causes grumbles. I do two gentle pats to the head and he goes away. It’s amazing to think that something we think a dog should like – being touched – can be unpleasant enough to send a serial cuddle monster into a dog who goes away. And I’m talking the kind of ‘pat-pat’ that is so gentle most of us would think it a perfectly acceptable greeting for a dog. The trouble is that if your pet arrives for contact and you touch it – completely innocuously! – in what would be the most mild aversive, you may find your dog doesn’t approach you at all for petting.

Solution: teach your dog that petting is followed by good stuff, so that your ape-like neutral/negative handling becomes a positive by association. With Lidy, she likes licking my face, so I let her do that when she has had some Chimp Hugs from me. Those chimp hugs get the backwards buzz of the pleasure of licking as they are a 100% predictor that I will pucker up for a good snog with a toothy mali.

Problem #7: turning neutral stuff into nasty stuff.

Problems getting your dog into the bathroom (neutral) because you always give them a bath (Bad) or problems getting your dog to have its nails clipped (neutral) because you pinched them once (Bad) or turning your dog’s name (neutral/positive) into something bad by always telling them off when you use it. Whether it’s turning car journeys into a nightmare, baths into chaotic maulings, turning dog coats into a wrestling match, you can easily turn neutral stuff into nasty stuff.

Take their name for example.

Now under normal circumstances, if you give your dog the occasional name call to distract them, like I just did with Heston who decided to alarm bark at a lorry for no apparent reason, it’s not a big deal, unless it’s nearing a 1:1 ratio. Now mostly when I say “Heston!” it’s for good stuff. Probably not as frequently as I would think, but if the only time I ever said his name was to tell him off, then expecting it to get his attention and aid a recall is madness. One of my neighbours has a spaniel called Filou. He quite often yells at Filou to stop barking. It’s 100% likely that when he says ‘Filou!’ that it’s supposed to punish him for barking. Doesn’t work, because barking is its own reward and shouting a dog’s name is not enough to distract or punish, but also it’s a 100% prediction of worse stuff to come because Filou has a shock collar and my joyless neighbour gives him a zap with it. When he was trying to shout Filou back to the house an hour ago, do you think it worked?

Some people will tell you that you need to teach a new cue if you’ve poisoned an old one by turning it into Dog Bad Stuff, but that’s not necessary really. All you’ve got to do is break the association. If your dog thinks cheese means a pill, make cheese mean nothing by using it all the time. If you want Come! to regain its value, make it 100% followed by Amazing Dog Stuff once more. I think sometimes we forget the importance of ‘refreshing’ the association between a name and a consequence, or between ‘come!’ and a reward. A bit of a jackpot from time to time will make sure that habit doesn’t fall out of fashion.

The only time I’d advise changing a dog’s name, for instance, is in situations like poor Filou’s. That would take a lot of work to change it back to a positive thing again.

Solution: make sure that it’s not a 1:1 relationship between the neutral stuff and bad consequences. If you need to get your dog in the car for the vet, then you need to know that there is no way your dog can predict that cars = vets. If cars mean five other things, then that association is less likely to form. Better still is to get your dog into pairing the neutral stuff like bathrooms and cars with ‘good stuff’. Do you think you’d have a problem getting your dog into the shower if you fed them in the shower? I groom Tilly in the kitchen. I feed her in the kitchen. We do other things in the kitchen too (otherwise every time I went to the kitchen, she’d think I was going to feed her) but there is no way she could know that if she goes into the kitchen with me, she’s going to get groomed. She does know when the Cupboard of Doom opens, so I put her clippers in the Kong cupboard. Do you think it’s still the Cupboard of Doom? If you want to remove the association between an event and the thing that precedes it, do the thing that precedes it hundreds of times in hundreds of ways until it is absolutely and utterly meaningless. If the event produces a fear reaction, you may need to be careful how you do this, so that it is absolutely nothing horrible and you don’t accidentally flood your dog with horrible emotions, but if it’s just unpleasant, breaking the 1:1 relationship between the two is crucial

It’s not just about following good with bad or bad with good. It can also about how you can take a fairly unpleasant thing and intensify it with Bad Stuff or how you can take a good thing and intensify it with Good Stuff.

Problem #8: Aggression on lead

Seeing another dog (bad if you’re a dog-aggressive dog) and being told ‘No!’ or being popped/jerked/cranked or shocked (Bad +)

This just amps up the bad of the first bit, since it now predicts more bad stuff. If I don’t like Donald Trump, you pinching my ear every time I see him isn’t going to help. Remember too that it’s about that 1:1 relationship. If every time I see Donald Trump it becomes a predictor of an ear pinch, I’m going to end up dreading seeing him more than I already do. If every time my dog-aggressive dog jerks and lunges towards another dog and I pop her choke collar, it is a 100% predictor of some major Bad Stuff happening.

Problem #9: not being able to solve a jumping-up problem

Jumping up (Good) and getting attention by being told off (person thinks it is Bad Dog Stuff, dog thinks it is Good Dog Stuff)

What you are essentially doing here is reinforcing a behaviour that the dog likes doing already. If you join in and shout at them when they bark, then you’re reinforcing the barking. If you have a dog who is doing something perfectly doggie (humping, mouthing, chewing) attention for doing it, you’re reinforcing the behaviour. If you laugh at a humper, you’re more likely to see that behaviour again. If you give attention to a dog who is barking to get your attention, if you pet a dog who nudges you to get attention, you’re heaping good on already good behaviours and you’ll find them hard to break.

Solution: give zero reinforcement for jumping up, teach an alternative behaviour that you can’t do at the same times as jumping up (like a sit or a down-stay) and only reward that.

Problem #10 Accidentally turning a neutral thing like a thunder shirt into a predictor of Bad Stuff.

Amigo doesn’t have very peaceful nights anymore. That’s especially true if there’s a storm or high winds. I put a thunder shirt on him and give him herbal remedies when a storm is forecast. The thunder shirt and the pills become a very good predictor of a storm and make him more anxious not less.

Solution: use thunder shirts and give herbal remedies plenty of other times as well so that it is no longer a reliable predictor of storms.

The same is true of all anti-anxiety things you do with your dog. If you only do them when you can predict your dog will be in an anxious situation, as soon as you reach for the thunder shirt or you stick on the calming music, you are giving your dog a 100% 1:1 predictor that a storm is coming. Or, do it long enough before the storm so that there is no connection between the two events in the dog’s mind. That doesn’t have to be massively long.

So, there you have it… ways that Pavlov can massively interfere with your animal’s life and training, and some quick ideas of how to avoid some common pitfalls.