Responsible Shelter Practices

Today, I write perhaps the first part of the most important posts I’m ever going to write. I write lots of posts that I hope are useful. Today’s is important. It might be useful as well, who knows? It’s going to be the first in a series about responsible shelter practices.

I will say that this risks being a long post, so grab a drink and a snack, or save for later.

Being a behaviour consultant in France and being English-speaking puts me in a very noisy world of US-based and UK-based colleagues with the occasional Australian, Irish, New Zealand or Canadian voice there too. There are very few Europeans in our professional groups, and if they are, they’re mainly from the northern countries, particularly Norway, Sweden, Holland and Belgium.

Having been part of shelter and association work in France for the last eight years, as a volunteer, as a trustee, as a driver, as a behaviour consultant and in doing outreach, I’ve not been touched much by a problem that my colleagues have faced, though it’s starting to affect me more and more too.

I’d like to start by pointing out a huge and very important fact: the dogs my colleagues see are problem dogs. That in itself is important. Our own clients are not a reflective group. I deal a lot with livestock-guardian breeds and protection breeds, or aggression cases, mostly because that’s what I like doing and I feel like I know my stuff. I get a lot of malinois and German shepherds. Mostly this is because they are very popular in France and because I’ve got a reputation for malinois and German shepherds. I can’t look at my own caseload and assume that ALL malinois and German shepherds are problems or that they’re more problematic than other dogs. Please remember as I write that the dogs behaviour consultants see are not representative of the whole. It’s important to start with that in your head.

The problem my colleagues have been reporting on frequently is the situation involving dogs adopted from other countries. Whether they’ve been street dogs or village dogs, in the meat trade or hanging around on a beach, I think it’s fair to say that some dogs adopted from foreign shores have problems adjusting to life in a different country.

I want to say another thing. As someone who knows shelter statistics intimately, it’s important you know something else too. Some of our dogs adopted on our own doorstep have problems adjusting to life in a different home. This is important to bear in mind too.

When I started this website back in 2015, I called it Woof Like To Meet because I realised how important the right match was. The more the people and the dog fitted together, with whichever poultry, livestock, domestic animals and wildlife already lived in the home, the easier that match was. The more we could replace like with like for those dogs, the easier it was.

Sometimes that poses ethical issues: Do we want to release our hounds to go and live in concrete kennels where their care is often neglected? Do we want to release our malinois or German shepherds to be the very sad guardian of some deserted pile of scrap metal?

You know our answer already.

Since hounds take very well to home life and since protection dogs just need people who understand them (and perhaps have fewer neighbours or visitors than the hoi polloi in a busy town…) then we don’t have much fallout from the fact we don’t want these dogs, on the whole, to go and do the kind of jobs they were doing before. Notice I said ‘on the whole’. That’s important too. Case by case, always.

This poses shelters in rural France several issues. Hounds, gundogs and herding dogs are seen as outdoor utility dogs. They aren’t particularly adoptable by people who live on our doorstep. This is despite the fact that these dogs are ALL the BEST dogs.

In urban France, there are other issues. The malinois and German shepherd are also used as security dogs in the industrial suburbs, not just left to guard car yards and deserted warehouses. The American staffordshire and their many lookalikes are popular dogs for many disenfranchised people living in urban areas.

These are France’s culturally disadvantaged dogs: hounds, working gundogs, protection dogs, security dogs, status dogs.

Each one comes with a label and a defined identity that marks their card when it comes to a speedy adoption.

Countries create cultural problems because dogs are a reflection of us, our values and the lives we lead.

Adopters also create cultural problems. In a recent webinar, I said we have three types of adopters. Though I’ve labelled them, there’s no intended judgement about them.

First, we have those adopters who are driven by economic factors. Virtually every single shelter study I’ve read out of Australia, the UK and the US focuses on these adopters. What’s true in the US is true in France: small, young females, preferably pedigree will leave our shelter in an afternoon. We could adopt out probably twenty small, young female dogs a week. Give us twenty small, young bichons and you won’t even notice them come and go. Middle-aged large mixed-breed males, on the other hand, well, you boys might as well prepare for the long ride.

Economic adopters sometimes want cheaper pedigree versions of dogs they like, such as Frenchies or Malinois. The shelter is cheaper than paying for a dog from a breeder in the UK and US (not in France…) and these adopters want a dog to rehome. Notice I said rehome. This is NOT rescue. The advantages of economic adopters for shelters is that they are plentiful and they conform to market forces, which is cool. That means a good marketer can do a lot with shelter statistics. The disadvantages of economic adopters is that they are budget-conscious and they don’t want dogs that won’t adapt quickly.

Plenty to be said for adopters like this. They are all good people, I know. But I know one thing: foist a ‘problem’ dog on these people and they’ll return the dog. Those ‘problems’ might not be problems for other people and might not be problems at all. You’ll also hate the reasons they give. It’s very rare that shelters or rescues look at their own behaviour and say, ‘We didn’t make it absolutely clear that this dog was not for them.’

This is tough for shelters and rescues. You too may end up on the front page of your local newspaper on Christmas Day, as we did, because we wouldn’t adopt a dog to a local lady who worked 14 hours a day and wanted a dog for the 2 hours she was home and awake. No dog walker, no doggie day care, no leaving the dog with a neighbour. Shelters have to say no, and people who are economic adopters do not like this. Imagine turning up to a car sales yard and the guys won’t sell you a car?

That’s one of the downsides of economic adopters: they can become indignant if you won’t sell them the dog they want. We shelters and rescues don’t like the word ‘sell’. It’s ugly. It has awful connotations. Yet if you speak to a tax accountant, your ‘adoption fees’ are sales, pure and simple. Just like shoes, economic adopters can fixate on a dog they like and then become outraged if you say the dog isn’t for them.

Speaking on behalf of shelters and rescues, saying no is tough. I maybe should just point out at this point that what pushed me to adopt Lidy was someone else making very serious overtures that I wasn’t going to be able to say no to… Three years in a shelter and we start to think seriously when people step up and say they want a guard dog for their French bulldog breeding business… Warehousing stressed dogs isn’t acceptable. Sometimes that forces shelters and rescues to lower their standards. Adopting dogs yourself because there are no other solutions and living as a guard dog isn’t the life you want for your dogs is also part of that fine dance about sheltering and rescue.

There are also now ethical adopters. Ethical adopters are looking for a companion dog that comes from a socially ethical source. Notice I said ‘dog’ there? Barely any of our cat adopters are economic adopters or ethical adopters. Literally nobody sticks up photos on Insta with a #RescueCat tag and are there even charities that are taking ‘street’ cats and ‘village’ cats and shipping them three thousand miles even though the fate of many cats is much, much worse than it is for many dogs? If you’re a deep thinker, you’ll have spent some time pondering this, I know.

Ethical adopters are often those plastering ‘adopt, don’t shop’ signs everywhere on social media often without realising that this is complicated. They maybe fancy certain breeds, but they want the knowledge that theirs was ethically sourced. The great thing is that ethical adopters are thinking about where dogs come from and don’t want to spend £4000 for a muttley pointer mix from some dodgy website and they don’t accidentally end up buying a working cocker who spends most of their days miserably chasing lights and shadows and being told off for not being a lap dog. Ethical adopters are wonderfully noisy advocates and carry your sales messages far and wide.

The tension of ethical adopters is that they see the shelter as a villain from which the dog must always be ‘rescued’. They’re also not averse to ‘rescuing’ an 8-week-old puppy from a puppy farm from time to time without realising they’re just ££££ to the person selling it who’ll put a new model on sale next week. Many times, they want the label of ‘rescue’ but they actually need a dog to rehome, not a dog who has huge problems. The problem with ‘saving’ dogs is that you need to post pictures of them on Insta and hashtag #Rescued #AdoptDontShop and you can’t do that if your dog is shitting themselves in the corner.

Being ethical is hard. If you want to know how hard, try being vegan in rural France. Thank God for good vegetables and lentils, that’s all I’ll say. Coming back to British shops is all vegan mayonnaise? You guys have vegan mayonnaise? Vegan cheese? VEGAN cheese? Vegan chocolate??! Also, why do all your crisps have milk in them? Being vegan is easy in the UK, that’s for sure. Still, loads of people are cut out from vegan choices because they’re expensive.

Taking the ethical high road isn’t easy. Nor is it black and white.

For instance, I have to live with the fact that my dogs aren’t vegan and I don’t plan on them being, so I have to live with the moral ambiguity of living with a predator as Hal Herzog would say. Also, someone then says that the almond milk you’re drinking uses more water than raising a cow, or that the air miles almonds are shipped is catastrophic, so then you’re on oat milk, but then you realise there are such things as Oat Milk Marketing Wars and you just want something to put on your bran flakes.

See? Ethical is tough. Don’t even get me started on whether or not it’s okay to eat a burger from one of my Auntie Clare’s cows because they’re all raised outside on grass and live lovely lives… and whether that’s better than a tomato shipped in from a ten-mile plastic polytunnel strip in Morocco that’s depriving locals of water. Minefields everywhere as soon as you start thinking about it.

So we do need to cut our ethical clients a break.

On the other hand, I also think we need to remember that in all honesty, a real rescue dog is not what they’re after. Sure, they might not conform to the young-small-female-bichon marketing trends, but they don’t always want a dog that’s going to take five months to come out from under a table.

Finally, you’ve got a tiny, wonderful niche of people who I think of as the real rescuers. I have many friends who fit this niche. They take on the troubled dogs, knowing full well all their troubles, and they never make a song and dance about it. One wet Wednesday in November, they turn up. Often a dog of theirs may have recently died and they ask you for the oldest dog, or the dog who’s been in the longest. They’re quiet people who just take the dog for exactly what they are and they adapt around the dog. If you’re a rescue or shelter and you have these, you probably won’t get photos from most of them. I have hundreds of our really troubled souls that I wish I knew where they were and how they were doing. Sometimes you wonder if they’ve died. When you see their guardians at some event or other, they say, ‘Oh, she’s just fine! Took her about five weeks to come out from under the table, bless her, but she’s a treasure!’

The drawback of these people is they rarely share enough of how hard it can be to take on dogs who need a lot from you at the beginning. They’re the kind of people you need to share stories that say ‘Oh, she came three inches out from under the table today!’ but they often never do.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Because shelters have to first know their cultural problems and then they have to know their adopters. If you don’t realise that you’ve got nine gazillion greyhounds because you’re one of EIGHT barstewarding countries on the entire face of this enormous massive globe of ours where betting on greyhound racing is legal, and you aren’t going some way to try and change the system a little, then no good moaning about how many predatory greyhounds you’ve got to work with or how there’s only broken teenage greyhounds to adopt. Remove the problem, remove the dogs being exploited and ending up in shelters…

Secondly, I am telling you about adopters because many people who arrive at shelters or make enquires of rescues are not actually looking for a real ‘rescue’ dog that needs weeks and weeks to integrate.

If you’ve got a lot of people looking to make an economic choice, that’s great. Know that if you listen to what they need and can provide a dog that fits their lifestyle, it’ll probably stick, but you may have to deal with economic choices about what the dog looks like and you might find that distasteful if they won’t take a perfectly good dog that fits their needs perfectly because it doesn’t look like the dog of their dreams.

If you’ve got a lot of ethical adopters, know that what they say and what they need might not be in line with one another. They want the lifestyle dog perhaps that they can put on social media, sometimes inventing stories for about the dog’s past trauma. I’ve had my eyes opened more than once to the stories that some people have made up about our dogs and their pasts and, you know, that’s fine. Is that dog sleeping well at night? That’s all I care about.

And if you’ve got those secret rescuers, do your best to help them share their stories. They don’t like to attract attention as they just get on with it. But it’s important that people understand what ‘real rescue’ is.

Why is this important?

Because if economic adopters can’t get a dog from one shelter, they’ll often be tempted into buying a puppy from foreign shores that they’re ill-equipped to cope with, or they’ll end up buying from some dog sales website online where they can’t return the dog. Economic adopters are easy prey for shelters and rescues that really are operating in a ‘no-returns’ zone. Like Ali Baba or Wish, they send goods over foreign shores to people hoping for a wedding dress that looks like Princess Diana’s and end up with something that looks like a car wash auto-rotating brush had inappropriate relations with a Brazilian samba outfit. And just like Ali Baba and Wish, sending a dog back can cost you more money than you’ve got.

I joke, of course, but when I see dogs who’ve travelled 72 hours being unloaded in car parks on motorway services, it fills me with panic and despair. I’ve seen three adverts just yesterday for newly-adopted dogs to the UK who’ve run off from pick-up points, from the garden on the first night or from a walk. These dogs end up on websites being sold on. They end up living traumatised lives, and, perhaps worst of all, they turn adopters against adoption in future.

It’s also important because ethical adopters can be seduced into adopting by tragedy narratives and THIS DOG WILL BE KILLED! narratives. Like people buying almond milk without realising the hidden side-effects, ethical adopters are lining the coffers of some foreign ‘rescues’ who are breeding dogs, knowing puppies are easy to pass on. Again, they too end up taking on dogs thinking that love is enough, because doesn’t every single #rescue or #AdoptDontShop hashtag on social media show them just how easy it is to ‘rehabilitate’ dogs that were actually just rehomed. Also, if shelters locally won’t adopt to them, they become indignant about the shelter, as if the shelter is killing dogs by not releasing them. As I said, ethical adopters are noisy, and that noise isn’t always celebratory if you’ve refused to adopt a dog to them because it would be a poor fit.

Finally, there are far, far more dogs who need our niche rescue adopters than there are places for them.

So that’s the problem. There are cultural reasons why shelters have loads of dogs in that adopters don’t want. There are plenty of often very valid reasons why shelters close themselves off to certain adopters with blanket policies that then push the would-be adopter to go elsewhere. There are people who want a dog from a shelter or rescue. In short, there’s a market. That market isn’t always being met by shelters in the local area. That drives people to buy from puppy farms or from foreign rescues that are perhaps less scrupulous. There are also lots of very, very lovely people who see problems and want to make a difference.

I think we need to understand what the problem is and why the problem exists before we go on to think about how shelters and rescues can function in ways that better meet the needs of their communities AND can function ways that don’t close off help to foreign shelters or rescue associations who desperately need help.

Only when we understand what’s causing the problem can we consider how we can fix it.

In next week’s post, I’ll explore ways that shelters and rescues can begin to address the problem in a responsible and conscientious way.

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Help! My Dog is Obsessed by the TV!

From time to time, I get clients whose dogs have problems with the TV. Sometimes that can be startling when there are loud noises, but more often, it’s either chase-related behaviours or frustration-related behaviours when your dog sees or hears an animal on the screen. For instance, they may not simply be watching what’s going on, they may be trying to catch any dog that comes on screen, or they might go nuts if they hear a dog on screen. Other animals might also trigger these responses. Some dogs may try to catch the offending animal, especially if the animal moves quickly. Other dogs may bark, circle or even spin.

This behaviour cause you issues if your dog isn’t simply keeping a beady eye on the criminals in Inspector Montalbano. If your dog’s at risk of knocking all the ornaments over, smashing the TV screen or making it impossible to watch your favourite TV programmes, then you might be at your wits’ end.

So what can you do about it? Here I’m going to focus on the common trigger of dogs barking on audio or visual material. What I do is just an example and you can do the exact same thing for whatever your dog’s triggers are.

#1 Understand the exact nature of the problem

The first thing is understand the behaviour. This doesn’t mean you have to let your dog continue barking just because a dog’s barked on screen or trying to catch animals on the screen, but it does mean having a really good think about the kind of things you know cause an issue.

Make a list of the things your dog does and what sets it off.

The first thing to start with is the species. For instance, if your dog only reacts to other dogs, that’s some small win. There are dogs who can’t cope with any animal or human at all on screen. Don’t forget to also include things mechanical moving objects or the bouncing ball over karaoke lyrics. Make a list of all the things your dog responds to.

I don’t have dogs who are bothered by the TV, mainly because I don’t watch TV. But just because they don’t bat an eyelid to dogs barking on the radio or on the computer doesn’t mean they don’t respond to things. Lidy doesn’t respond to a single noise on the computer or radio. Heston sometimes has a curious head tilt when there are particular animal sounds. I took this video when I was trying to narrow down exactly what set off his head tilt reaction. Birds and wild animals definitely do it for him. As you can see, though, he’s clearly listening but he’s also not that bothered.

Once you have your list of all the species or objects that trigger your dog’s responses, you should also note whether or not it’s sound or vision that sets your dog off. It may sound odd, but there are dogs who can distinguish between ‘real’ sounds on TV, computer, phone or radio and ‘fake’ sounds. If your dog only sometimes reacts, it’s worth testing it with the different kinds of things. For instance, as you’ll see from the two videos that follow, Lidy (and Heston) both recognise the sounds of real dogs barking in real life but do not react at all to the sounds of real dogs barking on the computer screen or on the TV, or to the sound of fake dogs barking. It’s worth knowing these things. One thing that’s it’s useful to know that for is because there are differences between recordings and the pitch and so on – way more sound techy than I am capable of understanding or explaining – and if I need to work on both because my dog responds to both, that’s fine, but I also need to understand they are different and dogs recognise that. If I were, for instance, working on the sound of fireworks in real life, using recordings to desensitise the dog just might not cut the mustard. It’s the same here.

Understanding the sensory channels that your dog responds to, the species they respond to and whether it is sound or motion or both is important for what you will do to treat the problem. If you’re not sure, put the TV on mute and see how your dog copes, assuming that the behaviour isn’t too distressing or dangerous.

Play a recorded clip where the species or object in question comes up about 15 minutes or so into the programme. The reason for this is that you want to be able to settle yourself down and pretend everything is normal. If you’re watching your dog for a reaction, your own behaviour may influence what the dog does. If you’re pressing the remote or a button, then that might also trigger your dog that you’re doing something differently. For instance, I know a very specific episode of Engrenages which I have on DVD where there is a dog barking, and nothing else in the rest of the episode. I can work out when that dog comes on, note the time and press play. I should be able to mute the TV when the barking starts in order to identify if it is the barking or not.

Not a twitch to the recorded sound of two spaniels playing. I’d also need to rule out dogs barking for alarm – just because it may be that my dogs are sensitive to one type of barking and not others. This is the same for all triggers. Has your dog generalised, or is it very specific behaviour to very, very specific triggers? Can they cope with static sheep but not moving sheep? Can they cope with sheep but not cows? Can they cope with black or brown sheep moving but not white? Can they cope with sheep baaing but not sheep moving?

These triggers or releasing mechanisms can be oddly specific. Lots of work done on animal behaviour has shown us just how specific, from the red spot on a stickleback that causes territorial aggression in other stickleback to the head of a female turkey that causes male turkeys to start getting ready for mating, even if the head isn’t moving and is just a dead head on a stick.

The more you know about the specifics of your dog’s triggers, the more successful you will be at changing them.

If your dog can’t cope with the sight of the species on screen, you should also rule out the speed of the animal. For instance, what happens when you play the clip at quarter speed, or if you speed it up? Some dogs may react to simply the sight of the squirrel or whatever on the screen. Other dogs may need it to be moving. If your dog needs the animal to be moving before they really get interested, then at what speed? We can mess around with our amazing TV’s frames-per-second speed. Does your dog still do it if the trigger moves at half speed? At quarter speed? At an eighth normal speed? At one frame per second? I’ve rarely seen a dog respond to the static image of the trigger, for example.

Remember to space out your trials over a few days so that you aren’t just setting your dog up to react. Unless it’s dangerous or compulsive, the more time you can take to really get to know your dog’s problem, the less you’ll have to do to sort it out.

If your dog is happily coping with Crufts without the sound on, no matter how fast the dogs are moving around the ring, if they’re happily coping with the protection dog sniffing out drugs on Engrenages until you put the sound back on, that tells you vital information about which sensory pathway you need to work on.

If your dog is coping with the sheep on Spring Watch when the TV is on pause, but then can’t cope at quarter speed, that tells you useful information. It tells you that it’s not the sight of the animal, it’s the movement of the animal (or the bike, car, fire engine…) It also tells you the speed at which your dog can’t cope, which is also really useful information for the training plan.

If it’s a particular TV programme or advertisement that always triggers their behaviour, which species is causing the problem? Bear in mind that could be humans, dogs, cats, wildlife, livestock, mechanical moving objects like bicycles or cars, or even just simply anything that moves on the screen.

If your dog is happy with all moving animals they can see, but just can’t cope with the sound, then you probably find your dogs are barking if they hear that particular sound if you’re playing something on your phone or on the radio.

It can, of course, be all those things.

#2 Understand what the dog does when you aren’t there

Unless you have a dog with separation-related behaviour, there’s a really important rule out to do – one that most people don’t even think about…

What does the dog do when you aren’t there?

The reason we need to find out this information is because sometimes our attention or our interaction can be contributing to the dog’s response. None of us like to think that our behaviour is contributing to what our dog does. We don’t have to have laughed at Fido ‘joining in’ with the agility dogs at Crufts, and we don’t have to have responded positively. The sad fact is that computers, tablets, phones and TVs take our attention away from the dog and whenever they respond to certain things that they’re probably already sensitive about, it can really contribute to their behaviour.

You need to know that this is happening, and to what extent.

There’s a simple reason for this. If your dog is happy to hear the trigger on the radio or see the trigger on the TV when you are not there, well, the behaviour is a very effective way of getting your attention. We may not think that shouting ‘Get down, Rover!’ is particularly reinforcing, but if the dog has found it to be a useful way to break the TV’s captive hold over us and cause us to interact with them, it’s likely to be a behaviour that is going to happen again and again.

Usually, either the behaviour is exactly the same or it’s a bit milder. It’s very infrequent that I see the dog never do this behaviour at all… but you need to know.

Why you need to know is that it will help you design your treatment plan. If your dog’s behaviour is in any way influenced by YOUR behaviour, you’ll need to account for that in what you do.

#3 Decide if it’s more Pavlov or more Skinner

Generally speaking, we might think of this behaviour as a Pavlovian responsive one: the dog sees or hears the trigger and then they perform the behaviour. Just like Pavlov with his sounds and salivation, we might think of this as triggering a behaviour.

Literally as I typed these words, a little dog barked outside. I’m going to assume it was a shih tzu as we are surrounded by barky shih tzus. All small dogs are shih tzus, aren’t they?

What you see in this video is Lidy notice the sound. Full malinois radar ears. Her face is pointed in the direction of the sound. When she looks to me, because dogs do look to us to see what we’re doing, I tell her she’s a good girl, because she didn’t bark or respond, even though she very clearly heard the dog. The dog triggered a response in her.

Another bit of Pavlov at work… As soon as I tell her she’s a good girl, you see her relax. Her ears go back, she gets off the couch, she shakes off. Shake offs are possibly a way of dispersing adrenaline after a stressful experience. She licks her mouth. She yawns. She shakes off again. All beautiful, beautiful canine body language showing that, if I hadn’t guessed it, hearing those grumpy shih tzus barking was stressful for her.

Along comes Heston. Bear in mind these are two guarding breeds. Heston has a spectacular bark. Did he hear the shih tzu? I don’t know. Did he hear me? Maybe. Did he hear Lidy shake off? Definitely. What happens when dogs bark and we are very good dogs who don’t join in?

We get food. Skinner. And a bit Pavlov. We go to the kitchen and we get snacks. You’ll see this is the result of my alert and alarm barking protocol. I just literally finished watching Kathy Sdao’s excellent (as always!) presentation at Mike Shikashio’s Aggressive Dogs conference this weekend, where she talks about turning triggers into cues for behaviour… this is a living example of what I take her to mean. Dogs bark. We go to the kitchen. We get snacks.

We haven’t completely left Pavlov behind. How does Heston feel about dogs barking, would you say? Loose, open mouth, tongue in situ, bottom teeth visible, soft eyes, low & slow wagging tail, the little circle… I wouldn’t go as far as saying my dogs feel happy about other dogs barking. But they know exactly where to go, exactly where the good stuff is and exactly what happens next.

Triggers > responses

Cues > behaviours > consequences.

Some people might think there’s little difference between a trigger and a cue. As Kathy Sdao explained this weekend, a trigger releases a behaviour and we don’t largely have very much control over what we do next. We English-speaking individualists don’t like to think that we human beings are at the beck and call of the world around us, but largely, when a trigger happens, we respond.

Cues, on the other hand, involve choice. They say that reinforcement (in this case interaction from me and best quality freeze-dried lambs’ lungs) is available if you choose to do certain behaviours. Here, that’s if you’re quiet (or, at least, you stop when I say ‘thank you!) and you, in anticipation, move away from the sound (on the left of the camera) to the kitchen on the right, thus we’re using distance increasing behaviour too… slam dunk of potential reinforcers: increase distance, feel safer, have interaction with the group, get biscuits, have a choice over behaviour, remember our agency.

There’s really no difference between Lidy alerting to the dog outside and a dog alerting to another dog on a YouTube clip… it’s all simply Pavlov (stimulus > response) or Skinner (behaviour > consequence)

But it does help if you have an understanding of how much. Going back to step 1 and 2, we can begin to unpick whether the behaviour is being reinforced by something.

Sometimes that’s sensory stimulation. It feels fun to chase stuff. Sometimes that’s the ability to practise breed-specific behaviours. If you don’t want a dog who barks at things, don’t get a dog known for guarding behaviours. If you don’t want a dog who likes to visually chase things, don’t get a sighthound, herding breed or a gundog. If you don’t want a dog who sings to Pavarotti, don’t get a vocal breed like a husky who enjoys a bit of a chorus when they hear sirens or dogs howling.

Other times, that reinforcement comes from us. You’ll know this if you did #2. You might wonder if the dog is simply reacting to threat because they’re protecting you. It’s a possibility although it’s rare. If you notice your dog doesn’t growl or bark as much when you’re not present for the sound or the sight of a dog or human you may want to rule this out. Livestock guardian breeds and mainland European herding dogs selected to protect the flock are two types of dog who might tend towards protection and, if you’re not there, it might not be your attention that’s fuelling the behaviour, but your presence. Alternatively, your presence might just be bolstering the dog’s confidence and you might see your dog growling or barking at the noise of ‘intruder’ dogs or humans when you’re present simply because your presence boosts their confidence.

If it’s mostly Pavlov (trigger > behaviour) and it’s not giving the dog much opportunity to express breed-specific behaviours, to be a dog, to get sensory stimulation or to get attention or interaction from us, this will alter the balance of your training programme.

#4 If it’s more Pavlov or emotional response…

This is because your dog has become sensitised or sensitive to the trigger. The sound or sight has become more salient or significant. For instance, my next-door-neighbour has just started up their very throaty car and Lidy opened her eyes. Heston did not. But she’s not on alert as she was in the video.

We hear and see things all the time that our brain has become habituated to. It’s normal. We carry on with whatever we’re doing, just as I’ve become habituated to the sound of the fridge and the level of light in the room. When we sensitise to something, it becomes more noticeable or salient.

The way to approach respondent behaviours like these is through desensitisation.

For this you need a specific desensitisation plan which a good trainer or behaviour consultant can help you construct.

Systematic desensitisation consists of two important parts.

The first of those is a stimulus gradient, which means starting with the smallest shaving of a trigger that you can manage where your dog is under threshold and building up as your dog learns to cope to the strongest stimulus.

The second part of systematic desensitisation is pairing the stimulus with relaxation, meaning that the dog needs to be chilled out. This doesn’t mean they’re distracted. It means they notice the stimulus but it will be paired by a state of relaxation.

If your dog is responding to the noise, then you will do something to elicit a state of calmness, like just having a chill out on the couch. Your first goal is to present the barking for as short a sliver of time as your dog can cope with – perhaps even one single back at 10% volume on your phone. If you need to, get someone else further away playing the sound. You don’t need food or anything for desensitisation because the bark or the triggering noise should be paired up with relaxation.

Say, for instance, your dog is triggered by the sound of a specific advert. As soon as the advert starts, the dog is waiting for whatever trigger in the advert, be it a car horn or a cat or a dog moving on screen. You may decide to start with the sound. Getting the advert on your phone and playing the first three or four notes is one way to start desensitising your dog to a very specific target.

If you’re wondering how to desensitise your dog to the sight of squirrels or sheep or dogs on television, use a pre-recorded programme where you know at what point the trigger appears. You can press pause and click on remote features to slow down the programme, even if you’re going frame by frame. Perhaps your dog will only cope with two frames before you skip five minutes and continue. Remember not to use the remote only at that period of time otherwise it’s quite likely the dog will pick up on that. Similarly if you’re tapping your phone and a dog barks… don’t let your behaviour with a remote or a control become a substitute trigger.

#5 If it’s more Skinner than Pavlov

The first thing your dog might be doing is rehearsing some innate behaviour for a) dogs or b) their breed. If you’ve got a collie or other kind of herding or droving dog, it’s not unusual that they’ll find the television both stimulating and frustrating. It’s visual stimulation that awakens their need to control movement, and it’s frustrating because they don’t have any control over the triggers on screen. I say triggers here, because motor patterns like these are arguably scratching some deep Pavlovian releasing mechanism: stuff moves, I must control the stuff. It’s more Pavlov than Skinner.

Yet, because they cannot understand that they are in fact unable to control the movement of the creature, it becomes superstitious. By that, I mean that they feel like they need to do the behaviour to get the thing to stop moving. If the thing doesn’t stop moving, they’re going to keep on behaving until it either stops or goes off screen. Whether the dog thinks that they have actually been successful is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t matter.

It’s not just about chasing and moving. It’s also about dogs bred to guard things. Whether you’ve got a mastiff breed, a livestock guardian breed or a mainland European dual-purpose herding and protection breed like a Dutch shepherd, German shepherd, Beauceron, Briard or Belgian shepherd, you’ve got dogs who may take the noise or appearance of a dog or human as an intruder and feel the need to bark at them. It’s not a surprise to find Malinois and German shepherds with some pretty suspicious behaviour around triggers.

Likewise with Asiatic breeds, ancient breeds and terriers, you’ve got dogs who can be aroused by movement and frustrated because they can’t control it.

This takes a dual pronged approach.

On the one hand, desensitisation will work. Desensitisation is crucial for both excitement and fear. Relaxed states, controlled triggers and very small doses in a gradual gradient are your friends here. Break the link between the thing and the need to perform the behaviour.

On the other, these are deeply reinforcing behaviours for dogs and we need to think about their welfare. A heavy enrichment programme that’s very much focused on your dog’s dog and breed needs is going to help scratch that itch. Like other behaviours, though, don’t build up their coping mechanisms for that one simple behaviour: build a dog who isn’t relying on that one behaviour to get their kicks. Scentwork, nosework, trailing, mantrailing, snufflemats, scatter feeding and lots of nose stuff can build up the nose as the primary sensory muscle, not eyes or ears. Give your dog mental stimuation and help them control their impulses through training. Also teach them to cope with frustration. Meet the dog’s needs first and foremost. Allie Bender and Emily Strong’s amazing book Canine Enrichment for the Real World will help with that.

Meet your dog’s needs and you may find that you’re having to deal with fewer and fewer incidents where they’re meeting their own needs.

Likewise, if your dog is aroused all the time, then you may need to do a bit of work here. Sometimes this is age-related. Teenagers are learning what floats their boats and how to meet their own needs. I wouldn’t hope they’ll grow out of it. It’s vital that you put steps into place to help desensitise them and also meet their needs productively.

Anxious dogs or fearful dogs may well benefit from the addition of behavioural medications from your vet if this behaviour is part of a suite of behaviours. Be conscious that you will still need to put behaviour programmes into place: medication does not teach your dog how to cope. Unless they’re supposed to spend the rest of their life medicated, then you’ll eventually have to teach them anyway. Medication for anxious, spooky or fearful dogs may help behaviour modification work faster at the beginning, though there’s no evidence it actually works better in the long run.

If you realise that your own behaviour cues your dog, as well you might, then you’ll also have to work on your own relationship with your dog and – dare I say it – dial back on the television for a bit and put your relationship with your dog first for a while. Of course, you can do both – many of us manage to watch TV while the dog is having a massage or being stroked. Teach your dog how to get your attention whenever they need it – especially if they’re aroused – and always give them what they need for a while, then gradually teach them that it’s enough. By gradually, I mean over months, not weeks. You should also ignore your dog’s behaviour if they bark at the TV. Get up, walk out, call the dog, give them something to do instead, come back with them, carry on. Reinforce non-responsive behaviours (just like my alert and alarm programme) and you should see the behaviour diminish because you’re meeting your dog’s need for contact as well shaping the kind of behaviours that work rather than the ones that don’t.

#6 Manage the environment

Unless you plan on quitting TV for good (highly recommended anyway!) you probably plan on watching something at some point. Training a dog through a careful systematic desensitisation programme with a trainer or behaviour consultant may take from three to twelve weeks depending on a number of factors, like the severity of the behaviour and how long the dog has been practising.

While you’re training, you will need to put a stop to triggers. That may mean listening to everything through headphones if your dog is triggered by noises. That may mean watching things on your laptop, phone or tablet for a few weeks and also using headphones.

If your dog is triggered by very specific things, its worthwhile finding a couple of films or repeated videos where you can guarantee that there is nothing in there that will trigger your dog. I mean 100% guarantee. Playing these on repeat during the times you’d usually watch TV will also desensitise your dog so that they’re less alert. It’s not simply a matter of never playing anything on TV for a few weeks and then putting the TV back on again. Your dog will go right back to where they started. You want to normalise TV and stop them watching out for stuff.

You may of course have dogs who can easily be distracted. Neither of mine would notice a bomb explosion if they have their snuffle mats, wobblers, Kongs and a silicone snake. If I truly struggled watching things and I wanted peace and quiet, then distraction may work.

If your dog is used to your absence within the house, there’s no reason you couldn’t watch in a room where they’re not present if you absolutely needed to. If your dog sleeps in the lounge and they don’t normally react if you’re watching things in bed, there’s no reason to disrupt that habit. If you’re really, truly struggling with not being able to watch your favourite shows for six weeks and run some trigger-free video instead, it may be time to admit you have a problem yourself and find a solution. Again, this is not to say that the TV goes off and stays off for however long. You’ll need it on otherwise the moment you put it back on, you’ll soon realise that your dog has actually become more sensitive during the hiatus. You’ll need to transition back to full strength TV gradually as you blend your desensitisation programme into real life once more.

In conclusion:

  • understand whether it’s visual, auditory or both
  • really get to grips with the specificity of those triggers
  • eliminate your own reactions or presence as the reason behind the behaviour
  • create a gradual stimulus gradient
  • manage your dog’s behaviour and their exposure to sounds and sights while you re-teach your dog
  • check in with a vet if your dog is highly impulsive, highly predatory or particularly anxious or fearful and get medication on board from the beginning if necessary
  • if your dog is older or larger and your dog seems to be particularly sensitive to sounds or their behaviour has intensified, it’s worth asking the vet to check for musculoskeletal problems since sound sensitivity has been repeatedly linked to musculoskeletal pain
  • consider teaching some simple impulse control games and some frustration tolerance
  • add in species-specific and breed-specific enrichment to give your dog an outlet for their needs
  • add in a wider repertoire of enrichment for your dog so they aren’t just reliant on one type of reinforcement
  • implement a systematic desensitisation programme based on your dog’s needs and using the sensory channel that they’re sensitive to

Final plug: if you’re a dog trainer and you are looking to move from compliance models with your clients to a more cooperative way of working, this should help you make the shift:

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Last night, a lovely friend sent me a video of a dog she is thinking of taking on. The dog was staring at the light and shadow patterns on the floor in the home and trying to catch them. This behaviour, often known as light or shadow chasing, is part of a suite of other behaviours that I realised I’ve never written about. These behaviours, depending on a number of factors, might be known as stereotypies or compulsive behaviours. Sometimes you may hear these behaviours referred to as ‘Canine Compulsive Disorder’.

These behaviours might include:

  • circling: pacing or running in circles
  • tail chasing: attempting to chase and bite their own tail
  • mutilation: repeatedly biting and damaging body parts including limbs, feet, flanks and tails
  • licking and nibbling (also causing acral lick dermatitis and granuloma) : repeatedly licking or nibbling body parts including limbs, feet, flanks and tails
  • fly snapping: trying to bite invisible flies
  • light or shadow chasing: trying to catch moving light reflections
  • trancing: walking slowly backwards and forwards under plants or soft furnishings
  • licking non-nutritional surfaces like walls, beds

In reality, stereotypies can include a much wider list than these behaviours, but most of these would be considered normal under usual circumstances, so I don’t want to get alarmist and send hundreds of people to the vet in search of a behaviour consultant, medication or a veterinary behaviourist. However, behaviours such as masturbation and humping can also take on elements of stereotypy.

How would you know if your dog has a stereotypy?

The first thing is that the behaviour is usually seen as a movement that is repeated over and over again in largely the same manner.

Is Lidy’s circling before we go out for a walk a stereotypy? I’d say not. It is repeated and it is practically an identical circle each time, but it’s the last 30 seconds before we go out for a walk.

Is Heston’s fly snapping a stereotypy? No, because there are actual flies.

They can occupy a large part of the animal’s wake time. This was why the first thing I asked my friend was how long the dog spent trying to chase shadows every day. If a dog is suddenly excited by the reflection of their collar tags on a sunny day, that’s a lot different from a dog who spends hours every day performing the same ritualised behaviour. Stereotypies can often be difficult, if not impossible to interrupt.

Sometimes they might not be evident to us. How do we know whether licking is a stereotypy if the animal never damages themselves or we don’t see it?

Stereotypies are not only repetitive and largely unvarying, they are also unproductive. What I mean by that is that they don’t seem to have a purpose or a function. This is one reason a medical rule-out is necessary. Another friend’s dog has just had surgery on his foot and it reminded me of a dog we took into the shelter a few years ago who’d licked most of the fur off his hind leg. A quick x-ray showed that he had an infection in the bone and some necrosis. Removing the metatarsal and a heavy dose of antibiotics and the ‘stereotypy’ stopped. In other words, his licking and nibbling had a function. It was a site of pain and just like scratching an itch, it was perhaps comforting, perhaps an attempt to remove the pain, perhaps both.

Even things like fly snapping can have underlying medical causes. For dogs who have a lot of ‘floaters’ – you know those moving pieces you sometimes seem to get on the surface of your eye – you can see how that could be interpreted as a fly you can never catch.

Ruling out medical causes is vital. Even things like licking walls and beds can be underpinned by health issues. Licking non-nutritional surfaces is a symptom sometimes seen in dogs who have gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and chronic pancreatitis (Bécuwe Bonnet et al. 2012). When Amigo used to occasionally lick the plastic of his dog bed, a quick chat with the vet and some stomach pills sorted him right out. Even things like compacted anal glands can lead to behaviours that seem stereotypical in nature. Tilly’s ‘froggie tongue’ or repetitive air licking was always a signal that she had an upset stomach as well.

It can really help the vet to know if the behaviour is directed at a specific body part, which can indicate something going on beneath the surface. If you’re going to the vet because you have a problem behaviour, make sure you explain how frequently you see the behaviour and when you see it. Vets aren’t good at guessing what’s wrong if you don’t tell them this is happening for three hours in a row.

It’s not unusual for the vet to clear the dog and say there’s nothing wrong with their eyes, their stomach, their anal glands or their bones. Usually, stereotypies are seen in captive animals who don’t have opportunities to forage or behave naturally, so your vet might have a point. You’re no doubt aware that seeing stereotypies is one of the most alarming signs of poor welfare in zoos, for instance, but it can also happen in farm animals too, as well as animals in lab. Keeling and Jensen (2002) say that stereotypies often occur when animals are prevented from performing ‘normal and strongly motivated behaviour patterns’, for example behaviours related to foraging or exploration. For this reason, working with a behaviour consultant who has a strong understanding of species-specific behaviours can really help.

Keeling and Jensen also point out that prey species who spend a lot of time foraging tend to develop oral behaviours, and predatory species like dogs tend to develop motor patterns like circling and pacing. That said, we’ve tinkered so much with dogs in making breeds that we also need to talk about genetic factors. I will talk about solutions later, but poor welfare and lack of opportunity to do ‘dog stuff’ isn’t the only other thing to rule out besides current medical health.

For instance, if I tell you that one of the behaviours is most often seen with shepherds, in particular the German shepherd, you’ll begin to see what I mean. In kennels, German shepherds, and sometimes Malinois or Dutch shepherds, can start tail chasing. If someone tells me their dog is chasing his or her tail, I’d put money on a shepherd or a terrier. Not something we often see in the shelter, but if someone tells me they have a dog chasing lights and shadows, it’s often a setter or a spaniel. Funnily enough, when I said this to my friend who’d sent me the video, she told me of a friend of hers who’d had an Irish setter who’d done the same. Setters, springers, sprockers, cockers, Brittany spaniels and all their cousins do seem to have a thing about repetitive behaviours.

Other breeds seem to go more for specific body parts. I’ve had three German short-haired pointers who had repetitive behaviours related to their feet and pads. It’s well-documented about flank sucking in the doberman. Collies are another breed who tend to fall into light and shadow chasing. Trancing seems to be an English bull terrier or greyhound thing.

That said, for every breed, there are outliers and anomalies. I’ve seen cockers trancing and flank sucking in many other dogs beyond the doberman.

My personal opinion is not that dogs have a genetic predisposition to develop stereotypies as such. Any dog can develop compulsive behaviours. That said, fearful natures can be inherited and there can be comorbidities with fearfulness in my experience. Also, geneticist Elaine Ostlander and her team have done a lot of work on the genetic factors behind canine compulsions. I do think, however, that when particular breeds are distressed for a number of reasons that I’ll explore shortly, or they’re not getting their needs met, or they’re in ill health, then these underlying issues tend to appear in oddly predictable ways.

Often, stereotypies appear early in life (Tiira et al. 2012) and can be present from 3-6 months, so it’s important to make sure you pay attention to your dog’s wellbeing during this time. There’s a little evidence in that same study that stereotypies can be more prevalent in dogs removed too early from their mother, suggesting developmental causes alongside genetics and nurturing.

Of course, being in a shelter, you can see many of these behaviours. Stressful experiences and change can often trigger these repetitive behaviours. For some dogs, they seem to be a way of coping. Lidy self-regulates by circling and pacing, as many of her Malinois brethren do. Thus, stress – whether acute or chronic – can worsen stereotypies. Stress doesn’t necessarily need to be some kind of traumatic experience: anticipation, frustration and excitement can also contribute to stereotypies. We’ve had a number of dogs who’ve damaged their tails (all malinois or shepherd crosses) either by chasing them or biting them who’ve had to have amputations, all of whom presented with some pretty sad and disturbing behaviour in the shelter, often despite being medicated, who went on to show those behaviours very rarely in the home. I’m also going to mention coprophagia here as well, as we see this as a sterotypy in the shelter too.

So what do we do when we recognise our animal might have a sterotypy or compulsive behaviour?

The first thing to do is accept that it’s usually multi-factorial. There are usually a number of contributing factors to the development of stereotypies including genes, personality, underlying medical factors, environmental triggers and behavioural consequences. No one thing will usually resolve your dog’s behaviour in entirety. There are no quick fixes and there may need to be many things to trial.

The second thing is create a journal. This doesn’t have to be very long, because these behaviours often cause welfare issues. However, a journal of two or three days is a good starting point.

Note how long the dog performed the behaviour. Note if you or any other individual (including your animals) tried to intervene, and how the dog responded. Note any variations. Then take the dog to the vet. A journal also helps you look back and see accurately and without bias whether there has been progress or not. There can be set-backs when dealing with stereotypies or compulsions, and it can be hard to see that in fact, it’s not actually as bad as it used to be. Also, we tend not to see that 20 minutes has now turned into 2 hours as we get used to the deterioration.

The vet may rule out underlying medical conditions or they may not. You may find that even if they give you treatment for a very clear medical condition, the dog continues to perform the behaviour – just less than they did. This may not be a sign that the cause hasn’t been treated, just that repetitive behaviours become habitual and it ends up being just what the animal does. Even if you get treatment or surgery, you will probably need to work with a behaviour consultant to make some changes to the dog’s life that minimise the chance of the dog reverting to that behaviour under stress.

One thing I often find is that if the dog has had a behaviour where they have been nibbling, licking or biting themselves, even if they haven’t damaged their skin, regrowth can cause a tingling sensation that can cause the stereotypy to recur, so it’s worth discussing a trial of anti-inflammatories or mild sedatives with your vet.

Know as well that behaviours can recur under stress in the future, even if the dog has had a long period of behavioural remission. Be mindful that sudden and stressful events can cause the behaviour to return.

Once you have sorted out appropriate treatment or ruled out medical causes, it’s time then to have a really good look at the animal’s life. A dog who is anxious or fearful a lot of the time may benefit from a consultation for behavioural medication. Clomipramine or Clomicalm has had a number of trials with dogs who have stereotypies such as tail chasing (Moon-Fanelli and Dodman 1998)

There may be a benefit to checking out your dog’s diet anyway, as some small studies have found that vitamin supplements have decreased performance of compulsive behaviour. We’re learning so much about the gut microbiota and behaviour but the fact that a number of these behaviours correlate with poor intestinal health is one sign that diet is worth investigating. As always, diet is never going to cause an instant change in your health and behaviour, so effects may be gradual. Ok, those Haribo sours make me high as a kite, but the spinach I eat to improve my iron levels isn’t going to turn me into a well-adjusted person any time soon. Some foods may have an instant effect where others may take their time. Still, Tiira et al. (2012) did find that some compulsive behaviours decreased when the dog was given supplements.

We tend to think that such behaviours are medical or genetic, rooted in welfare and coping skills, and that can lead us to overlook the consequences of the behaviour for the dog, making it very difficult to extinguish the behaviour completely.

It’s very important when you’re doing the journal to make sure you take a video of the dog when you are not present. It sounds odd, but some dogs increase their behaviour as it gets attention. Even if you are telling the dog off or you are just looking at the dog, this can reinforce behaviour and you will need to be aware of that. If the dog does less of the behaviour when you’re not present, then that tells you something important: you are a factor. Sometimes, it can be that we inadvertently contribute to the stress of others around us. Other times, it’s purely that we’ve laughed at the terrier chasing their tail or we’ve not realised that we pay attention to the dog every time they do the behaviour. One thing I saw with the video my friend sent me was that every time the person holding the camera spoke, the dog moved position. Professor Susan Friedman gave the example of a flank-sucking doberman in her Living and Learning with Animals course… a behaviour often seen as ‘purely’ genetic. What video showed was that the dog sucked their flank more when the guardians were present than when they were absent. This is vital information. Our relationships are a factor we need to consider. One tail chasing dog in our shelter only span when people passed his kennel. At other times, he was relatively calm. It may be a coping mechanism but we still need to rule out our own involvement in the situation. This can be tough, so a behaviour consultant will be better placed to help you decide, and to understand just how your behaviour is influencing the situation.

Other times, dogs have performed more stereotypies in the absence of company. This usually has two mechanisms. The first is that our presence has stopped the dog doing the behaviour as much. We’re a punisher. I don’t mean to say we’re smacking the dog or reprimanding them, just that our presence might reduce behaviours and the dog then is more able to do what they feel the need to do when nobody is present.

Our presence can also be comforting to the dog and relieve some of the stress. Many people who call me when their dog has what appears to be a compulsive behaviour, we do need to rule out separation-related behaviours if the dog is doing more of it when the guardian is absent. However, as I said in the last paragraph and here, our presence can either simply inhibit the dog or can even comfort the dog. It might be nothing at all to do with their inability or ability to cope without us.

Besides our presence inadvertently reinforcing the behaviour, punishing the behaviour or removing the need to perform the behaviour, dogs can also be performing the stereotypy for their own internal reinforcement. Injuries and locomotion cause the body to release opioids and endorphins. I can attest to this having done a marathon with shin splints and a dodgy Achilles. Locomotion can be stimulating in itself. Many of us have little repetitive behaviours that we don’t even notice, from hair flicking and touching to finger tapping to tapping our feet. I’m a compulsive shredder. Some days, I find little piles of the tag from my tea bags in a little pile next to my laptop and I have no idea how they even got there, shredded into tiny, tiny pieces. This might explain, though, why dogs removed too early from their mothers can be at risk of developing stereotypies. What we know from rats is that maternal licking builds more robust offspring. Perhaps if dogs are removed too early from the home or they have mothers who do not care for them in the way they should, they may be less able to cope with life’s little stresses. Who knows? It’s not beyond doubt, however.

Knowing the causes is essential. Only when you know the causes can you effectively and efficiently reduce compulsive behaviours. Otherwise, it’s a bit like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping something will stick. If your dog needs medication, a change in diet or dietary supplements, if they have underlying anxieties or maladaptive responses to stress where behavioural medication may help, if you try and deal with your dog’s behaviours without these, you are likely to be much less effective than you could be. Since stereotypies are a welfare issue, it’s vital we deal with these quickly and effectively otherwise we are prolonging our dog’s suffering. Just because the dog doesn’t seem to be in pain or suffering from spending 4 hours a day chasing shadows in the kitchen doesn’t mean that it’s a harmless activity.

Likewise, if your dog’s behaviour is caused by them seeking sensory stimulation, if it is related to coping with stress or if it is related to your presence, if you don’t understand an aspect of this, you’re less likely to find that one piece of spaghetti that really will stick to the wall. If you want a resolution, you absolutely have to have an understanding of the many factors currently contributing to your dog’s behaviour.

Once you understand the problem, you can work with your vet and a behaviour consultant to manage the behaviour, to modify it and to medicate if necessary.

Management may involve preventing the dog from accessing places where they perform the behaviour, or using things like Elizabethan collars to stop them chewing their tail or flank sucking. It might involve shutting the curtains on sunny days, removing collar tags or jewellery that’s causing light to dance, even preventing your dog from accessing the yard on brightly lit days, or only accessing parts of the garden where there are no shadows moving. Management doesn’t prevent the need to perform the behaviour, however, so muzzling, restricting the dog, removing lights and shadows won’t stop your dog. We had to unfortunately amputate the tail of a dog who was damaging their tail in the shelter. The vet said at the time that removing the dog’s tail wouldn’t change much and the dog might then refocus on other body parts. Behavioural medication and anti-inflammatories played a large role in management and treatment too.

Management can also involve providing environmental enrichment for the dog. For me, this is one of the key ways to treat stereotypies and compulsions. The right level of physical activity, the right level of mental stimulation, plenty of opportunities to be more dog, and you’ve got a dog who’ll cope better. That might involve social relationships and friendships. I suspect my friend’s home with her two dogs will reduce the light chasing of the dog in the video she sent me. Plus, my friend has dogs who are dogs. They go on long walks, they smell, they do dog things. It’s very hard with busy, working dogs to offer them the level of support that will meet their needs, and I think there’s a clear correlation between dogs bred for work and the performance of some of these behaviours. French Brittany spaniels and setters are ‘busy’ dogs, like collies can be… a sedentary, sedate life is one that some find it hard to cope with. Overdoing the physical exertion can make things much worse, so offering lots of dog-specific enrichment is an absolute essential. My little cocker Tilly did not have stereotypies when she arrived, but she was a nervous, aggressive, piddling ball of anxieties… Being more dog and having a good bond with me turned her into an almost well-adjusted dog. Even so, for a lazy little spaniel, she still had more stamina for enrichment activities than any other dog I’ve ever had (including three malinois!) and therefore a book like Allie Bender & Emily Strong’s Canine Enrichment for the Real World is an absolute boon. Think of your dog’s social relationships, their ability to play interactively, their bonds, their mental enrichment, being more dog… Play can often meet our dog’s needs, and I find that many dogs with stereotypies have developed them in lieu of other dogs or people who’ll interact with them. I find that really sad. Play is a very underestimated cure for many ailments, but it has to be interactive. Dogs are social species, and a lot of their malaise can come from a lack of appropriate social contact. This doesn’t mean solely play with other dogs. Play with humans can be just as fulfilling. I’ll never, ever forget Lidy’s first morning at home. Despite having been three years in the shelter with all kinds of dogs, she had never played with them. I’d never even seen her try to play with another dog, though she’d played often with me. The first thing she did with Heston that first morning was try to play with him. She plays like someone who has brought knives and throwing stars to the playground, but even so, the fact that she tried to engage in a bit of conspecific play for the first time in three years showed me that she finally felt safe. Dogs, like humans, aren’t designed to be starved of relationships.

Watching dogs with stereotypies can be hard. It can also be something we laugh at and don’t understand because we fail to see what it is. Understanding these maladaptive behaviours for what they are is the first step in addressing them. Stereotypies are often multifactorial. It’s not just a case of throwing the dog a stuffed Kong from time to time. It’s so much more than that. It’s not something that you can often deal with in isolation, though I’ve known dogs with stereotypies in the shelter stop them completely when moving to a home. If you’ve got a dog who is exhibiting any of these behaviours, you might need to work with a team of people including your vet and a behaviour consultant, but prognosis is often very good when you do.

My book Client-Centred Dog Training: 30 Lessons for Dog Trainers to get Maximum Engagement from Your Clients is out now


Bécuwe-Bonnet, V., Bélanger, M., Frank, D. et al. (2012) Gastrointestinal disorders in dogs with excessive licking of surfaces. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 7:4 pp.194-204

Keeling, L. and Jensen, P. (2002) Behavioural disturbances, stress and welfare in Jensen, P. (ed) The Ethology of Domestic Animals. Wallingford: CABI

Moon-Fanelli, A. A., and Dodman, N. H. (1998) Description and development of compulsive tail chasing in terriers and response to clomipramine treatment. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 212:8 pp.1252-1257

Tiira, K., Hakasalo, O., Kareinen, L et al. (2012) Environmental effects on compulsive tail chasing in dogs. Plos One. 7:7

Am I Causing My Dog’s Problem Behaviours?

I doubt that there is a single person in the world who thinks that they are either the direct cause or the indirect cause of their dog’s behaviour, but the reality is that there are numerous ways we can worsen our dog’s problem behaviours or even cause them. I want to take all the blame out of every single one of these because I’m absolutely sure that not a single one of us would like to think we’re worsening our dog’s problems and that we wouldn’t do better if we knew how.

So what type of behaviour am I talking about?

You name it… digging, escaping, barking, barking at the neighbours, trying to catch invisible flies, shadow chasing, self-mutilation, over-arousal, over-excitement, chasing animals on the TV, puppy and adolescent biting, separation related behaviour, fearfulness, reactivity and even aggression.

None of this is to say that it’s our fault. None of this is to say it’s actually things we could do anything about. This post isn’t about apportioning blame… it’s just an explanation of how we can sometimes contribute to our dog’s problems.

#1 Accidental cues

Cues are just signs for dogs. They tell dogs that stuff is about to happen and allow them to predict the things that come next. For instance, when I switch the lights out, my dogs head for the bedroom. They know what happens next. When I put my earphones in to start an online class, that’s a cue that I won’t be playing tug with them anymore. Cues show dogs that stuff will happen and that it won’t.

Generally speaking, this is not problematic for our dogs. We do hundreds of predictable things that help them work out what will happen.

Where it becomes a problem is where that cue releases an emotional cascade that only stops when another predictable thing happens. For instance, every morning when we get up, the first thing I do is take the dogs out. Thus, everything I do from waking up to brushing my teeth to putting my boots on (and especially putting my boots on!) adds to my dogs’ excitement because each thing I do is a cue that predicts a walk. The only thing that brings the excitement down is… going for the walk.

Likewise when I pick up my car keys. This is the cue that says the next predictable thing that will happen will be going on a car journey, which my dogs love. Thus, the longer between picking the keys up and getting out of the house, the more excitement, anticipation and frustration that causes, only stopping when we’re in the car and on our way.

It’s not all about good emotions, either. If I go out of the front door and shut it behind me, Lidy panics. She’ll then spend the intervening time trying to find ways to cope with her panic which is only brought to an end when I return.

Worse, for some of my clients and even for some of the dogs who’ve lived with me, that panic may be anxiety that isn’t based on the occurrence of a particular behaviour or event. For instance, lightning made Flika panic and generally her panic didn’t subside until well after any thunderstorms had stopped.

Dogs can be very good at backchaining too, where they pick up the previous cue in the chain. For example, it used to be just my boots that triggered excitement. Then it was putting my socks on before my boots. My dogs can’t be the only ones in the land who are delirious with joy when I go for a pee, I’m sure.

That’s the other thing… Dogs are very contextual learners, so they know the difference between that first toilet trip and the rest during the day. It’s not always true: I can’t even move my car keys without unleashing mayhem.

Our accidental cues can become triggers for behaviour that the dog cannot control. The more predictable they are, the harder it can be to reduce the behaviour. These accidental cues are often the problem behind separation-related behaviour but also behind excitement-related behaviour.

In trainer speak: is Pavlov causing your client problems?

#2 Accidental reinforcement

If dogs do stuff, I hate to say this out, but it’s probably because it’s reinforcing to them. It means that for one reason or another, that dogs do stuff that nets them specific things.

Not all of these specific things are good: it might help them escape or avoid stuff too.

Not all of these things are visible, either. Sometimes dogs do stuff because it helps calm themselves, it helps them manage their frustration or it helps them soothe themselves.

Dogs behave because that behaviour leads them to get stuff they want or need… when Lidy claws me with her great big paws, it’s because sometimes, it nets her affection and petting. When Heston comes and stares at me around 3:50, he knows more often than not, it nets him his dinner. Or, at least he thinks it does. Animals can have superstitious behaviours too.

Virtually all of my clients who have dogs with aggression issues have dogs who’ve found that aggression is very, very effective at making stuff NOT happen. Growling makes hands back off. Barking at the neighbours makes them spring back from the fence. Biting the vet is a quick way to stop them manipulating them. Nipping the groomer is a quick way to stop them grooming you.

If it worked, dogs are likely to do it again.

There can be very weird and wonderful behaviours that are reinforced by things we do. You perhaps wouldn’t think that a dog who barks at a window is actually doing it to get your attention.

Quick test: video your dog when you’re out and tell me if they react as frequently or as dramatically when you’re not there.

I know so many dogs whose alert and alarm barking at noises outside is very much connected to what the family do after the dog barks. It’s one reason I suspect that my alert and alarm barking protocol in the link above is very effective. The dog isn’t barking for food. They’re barking a) to make stuff stop in a superstitious fashion and b) they’re barking because they want us to notice the scary stuff.

Of course, it may not simply be our behaviour when dogs bark that gets our attention that’s causing the problem if your dogs bark less when you’re out. Remember that if you engage at all with the dog – if you physically interrupt them by moving them away, if you tell them off, if you pull them away, if you tell them how ace they are, if you look at them even – that’s all attention that can be altering what your dog does. Being told off is just attention to the dog. The other problem can be, though, that our presence is a confidence boost to an anxious or fearful dog. Our presence motivates the dog to bark when they wouldn’t if we weren’t there.

Even if you don’t reinforce the dog every single time, it can be really challenging to eradicate this behaviour, and the sporadic reinforcement actually makes it harder to kill the behaviour. One experiment in the 1970s with a chimpanzee had 1 reinforcer for 57000 behaviours. No, that’s not an error. That’s like you hitting the coffee machine button 57000 times to make a coffee come out.

Humans are so often involved in building behaviours, including if we’ve laughed at a dog for humping, if we’ve encouraged them, if we interact with them at all. I do know dogs who chase TV shapes or only bark at animal noises on TV when their guardian is there…. we simply have no comprehension of just how much our behaviour affects our dogs.

The quickest way to find out is to video your dogs when you’re not there but the triggers that cause the behaviour are there. In other words, what happens when the schoolkids next door go past the house when you’re not in. Does your dog still go nuts? What happens when people pass your car and you’re not in it. Does your dog still bark?

The saddest thing is that this can often happen with dogs who engage in stereotypical, compulsive or even self-mutilating behaviour. Sometimes, dogs can cause a lot of damage to themselves that is sometimes worsened by what we do when the dog is doing it. For one dog, every time he’d start snapping at invisible flies, the guardian would intervene. Video showed that the dog did it much less when the guardian wasn’t there. What that tells us is that what the guardian did was in some way reinforcing for the dog. For that specific guardian, they were interrupting the dog and inadvertently giving the dog a way to get their attention.

Alternatively, we can also be an accidental punisher. For instance, my boy Heston, since he started on phenobarbital two years ago, has become a stomach on legs. When I go out, he nips into the kitchen to help himself. Now I have never punished him for countersurfing or impromptu foraging, but the clear evidence is that, whether I like it or not, my presense inhibits his kitchen foraging.

In trainer speak: have you ruled out all reinforcement including human interaction, and have you ruled out human presence as an establishing event? Have you also ruled out if the human is acting as a purposeful or accidental punisher if the behaviour only happens in their absence?

#3 Accidental vacuums in guidance and training

Not vacuum cleaners. That would be weird.

Here, I’m talking about the fact that our dogs sometimes do stuff in lieu of guidance from us. In other words, they go Full Dog because we’ve not taught them how to not be Full Dog or because we’ve not given them other things to do.

You remember my tale about the mental spaniels who chased my car down the hill? That’s an accidental vacuum in both guidance and in training. Perhaps the dogs have never been taught what to do when something happens (and bless my little Lidy yesterday morning who is in the process of learning to stand between my legs when she sees a cat, who, as I was bent over trying to poop scoop holding a torch in my mouth – do NOT ask! – saw a cat and did that very thing, smashing the torch into my nose and causing me to drop both the poop and the poop bag and then the torch in the poop… and then expected a sausage for the privilege of ALL THE POOP ON EVERYTHING) or the dogs haven’t had guidance that said, ‘oh, you mean NOW as well??! Ok!’

Flika, for instance, would go nuts at any passing car that had the audacity to slow down in front of our house. If I didn’t call her away (with the purposeful reinforcer of biscuits, natch) she would happily run up and down along the gate barking.

In trainer speak: have you got competing schedules of reinforcement or has the behaviour not been proofed in a variety of contexts?

#4 Accidental lack of management

I’m guilty of this. In the car, we have two lengths of harness attachment for Lidy. One is short for sitting-up kind of journeys. It’s not long enough to let her lie down or move, but it’d stop her slamming around if I crashed. It keeps her on a literal short lead. Then there is a longer attachment for longer journeys so that she can lie down. That one, however, gives her more space to get into trouble should anyone stick a hand through Heston’s slightly open window. In other words, I don’t want her on a long attachment in the car should people get too close to the car. Yet sometimes I forget to switch from the long to the short if I pull up for petrol or for a snack break.

It’s human nature to give our dogs more freedom than we probably should. We let them off lead, we take them to the vet without a muzzle, we don’t have some kind of secure gate if the front door is open that stops our dogs dashing out into the garden. We get lucky more than we should, and we take our foot off the pedal. It can feel like we don’t trust our dog or that we’re not giving them adequate freedoms.

I always say they’re dogs. The only thing I trust is a very, very long training history. They’re going to be dogs, and we’re just lucky if nobody gets harmed as a result. Dogs gonna Dog. It’s up to us to manage it.

In trainer speak: is the dog living in a secure environment where there are two lines of protection?

#5 Accidental failure to acknowledge we’ve got a dog

This sounds terrible, doesn’t it? How do we forget we’ve got a dog?

Yet people do it all the time.

They also forget that they’ve got a specific breed or a specific type of dog, and that specific breed comes with specific behaviours that are more of a tendency than they’d want.

We forget to put in enough enrichment into our dogs’ daily lives. We forget that enrichment involves social needs and interactive play needs. Or we forget that our dogs have mental needs as well as physical needs.

We forget that our previous puppies were arseholes through their teen years. We forget how hard puppy training is.

Worse still, no matter how informed we think we are when we get our first dog as adults, we are never informed enough. We don’t know enough about canine body language, about canine needs, even about how to be around dogs. I have to say that I’ve benefited hugely from a more ‘Rural French’ approach to dog approaches. That’s to say, ‘you’ve got a dog, good for you… I’ll keep my hands to myself and stop staring at your dog’ instead of ‘How cute! You’ve got an enormous grumpy-looking German Shepherd. Can I pet him?

We are all learning.

In trainer speak: is your client skilled up enough about the dog they have and the lifestyle that would suit their dog?

#6 Accidentally putting our dog in past their coping level

I think this is one we’re all guilty of. We thought their training was better than it was. We thought their recall was more reliable. We thought they would cope with sitting at a café. We thought they would enjoy going for a walk with all our friends.

Whether we’re asking too much of our dogs’ current level of training, or whether we’re immersing the dog in situations they’re not yet ready for, this can be another way that we expect too much of our dogs and end up contributing to their behaviour.

I can’t tell you how many reactive dogs I’ve worked with, or dogs who are fearful in public, whose guardians haven’t quite got their head around the fact that the lead is the thing causing the problem because it interferes with the dog’s abilty to make good choices. This is not to say we should take the lead off. This is to say that we absolutely need to make safer choices for our dogs. Why would our dog feel the need to sort things out for themselves and navigate complex situations? Largely because we keep attaching a lead to them or trapping them within four walls and then exposing the dog to things they’re not yet ready for, but they can’t escape from.

In trainer speak: has your client accidentally been flooding the dog or working too quickly through stimulus gradients?


The point of this post is not to apportion blame. We feel guilty enough, I know. Accepting that our behaviour and our habits, our interactions with our dogs, our lack of training or guidance, our lack of management or our lack of awareness of our dog’s needs may be part of the dog’s problem can be a big enough ego burst. We think we’re doing such a great job and it’s pretty ugly when we look at what’s going on and realise we’re responsible for some of it.

I like to remind myself that much of this is just human nature to forget. Our lives with dogs are different and we’re all involved in the pursuit of knowledge that helps us help them lead more successful and enjoyable lives. Not a single one of us would like to admit that we are quite likely for our dog’s problem behaviour. Nobody’s sitting there wondering if they hadn’t laughed so much that first time their dog humped Uncle Eric, that Uncle Eric might not have been the first in a long line of humpees. Nobody is glad that they’ve turned their dog into a barking machine.

We’re not doing it on purpose.

But that’s not to say we don’t have to Adult the F*ck Up and accept our role in things. We’re grown ups. We can do this without crying in the corner for weeks. We don’t have to get out the hair shirts, the bells and the ashes. We can accept it and decide to do better in future. We’ve not got such fragile egos that we can’t cope in the slightest that *shock, horror* we may be in some way responsible for what our dogs do.

As Maya Angelou said, ‘When we know better, we do better’.

Now we know better, let’s do better.

If you’re a trainer and you hate having these kind of conversations with your clients, why not check out my book? It’s ace. I would say that, wouldn’t I? It’d make a good Christmas present for your dog trainer friends, too.

Available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. Leave a review if you’ve already read it!

Help! My Dog is Destroying All Their Toys!

As the guardian of two dogs who always relinquish anything I ask them to, I feel pretty blessed. Lidy was so destructive in the shelter that she chewed her wooden kennel and also couldn’t be left with any bedding at all. She did have three or four good toys which she often carried about, but sheets and towels, dog beds and cushions were all things that she’d likely tear to pieces given half the chance.

Yet here, with her collection of stuffed animals, she might give them a good shake from time to time, but she never pulls them to pieces.

If you have a destructive dog, it can be a nightmare. If they’re tearing things to shreds, you can end up having to clear up a real mess. If they’re tearing things to pieces and consuming them, you may end up with a rush to the emergency vet, an x-ray and a day of starvation if not a surgical procedure to open them up and remove whatever it is they’ve ingested.

Destruction can be pretty natural behaviour. You may even be adding it to your dog’s day as a form of enrichment if they really enjoy doing it and it’s not dangerous. Most of us would be pretty happy if we had ‘controlled’ destruction: that our dogs understood what they were free to destroy and they stopped when we asked.

If you’re the guardian of a dog with powerful jaws and a tendency to tear things to pieces, a dog whose destruction is uncontrolled, then it may be driving you to distraction. How do we move a dog whose destruction is uncontrolled to a dog who knows what they can chew and what they can’t, what they’re supposed to do with things and when they need to stop?

The first is to understand that destruction is a perfectly natural part of the dog’s behavioural repertoire. Whether they are eating things or they are playing, chewing things and pulling things apart can feel pretty good to the dog. They may be chewing and destroying things that resemble food items that wolves or other canids would catch in the wild: it’s not a great leap of manufacturing to go from a buffalo to a shoe, after all. Many things that dogs like to destroy can be things that they resemble prey species – or, at least, part of them. I can’t tell you how many spaniels and golden retrievers I’ve known who had a thing for tissues. My nana’s American cocker spaniel would have happily pulled every single tissue out of the box and left them strewn around the bedroom. I’ve worked with a few English cocker spaniels who had a real problem with tissues and would growl or bite their guardians if they tried to remove them. Having never pulled feathers from a bird myself, I can’t really say that it feels the same at a neurological level as killing pheasant and wood pigeons, but I imagine it might, just a little bit.

Other dogs I’ve worked with have had a real thing for fabric, especially floaty fabrics. It’s not uncommon for dogs to really like the rip of fabric. Having never shredded fascia, ligaments, skin or muscle, I can’t tell you if it feels the same to pull a towel apart, but I imagine it might well.

The first thing you need to do is rule out any age-related causes like still being a puppy or a teenager. That’s not to say that it’s inevitable or unpreventable just because the dog is young, but that you’re going to need some more management as their brain isn’t working at full capacity to inhibit impulses yet.

You also need to rule out developmental issues, health issues and self-soothing. Heston hadn’t chewed anything for years, and now he likes to suck holes in soft fabrics. He only does it before he sleeps or if he is coping with being alone. It’s very much his way of comforting himself. Destruction and chewing can be clues as to illnesses and imbalances, particularly anxiety. Lidy destroyed things in the shelter because she couldn’t cope. The only time she destroyed anything here (she ripped some of my clothes that were in a washing basket) was when there was a storm and I was teaching in the next room. She couldn’t get to me because she was behind a baby gate and I couldn’t hear what she was doing because I had headphones in. Destruction can be a sign of psychological distress as much as any other behaviour.

Also, rule out lack of supervision. Is the dog only destroying things when you’re not there? If so, the first thing you’ll need is video so that you can work with a professional to rule out separation-related issues, to rule out boredom, to rule out whether a punishment schedule is in play when the guardian is present and to work out the function of the behaviour. Why don’t Heston and Lidy destroy things when I’m there? Well, I hate to say it and I’ve never actively punished them – or even inadvertently punished them – but my presence inhibits their behaviour. Even if we interrupt or remove a toy, if they’d naturally tear it to pieces in our absence, then our absence means there’s no external pressure to comply. You don’t need to have even yelled at your dog – but if you intervene in any way, you’re an external force rather than the dog really knowing not to chew. I’m fine with that, by the way. I don’t expect my dogs to have the willpower not to destroy things in my absence. They’re dogs, not people. I used to teach classes of 16-year-olds who’d hide classwork if I was absent and they had a supply teacher. That other beings will behave differently in my absence is just a fact of life. It doesn’t mean I’m an ogre. It just means that my interventions to support them in the choices they make are scaffolds, not straitjackets, but scaffolds they need, nevertheless.

So, with those brief provisos in mind, and with this more detailed exploration of why dogs chew and destroy things also considered, I’m going to take the example of a dog who is destroying toys and chews in the presence of their guardians.

What do they need to know?

#1 How to cope with frustration

If you’re going to remove things from a dog, the dog first needs to know how to cope when you do. If they can’t, you’re potentially going to end up with worse behaviours.

They need to know how to cope when they don’t get what they want or they can’t have what they want. Given that frustration can very easily tip over into aggression, you need a dog who can cope with that. Coping with frustration is also about learning to manage your own emotions and self-regulate better.

If you’re looking for ideas about where to start, this post should help.

#2 How to have control over impulses

If your dog can’t control their own behaviour and they can’t stop what they start, if they can’t self interrupt, you’re going to end up having to wrestle toys or chews from the dog, or try and distract them so you can steal their stuff. Unsurprisingly, dogs are wary of us doing this after the first time we do it, so it’s fine for a one-off emergency, but heaven help you if you need to do it again.

Dogs need to be able to self-interrupt as well as knowing how to stop when asked. Dogs who have no idea how to press their own off buttons are a liability. One of the drivers behind destruction, alongside frustration, is the inability to self-regulate. When Lidy holds her toys ever so gently or she stops pulling the ear off her elephant when I ask (like my mother, she’s a sod for being unable to leave a thread hanging) those skills are impulse control skills. I confess to having a very icky habit around scabs and peeling skin – other people’s scabs and peeling skin – I almost can’t stop myself from wanting to pull them off. I know, it’s disgusting. Even so, if I feel itchy about not being able to pull at some random stranger’s flappy scab or peeling skin, I shouldn’t expect my dog to cope any better than I do. The only thing that stops me is a very long history of rules about socially acceptable behaviour. In other words, I stop myself.

If we want dogs to stop themselves, then we need to teach them how.

#3 Teach them to relinquish items when you ask

Teach them how to drop. Your dog needs to learn to relinquish things. To be fair, most of the dogs I’ve known other than my toy-guardy dogs Tilly, Tobby and Amigo, have all been happy relinquishers of their stuff. If your dog has any kind of history of running off with stuff or reluctance about forced removal, you need Chirag Patel’s Drop. To the letter, no skimping.

Until you’ve mastered this (6-12 weeks of daily practice, I’d say), I’d manage the chewables very carefully. This technique is so good that Lidy spat out a found pigeon wing the other day. She didn’t want to eat it, so there’s that, but it can be such an instinctive reaction that the dog has relinquished before they’ve had time to think that they didn’t want to.

Don’t bother with trading if your dog is destructive. You’re never going to be trading. You’re not giving them something else to destroy. You need a safe way to get them to drop and leave items that also brings them back to you. Chirag isn’t teaching relinquishment, really. He’s teaching the dog that when you say a word, then it’ll be advantageous to come back to you from wherever they are and have an empty mouth, kind of like when my mum said, ‘Tea’s ready!’

Play stopped because tea was valuable and also because of ingrained habit. This method of drop is exactly the same.

#4 Teach the Counting Game

This is another Chirag Patel classic. You may wonder at its use with chewing and destruction. It works perfectly in kind of similar lines to Drop…. ‘Hey! I’m doing something really fun here. Come see!’

You can move the dog away from items, slow them down (spread out your timing and slow down) and speed them up. I use it often when I have novice dogs who have no skills with drop. The Counting Game can be a really good way if I’m doing freework sessions or other stuff to get a dog to come nearer to me.

The added bonus is that the moment you start counting and you bend down in future sessions, the more likely it will be that dogs will stop what they’re doing and come to join you.

#5 Add a wider range of non-destructive enrichment

Like dogs who chase compulsively, destruction can be compulsive too. It scratches a biological itch that other things don’t. Destruction and chewing are part of the predatory motor sequence: the ways that predatory species seek and acquire food. Of course, your dog is not destroying things to consume them, usually. Even chewing of bones can offer very little nutritional value once the marrow has gone. Kill-bites, shaking, tearing things apart and even eating them are much, much later in the sequence. Just like you would with a dog who is compulsively chasing, your job is to do things earlier in the sequence. Scentwork can be really useful. Doing activities like mantrailing or scentwork can help build a behaviourally more balanced dog who doesn’t only have one way to get their kicks. I’m a huge fan of scatter feeding with dogs who destroy. I confess I prefer grass for this – it’s less problematic if they tear up some grass and you can scatter it further away. Snuffle mats are great, but I’ve seen dogs dismantle them in minutes. They just don’t afford you the ability to manage arousal in the same way. I have never, ever known dogs escalate from scatter feeding to vaccuuming the floor, by the way. If your dog does this, that’s something else entirely. Sometimes, it’s just a free buffet and what dog would turn that down? But dogs don’t graduate from scatter feeding to eating anything on the ground. Scatter feeding lasts much longer – I’ve never known a snuffle mat last more than 10 minutes with a single ration of food – and I’ve two enormous snuffle mats. I’ve had dogs still scouting for one single handful of chopped ham over 45 minutes later. Tilly once was out there for two hours still endlessly searching for the last bit of ham.

#6 Recognise destructive behaviour as part of adolescence and deal with it accordingly

Most destructive behaviours start young and fade, but some dogs get more excited by the destruction than others, particularly during their teenage years when it can provide an outlet.

Make sure you’re clear about the suite of behaviours that destruction might fit in to. If you recognise a number from this post, then you might want to think about ways you can channel your dog more appropriately through focus games, through the activities listed above and through careful management. Dogs who don’t learn what a thrill destruction can be from 8 weeks to 2 years of age are generally dogs who don’t destroy things the rest of their life either. For instance, rural France is not a toy-based dog culture as a whole and so a lot of our dogs have no idea what toys are. That doesn’t mean they’re not destructive: some are destructive despite the presence of toys. Many, though, if they are destructive do so because their behaviour early on wasn’t managed and their needs weren’t met. Meet a dog’s needs and you don’t tend to find them destroying the kitchen cabinets.

#7 Interact more with your dog

Destroying things is not just a predatory motor sequence thing, it’s also a form of entertainment and a way to engage with the environment. When we play more with our dogs and we interact with them, then we can meet their needs in other ways. To be honest, a dog who only enjoys life when they’re pulling the stuffing from cushions seems to be a pretty miserable dog if you ask me. Massage, petting sessions and training sessions can be ways of building up your own bond, as can interactive play.

Before everyone clutches their pearls, I’m not talking about turning your dog into a ball addict or doing irreparable damage to them physically and mentally. A balanced diet of a bit of tug, a bit of chasing, a bit of scentwork, a bit of massage, a bit of frisbee, even – dare I say it – physical play with your dog can be different ways for you to meet your dog’s needs to play. As one of our lovely DoGenius students wrote in their essay at the weekend, pseudopredation (so, finding, stalking, herding, pouncing, biting, shaking, grabbing, dissecting) could well be as much about play as it is about predation. Play more, and choose more interactive or social ways of doing so. A broad range of play skills is also a muscle you can build, just as you can build up scent work and so on. If dogs are making their own fun – essentially what destruction is – then get involved with them.

#8 Build bite inhibition

Some people seem to think that bite inhibition and bite strength are things dogs are born with. They’re not. They’re taught skills that they learn through life. Being born a dog teaches them to bite. Being socialised teaches them WHEN and HOW to bite. Destruction is sometimes about learning to hold back.

The mouth is bones and teeth secured by and operated by muscles. Bite inhibition is just choosing the right bite strength (or none at all) for the moment. Given that the mouth is controlled by muscles, it is an eminently trainable thing. It’s no different than our hands. Remember how you used to paint when you were four? Half the battle was holding the brush. We learn skills with our muscles that stop us over or under-reacting to the process we’re about to undertake. We don’t still paint and write like four-year-old children. Burly, muscley men can still learn to knit delicately if they try, just as dogs can learn to bite less hard.

How do I suggest you do this? Play! A great tug programme like Craig Ogilvie’s INTERACTIVE programme is ideal. Like any other muscular skill, it can be shaped over time. Of course, it’s easiest when you’re working with a fairly young dog, but it’s something all dogs can learn.

It’s not a question of finding more robust toys that can outlast your dog’s jaws. If your dog is that much of a chewer or a destroyer, the likelihood of hairline fractures and other dental damage is huge. Ideally, all dogs should be able to choose a grip that suits the thing they’re gripping. Many people are too afraid to intervene or don’t know how without causing frustration and potential aggression. It’s really important that we help our dogs get their needs met, but that their needs don’t end up bordering on a compulsion.

PS: I’ve got a book out, as if you didn’t already know! If you’ve read it already, please leave me some feedback! Pop over to Amazon now and wax lyrical.

Improve your training with fearful dogs

Many of my clients have struggled in the past with training their fearful dog. Whether your dog is nervous on walks or whether they’re reactive, it can feel like you’re getting nowhere.

Part of the problem is that unless we deal with the emotions underpinning the behaviour, our training isn’t going to make much headway. It’s vital that we help our dogs feel better about the world in which they find themselves.

If you don’t, all you’re doing is trying to put training on the most shaky of foundations. You can read why here.

Essentially, if your dog doesn’t feel safe, the only thing that matters to them is safety. Food doesn’t matter. You don’t matter. Asking them to sit and face their fears doesn’t even register. If your dog feels like they can’t cope in the outside world, then nothing you can do will even register. It’s every dog for themselves.

And there you are, with your biscuits, hoping that teaching them to sit will make the slightest difference.

Sorry to break it to you, but you’re going to need a bit more than that.

Training can have miraculous results with fearful, anxious or nervous dogs. I wholeheartedly endorse Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games that you can find in Control Unleashed and I also thoroughly encourage you to follow Sarah Stremming of Cog Dog Radio. Both women are amazing trainers who use training to help dogs cope in the world in which they find themselves.

These methods work by creating a structure or ritual. That seems to work by predictability and routine. They seem to reassure the dog that, sure, we’re in a new environment… sure, scary things may be going on around us… but you and I, we have our thing. Having moved around madly these last four months, my dogs know that, as soon as the bed goes down, as soon as the blankets go down, this is where we are. This is home.

Wherever we do our routines, that’s our home. That kind of thing.

Many dog trainers can try to implement these strategies with fearful or nervous dogs with little success, however.

Partly, for me, that’s based on an over-reliance on training as the only way to make a difference to a dog. Dog trainers do what they know, and they feel less comfortable about other procedures, just as I would feel uncomfortable teaching all the bits and pieces for a Kennel Club award. I mean, I can, but I wouldn’t be as efficient.

How do we deal with the dog’s underlying emotions?

Here are ten ways that you can improve your dog’s progress and help them feel happier in the world.

#1 Medication or supplements

The first is to consider medication. While you may very well find some success with supplements and natural remedies, if you’ve got a dog who spends most of the day in a state of anxiety and then is hypervigilant outdoors, to the point that they won’t even pee outside, then this is a welfare issue, not a training issue. You may find some success with supplements, and certainly I’ve known dogs for whom they were effective, but if your dog is spending 16 hours a day in a state of nervous tension, trying to train them is more than likely to be completely inefficient.

If you are going to consult your vet, make sure you carefully document your dog’s behaviour. It can be very difficult for vets to see just how miserable your dog is. Make a diary, make videos and make sure you describe your dog’s behaviour objectively so that the vet can make the best decision.

#2 Lower anxiety in the home

If your dog is spending all hours of the day on high alert, they won’t be sleeping or resting properly. One of the easiest things to do is to reduce alert behaviours to noise outside the home and to add a little enrichment. I highly recommend Ali Bender and Emily Strong’s book Canine Enrichment for the Real World instead of feeding from bowls or forcing your dog to go out on walks that they clearly find distressing. Enrichment has other benefits: it focuses the dog’s attention on the good stuff and helps them block out the bad, even just for a little while.

If you’re aiming to add even just ten extra minutes a day, it can make a real difference. Anyone who suffers with anxiety will tell you that being able to immerse yourself in something – while it doesn’t treat the problem – as long as the ‘something’ doesn’t induce anxiety itself – can really help to give you a break from it. I always remember one time when I’d left my dogs with my dad. One of my dogs was newly epileptic. He was occasionally disoriented and I hadn’t heard from my dad all morning. I was in full on panic mode. However, I’d got a conference to deliver and that at least occupied me. By the time I’d delivered it, my dad had responded to my 53 messages and everything was fine. If I’d not been distracted by delivering a conference, I think I’d have driven 2000 miles back home just to check on them all. Doing stuff gives us a break from anxiety.

If your dog is alert and alarm barking all the time, you can also put this simple protocol into place.

#3 Make sure your dog is safe

Fearful dogs need to be safe. You can’t make them feel safe if they aren’t actually safe. Safety’s not some kind of illusion.

The first thing this means is stopping putting them in situations they can’t cope with, at least for a little while as you work with a trainer or behaviourist.

Because we often keep fearful dogs on the lead, it can run the risk that they don’t have a choice in where they go or what they do. If they weren’t on lead, they’d probably vote with their feet and go home. Having dogs in a crate or on a lead means they can’t escape from situations if they want to. As a result, it’s really important that we’re mindful of the fact our dogs can’t choose and therefore, we must choose venues and times for our walks that feel safer to our dogs. It’s all very well us thinking that our walks are safe, but it’s not our feelings that count.

This also means making sure your dog IS safe in the home, in the garden and on walks. Flat leads and comfortable harnesses are an absolute must.

#4 Make eating outside the home a habit

Many people assume that their dogs won’t eat outside because they’re in a panic or they’re not interested in food. Please check out this post and make sure you’re not just failing to teach your dog to eat in a variety of different places.

Since counterconditioning is very often done through pairing scary stuff with food, you do need a dog who’ll accept food outside the home. Eating is a habit. It’s a behaviour like anything else. When I think of how afraid Lidy is of strange people and being handled, or being at the vets and I know that she was taking paté from the vet, then I know that there is literally nowhere we can’t do a little work on her emotions.

If your dog won’t eat outside the home, however, it may not simply be that your dog is too afraid to eat (in which case, I’d say your dog was a really good candidate for #1 medication) but that your dog just doesn’t eat out of context. It’s a skill we need to practise, so rule out the common problems.

#5 Stop asking people to feed your dog

You can train very effectively without people giving food to your dog. Food is a positive thing. Scary people are a negative thing. When we give food to people to distribute to our fearful dogs in the hopes of teaching them that people are not so scary, it can really backfire. Your dog ends up bribed into the space of the scary human and when the food runs out, they’re often left in a state of ambivalence and ambiguity.

Keep the food yourself and use a training programme to help your dog that doesn’t involve this:

#6 Keep sessions short

Most of my clients have already tried to change their dog’s emotional state before they get to me. Most of them have tried to habituate their dog to the scary stuff by gently exposing them to the world outside.

Where I find most surprise from clients is that our first session might literally be 5-6 minutes long and only have 5-6 exposures to the scary stuff.

Pavlovian conditioning (pairing the scary stuff up with food) shouldn’t take hundreds of exposures for the dog to learn to associate the food with the scary stuff. If you follow #7 to #9 properly, the dog should make the association really quickly.

I often hear a lot of apologists for poor methodology from the dog training community. ‘Oh counterconditioning won’t work for me!’ they say, using cities or frequency of triggers as a reason.

I make no apologies for saying that I’ve counterconditioned dogs in one of France’s largest shelters where dogs have been surrounded by all the stuff they’re scared of and want to chase. You think your city is bad? Hello??!

Cars, wheelbarrows, hundreds of dogs barking, colonies of cats darting in and out, passers-by, would-be adopters, dogs coming in and out, vets on site, queues of people waiting for the vet with animals, well-wishers, volunteers, staff members, kennel stench, infernal noise, pound vans coming in and out, delivery vans arriving with food and kit, children wandering around, babies in pushchairs, then the wildness of national forest with teams of hunters, loose scenthounds, wild boar, deer, snakes, hedgehogs, badgers, squirrels…

If I can countercondition in a shelter environment in 5-6 trials, something is wrong with your methods, dude.

As Ginger Rogers reportedly said when asked how it was to dance with Fred Astaire, ‘Darling, I did everything he did… just backwards and in high heels.’

Working in a shelter is a bit like working backwards and in high heels. I don’t care where you’re working on your counterconditioning. It’s most likely much less stressful than a shelter and you can probably make better use of your environment. I’d love it if trainers stopped blaming their tools. I’m a very, very ordinary trainer and if I can make the pairing in 5-6 trials in 5-6 minutes in a shelter, I’m pretty sure anyone can do it. But you’ve got to be good at your craft.

That means doing less and making the pairing crystal clear. Choose a good set-up and make sure you’ve done your bit on #1 through to #5 and you’ll have a much better chance.

#7 Choose your time and venue carefully

If you want to be able to do #6 properly, you’ll need the right set-up. A set-up is just a carefully chosen area for where you’re going to make that pairing between food and scary stuff. It means working far enough away – sometimes 500m or so, but usually much less if you can organise or stage your venue carefully enough.

Sometimes that means using vistas as you’ll read in #8. It also means keeping counterconditioning sessions short and finishing on a win. Don’t keep going until the dog fails.

Another thing you can do is make sure you use time of day properly. Last week, I was staying at my mum’s. Turns out 5.30am in her neighbourhood is busier than 12.30pm. There were loads of people walking dogs before going to work, cats returning home from a night on the tiles, paperboys on bikes weaving in and out of driveways, people dropping in to the paper shop… it was mayhem. Here, at 5.30am, it’s me. Me and my dogs and a handful of cats. There’s a mass exodus of workers just before 6am and so there’s a few people moving about in high-vis jackets, and there’s cars, but there aren’t people walking shih tzus on flexi-leads, which is our worst nightmare. If I wait until 11am, then there are hundreds of crabby little shih tzus barking at everything they see.

So choose your time carefully.

At the shelter, I did make the most of this by doing sessions at 1.30pm when French people are mostly still in lunch mode. I didn’t do sessions on Saturday afternoon when 5-6 minute training sessions would be filled with 500 triggers. Take it easy on yourself and your dog and stop thinking you need to walk your dog when everybody else is too.

Get your set-up right and you can do almost anything.

#8 Go for vistas, not panoramas

If you’re forced by the universe to work closer to triggers than you’d like, being able to screen off much of the approach and retreat will help you keep exposures to triggers neat and precise. If the scary stuff is only in view for three seconds so you can open the food bar and close it in a very precise manner so the dog is absolutely clear on what’s causing food to rain from the sky, you’ll get much further.

Create a vista and watch counterconditioning become a cinch of a sprint rather than a torturous marathon. Work further away than you would normally think of doing and keep the dog under threshold if you can.

#9 Keep your clickers and marker words out of it for the beginning

Most people over-complicate counterconditioning. All you need is the scary stuff, the dog and something good to eat. You don’t need clickers or markers. If you’re using them, you’re doing something else entirely. That’s fine, but if you’re marking behaviour, you’re moving into operant training and that is something altogether different. I do use these, but not in my first three trials or so. Counterconditioning does not need a marker word or a clicker. Be silent and spend the time watching your dog, not adding more things in for them to cope with. Your voice gets in the way of them learning to pair up the scary stuff with the good stuff. It’s just noise. Literally.

You don’t need to cue the behaviour either – at least, not until later.

Keep your voice to yourself. Go zen. Be silent.

#10 Keep the dog moving

I will never understand why people stop with the dog to countercondition. All you’re doing is giving the dog a massive, massive cue that scary stuff will start. You’re telling them to be on the lookout.

Being still is the absolute opposite of what we need.

I know why – you might miss the triggers passing by. Standing still, even if you don’t ask for a sit, means not missing the trigger.

But so many times I see trainers making it harder for themselves, it’s because they’ve asked for a static behaviour. I can’t understand it. You might as well get a great big sign out that says to the dog, ‘The show’s about to start, buddy!’

Your standing still can be the biggest cue that triggers anxiety or fear. Worse, asking them for a sit and you’re not only telling them that zombies are about to appear, you’re asking them to sit through it. Not so much a show as a living, walking nightmare on legs.

Imagine if I did that with a human person. You know… You’ve got a fear of bats or something. I take you into a room, I ask you to sit down, I bring a load of bats in and then I ask if you’d like some cake.

Next time I take you to that room, I ask you to sit down… well, you’re going to know bats are next on the agenda. Do you think my cake will work?

There’s a very strong argument that cues can actually make aversive experiences less bad. Surprise dentistry or appearance of bats, spiders or snakes can actually be more scary than knowing that you’ve just got to get through it. Knowing when and where they appear can make it less scary.

So there’s that.

But there’s also a lot of evidence that when animals have learned to be afraid of things, often the cue itself can be enough to generate fear that’s as bad even when there’s none of the scary stuff. In laboratory experiments where scientists have deliberately created fear in dogs, they sometimes put a tone before shocking the animal. Even in experiments where there was no shock for hundreds of times, the animal acted as scared of the tone as they were of the shock. I’m not engaging in some melodramatic exaggeration for rhetorical effect, I literally mean hundreds of times. Three scientists in the 1960s paired a tone up with footshock 10 times. Then they just played the tone. The dogs in the experiment acted as fearfully as if they’d actually been shocked. That behaviour lasted hundreds of repeats where the dogs were just presented with the tone and not the shock.

In other words, stop telling your dog there’s going to be scary stuff. You’re just making the way you announce it – usually stillness – into a giant cue that scary stuff will happen.

Obviously, the best way to change your dog’s emotional response to scary stuff is to see a good trainer or behaviourist – one who does #1 to #10 without even thinking about it. But it’s more than feasible for everybody if you’re clued up on what you’re doing. Quite frankly, if you can follow the rules, you’re probably going to be 99% more effective anyway.

Don’t overlook the simplicity and effectiveness of counterconditioning to change your dog’s underlying emotions about things. It’s not hard. It doesn’t take months of work. It shouldn’t be complex or challenging… you’re literally letting your dog see the scary stuff and then giving them food. That’s all there is to it. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. It’s so simple.

But you do need to do some other stuff alongside it to make the pairing of scary stuff and food clear to your dog. Most dogs I work with, shelter or not, get it by the third repetition on the first day. Two minutes. They’re savvy.

That’s not an accident though. It’s because I know how to maximise my efficiency. I say often that I’m a lazy trainer. I really am. But that’s because I know that giving my dog a treat at the right moment on our daily walk, and doing that five times at the opportune moment, is a hell of a lot easier than spending eight months making no progress whatsoever. It’s not just easier, it’s more efficient.

Why do it the hard way and make life more difficult for both you and your dog? You’re adding months if not years on to your training plan and it’s bound to cause you nothing but frustration and disappointment. Be simple, be clear and be precise and you’ll be getting that head snap when you see the scary stuff within three or four trials.

Ultimately, as neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp reminds us, being aggressive or being fearful are not nice ways to feel. If we’re offered the choice between feeling nice and feeling rubbish, we’ll take feeling nice. Our bodies are desperate to feel safe. When we work with that knowledge and we keep our training clean and efficient, our dogs very quickly learn to do the stuff that feels nice and avoid feeling afraid.

Next week, I’ll look at ten ways you can improve your training with dogs who like to chase livestock, pets, wildlife, machinery or people.

I also have a book out! It’s over at Amazon. It’s pretty good, if you’re a dog trainer looking to get more out of your work. I would say that, wouldn’t I?!

Helping your dog cope better in the real world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s perfectly fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If there are calmer moments, then we can work.

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

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

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

Let’s first define our terms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the first thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which scenario do you think was easiest to cope with?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towns also provide their fair share of vistas.

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

How did we cope?

By narrowing the vista.

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

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

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

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

But a few seconds?

That’s manageable.

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

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

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

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

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

Move around it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help! My Dog is Obsessed with their Ball!

* Ball, not balls. That’s different. See a vet.

When I watch videos of free-ranging dogs, you don’t tend to see them all glazed-eyed, barking at passers-by to throw them a ball. They’re not the dogs you see on those cutesy videos of dogs dropping balls at the foot of statues, hoping for a game.

What does this tell us?

Compulsive behaviour with balls is most likely both a product of pre-programmed hardware and also a product of software we’ve installed ourselves. Simply put: genes and learning.

How can genes be at work, you may well ask.

Well, have you ever seen a streetie fixated on a ball?

Why on earth would humans put compulsive tendencies into dogs when they were breeding them?

More likely, the dogs were bred for other behaviours, and compulsive behaviour kind of hitched a ride with the other predatory behaviours and appetitive behaviours that we used to create a handful of western breeds. Compulsion is a full-blown version of things we might call ‘motivation’, ‘desire’, ‘trainability’ and ‘focus’ or ‘tenacity’ and ‘endurance’. In other words, it benefited humans to have dogs who’d work hard.

From my own experience, this seems to be very much focused on an even smaller handful of breeds within the 400 or so recognised breeds. You know, the kind you find in airports as sniffer dogs or ones we pride as having constructs like ‘high drive’. There are probably only twenty breeds or so who really fit into this list, and then an even smaller handful who regularly produce such ‘driven’ dogs that ordinary guardians find themselves with a nightmare on their hands.

So, not scenthounds, on the whole. Mostly because life doesn’t give them an opportunity to play with stuff as a puppy, but many new guardians of our adopted Anglos, beagles, Ariègeois, Poitevin and Gascon Saintongeais are more likely to complain of another fault: not being interested in toys much at all.

And not pointers and setters. I mean, you want them to point at birds or set. You don’t need them much to retrieve them.

Good luck getting setters to do much work other than run and be incredibly lovely anyway. They’re often dogs that guardians tell me aren’t motivated by food or toys. I’d like to see setters at work in airports, galloping down the baggage carousels, ignoring the desperate pleas of their handlers.

And not terriers, either. Let’s face it: to terriers, everything is a toy. Shoes, remote controls, pens, packages, carpets, small furries… or sometimes their own tail if they’ve been deprived at an early age. Bull terriers? They’re a bit special, and English bull terriers can certainly develop compulsive behaviours, but it doesn’t usually involve balls or other portable toys.

And not mastiffs or livestock guardian breeds. Because… important resting to be done.

That leaves us with some gundogs such as spaniels and retrievers (though not the pointers and setters on the whole) and lots of herding dogs, including ones from the British diaspora (including collies and Aussies) and from mainland Europe (including Malinois, Beauceron and German shepherds).

You know, the kind of dogs that you do find in airports doing actual work, hunting for missing individuals, tracking down drugs or the kind of dogs you find herding sheep for eight hours a day.

Borderline compulsive behaviour around toys can be useful for the working dog. Or, more to the point, useful to the guardians or handlers of working dogs. Not so useful for the average guardian.

Fairly occasionally, I find compulsive behaviours pop up in these breeds even if they weren’t bred to work. Sure, your cocker spaniel may look like a perfect show champion, but there’s no reason mum and dad show champs can’t throw out a working-dog-under-the-hood every now and again. That’s how genes work.

Just as, likewise, every line of working dogs can throw out a completely ‘lazy’ mattress-backed dog who has zero desire to get out of bed of a morning, let alone go sniff suitcases in return for a ball.

So that’s genes.

They account for why I’ve had two toy-obsessed malinois.

I mean, around 7pm, she even starts the glacial shift of toys from the toy box to the bedroom. There are literally more toys than space for a very small dog. It’s like living with a Disney-obsessed five-year-old with very generous relatives.

When Tobby arrived, he only put his toy down to pee or eat. When he died, he’d dropped his favourite toy somewhere in the garden and when I found it three weeks later, I wept for hours.

But there’s also dogs like my lovely girl Flika who never had a toy in her mouth and didn’t seem to care. Mouths were for cake and sandwiches, not toys. Probably more a case of never having been taught as much as lacking normal malinois genes. That said, the number of shelter-related behavioural problems with shepherds that can be fixed with toys is higher than you probably imagine. Spinning in circles, destructive chewing, biting the lead, nipping volunteers getting them out of kennels, self-mutilation… much of this can be stopped in our shelter simply by giving the dog a toy to carry.

We also have to understand that compulsions can be different. Malinois and German shepherds, for instance, seem to just like holding the item. Lidy sits next to me for about an hour sometimes, just holding her stuff. She’ll look at me and her head nods as if to say she’s on duty and ready for work. ‘Alright there? I’m just holding this plushie for you…’

For retrievers and flushing/retrieving dogs like spaniels, however, that can be very different. For them, the chase is the thing, not the grab-bite or hold. I’ve found that herding breeds from the UK diaspora (mainly collies) can also be addicted to the chase and collection. This pseudo-predation which mimics some aspects of how canids hunt in the wild, has been steadily strengthened through breeding in order to make the dog good at their job. It doesn’t take much to awaken that inner need. Toys for many dogs function as self-reinforcing, leading to a neurological cascade that dogs find very rewarding.

I’d just like to make an aside to point out that dopamine isn’t a ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter as some people might try to have you believe. It’s simply one that tells the body what to find rewarding or not. Being rewarding and being pleasurable don’t have to be the same thing. I pick at my nails and compulsively bite the inner bit of my cheeks because something in my body thinks it’s rewarding. Neither of them are pleasurable experiences. Dopamine drives all kinds of behaviour from learning and memory to addiction, so it’s a bit facile to dismiss it as ‘feel good’.

It may very well feel good, but we can’t ask the dogs and they can’t tell us. If it’s a compulsion, I’m pretty sure there are lots of moments that don’t feel good at all. I also notice that a lot of dogs lapse into compulsions when they are stressed, as a kind of coping mechanism. We might even call this self-soothing behaviour, but again, that’s not to imply it’s pleasurable; I shout at politicians on Twitter when I’m anxious or not coping. It doesn’t make me feel any better. Lidy paces round in circles. It might fill a vacuum but I don’t think it feels good for her.

While I’m taking down myths, can we also stop talking about parading as why dogs like holding things?! No idea where this came from, but dogs don’t parade in my opinion. I’ll explain why. Firstly, complete dearth of information. I’ve seen one bit of ‘science’ that proponents suggest makes parading a thing for dog. It was a blog post about an observation of two village dogs in North Africa. Not science. Worse, it was a report from three years of research with only two incidences. Second, parading has no part in the general predatory motor sequence. Hawks don’t parade. Bears don’t parade. Wolf ethologists aren’t arguing to put ‘PARADE’ in the predatory behaviours of wolves. Literally no other animals do this, so let’s stop suggesting it’s a thing? Also, while I’m at it, it’d come after the GRAB-BITE when the dog has entered consummatory behaviours. If dogs don’t know how to dissect or consume a dead pigeon, that’s on domestication processes that have stopped them knowing what to do with it. That’s completely different than it being a motor sequence. Motor sequences should generally be true across most animals in the species. Parading isn’t. If it were, streeties and village dogs would also do it with the same frequency as your typical labrador. They don’t. My old boy Ralf once picked up a dead boar piglet and carried it about. He didn’t do that because he was showing it off or parading. He did it because he was a bit labrador, a bit shepherd and 100% dog, and his DNA said ‘pick up the bloody thing’ then didn’t tell him what to do with it afterwards no doubt because of domestication. Somehow, I reckon we’ll find out eventually that selective breeding led to the enhancement of appetitive behaviours designed to make us want to do things, and the truncation of consummatory behaviours, which is why most dogs are scavengers other than dingoes and singing dogs. It might also explain why some of our most ancient ‘breeds’ like Nordics and some Asiatic breeds can be found in the neighbours’ chicken pen. Most streeties and village dogs live by scavenging. If they don’t ‘parade’, at least regularly and reliably across the majority of dogs, then it’s not a motor sequence thing. Domestication processes seem to have involved dogs ‘forgetting’ at an ethological and neurological level what to do with prey or not needing to consume it. Parading is an explanatory fiction at best. It’s not an explanation about why dogs like balls.

Now those myths are out of the way… how do you know it’s a compulsion if your dog seems fixated or obsessed with a toy such as a ball?

Firstly, there will be physiological signs such as panting, dilated pupils and a wide grimace.

There may also be behavioural signs like jumping up at you to get the toy, grabbing or biting. The dog might bark at you if you refuse to relinquish the toy quickly enough. They may refuse to relax without the item. They might search for the item to try and access it themselves, or they might do something to try to make you get it for them, like whining or barking.

There can also be emotional signs, like frustration or loss of inhibitions. If your dog doesn’t normally jump or grab, but they do when you have their favourite toy, then that can be a sign that their normal inhibitions have no say in how the dog is behaving. They might appear sad or depressed without the item.

We can also see compulsions with what the dog does with the toy. Perhaps they’re constantly retrieving it and dropping it at our feet for it to be thrown again. Welcome to the world of retrievers, people! They’re getting internal rewards for doing what they’re supposed to do, just the same as I do for every word that forms on a blank page. Perhaps they refuse to relinquish the toy if they suspect you won’t return it. Perhaps they guard it or run away with it.

Much of this brings us to what the dog has learned YOU do with the toy. Do you always throw it again? Even if you resist for ages? Of course they’re going to bring it to you if that’s what they want.

Why is this problematic, you may well ask.

The first is that compulsions do not feel nice. They exist to fill a behavioural vaccuum when we’re anxious, but the adrenaline they produce heightens the anxiety they experience. Chasing is not comforting. If dogs are compulsive carriers, then why do they feel the need to get all their comfort from this source? Why do our shepherds have behavioural problems that are assuaged by toys? Because they’re stressed and anxious.

Second, compulsions can fuel behaviour that ends up being physically dangerous. Not just dogs following balls off cliffs or into dangerous rivers or tidal currents, but dogs who end up with repetitive strain injuries, with damaged cruciates, with joint strain. Pretty much every specialist vet who deals with arthritis or mobility issues will have posts on their social media about the dangers of ball throwers. The surface of some toys can damage the enamel of teeth. A dog who grabs a ball mid-flight can end up biting it and the toy getting stuck in their mouth… the horror stories are enough to make you wish you’d never introduced your dog to toys in the first place.

So what can we do?

The first two things are prophylactic. Don’t snigger.

More careful breeding of working dogs and show lines of working breeds is needed. We don’t need compulsions in dogs and the fact that these compulsions rarely happen in dogs who are responsible for their own reproductive choices tells us that it’s a behaviour we’ve built. It’s not ‘normal’. Of course, people may need dogs who work. No showline cocker spaniel needs to be bred to be that into toys that they are frantic and out of control. No golden retriever should be toy-obsessed when the heritability of musculoskeletal problems in Goldens is enough to make a geneticist weep. Breeding for beauty shows rather than behaviour is causing our dogs a lot of problems, if you ask me.

Second, if you have a breed that’s susceptible to chasing or carrying compulsions, make sure you work carefully with a good dog trainer from their earliest days in the home through their teenage times.

It goes without saying that they need a really good ‘drop’ – I suggest Chirag Patel’s method. Trade just is not enough, I’m afraid, and all you’re doing is getting yourself into a habit where they’ll only surrender an item if you have something of the same value to offer. That’s like a drug addict telling you that you can take their line of coke if you’ll give them another line of coke. That’s a recipe for disaster. I want a dog that will drop something they’ve decided is valuable with lightning automaticity and will also leave the thing they’ve dropped without drama.

Here’s Lidy practising.

She dropped a dead pigeon wing last week in return for a cheap biscuit, so keep working on your drop.

Keep their range of toys wide, make sure you build really, really strong cues for both the beginning and end of behaviours.

I also recommend you make sure you practise the following five activities:


Go back in the predatory motor sequence.

Dogs who have compulsions often get ‘stuck’ at one particular point – often the point their breed was selected for. That’s to say spaniels may find the CHASE-GRAB/BITE aspect of the motor sequence more fun than the ORIENT – EYE – STALK bit. Collies might get stuck on the EYE-STALK-CHASE bit.

Going back in the predatory motor sequence means focusing on earlier points of the sequence and building those up too. So for dogs who enjoy compulsive games of fetch, doing things like scent work can be really useful. It’s building up their other muscles. In fact, this is how working dogs work in artificial situations which use their talents. Sniffer dogs spend all their time sniffing… in return for…. a game of fetch or tug.

If you’re a dog trainer, whether you see this as Premacking (low-value behaviours being followed by opportunities for high-value behaviours) or whether you see this as respondent associations (chasing is great, and if sniffing/locating always precedes chasing, then sniffing/locating will also become great too by association) it doesn’t really matter to me.

Enrichment using earlier stages in the PMS can help your dog become a little more of an all-rounder.


Go forward in the PMS.

If you’ve got a dog who is fixated on the appetitive bits of the predatory motor sequence – the acquisition bit – then add in some of the consummatory bits too. That’s to say put in some food toys. Dopamine dips when we acquire food sources. Eating in itself works on different mechanisms. Not only would I putting in some KILL/BITE stuff like games of Tug, but I’d also be putting in DISSECT activities and also chewing, gnawing and even just a little productive licking. Digestion is our sedative friend. Be wary of frustration with this but snuffle mats, pickpockets and even having to destroy items to get to the toy can really help activate a whole load of other predatory muscles.

When I look at my lovely Heston (50% shepherd, 25% labrador, 25% cocker spaniel) he’s a living, breathing genetic pool of CHASE – GRAB/BITE and we work every day to keep his pool of enrichment activities building up his other skills otherwise he tends to fixate on one single toy.


Make the toy conditional on completion of another task.

When Heston gets a bit obsessed with his Kong Rugby squeaker balls, I bang in other toys first. A short game of tug (KILL/BITE) predicts a game with his rugby ball. A tennis ball precedes the rugby ball. A soft plushie precedes the rugby ball. A flirt pole precedes the rugby ball.

You’re using Pavlov as your friend here, using the other object to predict the appearance of the second toy. You can build up a much wider arsenal of favoured toys and broaden out the dog’s repertoire simply by using this pattern.

When you’ve got it, you can then make the play with the less favoured toy last longer than the play with the favoured one. Again, this is what working dog handlers do: the activities gradually grow as access to the reinforcer grows less and less. You can’t have a springer who sniffs one suitcase and wants you to throw the ball…. you want them to search the room full and then get the ball for a short moment. Because of Pavlovian mechanisms, the search in itself becomes as fun as the ball.

If you’re technically minded, you’re using respondent second order conditioning and successive approximations. If that means stuff to you, go for it. If it doesn’t, find yourself a trainer who can explain it and show you how to do this with your dog.


Work on both their impulse control and their ability to tolerate frustration. Buy a copy of Jane Ardern’s book Mission Control. All dogs can learn to handle themselves but you need to understand the negative emotions that are usually the fallout of compulsive behaviours. You can also work with a behaviour consultant who knows how to help you understand whether your dog has impulse control issues through the use of diagnostic tools such as the Dog Impulsivity Assessment Scale.


If it’s a true compulsion, there can often be underlying anxiety or lifestyle changes your dog needs to help them cope in a world that they’re ill-prepared for. See a behaviour consultant and also a vet. There are drugs that can help with impulse control issues, working on the dopamine pathways, and there are also drugs that can work on balancing the dog out emotionally.

You may feel that you want to try nutraceuticals first, and part of me says ‘OK then’. The other part says that if your dog is as fixated on fetch as an addicted person is with cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, then it is a stonking, huge, welfare issue for your dog.

There’s lots of evidence to show that addictions are in some part Pavlovian for both animals and humans. That’s to say they are very context specific and being in the place where we have habitually got our fix, so to speak, can cause us to feel the need for that fix. If you were always a social smoker or you smoked with a specific group of friends, then you may need to avoid that environment or those contextual factors as you learn new habits. Going back in pubs can sometimes be the trigger for a relapse.

Likewise alcohol and drugs.

Learners may need a fix simply by being in the environment where they learned the habit in the first place.

To train dogs not to be compulsively addicted to fetch, then, may need you to consider all the places your dog played fetch and to take that place or those circumstances out of your repertoire for a while, if not for good.

For instance, if fetch has always been a park thing, you may need to go to different parks in order to do #1-#4 on this list. That’s tough if you’ve got a dog who has learned that your garden is the place for the game…. I’m not kidding but I once worked with a labrador guardian whose dog was compulsively dropping balls to be thrown. The dog was in agony too. The family contacted me about 3 months before they were due to move because the behaviour had got worse. All the packing and the change in routine was contributing to the dog’s anxiety. A change of house and the dog stopped his fixation on the ball.

This might sound crazy or miraculous, but the new house hadn’t been the scene of his compulsion before, and his anxiety dropped after the move. This happens more than you might think.

Of course, house moves and avoiding the context of past addictions aren’t a solution to everyone. A medication schedule alongside a decontextualised modification programme working on new skills in new places that are then deliberately generalised and then finally reintroduced into the original scene of the crime is the way forward here.

If you’ve been an inveterate gambler for years, you don’t go back into the bookies unless you’ve absolutely nailed the earlier bits of your training programme and you’ve got a support mechanism in place to help you should you need to go to Las Vegas for the weekend.

This is also true for lab animals who’ve been forced into addiction by scientists. They too will be distressed and frustrated in the location where the drug was delivered.

The more intense the behaviour is and the longer the dog has exhibited it, the more likely you’ll need to add medications and also change location for your training for at least 3-6 months or so.

A little compulsion can be a good thing in training or in working with dogs. It’s not out of control to see Lidy collecting her plushies before bed. If Tobby wanted to carry around his pink wanger all day and it wasn’t bothering him or me, then fine. That said, there are so many dogs whose guardians are engaging in far too much physical activity to try and stem their dog’s compulsions, forbidding access to toys completely or even causing their dog a great deal of physical pain because they don’t know what else to do other than give in.

Dog trainers: if you’re interested in more than just training tips for working successfully with clients, or you’re struggling to communicate the damage that guardians are doing by indulging or even encouraging compulsions, hop on over to Amazon and snag yourself a copy of my book!

Client-Centred Dog Training: 30 Lessons for Dog Trainers to get Maximum Engagement from your Clients is available now.

How To Get An Anxious Dog To Walk

Many people struggle with their dog walks. Having moved recently into a dog-rich environment, I can see just how many that is! Dogs that won’t move and their guardians carry them everywhere… Dogs that lie down and guardians end up standing in place or trying desperately to chivvy their dogs along… Dogs mooching along in haltis… I’ve even got my girl Lidy who seems so excited to be out on a walk that she’ll sometimes pull and lunge, or she finds it difficult to focus on me. My girl turns into a frantic, bug-eyed, panting thing who seems to have ADHD at times. And as for focus at those points – forget it! It’s like we’ve no learning history at all.

For Lidy, it’s easy to mistake her lack of focus and self-control as excitement. It is – but it’s also underpinned by an anxiety that rears up as breed-specific problem behaviours. She gets very grabby, very reactive, very nippy. Sometimes I think our walks are a bit like Laser Quest for her. Last week, I wrote about how her theme tune for walks is ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ from Funny Girl. Yesterday, everything that could rain on our parade absolutely did.

Including my favourite moment… her having just done her business, me needing to pick it up, and a loose dog in a yard where the fence was but a loose nod to fences.

My favourite type of decision-making:

Do I try to scoop the poop with her likely to lunge at any minute (tip: stand on your lead as an additional measure!)

Do I try to scoop the poop and then wait for the dog to go back inside?

Do I try to scoop the poop and just about-turn?

Do I try to scoop the poop and then try to navigate past the yard with poo bags and leads and treat bags and a dog who’s likely to lose all sense of self-control?

Do I forget both and walk back alone later to pick up the offending mess?

My walks every day are filled with such mundane decision-making.

Honestly, though, if I don’t think on my feet, what may seem like a game of ‘spot the cat’ (seven yesterday, including two that shot out from under cars which was MUCHO exciting for Lidy, and one that just sat in the road to such a degree that I had to alter our route yet again) and a ‘fun’ game of Laser Quest can accidentally turn into something much more serious. Like walking Hannibal Lector when he’s just picked up a handy set of throwing knives.

I joke, of course. Well, I kind of joke.

Her arousal quickly tips over into predation or aggression.

That’s how HER anxiety and stress manifests.

But a number of clients have had dogs who just flat out refuse to move. Or they get outside like my neighbour’s Frenchie, lie down on their belly and just refuse to move.

Judging from all the inappropriate videos on Facebook, TikTok and YouTube, this is a more frequent occurrence than you’d think.

The first step is always a vet check. Of course it is. This is especially true if your dog’s behaviour has changed recently or if it has got progressively worse.

I will say this though. Only once have I had a dog to work with whose refusal to move was based purely on medical issues.

The last video I have of Flika, she’s hobbling at a snail’s pace. She would rather have died than not gone for her walk. We made it about 200m before I decided it was consummate cruelty to go any further. Tilly stopped walking about eight weeks before she died. She’d already lost two kilos from her tiny frame and it was obvious she was nearing the end of her life. Despite having a collapsed trachea and fibrosis in his lungs meaning he was constantly oxygen deprived, Amigo made it all the way around our 3km walk at his own pace, right up to the day he died, where he got in the car but he only made it 100m or so. The day before Ralf died, I realised for the first time that he was lagging by 500m or so.

For all my dogs except one or two, lack of stamina for our usual walks is a real sign that they were entering into the final weeks, days or hours of their life, and up until that moment, I’d have suspected everything was fine.

Heston can barely stand up some days. Every day, I have to help him get up, but to see his excitement at 5.30 as we near walk time is to know that dogs can be in incredible amounts of pain and it won’t put them off their walk.

A vet check is an absolute must.

I’d say though that low level refusal to walk if the vet can’t find anything significant is probably compounded by other things or caused by other things.

The first of those things is anxiety. As I said, for Lidy, it goes quickly from ‘fun’ attempts to catch cats that decide to bolt at the last minute to a dangerous loss of any inhibition.

Other dogs are so anxious that they’re impossible to get into their walking gear. Lidy is her very best dog when the harness comes out. Heston whines. Neither of them is moving away from me when it comes time to get the gear on.

If your dog is reluctant to approach you before a walk, that may tell you something about the walk or it may tell you something about the equipment.

The easiest way to test this is to walk the dog without equipment. That might mean hiring a secure field. If your dog doesn’t enjoy walks but enjoys being in a secure field or walks off-lead as long as their recall is perfect, then that’s useful information.

Even ‘non-aversive’ Y-shaped fleece harnesses can be aversive for a dog. I remember when I tried one on Amigo… He just froze and wouldn’t walk. Weeks and weeks of habituation for my boy made no difference. Whoever his guardian was before me had taught him with a collar, and that’s how he felt comfortable walking. Even at the end, where I hated having a collar on him because of his fibrosis, he would only walk in a collar or off-lead. Unfortunately his deafness and cognitive decline meant that he was on lead most of the time. Luckily, he never pulled or I’d have had to reassess.

If my clients’ dogs are happy walking off lead, then it’s likely that the equipment is unpleasant, wasn’t introduced slowly enough to the dog or that the methods the guardian used to walk the dog were aversive.

Remember that many individuals shut down completely when punishers are used. Remember also that we don’t get to judge the aversive nature of the punisher: the learner does. So if the dog isn’t walking on lead and is fine without it, then that tells me a lot. Perhaps the dog doesn’t trust the guardian. Perhaps the equipment is uncomfortable. Perhaps the dog prefers to make their own choices, notably about their own safety. Even stopping and standing still, if it’s aversive to the dog, may cause a reduction in all movement. That’s one of the potential complications of punishment.

I also find anxious dogs can really struggle. If walks are Laser Quest for Lidy, some dogs walk as if they’re going through a war zone.

The first sign I see of this is hypervigilance. The dogs are looking around constantly, on edge. One of the major signs I see of an anxious dog is holding on to their business. That doesn’t just mean a tucked tail, keeping all their scent in, but also failure to urinate or defecate.

Some dogs will mark – or pseudomark at least. My last three have all been markers. Flika’s vet notes included one from her last guardian suspecting that she had a urinary infection because she was doing lots of little wees and no big ones. Nope. She was just squeezing out a few drops here and there to add to smells already there. Then Heston would follow suit. Lidy does the same. Both she and Flika are lady leg cockers. Lidy handstands from time to time against trees. She’s particularly fond of the fox-style poop-on-a-stone type of marking.

When we come out of the house, though, the first wees are big old wees. Heston’s a typical old man urinator these days – an absolute stream for about three hours. Lidy leaves a visible puddle.

Dogs who don’t wee at all on walks or who are reluctant to do so are often anxious dogs in my experience. I know a number of dogs like this who hold on and hold on for hours, unlike mine who’ve all peed and pooped willingly and liberally all over everything that smelt like it needed it as well as to void their bladder and bowels.

Your first job then is to investigate your dog’s health, equipment, comfort, learning history and emotional state.

Without that, you’re not likely to find a solution. When we don’t know what the problem is, there’s no point starting on a solution.

A vet visit is your first port of call. And trust your vet. Once or twice I’ve had to send dogs back who failed to show a marked improvement in the way they walked, but the vast majority of the time, if the vet can’t see anything, you really need to unpick the other things that are going on. Like I said, dogs who love walks will often walk through any amount of pain even just to be outside the gate.

After your vet visit and an investigation of how the dog walks without a lead, you’ve got some idea about whether it’s equipment or your own relationship with the dog that’s causing an issue. If you use punishers, it’s not rocket science to work out that it means your dog will be less happy to be near you and they’ll be more reluctant to walk in your space. You may not think the equipment or your methods are aversive. Only your dog’s behaviour will tell you. A good behaviour consultant will be able to help you identify the problem using this rule-out.

For dogs who are struggling to cope, I think we should be considering medication earlier than we do. If dogs are panicking outside the home, if they can’t even go to the toilet, then this is something I think we should consider early on. Even there, there is a difference between a dog like Lidy with a loss of all inhibition at points and a dog who is constantly vigilant. Different medications may need to be considered.

We should also be considering whether walks are necessary.

Though it may add a little to your regular bills, two or three hours a week at a secure dog field may be cheaper than a month’s worth of Prozac. If your dog is happy in your garden and with occasional times in a secure field, then that can at least help you get over the anxiety hump. If your dog needs safety, it’s cruel to deprive them of it. We should also remember that only the dog decides if they’re safe or not. We don’t get to pick a walk that we know is safe and think that our dog will be happy and relaxed in it.

Some dogs may need a walking buddy. Many scenthounds that come from living in a group can be fearful on their own. Some lines of some breeds like the Ariègeois and the Gascon Saintongeais can be really anxious. To some degree, that’s mitigated by being in a big group. However, one of the shelters we work with in Germany make a good point about this. Their dogs all live loose and are not kennelled. They make the point that for fearful dogs, they can use other dogs as a crutch. The presence of other dogs never truly fixes their underlying anxieties. If your dog needs other dogs as a form of Dutch courage, it may be worthwhile discussing medication with a vet, or considering the quality and necessity of your walks.

Many anxious dogs need to build a more secure bond with their guardian or their person walking them. Being on a lead in a novel environment without your social network is a challenge for a social species. I think this follows on from the previous point. If the dog doesn’t trust us to keep them safe, then we may have a lot of rebuilding to do. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to the last point that the dog may be given courage because of their social network. Watching Heston being taken away from me into the vet was hard: my normally confident boy was not going anywhere without me. My vet in France never really requires us to be separate from our dogs, but I know UK vets prefer to take animals away from guardians. Still, I watched six years of training go down the toilet as the vets had to carry him away from me. Heaven help us this week with his check up.

Prior use of force and coercion can be a reason why many dogs just stop dead. Even if we don’t think it’s that aversive, the dog clearly did.

We should be our dogs’ secure base. I certainly am for my dogs. That’s not to say they can’t cope without me. It’s just to say that our dogs need to trust us not to push them too hard and also to keep them safe. Anxious dogs need to be able to trust us.

We may also want to consider using safety cues or talismen to help our dogs understand that the world is predictable and safe. I use a lot of pattern games for exactly that. Leslie McDevitt’s opening lines about the pattern games says it all: there may be all hell breaking loose out there, but the dog and I are engaged in building our relationship and doing our thing.

Trick training can ironically really help anxious dogs, I’ve found. Operant training, especially in multiple contexts, can help dogs understand how to operate the world. Unlike classical conditioning and counterconditioning, which are passive processes, operant learning is active learning. The dog is learning how to work the world. It’s much more empowering than Pavlovian processes, I find. When the world gets a bit too much for Lidy, we go back to pattern games. It resets us and reminds us that everything is familiar, even though it is different.

We also need to make sure that the guardians are re-contextualising learning and helping the dog to generalise. If you’re always doing things in the same way in the same place, sometimes a failure to walk on lead or respond to guardian cues can simply be a lack of generalisation. I spend ten minutes on every single walk Lidy and I do where we just practise things we were doing. If I want her to eat at the vets and to behave consciously and operantly in the vet, then I need her to know that the rules still apply wherever we are. The worst thing I think dog trainers do is to help the guardian teach a novel skill in a dog club or in the home. That’s the easy bit. Why leave the tough bit – generalisation – to guardians knowing they’re novices, their dogs are novices and generalisation is hard?

Often when I see dogs whose guardians say won’t respond, it’s either because the guardian hasn’t understood the underlying emotional undercurrent driving the behaviour, or because the guardians haven’t generalised behaviours from the home.

Finally, don’t dwell in the whys. It may be that your dog has the perfect storm of fearful genes, congenital pain and mobility issues, a complete lack of socialisation, aversive equipment and a fearful guardian who has used punishment in the past and flooded the dog accidentally. Knowing this changes nothing. Navel gazing until you’re sick of the sight of your own navel won’t help you move forward. Understand causes, absolutely. Dwell on them? Don’t bother.

If things are that bad, get on board with medication from the beginning and support it with a great behaviour modification plan.

You may have to reprioritise. One client had a dog who wouldn’t walk at all and was carried everywhere. When I asked the guardian whether this was an issue, really it was just her own embarrassment that had led her to want to change things. She liked walking. Her dog liked being out and about. He was a little dog who didn’t need the exercise. Being carried was not ideal, so a stroller was a perfect compromise. If you’re going for such options, however, make sure that the stroller isn’t just another way to flood the dog by trapping them and forcing them to endure stressful situations from which they cannot escape. The next thing you know, your dog will be avoiding going into the stroller or passively flopping about like a ragdoll, knowing all attempts to escape will be stymied.

Unless the dog is anxious in the home (in which case medication needs to be seriously considered!) then what you do in the home may not count. I’m a huge fan of free work and use it often with dogs who are anxious in the home, but unless I can sort out a free work set-up on my walk, it’s not going to be an easily generalisable skill when it comes to building confidence on walks. You may want to work on your dog’s underlying confidence: that’s perfect. However be mindful of the fact that – unless the home is incredibly stressful – walks may be a step too far for most dogs. Given that most dogs I see who are resistant to walking are either very small non-terrier breeds, using food may not be an option and the dog may simply be overwhelmed. Bringing the outside in with ‘Smell Libraries’ can help: pick up stuff from the outside world – be it branches, leaves, grass or fabric – and encourage the dog to engage with smells in a less scary environment.

In short: see a vet, do your rule outs, build the relationship and take time to rebuild the dog’s trust in the world if anxiety is an issue. Consider lifestyle changes and whether there are alternatives that you could use to exercise the dog that don’t involve going out of the home as frequently. If the dog’s issues are overwhelming, psychopharmaceuticals shouldn’t be the last thing we consider. All we’re doing is wasting our effort and prolonging our dog’s discomfort if we don’t consider medication early enough.

Does MY Dog Need A New Name?

Whether we’ve got a rescue dog or not, we might consider changing our dog’s name. In fact, it’s a question many of my clients ask when they’ve just taken on a new rescue dog. Should you change their name or not?

Other people worry that they’ve “poisoned” their dog’s name by using it as a punishment, and now the dog won’t respond to anything they say.

I was watching an old video of my groenendael cross Heston playing with my gone-but-not-forgotten girl Flika the other day. Half way through the video, I note that I was being mugged off camera by a small cocker who was going through my pockets. At one point, the mugging had got too much and I stopped it with a kind of sharp ‘Tilly!’

I’m guessing it worked because I didn’t have to say it again.

Tilly, despite my using her name as a punishing interruptor, designed to stop her in her tracks, still came for her name. That was lucky. Not all dogs will respond when half the time, saying their name precedes something bad and other times, it precedes something good. In fact, I distinctly remember my ex saying that Tilly only responded to him if he said her name in a silly way. I’m absolutely sure she’d mastered the difference between a ‘Tilly!’ meant as an interruptor or punisher, and ‘Tilly!’ signalling something good was going to happen, like walks or dinner times.

Flika was a different case. Although that was her name, and had been since her microchip was implanted in 2004, 14 years later, she knew categorically that ‘Flika!’ meant humans were watching and to get on with robbing sandwiches or cake as fast as she could before someone got to her. She never once responded to her name, other than to speed up.

As you can imagine, that made it lots of fun to try and recall her. She was the mistress of evasion.

Some people worry that their shelter dogs will carry the stigma of their former names. It doesn’t need to have been an abusive experience to be a bad one. Flika had no doubt suffered no true abuse related to her name other than the ‘abuse’ of being stopped from eating birdseed, firecrackers, firelighters, barbecue coals, tissues or sandwiches from people’s bags.

In the shelter, we often change dogs’ names if they are pejorative. Killer became KiKi, Attila became Titi… lots of our macho dogs are given ridiculous status names that have negative associations, or are given silly names. No chihuahua needs the added difficulty of being called Killer. No American Staffordshire needs to fight against bias against their breed as well as being called after some ridiculous thug from years gone by. Names carry stigma and we may very well change a dog’s name to avoid that stigma.

Also, dogs may get a new name if they came from an abusive experience. Our Ullyse, named for his quest and his voyage, is a name to signal his voyage from his years in the wilderness to his return ‘home’.

Many dogs (and cats!) arrive unidentified, so whatever they were called is no longer known and they get a new name. My boy Amigo was like that.

So if you adopt a shelter dog, chances are that their name is either pretty new and meaningless, or possibly attached to some prior trauma. A change of name in those circumstances may well be a good thing.

Other times, their name is just who they are. Lidy’s name is her first name. In fact, I’m pretty sure her name was supposed to be Lydie (plenty of people write it that way, but her former guardian spelt it this way, and so do I … a scrambled, misspelt name says it all.

I did consider renaming her for a fresh start. I considered lots of things from a minor vowel change to Lady rather than Lidy, but she’s definitely no lady, no matter what I call her. I also considered a kind of consonant change to Ripley, since she’s very much one girl against the universe. But she’s not that either.

Plus, dogs’ names migrate, don’t they? Like TS Eliot’s cats, they have many names. Heston is Heckles, Heckley, H, Heston Crow, Mr Crow and Handsome. Tilly had that many names that migrated that by the end of her life, she was Pipsy. Tilly Popper became Popper became Pops became Tilly Pipper became Tilly Pee became Tilly Pips became Pippy became Pipsy. Lidy is Lidy Malou. Sometimes she’s Malou. Sometimes she’s just Lou. Sometimes she’s LouLou Beans. Sometimes she’s Beans. Sometimes she’s Beanie. Sometimes, she’s Little Bear.

That’s how dog’s names go. The name we want other people to know them by, like Killer and Attila. The name we call them ourselves, like Heckley and Meegy. The names they are when we’re being cute, like Beany and Knickers. The names they are only to themselves.

There is another time that names can make a difference, Jane McGonigal argues in her book SuperBetter. She argues that it does us good to come up with our superhero name especially if we’re working on new skills with our dogs.

It’s easy to focus on your dog’s weaknesses and difficulties when you’re working to change your dog’s behaviour. They’re predatory. They’re fearful. They’re aggressive. They’re a handful. They’re dominant (Yes, I’m sticking that old chestnut in!). They pull on lead. They don’t have any recall.

The flip side of this is that it leads naturally into a lot of negative self-talk. We’re unable to control them. We can’t master them. They’re too much of a challenge. We can’t change them. We can’t protect them. We’re failing them. They’d be better in a different home.

When we focus on our strengths, it rephrases the game. McGonigal explores ways we can identify our own signature character strengths to help us overcome challenges in our life. I think this would work perfectly for both us and our dogs.

For instance, I’m not a tired, old middle-aged woman who can’t manage her dogs. Identifying our signature strengths can help us consider our own ‘inner name’. I am wise, I am understanding. I’m empathic. I’m practical.

Lidy is not a hot pink mess of Malinois faults. She is brave. She is curious. She is courageous. She is lightning fast. She is loyal.

Yes, I’m anthropomorphising. If you don’t like it, get over it. Go read a little.

Once you’ve identified your own personal character strengths and those of your canine side-kick, these become your resources for a better future. They are your magical superpowers against the challenges you face. If you’re struggling to get your dog out of the door or you’re struggling to navigate a world of feisty pigeons and half-hidden cats, if your battleground is the vet’s surgery and the vet is your dog’s mortal enemy, identifying your signature character strengths is a great way to think about the resources you have available. As well as this, it stops you fixating on the things you think you’re not so hot at.

McGonigal suggests that after we’ve identified our signature character strengths, we then find ourselves a new name.

As a fan of Game Of Thrones (ok, to the last series… I think you all feel me on that!) I quite like Daeneyrs’ honorifics: “Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons”

Let’s just forget about the ending, shall we?

I’m no longer Emma The Tired, Fifty-seventh of Her Name, The Downtrodden, Permanently Exhausted Slightly Mad-Eyed Midnight Dog Walker, Wearer of Dog Hair.

I’m Emma the Wise, First of her Name. The Champion of Underdogs, Mistress of the Biscuit, Explorer of the Twilight Worlds and Mother of Malinois.

Lidy is no longer Lidy the Maline, First of her Name, Chaser of Cats, Killer Queen, Dynamite with a Laser Beam.

She is Lidy the Mercurial of Tribe Hamingja, First of the Vanguard, Shaper of Destinies. She can keep the Dynamite with a Laser Beam bit.

You obviously do not need thousands of honorifics. I’ll be answering to Emma the Wise from now on, and Lidy will still go by Lou.

McGonigal gives you hundreds of ideas about how you can use your new personas to overcome your daily battles and to remember to focus on your strengths not your weaknesses. For instance, one of those things involves finding yourself your theme song. You might already have a theme tune. If you’re wondering, mine is definitely Shirley Bassey’s I Am What I Am. But that’s not my Superhero song. Lidy’s is definitely Killer Queen. Gunpowder, gelatine, dynamite with a laser beam, guaranteed to blow your mind.

Lidy’s Superhero song is definitely Barbra Streisand singing Don’t Rain On My Parade. I think that definitely sums up her determination to champion everything and to defy expectations. Don’t tell her not to fly, she’s simply got to. That got me thinking about my Superhero song. I think, in keeping with Barbra telling people not to rain on her parade, I’ve got to go with Rihanna’s Umbrella. There are days when people do rain on our parade, and my job is to give her an umbrella. When the sun shines, we shine together. Told her I’d be here forever. Said I’d always be her friend. Took an oath, I’ll stick it out to the end. When it’s raining more than ever, know that we still have each other. She can stand under my umbrella. When the world has dealt its cards, if the hand is hard, together we’ll mend her heart. I love the movie Funny Girl and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s a movie in which Streisand makes choices that don’t work out for her. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I call Lidy my Funny Girl either.

I can’t think of a more perfect mix for our Superhero duo.

In SuperBetter, McGonigal makes lots of other suggestions too, such as having a mantra. That can definitely come from your Superhero song. Another suggestion she makes is having a small something that represents your secret superhero identity. Whether that’s a Wonder Woman holder for your poo bags or a diamond studded treat pouch, having a little something small that reminds you of your inner strengths can stop us fixating on what we can’t do. I have a little Owl brooch from Winnie the Pooh clipped on my treat pouch. It reminds me that you might still spell your name WoL but to some people, you’ll always be wise even if you are a pompous know-it-all. On the serious side, it reminds me that we’ve got as far as we have because I’ve never stopped learning to help us on our journey. It also reminds me that sometimes, people may have no idea what I’m talking about when I’m Explaining How Things Work. It’s a reminder not to take myself so seriously and to lighten up. These little totemic items can stop us taking it all so seriously. It slams a door in the face of catastrophising and nips rumination about our faults in the bud. Whenever we’re doubting ourselves, it’s so easy to think of what we can’t do and what is holding us back. Seeing it as a game helps us understand that we need to practise, we need to start with the basics, that we learn to level up and we keep getting better.

McGonigal’s whole approach is a wonderful antidote to the pessimism we can feel if we’re facing challenges with our dogs. It’s a worthwhile purchase for anyone who’s looking to overcome obstacles and level up their game. I’m such a fan of making everything as easy a game as I can, and this fits right into my preferred mode of training. Definitely a book worth a read if you’re struggling to defeat in-built negativity and carve out a sensible plan to achieve your goals.

Names give us so much more than simply a recall. What we call our dogs says so much more about our attitudes, our values and how we see our canine companions. Even if you intend to stick with the names you’ve got, having a Superhero secret identity for you both might just give you a way to remember your inner strengths when the going gets tough.

If you’ve poisoned your dog’s name by using it as a punishment, if your dog has a traumatic past, if your dog’s name has migrated from something sensible into something silly… there’s a number of reasons our dogs might end up being called something different than the name on their papers. Even if your names are nothing more than a silly secret identity to help you triumph over your challenges, there’s so much more to names than just a jumble of letters to help us distinguish between our dogs. McGonigal’s book SuperBetter is available online and in bookstores.

If you’re a trainer or behaviour consultant working with clients who have dogs who need support, I highly recommend it as part of your training kit.

My book Client-Centred Dog Training: 30 Lessons for Dog Trainers to get Maximum Engagement from your Clients is available on Amazon.

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