Perils of dog care

Whilst allowing for some media exaggeration and all the reservations one might have about media reporting,  etc etc this article in the Daily Mail raises really important issues about dog care and dog walkers. As a ‘dog person’,  working with clients who use these kind of services, I get to hear tales which may or may not be true – and of course it would be irresponsible of me to willfully pass on rumours. 

I don’t know how we can warn people off the ones we wouldn’t trust though – only after a person has had a bad experience does it seem other people pitch in and say ‘it’s happened to me too’. But after the event – how helpful is that?

I guess the take home message is…ask around.  Get ‘references’ or recommendations of some sort at least. Check they have insurance. If the person is boarding your dog in their own home they have to be licensed by the LA. Check they are experienced and QUALIFIED (academically or practically) in at least some way in dog training or behaviour, especially if they are taking your dog for a walk. Just owning and “loving dogs since I was a child” says nothing about how competent they may be. So much harm can come from how multiple (or even single) dogs on walks are managed. Health and safety issues aside (and of course accidents and mishaps happen from time to time, so let’s not be too quick to judge errors of judgement or mistakes), “normal”, nice dogs can rapidly develop problems if they are mishandled or mismanaged. There’s a difference between ‘stuff’ happening, and ignorance or lack of empathy or care.

Years ago I wanted to find a local dog sitter – in case of emergencies mainly. One that came round for us all to meet each other – I let my (friendly) dogs be ‘naughty’ around her as she came in. Her response? To physically push them off and away with a (very) firm NO, and with a wagging finger ordering them to sit. When a couple of the small rescue dogs (German Spitz) didn’t, she just sounded more firm. Those 2 had never been taught a sit cue , and had had an abusive past. It had taken months for them to learn not to run away from visitors – but until I interrupted what was happening, this potential carer was prepared to carry on pushing them away, ordering them, with increasing firmness in her tone of voice, despite their obvious confusion. She didn’t get the job. Didn’t matter what other qualifications or recommendations she had (and she had plenty) – those few moments told me all I wanted to know. When push came to shove, her instinct was to order my dogs to do as she wanted and that she was prepared to escalate her forceful behaviour even when it was obvious (to anyone with any training or behaviour ‘nouse’)  the 2 littlies had no idea what was expected of them.  

One potential carer was prepared to escalate her forceful behaviour with little Winston

The one that did get the job didn’t try to stop them mobbing her. When the 2 littlies jumped up at her. she smiled, was friendly towards them, and fussed them. It showed me her first instincts with dogs that were behaving “badly”, although not ideal from a training/behaviour point of view, were kind and positive and would be less likely to do my dogs harm. OK, I couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t be horrid to them once out of my sight, but it did help inform my decision. As it turned out I only needed her the once, but it made me realise how tricky it is finding someone to trust to look after dogs.

I now have someone I trust implicitly for the odd occasion my dogs need someone to let them out in the garden, feed or walk them. These kind of stories make me realise just how lucky I am to have her.  Thanks Maxine. 🙂

Piano exams and the science of dog training

File:Piano practice hands.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

When I was a child I was encouraged to take the obligatory (in my dad’s world, anyway ) piano lessons. I was duly coached and learned on the upright piano that sat in the spare room. It was quite old, and the ivories were a bit stained. I can remember what some looked like. The D above middle C was yellow. The E was white with some dark speckles. I practiced. Not a lot, but enough presumably for it to be declared that I was competent enough to take my Grade One piano exam.  The lowest level of exam. The basic, easy-peasy entry level exam.

I failed it. I still remember the experience. Instead of being in the spare room at home, with comfortably familiar keys on that old upright piano, with my piano teacher sitting beside me offering kind support and  feedback,  I was sat in glorious isolation at a shiny grand piano, sitting on a strange piano stool that felt weird, all the keys beautifully white and (very confusingly!) identical. I was high up on a stage. On the floor of the hall (Balham Town Hall) were some strangers sitting at a table watching me. The JUDGES.

To this day I have no idea how good or bad I was, and no recollection of what my father or my music teacher thought of my performance, but since I failed it I’m guessing I wasn’t being marked down as a future Chopin or Rachmaninov.  I never took another piano exam in my life and mostly stopped playing although I did love to tinker on it from time to time when no one was around.

So here’s the dog training lesson I (many years later with the wisdom of hindsight and adulthood) took from that experience. It doesn’t matter how well you (or the dog) ‘know’ something – if you don’t generalise that learning, habituate to an environment and don’t practice it under varying conditions the learning WILL almost certainly fail at some point. If you know that skill inside out, have it so familiar to you so you can almost do it on your sleep, it may stand up to more challenging conditions, but all too often, for various reasons, we put that learning under too much pressure too soon and so it becomes vulnerable to failure. As a little girl I was put on a stage, with an unfamiliar piano, being watched by complete strangers, under test conditions, being expected to reproduce ‘Study in D minor’ by Thomas Dunhill, without any of those factors having been taken into account first. Had I but known it, I was doomed before I even set foot in that hall.  

I hadn’t forgotten the piece of music I had practiced for the exam. I could still play it when I got home (and could for years afterwards). But at Balham Town Hall, on that day, I couldn’t. I wasn’t being stubborn, or ‘difficult’. I wasn’t playing it badly to spite anyone. I wasn’t “choosing” not to do as I was asked. I wasn’t being disobedient. I simply hadn’t been prepared for the conditions I was being expected to perform under. I was totally undertrained. My brain couldn’t handle all the different stimuli being thrown at me,

When people take their ‘trained’ dog to a dog show, to compete in perhaps obedience, or the breed ring, or agility, consider what are often common excuses they give for their dog messing up. He’s “stubborn”, or he “knows it really, he’s just being difficult”. He doesn’t like shows. He’s a bit ‘off’ today. He…anything and everything other than he was simply not prepared or trained well enough to ‘perform’ those behaviours, under the conditions he was confronted with.  

So when your dog loses concentration, doesn’t do as he is told, messes up – consider – have you prepared him well enough? Before blaming him, check you have completed your part of the job of training by preparing him for those conditions. I often wonder what path my musical career might have taken me on, had I smashed Study in D minor at Balham Town Hall on that day instead of the ignominious failure it became.

Are you a mugger or a bank manager?

I don’t know many owners who haven’t been faced with the loss of a sock to a “naughty” puppy, or watched in despair as a cushion or a pair of knickers have disappeared at speed up the garden, or collected in the pup’s bed.  But it’s never just socks and knickers – its Barbie dolls, tea towels, flower pots, slippers…all can fall prey to the quick eye of an opportunistic pup! The first time a puppy “steals” something is when they find out if you are a mugger…or a bank manager.

Muggers

Muggers come up to you, assert themselves, and take what you have. Without a by your leave. No warning. Sometimes they threaten you first. They put on an ugly face. “Give me your phone!” “Give me your money!” They might even physically attack you. So the next time you are out and carrying your bag or your phone, you are going to be on your guard. Ready to protect yourself should anyone try to do the same thing again.  Depending on your temperament, your state of stress or just because there’s an R in the month, you might become very aggressive if anyone should try to steal anything off you another time.  That some muggers are more subtle – they might even smile and try to engage you in conversation, lull you into a false sense of security before taking your money – just makes you more suspicious of the mugger looking like a Greek bearing gifts. That he is just trying to trick you, rather than assault you, as he takes what you have is not always a great comfort.

Poppy believes there are muggers about!! Think how we tuck bags under our arms or put our hands protectively around our possessions if we believe someone might want to ‘steal’ them. Poppy used to show extreme aggression towards anyone approaching her when she had any article.

Bank Managers

But there are some people who we go looking for to give our money to. It used to be bank managers. I guess the world has changed since I first came up with this analogy. Who sees bank managers any more? Their image isn’t all that great either nowadays, but back in the day they loved giving you interest on the money you deposited with them. The principle remains the same. IF it’s in our interests to give away our money, we will give it up willingly and happily. These days we go online to find people to take it from us. If we learn to believe the person saying ‘Give me your money!’ is not only going to keep it safe, they will give you interest, and then give back your original investment, we will willingly hand it over. We actively go looking for them. Once we’ve learned to trust the person we are very unlikely to bite them, or run away from them, when they approach us asking for our money.

The main difference between those 2 scenarios is a very basic one. In the first you had no choice. Someone else was literally forcing a decision on you. And were clearly planning on permanently depriving you of your property. They were probably scary as well. The latter – giving your money to someone willingly, was entirely your choice. The bank – in order to manipulate you into making that choice freely and willingly, understands it has to make the transaction both appealing and non-threatening. 

So which would you rather be with your dog when he has something he shouldn’t? A mugger or a bank manager? It’s too late to stop him taking the things you value if he already has it (that’s a different training issue entirely) so there’s no point telling him off for that, so if you want to come out well from the situation you created (by leaving things lying around), then you need to consider how important it is that your dog views you as a bank manager rather than a mugger.  

 

 “Please sir, can I have some more? “ An optimistic dog who believes it pays off to take even really difficult articles to mum in order to earn ‘interest’!


Future proofing

  • Don’t get aggressive with your pup or adult dog over articles he has picked up just because they are ‘yours’ not his – don’t be a mugger sometimes, and bank manager at others. Guess which articles he is less likely to want to give up in the future? He already has the article; he cannot understand how he came by it in the first place matters to you, however cross you get. In a dog’s world, if he has something, it’s his.  He can’t understand that you are angry because it’s fluffy loveliness cost you £100 from John Lewis rather than a fiver from Pets At Home.
  • Once you have hold of the article – even if it’s just a hand holding it at the same time as the pup  –  give your dog ‘interest’ (in the form of at least one treat, maybe more) while you hold it before giving it back
  • 99% of the time you give back the article once the pup has eaten the treat –you need to do this with ALL articles – his toys, chews, unimportant articles of yours (e.g. socks). The only ones you don’t give back are the ones that are dangerous for him or things that REALLY matter to you (e.g. £50 notes!).  If you really want to be clever about it, you can give higher rates of interest for giving you things he shoudn’t have so he is more likely to give them up than want to keep them. Imagine how fast you would want to put your £500 into a bank account that offered 10% interest, instead of the usual £1.3%. Just be careful that he isn’t so clever that he learns to ‘find’ that £500 in order to trade it in!

In effect you want to teach your pup to want to bring things to you. That some things earn even more interest (like Barbie or £50 notes) and you are always up for trading things in for something better. That it can mean your dog randomly finds objects to bring to you in order to get something from you is a bonus IMO. If it matters to you that your dog doesn’t put his teeth on some things, don’t let him have access to them. Manage things better. But if from the first day his little paw crosses your threshold he learns that you are a lovely, generous bank manager wanting to give him interest and not a nasty, thieving mugger wanting to permanently deprive him of his treasured possessions, the chances of him being an aggressive ‘resource guarder’ as he matures are dramatically reduced. . So which are you going to choose to be for your pup? A bank manager or a mugger?

Stimulus control

One of the most interesting ‘rules’ I heard about when I started clicker training, and started to look at the science behind learning, was the concept of stimulus control. i.e. you give significance to a cue by ONLY reinforcing that particular version of a behaviour when you present the cue. You also DIDN’T reward it in the absence of that cue. I learned from experience the environmental cues mattered too, but the principles remain the same.


Don’t want your dog to randomly jump up and grab things – e,g, the lead – in your hand? Teach a cue which means ‘grab what is in my hand’ and put it under stimulus control. No need to tell the dog off or stop playing tuggie with the lead, or tuggie toys that look like leads, just don’t reward him for jumping up grabbing without that ‘permission’ cue.

From a competitive obedience point of view that was highly desirable and what we really did – and do -need.

Domestically…did it matter so much? I thought then that it probably did, and still do. Its just so much harder to use effectively in the ‘real world’. It teaches the dog the cues you present to them – i.e. your ‘commands’ – ARE important, worth listening to and are opportunities to earn reinforcement. Those cues don’t have to be verbal. They can be gestures, but verbal cues are usual far simpler and more black and white to teach. There was a great video of one trainer showing how he taught it ….cue, behaviour, good consequence. No cue – behaviour? No positive consequence. i.e. no reward. Just repeated and repeated in a random way, until the penny drops.

For behaviours that aren’t reinforced by other people, or intrinsically rewarding (a great example usually being barking) , it is a great way to reduce the dog randomly annoying us with things we’ve only half trained them to do or things we want them to do sometimes, but not at others. It also explains why once a dog understands a ‘cue’ and it’s been taught the concept of stimulus control (dogs do get it!), they will steadfastly appear to “refuse” to do it when you use even a slightly different cue by mistake.

Want a more comprehensive, but very readable, explanation? Look at chapter 3 in Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoort the Dog.

Mrs Oblivious

I was out walking my dog yesterday. On lead. Urban streets. She’s a friendly, well behaved dog. She didn’t spot the dog about 60 yards away the other side of the road, but I did. I stopped. THAT other dog had not only spotted my dog at that distance, she was rigid, right out on the end of her lead, owner in tow. The dog’s expression was hard, her whole body was tense and it said ‘Don’t you come near me! I’ll have you if we get any closer!’  The owner, on her phone, seemed blissfully unaware. Mrs Oblivious. By now my dog had noticed them and was looking in their direction, tail waving, interested, and friendly, if a wee bit unsure. Mrs Oblivious didn’t notice me making sure my dog made a good decision to break off looking at her dog, to turn and move away behind me as I moved calmly into a gateway to be as far away from them as I could be.

Owner and dog, pulling against each other, the other side of the road, managed to get past me and my dog. I could see her dog’s body relax a bit as they got past and off they went on their not-so merry way.

I wonder how often that dog had been forced to walk past or close to another dog it didn’t want to? I wonder how many dogs had been on the receiving end of that threatening glare and tension? All my experience told me that dog was not wanting to be friends. I have worked with enough dogs that are aggressive towards other dogs to know the difference between the ones that mean business, and the ones that don’t. This one meant business.  I didn’t want her to get any closer that’s for sure!

It’s baffling how some people don’t see how damaging it can be to ignore what their dog is telling them and want to force them into situations the dog is so obviously deeply unhappy about.  More worryingly though, is how potentially dangerous it can be. The lead only needed to break, or be pulled out of the owner’s hand, for that dog to be running across the road and reach my dog.

Try this analogy for size…

You are a passenger in a car driving along a motorway. Of necessity, you put your trust in the driver to get you home safely since he is in charge of which direction you go, and what speed you travel at.

A few hundred yards ahead of you see some blue flashing lights. Small, insignificant lights to start with, but enough to put you on alert because you have, unfortunately, been involved in a crash before, so you know it can end badly. You tense. You can feel your foot anticipating the need to push on the brake pedal. Your hands clench slightly. Your heart-rate has gone up a tad. You want to be sure the driver has seen them. ‘Whoa! Slow down a bit! I think there’s something wrong up ahead!’ Nothing happens. He is oblivious to what you are saying, whistling along to the music on the radio, not paying much attention to the road, or you. Your alarm increases as he keeps driving inexorably closer to what to you is looking like a major hazard. Stressville!! Panic is kicking in. He squeezes past the pile-up without incident. Just. But it’s a close call and you feel you were just a whisker away from death!  Still blissfully unaware or uncaring that your heart rate has rocketed, or you were trembling in fear, he carries on. Still whistling along with the radio. That you have just experienced the very real stress and tangible fear that can arise from the anticipation of disaster, and a near miss, seems not to concern him one iota.  Related image

If you knew you could trust him to never to crash the car, and knew his judgement was always spot on, maybe you would panic less, but you know from past experience you can’t always trust him, or other drivers, to exercise good judgement.

This is exactly what some people, like Mrs Oblivious, do every day when they take their dogs out. Hanging on to the lead, supposed to be in control, as they move unerringly towards a potentially dangerous situation, paying little or no attention to what is going on. Blissfully unaware of the stress and anxiety he or she is causing their dog.  When your dog says ‘whoah!’ you really ought to notice and heed that early warning.   Slow down. Take a good look before carrying on. You may even need to stop. Your dog might be wrong about the risks in getting too close to that other dog across the road, but she may well be right. She may well be better at reading other dogs than you are, and may be a better judge of the situation. She may be paying more attention than you! Her experience and history could well be that she knows she can’t trust the judgement of a human holding the other end of the lead. She might well have learned, as this dog seems to have, that pulling towards other dogs, looking fierce and in a threatening way, is an effective way to make sure other dogs back off. Getting in with a preemptive attack isn’t unusual in a dog that is forced into close encounters by an unwitting owner.

As for Mrs Oblivious? Well, fingers crossed she doesn’t find out the hard way just what her dog is telling her. She was like that driver, blissfully unaware of what was going on, so completely oblivious to the risks she was taking. I hope I don’t meet them again. Scary.

Wait or stay?

Wait? Stay?

One of the less useful lessons past dog trainers taught us human pupils was to perpetuate the idea that ‘WAIT’ and ‘STAY were significantly and importantly different commands (and back in the day they were commands – not cues!). Why? Because it suggested to owners it mattered whether or not you were going to go back to the dog, or recall it. It mattered what was going to happen as a consequence of that wait. Or stay. It doesn’t. Really it doesn’t.

Here’s the human analogy

You go to the theatre. You are asked to wait in a bar first until the doors are opened. What actual words the usher uses to communicate this are irrelevant so long as you understand them. If you don’t understand because you speak different languages or you are deaf she is likely to find a way to gesture or show you so you DO understand. (In dogs we make that easier by using food treats).

You wait. Why? Because you have been trained to ever since you were a child. Possibly by the promise of sweeties, dinner or getting into a cinema or whatever it is you have to wait for. It’s called ‘upbringing’ or ‘teaching’ in human circles rather than training though. You might have a drink and something to eat while you wait in the theatre bar which will increase your motivation to wait there, rather than wander off somewhere else. But the chief motivation is the expectation of being given the opportunity to get to your seat to enjoy the play.

So you wait. You are then given a cue to get up and go in and take your seat. Again the words that are used don’t matter so long as you understand they mean. ‘You can go in now’.
But although you may be expecting a cue that says ‘now go in – the play is about to start’, you will also have learned completely different cues that might have you getting up and choosing to do something else entirely e.g. if you hear a fire bell. You might get up and leave. The cue of a particular type of loud bell ringing meaning ‘get up and leave a building’ is also trained in us all from an early age. The cue of a friend calling you on your mobile suggesting you wait somewhere else, for instance, if the motivation to go and meet that friend is greater than the desire to see the play might have you leaving the theatre too.

But so long as you KNOW you will be told when to get up and get to do the thing you are waiting for, AND you want that thing enough, then you will wait won’t you?

The Doggy Waiting Room

It doesn’t matter if you use a platform, a crate or a start line. Or just a patch of grass. You may want the dog to wait there until asked to do something else.  The dog needs to learn a cue which means ‘hang about there until you hear a cue to do something else’. It makes zero difference whether you say wait, stay or ‘shazam’. It’s all in what you decide what each word means.

One of the more useful reasons for asking a dog to stay in a specific place until asked to move – the posed photo 🙂

Then the dog also needs a cue which means ‘the wait is over now’. We humans like to teach short, single words in dog training because it’s easier for dogs to understand.  The word is shorthand for that ‘you can go in and take your seat to enjoy the play now’ moment.

In the dog’s case It could be the opportunity to have a game with a tuggie (‘TUG!), or go fetch the ball (FETCH!), or ‘do your agility round now’ ‘GO!’. Or simply ‘OFF YOU GO’ or ‘OK’ meaning ‘go off and enjoy yourself doing whatever you choose. Be a dog.

It entirely depends on what you want the dog to do next – something, or even nothing – what cue you choose to teach and use. So forget WAIT/STAY debates. Just teach the dog the cues you want to attach to what opportunities you are offering your dog.

 

How do I find a dog trainer?

FINDING A DOG TRAINER

People often use Facebook and Google to ask about training or behaviour issues and how to find a decent dog trainer. FB can be great for exploring and sharing problems, and getting opinions from people who have experienced them, but it’s usually best to have someone meet you and your dog(s) since what people say and report they are experiencing is often a far cry from the what the DOG is saying and doing.

clicker

Does the trainer use positive techniques?

Also a qualified (in its broadest sense) professional, experienced in coaching skills with a commitment to continuing their own learning and development, is usually much better placed to offer informed and up to date advice either in your home or in a class. It’s an area where skills are constantly improving and changing as more and more scientific evidence appears.

BUT…and it is an important BUT. There are (sadly) some very poor trainers in business out there and although in the dog training and behaviour world there is a hot debate about who should be calling themselves dog trainers or behaviourists, at the moment the whole industry is unregulated to the point of anarchy.

Experienced or qualified?
There are some excellent people who have no paper qualifications, but oodles of great experience. There are plenty of people who have excellent academic qualifications and loads of knowledge, but not so much hands-on experience. With all shades of both (or neither) in between. There are also people who may have high profiles but whose self-promotion skills are far greater than their dog training skills. There’s no easy way to know who would be best to help you.

The best you can do – in the absence of informed personal recommendation – is probably to go with someone who belongs to one of the reputable organisations who have a commitment to evidence based, positive techniques, ideally with an effective procedure for handling complaints about members (not all do) to make sure their code of conduct, or ethics, and rules are adhered to. Literally ANYONE can set themselves up a trainer or behaviourist – and some people WILL do harm if they are let loose on your dogs.

If the problem is a serious aggression or behaviour problem it is always best to get a vet to check the dog over first – undiagnosed pain is a common factor in aggression and other behaviour problems.

Dog training organisations

Here’s a list of some organisations (in alphabetical order – not in order of any kind of criteria of excellence) I’d suggest are worth checking to get help – all of them have guidelines about who they accept as members which should give you some useful information. It does NOT mean all their members are necessarily suitable for your needs, so don’t just assume they will be. The older organisations may have members admitted under older, less rigorous, criteria.

ABTC – the Animal Behaviour and Training Council. A newish organisation which brings together on 2 registers (one for training, and one for behaviour) members of a number of organisations. However, it is in its infancy and does not include plenty of excellent qualified trainers and behaviourists and does include some people who are not as experienced as one might like.   (http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk)
APBC – Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (https://www.apbc.org.uk)
APDT – Association of Pet Dog Trainers (UK) (http://www.apdt.co.uk)
IMDT – Institute of Modern Dog Trainers (https://www.imdt.uk.com)
PACT – Professional Association of Dog Trainers (http://www.pact-dogs.com)
Long and short – it’s a bit of a gamble!

Do your research

It is so important to do your research. Dog training and behaviour work doesn’t have a single, straightforward set of skills that will produce the same result in every case once you’ve mastered those skills since there is a very complicated and complex variable we lack so much information about…the dog. It’s not like building a wall, cooking a soufflé or learning to drive. At least, not yet. 🙂

1 – Internet – Google (of course 🙂 ) . Your place name + dog trainer or similar. Ask on FB groups.

2 – Check the websites of likely candidates. Does it give a person’s name? Do you know who you would be letting loose on your dog? Does it tell you what their qualifications and experience are? Are they relevant to what you need? “I became a dog trainer because I love dogs” is NOT a qualification! Google their name – see if it throws up useful facts about their experience e.g. wins in specific activities which may or may not be relevant to your needs, interest in specific breeds or problems

Are they members of any reputable organisation? (See above).

Do they describe HOW they train? Do they state what approach they take? They should. But of course be sceptical. People can say what they like on websites and some trainers are pretty creative. Plenty of them use punishment techniques which we know do harm, but they don’t tend to be upfront so don’t take their word for it. Go and watch them at work.

3 – Go to a class and observe.  Contact trainers first (it’s the polite and respectful thing to do) and ask to go and watch a class. Be prepared for them not to have time to chat

Do the dogs in the class look happy?

to you there, but just observing will inform you. Do they put across what they want people to learn in an effective way? Do the dogs look happy and relaxed and enjoying themselves? Are the methods consistent with up to date techniques and practices? i.e. no use of check chains, water squirters or other forms of nasty aversives. If they won’t allow anyone to go and observe then they need to have a jolly good reason for it. Don’t just rely on their (edited) video clips online. Go see them in action. Reputable trainers welcome the opportunity to let you see what they do before you book their services.

4 – Ask other people locally – chat to local dog walkers, your vet, the local pet shop. Be prepared for them to offer biased and uninformed opinions though (both in favour and against). Gossip and badmouthing people didn’t start with FaceBook! Just  be ready to ignore what may just be scurrilous rumours about bad practice, but you are likely to get a picture of how well respected a trainer is, and the techniques they use, by talking to a range of local people who have experience of their services.

5 – Consider getting a vet referral to a qualified behaviourist for any major behaviour problem. A qualified behaviourist is likely to ask for your vet to do a health check before they will work with you and it is often needed to eliminate pain, the fear of pain or other health issues.

Once you’ve settled on a trainer or class, well, enjoy yourselves! Training your dog should be a load of fun for both of you so have a great time learning together.

Observe more, interfere less

So your dog is worried by other dogs…?
I mean worried. Not terrified. Just that he’s uncomfortable around dogs he doesn’t know. He’s not kicking off every time he sees, or even meets, another dog out on walks and he’s never bitten, although you fear he might snap at another dog if he were pushed too far.

Distractions
Well, there’s no doubt distracting a dog with food treats, or playing a game with them (if they are willing to do either), can be a useful tactic to make sure your dog chooses to engage with you, rather than bother about the other dog. Giving your dog a job to do, like agility, or obedience exercises, which takes their focus off other dogs when they are around will serve much the same purpose.

Avoiding and escaping
It’s also going to help your dog feel more comfortable, and safe, if they know you are going to move away from other dogs as soon as you see them, so the subject is never broached. Diving into the shrubbery, ducking behind cars or going for 5am walks so the stress of even seeing other dogs at a distance is avoided – yep, all part of the package of advice to make life with the reactive dog easier.

Carried out correctly, with good timing, distracting and avoiding have their place in managing the worried, reactive dog.

But allowing your dog to learn how to predict whether other dogs are safe, or unsafe, and have the power to change how you behave around other dogs, is a skill distracting and avoiding interferes with. Sometimes we need to interfere less, and interfere differently. If our dogs never get to meet or see other dogs, how can they learn how to engage with them? That doesn’t mean we should just “let the dogs get on with it”. Or allow them to “sort it out for themselves”. Despite being recommended by a lot of trainers, this approach can go horribly wrong. It’s just not worth the risk. It’s not fair on any dog and is very likely to make many dogs far worse. So here’s something else you can do to help. Help your dog learn to observe dogs from a safe distance. Then consider if closer encounters, progressed carefully, under safely managed conditions are appropriate.

Observation
At a nice safe distance, when your dog sees another dog and alerts to it, with a slight lift of the head, ears and tail perhaps beginning to lift, eyes focusing on the other dog, you should draw calmly to a halt. Relaxed. Standing still(ish). Not frozen. The rabbit in headlights look is not wanted. On a loose, long lead, watching and waiting. Saying nothing. Doing nothing except observing your dog. You want to see your dog observing the other dog, not just looking or glancing at him, and then looking back at you. We want to see (as far is possible) your dog’s behaviour as if there was no owner attached to the lead. We don’t want to see actions taught by the owner. Food may need to be kept in pockets; toys away somewhere else. The dog should not be pestering the handler for food. If there was a safe way to do this offlead, we’d do it offlead, but it rarely is.

What you are looking for is for your dog to DE-arouse. To make the decision that the other dog, at that moment in time, in that place, is OK. To see him drop and or turn his head, relax his body. His tail to lower. You are looking for changes in millimetres. In some dogs that can be really hard to see. Others, it is very obvious. What happens as a consequence should be to your dog’s advantage. You can either drop some food on the ground or you could make the decision to move away from the other dog and/or go on your way in a different direction. Or do both. You haven’t interfered, except to respond to what your dog has shown he needs to have happen. That when he said to the handler ‘whoah! Dog up ahead! Let’s stop and see what’s what before going on!’ and then followed by ‘Oh – it’s OK. I can see we’re safe’ you noticed, and acted on that information.

But what if….
But if instead of relaxing, and his arousal levels increase, rather than decrease, he is heading towards a point of no-return, and you know in the next second he is going to kick off, that needs interrupting. Promptly. The window of opportunity to do this is limited. So if your dog stands up higher on his toes, even by a millimetre, his tail and ears come up higher, his body tenses still more, that’s when you do need to interfere. Just a little. If your dog is relatively calm (and being calm enough may need preparatory work), it should only need the handler to take a backwards step and movement, or just light touch with a finger somewhere on his body to have him glance to see what is happening behind him, and so interrupting that inevitable build up to kicking off.

Festina lente
If those subtle signals don’t work immediately, then your dog is already too aroused to behave appropriately, and the likelihood he is going to kick off is high. Not what is wanted! So cut your losses and move AWAY. Create distance. Fairly rapidly, but not in a rushed or panicky way. You don’t want the dog to believe there really is a reason to panic or run away. That cool, relaxed ‘Let’s Go!’ strategy may need teaching to the dog first, away from other dogs. Next time avoid being so close that an escape is needed.

Over time, with repetition, your dog will learn he can STOP you taking him closer to other dogs until he has them sussed out, knowing you aren’t going to make him go closer than he is comfortable with. It should also start to enable less antagonistic communication. As the dogs observe each other it gives them the opportunity to exchange the more subtle, gentle signalling that dogs are so good at if they have the opportunity and stress and over-arousal are taken out of the picture. You, and your dog, will also learn to be quicker at making decisions about other dogs, because you are both going to get practice at doing it. You DO need to practice it too. Just doing it once or twice won’t hack it.

So observe more, and interfere less whenever you can.