Category Archives: Dog behaviour

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.

Spot the difference

A dog in one of my classes has been something of a barker around other dogs. Not confident around strange dogs, but nothing major. In the hall on his own, happy to work, happy to play.

In the hall with just one other dog – a well behaved, under control, and being kept calm dog – you would not have known the first dog was worried except for a few moments when he looked across and considered barking, but was interrupted so he didn’t escalate to it.

But he did not want to play tuggie this time. Very avoiding of it.
So he was moved out of the hall into the lobby. Still didn’t want to play initially, but was willing to fairly quickly.

An excellent example of a sensitivity we absolutely need to notice – and be aware of when we expect things of our dog we ‘believe’ they know and understand. If a dog won’t eat treats (or is grabby taking treats – which this dog also was), or play, or relax in one environment when he does do those things in a different environment (the other dog made this hall a ‘different’ environment) then there is something happening we should be noticing.

If the dog is discriminating in this way you should immediately be asking yourself ‘why?’. And you probably need to do something about it.

In this case the ONLY change (apart from the passing of time – about half an hour – so not significant I’d say) was the presence of this other dog.

What you DO about it is entirely different issue of course and a subject for another day 🙂

Humber Bridge

Paddy Driscoll

The very, VERY high Humber Bridge

I am afraid of heights. Big time.

I’m not entirely sure how it became the issue it did, but on Sumer holidays as a child my parents learned that it was ill advised to try and make me go up to the top of castle battlements or up precarious steps. On one notable occasion at Norwich Castle I nearly passed out, went green and more or less had to be carried down to ground level. I avoided anything that involved heights for many years. Funfair rides, lifts you could see out of, high bridges…I just did not go on them. I chose to drive through central London just to avoid going over the new extremely high bridge at the Dartford river crossing. A couple of near misses, finding myself on bridges high over rivers or roads reminded me that the fear was still there.

Lincoln

Fast forward to my move to Lincoln some years ago. I was asked to do some work the other side of the River Humber. I didn’t really give it much thought, but as I drove up the approach road to the Humber Bridge it gradually dawned in me that it was probably quite high and it might be a bit scary. It was only at the point of no return I realised what I was doing. To say I was stressed was an understatement…I moved into the middle lane to get away from the edge, froze with my hands tight on the wheel. White knuckle ride? Now I understood what that meant! I couldn’t change gear, couldn’t look in the mirror, and I swore all the way across and I do NOT swear! I couldn’t get above 30 mph. How the other drivers must have hated me, but if they were hooting and trying to bully me into going faster I was oblivious to it. When I got safely over I stopped, and was literally shaking. I burst into tears. I do not cry! I had never been so petrified in my entire life.

Making choices

I had decisions to make. How much did I want the work? A lot. Not just for the money, but it was getting me into lecturing and teaching, which was something I very much wanted to do. I was a dog trainer. My job was to change behaviour. So this really ought to be fixable if I applied what I understood about behaviour. I had worked with those problems and fixed them in dogs – how much harder should it be with me? So that’s what I did.

Safe options

First of all I needed a safe option to allow me to choose NOT to cross over if I felt it was too difficult. That was easy, if more costly and time consuming. I was able to take a much longer route along the river, crossing the river near Goole. Not over a high bridge. So the next few visits I did that. Each time I travelled up there I allowed myself to consider my choices before I reached the Bridge and then make an active choice – to go the long way around, or to opt for the Bridge. Sometimes I even stopped in a layby to think about which I was going to do, and to take a deep breath and get myself calm.
If there was little traffic to hold up I opted for the Bridge, I stuck myself in the middle lane, took a deep breath, focused myself on just driving (a familiar and easy task) and gave myself permission to swear. And over I went. Very slowly to start with, but with time I became more confident and eventually I was able to drive at normal speeds.
I rationalised it too. The chances of the Bridge collapsing at the very moment I was driving over was pretty remote. The chances of me losing control of the car and swerving, crashing through the metal barriers (designed to stop the many heavy trucks that travelled across the bridge every day) and pitching myself into the river below was also a tad unlikely. I decided that statistically I was pretty safe and I told myself repeatedly that my fear was irrational.

Sometimes I opted to choose the long way around. When the weather was bad or windy, or if there were too many big trucks. Or if I was just feeling less able to cope with it or not wanting to put myself under the pressure of going over the Bridge.

And guess what? I DIDN’T fall off the bridge when I crawled over it. I didn’t find myself inexplicably turning the steering wheel and plunging though the barriers into the cold grey river below. The sky didn’t fall in just because I drove over the Humber Bridge. I began to drive like a ‘normal’ person over the Bridge, not a shivering, gibbering wreck in danger of coming to a frozen halt in the middle.

Bold and fearless

It took well over a year but I ‘trained’ myself to drive over the Humber Bridge without batting an eyelid. Now I don’t even think about it if I have to go over it, although I suspect my heartrate is slightly elevated. It’s just a road with a brilliant view. It taught me a lot about how to change behaviour. Dogs can’t rationalise fears statistically the way I was able to, but we can offer them choices, weighting them subtly in favour of being bold and fearless, but not so much that we put too much stress on them and frighten them into not wanting to even try. Allowing them to opt out if they feel they need to. Let them learn through sheer experience, safely and carefully managed by the trainer, that potentially scary events aren’t dangerous after all. That the sky doesn’t fall in just because they took a risk. That they might gain something from it as well.

I’m a Lumberjack and I’m OK…

Older Brits will recall the cheery Monty Python Lumberjack Song. “I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK…” is how it starts off. Visions of plaid shirted friendly toilers of the earth (well, forest) wielding axes may not seem like an obvious analogy to help us understand dog behaviour, but bear with me.

Imagine…you are in a strange place. A man appears. You pause to observe him. He looks at you. He is waving a VERY large axe about. What happens next? Do you go to him and say hello in a friendly fashion, or run away screaming?

How do you decide if he is a friendly lumberjack just limbering up or a mad axeman intent on parting your head from your body?

THAT Is a situation we might be putting our dogs in every time we take them out and they meet other dogs.

The extensions to this analogy are numerous. If you live in Canada, in a forest, and you know your neighbours employ lots of men to chop down trees you are already going to be predisposed to believing any axe-wielder is a safe and friendly lumberjack, not an axe murderer.

But if you are visiting a strange place – say an empty and isolated old house in the middle of nowhere, not expecting to meet anyone, then your first responses might be very different. What if you had seen the film the Shining? Images of a crazed Jack Nicholson clearly focused on you, heading in your direction, chopping through doorways in his attempts to reach you, are likely to produce primitive fight/flight responses!

What influences our responses is complicated. Our past experience – good and bad, make a difference. If we are raised to believe all people wielding axes are friendly lumberjacks, we could come very unstuck if we go up to the one who is a ‘Mad Axeman’ to say hello. But on the other hand if we believe all axe-wielders are ‘Mad Axemen’ and react with aggression to get him to stop his attack then we are in danger of assaulting every lumberjack we meet.

If in the past we have had personal experience of being attacked by a ‘Mad Axeman’, and KNOW (for a fact) that some men wielding axes can be highly dangerous (OK – I accept the analogy falls over a bit here as its doubtful you’d survive the experience to learn anything much from it…) then the chances of us feeling kindly towards anyone we suspect might be a ‘Mad Axeman’ are slim.

We need experience of observing and judging the difference between the two, safely. We need to know which are the safe axe wielders, and the unsafe ones. Whilst there are few ‘Mad Axemen’ out there, we (as are dogs) are hard wired to be suspicious of things that we haven’t learned are safe.

But therein lies problems in handling our dogs in the real world where they see dogs without knowing if they are the doggy equivalent of a ‘Mad Axeman’ or a nice friendly lumberjack. It perhaps raises more dilemmas than answers. Should we expose our dogs to ‘Mad Axemen’ in a safe way so they observe and learn not to go up and to not give them a friendly hug? Or learn what signs of aggressive intent mean, delivered in a less extreme way? Or do we want our puppies to grow up naively unaware that there are bad guys out there?

In theory in would be great if our dogs knew they were safe because they’ve learned to put their trust in the human holding the lead – but in reality most reactive dogs have learned the hard way that human judgements about such things often fall short of ideal and they (we!) make mistakes.

Helping a dog that appears to believe all axe wielders are ‘Mad Axemen’ to realise there are in fact a lot of friendly lumberjacks out there is an invaluable lesson. That the ‘Mad Axeman’ is the exception, not the rule. The trouble is they largely (understandably) don’t want to hang about or prolong the encounter in order to find that out. Usually we cannot know why these dogs perceive other dogs as ‘Mad Axemen’ and sometimes its hard to know if they are truly scared since signals when dogs are aroused can be confusing and unclear.

But one thing that our dogs must learn from us is that they are safe when they see what they believe is the doggy equivalent of a man wielding an axe – that whilst it will be helpful to learn the difference so they don’t need to panic any more, they need to know their owners aren’t going to force them closer or expose them to them in a way which neither allows safe, thoughtful observation nor the possibility of escape.  Allow neither then don’t be surprised if he reacts just as you would if you found yourself trapped in a room with a Mad Axeman!