FINDING A DOG BEHAVIOURIST

Trainer? Or behaviourist?

People often use Facebook and Google to ask about training or behaviour issues with their dogs and FB can be great for exploring and sharing problems, and getting opinions from people who have experienced them, but it’s usually best to consult a trained and experienced professional. In the dog behaviour business though, there are no legal requirements; no rules at all about who can set up as a behaviourist or a trainer so you need to check their credentials with care.  

But which do you need anyway? A trainer or a behaviourist?

Essentially a trainer works with owners to help healthy, relatively untroubled dogs learn things. To use the old-fashioned term to be “obedient”. We talk about responding reliably to cues these days, and the techniques used are very different, but training is about helping the average, problem-free dog learn what owners want of them, and for owners to learn what is fair and reasonable to ask of their dogs. Trainers might be called in to help with housetraining puppies, or coming when called, or more specialist needs like competitive sports dog training or assistance dog tasks. The good dog trainer will have enough understanding of behaviour to spot if these training needs are symptoms of a more complex health or behaviour issue, especially if the dog is finding it difficult to learn to be responsive to what the owner needs or wants him to do. If they aren’t qualified to deal with those things (which they might, or might not, be), they should have the knowledge to know when to refer clients to other professionals.

Snowy’s “bad” behaviour was almost certainly in part due to him having dental problems and being in pain. It needed a vet’s input – as well as a behaviourist – to help him.

A behaviourist works with owners to help resolve behaviour problems. For example fearfulness, anxiety, aggressive behaviour, dog/dog “reactivity”. They aim to bring the dog’s behaviour to as near to problem–free as possible; the aim being to enable dog and owner to live in peace and harmony, the dog to live a ‘good life’ and to be more open to learning (training) if its needed. Not just for the owner’s sake of course, but for the welfare of the dog. That may need some ‘dog training’ skills as well, but that isn’t the behaviourist’s main role and they may refer clients to a trainer once underlying behaviour issues have been sorted out.  A good behaviourist works in cooperation not just with trainers, but with vets too. Most work only on vet referral since many behaviour problems result from pain or illness.

Some trainers are qualified behaviourists, and vice versa. There is inevitably a lot of overlapping of skills between the two.

Experienced or qualified?

Any trainer or behaviourist will do their best to ensure that their advice is founded in good science. Unfortunately evidence and good science is not only rather lacking in important areas of behaviour work, sometimes it’s pretty hard to apply to the ‘real world’. But it is widely accepted that a behaviourist would be educated in a directly relevant subject to at least degree level, so will usually have a relevant degree – either undergraduate or post graduate, typically in Applied Animal Behaviour or Clinical Animal Behaviour, and would normally have been mentored or examined in some way in order to demonstrate they can apply their knowledge and skills working with clients.  

If the problem is a serious aggression or behaviour problem then the first port of call should be the vet who can, and should, refer you to a qualified behaviourist. Veterinary surgeons don’t receive much training in dog behaviour at vet school, but they can specialise in behaviour work and some have pursued post graduate qualifications in behaviour, so it’s worth checking out if your vet’s practice has such a person. There are a few vets who are listed as specialists in veterinary behavioural medicine with the RCVS.

Some vet practices to have vet nurses that have some extra training in behaviour to handle minor behaviour problems. Some may be qualified to work as behaviourists in their own right.  

Coaching and counselling skills also form an important part of the job. An effective behaviourist will have those too.

Dog behaviour work doesn’t have a single, straightforward set of skills, so although there are certain evidence based protocols which a good behaviourist would normally follow, it’s not like building a wall, cooking a soufflé or learning to drive so there will be variations in how each carries out their work.  There are two important significant variables that makes each case unique – your dog. And you.

So its a real hotch-potch of things to look out for. It pays to do some research to find out who is the right person to help you and to find out what their qualifications and experience can offer you.

LISTS OF BEHAVIOURISTS

There are other organisations than these listed – but these (below) should identify most currently in practice in the UK and some include the members of those other organisations. Each organisation has their own criteria for membership so you may want to check that out.  Typically they will have minimum academic standards, usually an assessment process, a code of practice and/or some kind of ethical statement, how members or their courses are accredited (if they are), if they have a complaints procedure (just in case things go wrong) and how they expect members to behave professionally, and how they maintain their skills. They vary. Note there are also behaviourists who are well qualified, and experienced, who are not members of any organisation. There is no obligation, legal or otherwise, for any behaviourist to join any organisation.   

ABTC – the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.

An organisation which brings together members of a number of organisations, including the long established Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC).  
http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/

Register of ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB)

The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) runs a certification scheme and lists those who have fulfilled their criteria.
https://www.asab.org/ccab/

FABClinicians – The Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians

An organisation established in 2020 which is a support organisation for those already academically qualified in clinical animal behaviour and working towards becoming certified by the Association of Animal Behaviour (ASAB).
https://fabclinicians.org/  

The International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants is what it says on the tin – it includes a number of respected British behaviourists as members so is worth checking out
https://m.iaabc.org/

Vet referral

Expect to be asked to go to your vet for a formal referral. It is usually best to approach the behaviourist first though to check out they are happy to take on your particular case, to discuss how soon they can see you and importantly how much it will cost. Behaviourists aren’t cheap. But you may be able to claim it on your veterinary insurance. The behaviourist (and your insurance company of course) should be able to advise you on that, so don’t be shy about asking – they will want to you to be able to pay them. You may also need immediate ‘first aid’ advice on how to manage a dog safely until you can see someone. That can be especially important where aggression is involved.

If they don’t want to ask for a formal vet referral, or suggest a visit to the vet won’t be necessary, ask why. It is considered ‘good practice’ to make sure health issues are eliminated and they ought to be able to justify such advice. Some behaviourists like to schedule a short assessment visit first.

Do your research

By now, hopefully its become clear It is important to do your research, even if the person you come across is on one of the registers, above.  Or indeed, if you find someone who calls themself a behaviourist, who isn’t on any register. They may also be good at the job, but be mindful they aren’t under any obligation to adhere to laid out codes of practice, or be answerable to a professional body. So long as your vet can satisfy themselves that person is fully qualified (and insured) it ought not be a problem for you to express a preference.

Other organisations will have their own criteria for membership and have members who may be excellent at the job, and well qualified in most significant respects.

1 – Internet – Check the various registers, above.

2 – Check the websites of likely candidates.   

Does it tell you what their qualifications and experience are? Especially if they aren’t on the registers, above. Are they relevant to what you need? “I became a behaviourist because I love animals and grew up with them” is NOT a qualification! Google their name – see if it throws up useful facts about their experience e.g. experience of specific issues which may or may not be relevant to your needs, interest in specific breeds or problems

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

Do they describe HOW they work? Do they state what approach they take? They should. If they say things which suggest they buy into techniques which appear to rely on being a ‘pack leader’ or dismiss using food treats as a tool before they have even met your dog, for example, then you probably want to steer well clear of them.  If they are also trainers running classes, go and watch them at work if you want reassurances (but do ask first – it’s the polite thing to do J).

 3 – Ask other people locally. Get personal recommendations

Chat to local dog walkers, the local pet shop. Other dog owners. Be prepared for them to offer biased and uninformed opinions as well as sing praises of the people they respect though. 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 behaviourist is, and their effectiveness, by talking to a range of local people who have experience of their services.

Now you have a behaviourist on board?

Once you have connected with a behaviourist, work with them as a team. A good behaviourist will want your feedback, and ready to adapt their advice (assuming its in everyone’s best interests to do so of course) to suit the circumstances, so don’t be scared to talk with them if their advice doesn’t appear to be working, or you believe it might be too difficult for you to follow. Check out you really are doing what they intended. 

But let’s assume all goes well and you are happy with the help you are getting. Behaviourists also love to know when things are working out and the problems sorted – so if they don’t ask, don’t let that stop you dropping them a line or giving them a call to say’ thanks! We are all well and happy now’. It will be appreciated.

Thinking inside the box

I used to have a puzzle box that I used in class room based dog behaviour seminars. I’d put a “reward” in it (usually a lottery ticket), put it on a desk and before I started presenting the seminar I’d say ‘Here’s a box – if you can open it, the reward – a lottery ticket – might be worth millions of pounds – is yours. Help yourself’.

And carried on lecturing.

It was very rare for anyone to get up at that point to get the box, but you’d see some students glancing towards it. Considering if they should get up and go fetch it or not.  It was very rare for anyone to.

So invariably at some point, to encourage them to go against the social norm of sitting still and listening obediently to what I was saying, I’d have to be more explicit. ‘Please…help yourself. Who wants to have a go at opening the box?’

Then I’d start to see what I see in dogs.

The confident ‘can doers’ would be the first to get up and go get it and try to open it. Usually the ones who had been glancing at it – already visualising how they’d tackle the problem or perhaps already considering how they’d spend their jackpot. If they failed, somewhere along the line another person would take over. (Negotiations on how and when that changeover happened varied according the group dynamics. Interesting in itself).

The ‘problem solvers’. They don’t seem to want the reward too much, but it is a goal. The task of working out how to open the box appears to be self- reinforcing. (But only up to a point – I’ll come back to that). They’d be calm and thoughtful. They’d be the ones that stopped listening to me talking and could be seen playing about with it, shutting out potential interruptions.

The ‘deferrers’ – the people who sat back unwilling to risk attempting and failing. Usually accompanied by verbal ‘oh I’m no good at things like that’.

The ‘let me at it’ brigade. The ones who got frustrated very easily, pull and push at it aggressively, and giving up very quickly.

I saw low level ‘resource guarding’ behaviour. If there was more than one ‘let me at it’ individual in a group, you’d see some attempts to grab and possess the box, some protective snatching away of it and only half-teasing verbal aggression.

I don’t recall anyone saying the lottery ticket was the main motivation for any of them to have a go. I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, but It was (after all) just a piece of paper, which was very unlikely to materialize into hard cash. On occasions I used a single sweet. Perhaps the distraction from my lecturing was reinforcement enough. Perhaps the novelty of the task was enough.

I only once encountered someone who sat serenely and confidently ignoring what was going on and not getting involved. Not a ‘deferrer’. But something else. On exploring why she wasn’t interested in trying to open the box it transpired she was a Methodist and was against gambling, so she did not want to win a lottery ticket. The prospect of getting a lottery ticket was not only not reinforcing, the possibility of a negative outcome for her seemed to block other motivations to have a go at the task.

Once a student had been successful in opening the box, lottery ticket duly possessed, there was still plenty of interesting things to consider. Even when the reward was no longer in the box, plenty of students still wanted to work out how to open it.  They might help each other, they might not.  An empty box now, no sweet or lottery ticket to be gained. But the student who had been successful almost invariably lost all interest in it. Some students, often including some of the ‘deferrers’, wanted to work out how to open it, but needed a bit of help and encouragement and once help given, they were happy to persist in completing the task. There would always be a few who didn’t seem to want to be involved at all, who sat on the sidelines. There was no reward on offer sufficient to prompt them to try. It didn’t seem fair to draw comparisons between the ‘deferrer’ and the dogs we might see in dog training classes who had long since lost the will to be involved in the learning process, or have so little confidence in trying, they feel safer sitting things out, or consider the challenges in helping them choose to be more engaged. But it was tempting to all the same,

When we discussed questions like whether the students would continue to persist in opening the box when they a) knew how to and b) they knew there was no reward in it, I don’t recall any students ever saying they’d bother with it again. There was the occasional one who wanted to improve their ‘box opening’ skills, and you’d see those individuals move all the panels swiftly and more deftly on each repetition, but once they had improved to some internal standard of perfection, lost interest.

It was tempting to view the responses as ‘breed’ related and sometimes we might joke about the Border Collies in the group since there was invariably someone who obsessed about the box – intent on opening it and not willing to being interrupted. In the end it was a human Malinois who finally did for the box. Frustration, very limited patience, and apparently few social skills (don’t break the teacher’s box!) led to fatal injuries and sadly I have never found one to replace it.   RIP puzzle box. You helped me ask so many questions I still do not have the answers to.

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.