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.

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.

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 🙂

What’s in a name? Breeds and breeders and buying puppies

I am not a ‘purist’ about breeds and breed standards. I am not a particular fan of the Kennel Club either. But one thing they do try to do (more or less effectively depending on your viewpoint) is to regulate breeding practices, educate breeders and standardise breed standards. I have been an open show judge (3 different breeds) and when I judged I judged to those breed standards.  If I were to breed a “pure breed” I’d breed to them as well. I’d do the health checks the KC demand. Why? Because puppy buyers should know they are buying a pup with the very best chance of predicting how it might turn out. Not just in what it looks like, but its temperament and its health. That it goes wrong sometimes is not entirely the Kennel Club’s fault as some would have us believe. Dog breeding is not an exact science.

The trouble is so many puppy buyers believe the KC is about some kind of elite clique, producing overpriced, unhealthy pups, only breeding them so they can win at Crufts. So who wants to bother with KC breeds for a family pet dog?

Well, here is why.

When you go online to find a puppy to buy you will see HUNDREDS of adverts with piccies of cute puppies. That they are highly unlikely to be the actual puppy the seller is selling is the first untruth you’ll meet. It’ll be the first of many. The description. Puppy farmers know what they have to say to sell puppies. So they make things up. Some ‘breeds’ sell better and attract higher prices. So long as it looks roughly like it and the parents might even be those breeds is all that matters. “Reared in the home”, bred from “much loved family pets” are 2 winning lies they will include in their adverts. If you haven’t SEEN that for yourself, on more than one occasion, and met the breeder in their own home (some ripoff merchants go as far as to borrow and rent ‘homes’ to fool buyers) then don’t believe it. That lovely person you have spoken to on the phone, or exchanged emails with, cuddling puppies when you come to collect yours, does not care ONE JOT about the welfare of those puppies, or who buys them. They just want the money.

But what does it really matter if they lie or not? It’s a puppy. You’ll love and care for it so why does it matter? Indeed, you might feel you have rescued it from a terrible start in life.

Here’s more reasons to care. Apart from just being ripped off, paying a lot of money for something other than what you believe you have bought, and putting money onto the pockets of people who abuse animals, it is more likely to be physically ill. The poor puppy’s welfare aside, it could cost you a lot of money within days. It could have serious (and dangerous and/or expensive) behaviour problems as it matures if the dam has been under stress and the litter has been reared in a shed isolated from people.

Here’s where the KC bit might help. If a puppy is sold as specific breed and it does not look like one according to the KC breed standard, or is a colour the KC doesn’t recognise, there’s a good chance the breeder or seller is lying to you. Yes, lying. These unscrupulous puppy sellers lie. A lot. If they are lying about that, then what else are they lying about? All the above perhaps.   The KC also plays other roles but the real giveaway that you may well be dealing with a puppy dealer, back yard breeder or puppy farmer is that they call their puppy a certain breed when it clearly isn’t one to anyone in the know.

Of course the seller might be genuine, and lovely, and just not care overmuch about breed standards and happy to simply breed healthy happy family pets that just aren’t very typical specimens. Those breeders exist and they will welcome caring puppy buyers. Sometimes they breed crossbreeds. There are excellent breeders who breed crossbreeds. Hurrah for all of them. We need them. But unless you get to KNOW that person in advance of the litter even being born perhaps, and know they are honest and caring and do love the pups they bring into the world, then walk away. Go to a rescue shelter, or find a breeder who cares, doesn’t abuse dogs,  and doesn’t lie about what they are selling.


Can you remember the first time you used a cash machine to get money out of a hole in the wall? I can’t. I’ve no recollection of how or when I acquired the skill. But I know that if I want to get cash out, I have to perform a sequence of pretty complex behaviours to get it. I have to drive to a machine, with a specific card (and only that card will do), be able to read the instructions, recall a number from memory, tap it in and then wait for the money to appear.

I have also learned what doesn’t work to get money out of it. Just standing staring at the machine hopefully doesn’t have the money magically appear. Trying other bank cards doesn’t work. Entering random numbers doesn’t either. Hitting the machine in frustration when I can’t remember the number will also fail. Short of getting some kind of heavy vehicle to ramraid the cash dispenser the ONLY way of getting what I want (cash), is to come up with the behaviours I have learned. Worse, if I continue to ‘guess’ and make too many mistakes, the machine removes all possibility I might get my money by eating my card!

What lessons can we take from this to help our dog training? Loads.

For starters, if I don’t understand how to work a cash dispensing machine, I cannot get any money. It’s not possible. It doesn’t matter how much money is available, or how much I want it or how motivated I am. If I don’t understand how to perform those specific behaviours I will not get the “reward” since the banks have (understandably) made it virtually impossible to get money out if you get the sequence of behaviours wrong.  So if I don’t understand the task, or know how to carry out that sequence of behaviours, how can I manipulate the machine into giving me money? I can’t.  Likewise, it doesn’t matter one iota how much our dogs want the hotdogs, game of tuggie or ball that we are offering them, if they don’t understand the task we expect of them, how can they possibly carry it out unless they are plain lucky, and hit on the idea of what works by sheer chance? And if they do, will they remember what they did, or understand what the cues were to success?

Wren cannot understand ‘fetch’ means bring that toy to me unless or until she is taught it.
That she might hit on the idea of bringing it to me by sheer chance can mean it would be quick and easy to teach, but it wouldn’t mean she understood what the word ‘fetch’ means until I have done a load of training and teaching. 

One message to take from this is that sometimes we completely overestimate how well our dogs understand what we want of them. OK, so the tasks we ask of them may appear simple to us, but that’s because we know what we want the dog to do and because, well, we are humans, not dogs. We function and perceive things differently. But nonetheless, we too frequently, expect them to understand tasks when we haven’t taken the time and trouble to train them so they can understand. So when your dog doesn’t do as you ask, ask yourself – does he really understand? Or is he, like us sometimes, staring helplessly at a cash machine, trying to work out precisely which sequence of buttons to press to get the desired outcome? Or is he guessing and trying random versions that might work?




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.


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.


Jigsaw training

When clicker training came on the British dog training scene some 20+ years ago it refined and informed a lot of training people already did, but more importantly brought a whole new orderly, science based approach to it. One technique we learned about was ‘chaining’, especially back chaining. Where the dog learned it needed to carry out linked behaviours in order to get the reward. It was – and is – a very linear process. jigsaw-pieces

But rather than seeing the process as linear it is often more useful to view the end result you want as making a jigsaw. The final picture not made up of a chain, but a more complex composition of individual pieces perfectly formed, ready to just slot together to make the final picture. The more perfectly formed each piece is, the better the end result will look.

When you break down an exercise, you are working on individual pieces of the jigsaw. Once you’ve formed a piece perfectly, you can just put it on one side to take out and dust off later on, maybe polishing off any rough edges, when you’re ready to put the whole picture together.

Take the retrieve for example.  One piece of the ‘retrieve’ picture is the ‘pick up’. In most competitive activities HOW the dog picks up the article is important. Clicking for just the pick-up – clean and fast – may be one piece of the jigsaw. The ‘hold’ – well, that can be broken down too. Where the article is held in the dog’s mouth, how much pressure is exerted – those may be 2 different pieces. You will have a load more criteria to add to your particular ‘jigsaw’ depending on what purpose you are teaching it for and what you want your particular jigsaw to look like at the end. Moving with the article towards the handler – how the dog returns may be important. Does it need to be fast? Do you need to work on the ‘recall’ as a separate piece of the jigsaw?
Sitting holding the article – that may be another piece. The action of sitting – another.wysscent

Once you’ve formed all the individual pieces, how you put them together – well that’s another lesson entirely – but there’s little point in trying to do a jigsaw where the pieces aren’t the right shape or size. It just won’t turn out right.


Fostering nervous dogs

I know how distressing it is to lose a dog – but there are some absolute things you do and don’t do – and I thought it might be helpful to know how I have handled and fostered rescue dogs over the years. The do’s and don’ts I put in place-

I usually use a slip lead, or half check AND a normal collar (ensuring its snug and that the dog can’t slip it) and lead if a dog has to moved from one vehicle to another and from one place to another. Perhaps 2 different attachments in case the dog is adept at slipping harnesses or collars (many are) or one should break.

IF a dog is so nervous it can’t have a collar on, getting a collar on it to me would be a pretty high priority because otherwise you have no way of attaching a houseline.

I have a house line attached to a dog for a MINIMUM of 3 days – indoors and out. The dog is only taken out in a garden on that line and it is not released at all while the dog is still avoiding me, or still looking for exits. I let it appear to have freedom – its allowed to go wherever it wants and I am looking for it starting to climb or squeeze through anything. If there look like there are any weakness at all I repair them or block them immediately. I have learned never to assume that because the previous 20 dogs have never got out of the garden, this one won’t!
Then it is allowed, carefully and actively supervised (after maybe a week or so) – on a trailing long line – a bit more freedom so I can check out if its still thnking of escaping…that may be the case for WEEKS. I always assume a dog can will try to get over a fence and that height is relative.

Dogs like this are also usually quick to spot when people look like they are going to open a door and may be just be waiting for the oportunity to make a bid for freedom. Until you have had dogs like that you cannot believe just how fast they can move – they won’t warn you.

I always have 2 layers of security – so we have an ‘air lock’. One door or gate shuts before the other is opened.

I wouldn’t release a nervous dog loose *anywhere* (including the back garden) until it was obvious it was beginning to feel safe. e,g looking to me for food and treats, settling in a crate or bed and begining to take itself there and look relaxed, beginning to move around with my other dogs and even then I’d be very very cautious until the dog was was beginning to respond positively to some kind of recall/attention getting cue.

So if you take in foster or rescue dogs…NEVER assume they want to stay with you. They won’t and don’t usually Not for ages.

Is your dog friendly and sociable? Please, please read this….

Sometimes I can be quite grumpy. This is one of those moments. I have news for the owners of friendly, sociable dogs …it’s not YOUR job to socialise mine or give me advice about how to train or manage my dog.

I am really pleased if you have friendly sociable dogs. We need more of them. Really. But the way to do it isn’t to just let yours go up mob-handed to grope and sniff and loom over other dogs that happen to visit “your” park. It isn’t your job to teach my dog how to put up with your dogs molesting them. If and when I want my dogs to be sociable and interact with yours I’ll let you (and them) know and I’ll check with you first if you are OK with it. Isn’t that simply good manners?

Why do I mind it happening? Well, sheer good manners aside about intruding unasked into other peoples’ space, I can’t know if your dogs are as friendly as you think they are. I can’t know your dog won’t guard the ball that is dropped at my dog’s feet. I can’t know that they have never ever attacked or barked at a dog in their lives. That they are always polite and friendly even if my dog objects to their attention.

And you can’t know if my dog is nervous. You can’t know if she or he has a history of being attacked by other dogs so can be defensive if they get into his face or stand over her with hackles up and tail rigid and wagging. You can’t know if she hurts if other dogs bowl her over by accident, so she gets worried when they get too close.

You can’t know if I have had a dog attacked by dogs that behave like yours, or I am worried I’ll get knocked over, so I too might be scared if I see a large dog (or worse a whole bunch!) come charging over to say hi. You can’t know that I mind my dog looking worried by your dogs.

I wonder if you know how many people cannot walk their dogs in “your” park, or sit in the park café peacefully minding their own business, because of the way you let your friendly off lead dog behave? How many dogs and owner are intimidated by them? How many dogs don’t get the opportunity to mooch about minding their own business in “your” park because their owners are too worried your dogs will intrude on them?

Please think twice before letting your dog or dogs go up to other dogs uninvited. I am pleased for you that they are friendly and you never have to worry about their behaviour, but that doesn’t mean I want my dog to be best mates with them. It doesn’t mean I don’t want my dog to have fun, or be friendly, I simply want it to be MINE and MY DOGS’S decision when thaty happens – not that of a random stranger who just happens to be in the same park as me. I wouldn’t want random strangers to come up and molest me – why should my dog have to put up with it?

So please don’t be offended if I ask you nicely to keep your dog away, or less nicely, if you have already let your dog upset mine, or interrupted what I am doing with my dog. If you care about the welfare of other dogs as much as your own, then you will not let it happen. Although, to be frank, whatever my reasons are for not wanting it to happen it’s none of your business. I shouldn’t have to explain or justify not wanting my dog to be pestered by yours. Ultimately who my dog socialises with (and when) ought to be my and my dog’s decision, not yours.

Grumpy person can now take a rest…:-)