From Growly to Gracious: Teaching Your Dog to Let Go.

Minimalism is back in fashion. If you have been swept up by the latest decluttering movement, I do hope you stopped short of throwing out your dog’s toys. It sure feels good to let go of stuff, but do not expect your pooch to share your enthusiasm. Dogs do get attached to things. Some dogs get attached a lot.

Have you seen it in your dog? The body freeze when you approach, the hovering stance to shield the valued possession, the menacing glance from the corner of their eye. Did you think you could whisk that limp old bunny away from your dog, assuming it was worthless after having been thoroughly destuffed? Maybe your dog thought otherwise and—sensing your treachery as your fingers angled for the guarded treasure—promptly let out a growl?

Congratulations, if you have found liberation from hoarding by convincing yourself to let go of things. Your dog, however, will only become fiercer in their guarding with each of your attempts to pry things from their jaws or paws. They don’t feel liberated. They feel robbed!

When Letting Go of Things No Longer Means Loss, Your Dog Has No Reason to Guard Them

Holding on to important stuff (primarily: food, mates, a place to rest), even defending—or guarding—them aggressively, helped our dogs’ ancestors to survive and make more wolf babies, so no surprise the trait is still around. But despite the genetic link, it is possible to teach your wolf-in-a-dog-skin to no longer guard the things they value.

If you are worried about your dog’s behaviour, and especially if it goes beyond playing keep away and maybe a little growl here and there, I strongly recommend you work with a competent trainer. Not the type that tells you to be more of a “boss”, but someone who actually understands the process of desensitisation & counterconditioning. Someone who knows that positive reinforcement is the method of choice for the modern dog trainer, not overpowering and intimidation. They will assist you with a step-by-step protocol until your dog no longer feels worried about losing things of value.

For less serious cases there is another pathway which you can pursue. It involves teaching your dog to release things from their jaws on cue (e.g. “drop it”, “give”) and to refrain from picking something up (“leave it”). Both are very useful behaviours for any dog and are also a good add-on to the more stringent protocol for serious guarding cases. If you are diligent in your training, the desensitisation & counterconditioning required to change your dog’s guarding behaviour will come along for the ride.

Learning a behaviour with positive reinforcement has the very convenient side-effect of creating positive emotions in your dog: Emotions not only associated with the learned behaviour, but also the context of the learning experience and the person involved—you!

If your dog is a guarder, you want them to learn that relinquishing or forgoing a prized possession no longer equates to loss. To achieve that, you have to make it worth their while and return their temporary “sacrifice” with interest, i.e. a big fat—usually edible—bonus.

Sebastian, the Golden Retriever, is very attached to his penguin, but he is even more attached to tennis balls and sticks.

“Leave & Let Go”: Two Behaviours for the Goal of Trust

If you have one of those dogs who love to chase a tennis ball but are reluctant to let go of it, you have already witnessed the conflict that is tormenting your dog: They love it when you throw the ball, but they won’t give it to you. And, if you try to pick it up, they’ll beat you to it!

Some people opt for the easy solution of carrying two tennis balls. That’s fine, if the dog actually drops a ball to chase another. And, if they don’t learn to stuff two or more balls into their mouth, including one they pinched from another dog, and run off. Managing your dog’s guarding behaviour can be a workable solution, but it doesn’t help your dog one bit with resolving their emotional conflict.

To get your dog to willingly spit out whatever they hold in their jaws, you need your dog to trust you. Trust simply means that your dog has learned that good things come from you, if they let go. During “let go” training, they not only get the surrendered treasure back, but they get a sizable bonus on top of it. It’s a bit like spending $20 on a lottery ticket and then winning a holiday for two in Bali. Not bad, hey?

Your dog thinks so too. Or more precisely: dogs understand value. However, to let go of 20 bucks is not as easy for some as it is for others. If $20 aka a tennis ball is too much for your dog to part with, then a ¢50 rubber duck may be your starting point. Of course, the value of the item is not what you spent at the shops, but the value your dog attaches to it. To another dog your dog’s ¢50 rubber duck may be a treasure worth fighting tooth and nail for.

A Game of Tug: The Perfect Start for Learning to Let Go

Tug is a fun and high energy game. And, it is a good opportunity to teach your dog to let go of something. Here is how I do it:

As you play the game, randomly—but not too often (you want to have a fun game with your dog after all)—say your let go cue (e.g. “let go”, “give”, “drop it”, whatever you like) in a cheerful voice. Then, immediately put both hands over as much of the tug toy as you can and quickly pull it between your knees (so you can clamp it tight). Hold completely still until you feel your dog’s jaws soften their grip (it will happen eventually, just wait silently and do not move; do not repeat your cue). Praise your dog and—as soon as the toy is released—resume the game.

It is a good idea to also teach a “take it” cue or similar. Restart the game after giving the cue, but only if your dog does not lunge at the toy in your hand. One second of being patient is enough to begin with. That way your dog learns not to rip toys or other items out of human hands without invitation.

There are other, less physical ways to teach letting go, for example offering a treat after you say the cue. I prefer the above version, precisely because it is physical and because it keeps the game going. The tug game itself is the dog’s reinforcement for releasing the toy. However, each case warrants its own variation and fine-tuning, so decide what works best for you and your dog.

Coco, the French Bulldog, is learning to let go of the tug toy.

Over several games, you should notice that the dog starts releasing the toy faster and faster once they hear the cue. You can then start practising with other non- or lowly-guarded items, e.g. the ¢50 rubber duck. Gradually work your way from holding the item in your hand to letting your dog have possession of it before you give the cue. Reinforce the dog for letting go with a super yummy treat or throw the item (or another item), if that’s what your dog prefers, or both.

Important points to remember when teaching your dog to let go:

Never rip the item out of your dog’s jaws

If your dog doesn’t let go on cue, leave them alone and practise more with lower value items first. Also, adjust your hand position (and eventually your distance to the dog) to make it easier or harder for the dog to surrender the item (holding and touching the item with your hand is easier; being further away is harder).

avoid using a “commanding” voice when you give the cue

Dog training is not about threatening your dog with your tone of voice. It’s about building an association between the cue, the dog’s behaviour and what follows (in this case: reinforcement by resuming play or giving a treat). And, dog training is about consistent repetitions of carefully defined steps.

Use fabulous food for reinforcement

Food is still widely underused in dog training, and that although it is the easiest, most convenient and efficient reinforcement there is. It works for all dogs, because all dogs have to eat. Please don’t be one of those people who deprive their dogs of tasty food. Be generous and your dog will be happier and enthusiastically take part in whatever training task you give them.

Coco, the French Bulldog, is able to let go of a tasty chew stick.

Refrain and You Will Gain: Teach Your Dog the Value of Not Approaching or Touching Something

It would be an odd thing, if a dog snubbed freely available food within their reach. I’d assume they must have just eaten a massive meal (that wouldn’t be reason enough for many dogs, though!) or they are sick, stressed or anxious. Or, they have been asked to leave it alone.

Your dog can learn not to approach something, if—just like letting go—you make it worth their while. After you’ve taught them not to touch food, you can extend it to anything you want your dog to stay away from: The glass jar you just smashed on the floor, a person doing Tai Chi at the local park, even the cat next door.

Again, it is important to proceed in steps that allow the dog to succeed. Repeatedly placing food on the floor in front of the dog and saying “Leave it” may not be the best start, if your dog keeps going for it. Not only do they hear a cue over and over again, without forming an association with the behaviour of “leaving it” (which erodes the cue), but you risk frustrating your dog because you keep putting food in front of them but don’t let them have it.

Additionally, if you make it so hard for the dog that they keep “failing”, you may get frustrated too and blame the dog rather than your training approach. Before you know it, you are back to using a stern voice, or worse, and make your dog and yourself even more stressed. And that’s no longer positive reinforcement training. It’s not really training at all.

So, start easy. Avoid using the cue until your dog has learned the behaviour of “leaving it”. The protocol I follow (which I learned at The Academy for Dog Trainers) starts with food in a closed hand and reinforces the dog for a mere 1-second of not trying to get to the food. Just one second of impulse control and the dog gets the food. It sets your dog up for success and keeps them happy and engaged.

Charley, the Beaglier, leaving food in hand
Charley, the Beaglier, has learned the “leave it” cue and knows that her patience will pay off.

Have a Go, Take Your Time, Have Fun

If you are keen on DIY and your dog’s aggressive behaviour is not severe, give it a go. Even then, you may find consulting with a good dog trainer can point you in the right direction and save you some time.

Most importantly: Have a plan, i.e. a breakdown of how you are going to teach your dog the desired behaviours, take it one step at a time and have fun. Celebrate intermediate successes and generously reward your dog—and yourself!—for the effort.

Finally, here is Sebastian. He became more and more possessive over his tennis balls during adolescence. Although his growling was mostly directed at other dogs, he also grabbed the ball and ran whenever a human tried to pick it up. After a couple of weeks teaching “give” and “leave it”, going to the off-leash park has become a lot more fun again.

Sebastian, the Golden Retriever, tends to guard his tennis balls from other dogs, but also from humans. After “give” and “leave it” training he is well on his way to become less possessive.

Help! My Dog Won’t Use the Dog Door

Dog doors offer a great convenience to fur parents to give their pooches access to outdoor spaces such as yards or balconies. Who wants to accompany their post-puppy-stage companion to the toilet spot every time nature calls, especially at night time? Depending on their age and health, it can also be rather inconvenient for your dog to hold it in. Some bodily organs have limited patience and no regard for convenience. So, if you come home or wake up to a mess, please never blame your furry friend.

Identify the Culprit Behind Your Dog’s House Soiling

When your dog soils the house, there can be a range of reasons. What is certainly not the reason for leaving unpleasant surprises on your beds or carpets is any sort of intentional depositing, for example out of ‘revenge’. Sometimes our brains are too complicated for their own good and spin a story where there is nothing but a simple cause and effect.

The reason your dog urinates and defecates in the house is typically one or more of the following:

  • A medical condition
  • Lack of house training
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of facilitation

The most simple explanation could be a medical condition, especially if your dog’s house training breaks down all of a sudden, so a visit to the vet is a good start. 

Apart from physical ailments, mental or emotional problems can also play a role. Separation anxiety is commonly behind a loss of bladder or bowel control as are other forms of anxiety, stress and fear. Identify what your dog is distressed about—ideally with the help of a behaviour vet or animal trainer with proven expertise in behaviour—and, most importantly, stop any sort of punitive handling and training.

A rather common cause for house soiling is incomplete house training, so go back to basics. There is no magic bullet to teach your dog not to wee or poo in the house. It comes down to management, supervision and reinforcement.

Then there is the matter of access to the preferred toilet spot. Putting a dog door in for the dog to go out whenever they please seems like a great idea but your dog has to think so too.

Anything new you introduce into your dog’s life is best accompanied by yummy treats so the dog immediately forms a positive association with it. Nevertheless, some dogs may need further help to actually use the dog door without your assistance.

Here are some common factors that can affect your dog’s love or hate of the dog door.

size of the dog door

Make sure your dog can easily fit through the door rather than having to  squeeze their body through. Security may be a concern, in case you have a large dog, although having a large dog may also be a good burglar deterrent. On the other hand, I have had to squeeze my body through a dog door more than once to get entry to a house, so it certainly has its advantages, if you lose your house keys.

design of the dog door

There are a range of designs that can affect your dog’s liking of the door. Hard or soft plastic, see-through or opaque, round or rectangular. Consider how hard your dog has to push or how high they have to lift their paws to get through. Do your research, read reviews or, even better, test different doors before shopping.

location of the dog door

You may not have a lot of choices of where to place the dog door depending on the design of your home. Most commonly, dog doors are installed in backdoors or windows. But where exactly is the door leading to? If it rains, does the dog have to step out into the wet or is the outside space covered? Is it shady on hot summer days or does the pavement heat up so much that it feels like stepping on hot coals? What else could prevent your dog from stepping through the door? Maybe the neighbours kids’ trampoline is right next to the fence and your dog fears the jumping kids. Or maybe the neighbour’s dog goes berserk whenever your dog uses the dog door. Lots to think about.

ease of entry and exit

The location of the door may create additional obstacles for your dog to get in or out. I knew a Schnauzer who refused to step outside through the dog door but had no problem coming in. As it turned out, the step down from the dog door, which was built into the laundry door, was simply too high. The dog had trouble to physically bridge the height and she might have also hurt herself in previous attempts in doing so. Adding a little platform between the door threshold and the courtyard, so the dog could step outside without having to resort to acrobatics, solved the problem in this case.

bad experiences

An unfortunate encounter with the dog door, especially on first use, can easily create dog door dread. For this reason, I highly recommend introducing your dog to the door with a bag of yummy treats. With you on one side of the door and the dog on the other, encourage your dog to step through—initially holding the door open, if necessary—and then pay her with a treat and praise her for her bravery. Repeat this until the dog shows no hesitation when stepping through the door. Lots of positive experiences provide an ideal buffer against possible future mishaps.

If your dog does have a bad experience, such as getting stuck in the door or getting a fright by an external event, say a thunder clap, while going through the door, first consider the previous points and possibly make some changes to the dog door. Next, rebuild your dog’s confidence by teaching her, step by step, that the dog door means wonderful things, i.e. super tasty snacks.

general anxiety

Some dogs are generally afraid of novel things or lack the confidence to explore. The procedure to make your dog use the dog door is the same as after a bad experiences (tasty snacks!) but, if your dog has problems with more than just the dog door, I strongly suggest a consult with a behaviour vet. Living with anxiety is no fun for anyone!

Case Study: Willow, the Worried Whippet

During a recent house-and dog-sit with a pair of Whippets, I helped one of them overcome her dog door anxiety. Apparently, her fear of using the door arose after she was hit in the face by the flap when she tried to follow her brother through the door. The door in question was of round design with a hard-plastic flap, firmly held in place by magnets.

After the incident, Willow would only use the door, if the flap was held open. My initial advice was to temporarily replace the flap with a plastic sheet or fly screen and then gradually reintroduce the hard flap.

A simpler solution may have been to replace the door with a larger version and a soft-plastic flap. However, more assistance is usually required to rebuild confidence after a bad experience.

So, while I had the pleasure to stay with the Whippets, I spent a few minutes daily on behaviour building and counter-conditioning.

Breaking the Behaviour Down Into Manageable Steps

The first step was to get Willow to push the door open just a little with her nose. With me on the other side of the door and a piece of chicken held right at the bottom of the flap, she eventually managed to push—albeit quite awkwardly at first: pushing with her teeth!— and quickly snatch the treat before pulling her head back again.

Next, I had to prevent her from pulling back straight away, so I quickly fed another piece of chicken after the first one and so on. The goal was to get Willow comfortable with the feeling of the dog door resting on her head or neck for a few seconds.

Very quickly this seemed rather easy for Willow, so now was the time to move the food lure out of sight and encourage her verbally to push her head through the door before I reinforced her with a treat. The intention was to break the reliance on the food lure.

The next step was getting a leg through. This turned out to  be a rather interesting looking affair. Despite her small stature and spindly legs, it took Willow some trial and error before she figured out where and how to place her legs. Initially, I offered assistance by holding the door up and then slowly lowering it onto her back.

After managing to get her front legs through and collecting a few pieces of chicken with the flap resting on her back, Willow still tried to escape the scary door with a quick forward hop. It would have been disastrous, if she had pulled back at this stage and rammed the door into her spine, so keeping the forward motion going with treats was essential.  

By moving myself away from the door very gradually and feeding repeatedly as I did so, I eventually managed to convert her panicky hop into a more graceful step-through.

Repetition and Continued Reinforcement

From there I kept repeating a full step-through with lots of verbal encouragement and reinforcement with chicken to grow Willow’s confidence and comfort with the door. The chicken, or other food reinforcement, was now only delivered once she had mastered the entry or exit on her own. I also celebrated each success with plenty of praise.

I had transitioned from food lure directly at the door to reinforcement delivered at a distance from the door after a successful exit or entry. Now I needed her to be able to do it without me.

First, I increased my distance from the door and eventually walked out of sight, still using lots of verbal encouragement. I also used Willow’s brother as a draw card: I would go outside with him, closing the back door behind us and leaving Willow inside. I then made a point of first feeding him outside, then playing with him with lots of hullabaloo, and moving further and further away from the door. Willow, not wanting to be left behind, conquered her dog door dread faster and faster to join the party.

When my house- and dog-sitting time with the Whippets came to an end, Willow was able to go through the dog door without my presence and without encouragement or food offers. She had not yet managed to leave the house at night on her own when nature called, but I left with the confidence that continued practise and repetition, including at night time, would soon have her soar over that final hurdle.

And now I have learned that her humans have decided to install a bigger dog door with a soft flap! :)

Top 5 Dog Behaviour Myths – 2019 Edition

Q: My dog does [ insert favourite “misbehaviour” here ]. Is she trying to be dominant?
A: See last question.

Q: My dog does what he wants. He doesn’t respect me. How can I become a better leader?
A: See last question.

Q: How can I maintain a pack-hierarchy in my multi-dog household, so everyone knows their place?
A: See last question.

Q: Why use treats? Shouldn’t my dog just do what I want because I say so?
A: See last question.

Q: If I don’t punish my dog when he behaves aggressively, doesn’t that mean he’ll do it again?
A: See last question.

Q: My dog’s behaviour is a problem for me. What can I do about this?
A: Finally, you’re asking the right question.

Your dog is a sub-species (Canis lupus familiaris ) of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and belongs to he family of Canidae and the order of Carnivora.

I’m not telling you this to boast about my knowledge of taxonomy (anyone can Google this), but because we really do need frequent reminders that our dogs are not human. I’m quite sure, having a bear or a gorilla in the house wouldn’t require repeated reality checks, but with dogs we seem to habitually forget what they really are.

Your dog is a dog and will always behave like a dog, no matter how much you wish it were otherwise. Behaving like a typical member of one’s own species should not be a punishable offence.

Now, I’d assume that bringing a dog into your home meant you were looking for a companion. Dogs are really good at that. But because they are still dogs, we usually need to take some action to make sure they don’t wreck the furniture, kill the cat, alienate our friends, offend the neighbours and attract law suits.

If you have recently adopted a puppy, you need the same superhuman patience as new parents. And you have the unnerving responsibility to protect and nurture a new life.

Can you imagine a parent placing a shock collar on their baby or pressing their little body to the ground until they stop crying? Pushing their face into their own poo because they had an accident during nappy change? How about yanking a toddler by a neck chain because they toddled in the “wrong” direction? Or maybe a bit of a whack under the chin or a knee in the chest or some yucky substance sprayed in their face? How else does that stubborn toddler learn to “behave”? How else are they going to respect you as their leader? And, if they are really rebellious, then we just strangle them until they faint or pummel them until they curl up in the corner. That’ll teach them.

We do all of these things to dogs—animals who are no more able to comprehend what we expect from them than a 1- or 2-year old child—and no one calls the cops.

No matter what age, breed or size your dog is, no matter what task you might assign to them, there is never any need or justification to make them fear you.

I know it is not the most brutal methods I have to steer you away from. You don’t want to hurt your dog. But I want to hold up a big warning sign that when you enter the dark foggy forest of dog training you have a high chance of doing a Hansel & Gretel. The advice you will mostly come across is drawn from last century myths and the avalanche of books that have been written spreading those myths. The language may have changed and some methods are less overtly medieval in nature. But packaging a house of horror in gingerbread doesn’t make it any less dreadful or dangerous, just more insidious. Better to avoid the witch in the first place.

The risk of being conned does not only come from external sources. What about your own tendency to blame your dog for having human intentions. Stubborn, disobedient, naughty, rebellious, dominant—how many times have you thought your dog “misbehaves on purpose”? It is not their brains that give rise to those thoughts, it’s yours. Funnelling human thoughts into canid brains has only ever led to confusion, frustration and misery—on both sides of the relationship.

It may take a while to rid yourself of this, but you can safely drop the notion that you need to be the alpha dog or even a leader. Your dog is not going to usurp you. They are not lying in wait for you to drop your guard. Your dog is really just trying to figure out how they can get you to hand over some food or throw a ball or even just say a few nice words and scratch them behind the ears. That’s all they need to be happy.

Fortunately, more and more people who live and work with dogs are done with folk knowledge and “dog training gurus” and are turning to fear-free and cooperative teaching and learning. Please join us on this exciting journey. This is the future and it’s already here.

The science of animal learning and behaviour gives us all we need to create a functioning household of individuals, even if one or more of those individuals are not human.

With a puppy under around 16 weeks of age your biggest advantage is the chance of prevention. Put all your time and energy into giving your youngster a ton of positive experiences, so they feel safe in this world. Go overboard with teaching them that nothing bad comes from human hands, that all the people and animals and things around them are no threat to them. Handle them with care, like you would a baby, but let them explore the world—under your gentle guidance and armed with treats—like they were a toddler. You may safe your dog from a lifetime of anxiety and yourself from the fallout.

The positive experiences shouldn’t stop once your puppy has bumbled their way into adolescence and beyond.

There is a German saying which I’ve always liked: “Wie man in den Wald hineinruft, so schallt es heraus”. It literally means “how you shout into a forest is how it’ll resound back at you” (FYI: Dark, dense German forests often have echoes; or at least that’s what I remember from my childhood). Sometimes your actions not only result in a similar response back though, but an exaggerated one. So much for the advice to punish your dog’s aggressive behaviour. Good luck with that.

Squabbling between your canine house mates shouldn’t throw you into a leadership crisis either. Dogs generally sort out who has priority access to which resource and when—food, toys, beds and more—without your interference. However, if your mediation is required because the furries are at loggerheads, don’t go looking for a hierarchy and most certainly don’t “support” one, or you risk starting a fire where there was only a bit of smoke.

Relationships between individuals are more complex than a corporate company structure or a military hierarchy.

If one of your dogs gets a little too “intense” over a resource, teach them that no one is a threat to the things they value and that good things come to them when the other dog(s) in the household get access to those same valued resources.

Aggression is best prevented or reduced by not giving your dog a reason to be aggressive. Don’t threaten them, scold them and pester them but be a source of everything  good in your dog’s life. Good food, play and toys, companionship and cuddles—it’s what makes your dog happy and they’ll love you for it.

Use good food and play abundantly to reinforce your dog for all those things you want them to do.

Your dog’s behaviour will match the value they get out of doing it. So, provide value and build up your dog’s skills, and your own, step by step. Then show off in front of all those misery trainers and their miserable dogs. Enjoy the look on their faces when your dog comes bounding back to you from mid-chase across a wide open field with tongue lolling and eyes sparkling in anticipation of the ham and cheese sandwich in your pocket. Your dog will be the happiest dog in the world and you their happy human.

Take a Break and Play: DIY Dog Training Made Easy

January is the “summer of tennis” here in Melbourne, which meant I was “forced” to spend a considerable amount of time in front of the TV. It has also been a very hot month, so watching the athletes slug it out from the air-conditioned comfort of the couch made this an acceptable and rather enjoyable past time.

Unfortunately, it also meant I was bombarded with the same ads during commercial breaks over and over again—something that tends to create a negative emotional response in me to the advertised product or service.

As a dog trainer, I know all about negative emotional responses because I see them in dogs all the time. The responses can be to us, our actions, the things we do to our dogs, certain situations or anything in the environment that makes dogs fearful, anxious, annoyed or aggressive. It shows mostly in their body language.

Does Training Your Dog Seem Like a Chore? Try the Opportunistic Approach.

If you live with a dog, you will have your own negative emotional responses to the things your dog does or doesn’t do. But even the mere idea of training your dog can cause a negative emotional response, if you consider “dog training” a chore. If this is the case—if you feel you have little time or motivation to teach your dog—I may have some ideas for you.

Whenever I was sufficiently fed up by those annoying interruptions to my tennis binge watching, I grabbed some treats and turned my focus to the dogs I was with. I call it my “quick & dirty Australian Open version of lazy dog training”.

So, here are a few “on the fly” activities you can do with your dog whenever you have some down time. Be it TV ads or waiting for your pasta to cook, those brief times when you don’t quite know what to do with yourself offer an opportunity to do some fun stuff with your dog (or cat, or any animal for that matter). Before you know it, you may find you have actually taught your dog, and maybe yourself, some mighty useful skills. And, who knows, it may spark your interest in doing some more “methodical”—and more efficient!—dog training in the future. But if not, that’s totally OK too.

Have a go. All you need is a container full of yummy treats and some toys within easy reach and you can train whenever and for as short a time as you feel like it.

Wait a Second! Teaching Your Dog not to be Pushy

Even without getting up from the couch, you can teach your dog some basic things, such as being patient. It will probably come as no surprise that patience is not in your dog’s natural repertoire. And it’s even worse, if you haven’t taken your dog out to the park or for a walk yet. Under-exercised dogs and impulse control do not go well together.

Fortunately, if you can play fetch and tug with your dog from the couch, you can teach them to control their impulsiveness at the same time.

The key is to start easy. Before you throw a toy or start the tug game, ask your dog to wait for just one second. Any attempt by your dog of jumping at and grabbing the toy results in a delay of play until your dog manages to hold back for one second only. Just hold the toy at a distance (e.g. above your head) where they can’t get to it or move the toy out of the dog’s reach every time they try to grab it. Once your dog pauses for one second, quickly start the game: Throw the toy/ball for the dog to fetch or start a game of tug by making the tug toy move away from the dog.

One second is all you need to get your foot in the door and, most importantly, it sets your dog up for success. The opposite—trying to get the dog to wait longer than they are able to and possibly adding verbal reprimands such as “no!” or “ah ah!” when they try to grab the toy—will only lead to frustration, and possibly intimidation, and your dog may not want to play at all anymore.

When your dog is good at pausing for one second, you can throw in some two or three second pauses. This is all you need for many day-to-day applications, such as opening doors without the dog rushing through, being able to manoeuvre without having the dog underfoot or jumping up at you and not having toys or food ripped out of your hands.

To get a tug toy off your dog, by the way, a good option is to make the toy go dead. Just grab as much of it as you can and hold it very still (sit/kneel/lean on the toy), so the dog can’t move it or rip it from you. The moment your dog lets go of the toy voluntarily, praise them and resume play. A less “physical” option is to offer a treat in exchange for the toy.

Come Here, Go There: Moving Your Dog Around in Space

Another skill that you can teach quickly and with little effort is hand targeting, i.e. teaching your dog to target your hand with their nose.

Simply extend one arm, elbow straight and your palm facing the dog. Have a treat ready in the other hand (hidden, e.g. behind your back). Encourage your dog to approach and wriggle your fingers to make your empty hand a more interesting target. If your dog is still not moving towards it, place a small piece of food under your thumb to get the game started. When your dog’s nose comes close to your hand or even touches it, say a cheery “yes!” and immediately give your dog a treat from your other hand. Keep repeating this until your dog reliably approaches the palm of your hand when you hold out your arm.

You can use any other item, instead of your hand, to play this targeting game. It’s fun to watch how quickly the dog learns what earns them the treat. Of course, your timing skills are crucial for your dog’s success, so this is a nifty little exercise for humans too.

The seemingly simple behaviour of targeting your hand opens the door to all sorts of interesting skills. Apart from getting your dog to come to you, you can use it to move them to any place you like—onto a mat, up on the couch, off the bed, over agility equipment, around your legs, back to your side when pulling on the leash, on the scales at the vet’s office and more. The applications are endless. And all of it without using any force to move your dog!

Getting Your Dog to Stay Out of The Way

Ever had a dog underfoot in the kitchen and almost tripped or spilled something? Your dog may be keen for pieces of your sandwich to rain on the floor, but they won’t be so happy, if you spill hot coffee or drop a frying pan. Dogs underfoot can be a real health & safety hazard. So, I like to keep them at a distance when I’m busy in the kitchen. The same goes when I work with power tools or things that are dangerous for dogs.

Last week I was house-minding with two delightful Labradors. One thing that became obvious very quickly was their immediate and unyielding presence whenever I moved into the kitchen. There was a body in front of me at every turn which required me to either divert or push through them. Every water droplet or speck of material that landed on the floor was subject to intense investigation. Every remotely edible crumb was sucked up by whoever pounced first. Even my exhausted “I’m just making coffee” announcements were consistently followed by hopeful eyes looking up at me before they turned their attention back to the floor.

With that sort of eager anticipation, I knew just the solution.

Clearly the dogs were highly motivated by food, so all I needed to do was handing out tasty treats whenever the dogs remained outside the kitchen while I was inside. I gave them pieces of cooked chicken, cheese, mashed sweet potato with tuna and, on occasion, whatever food I was eating myself. At the same time, I never gave them any food in the kitchen. This meant I had to be careful not to drop food on the kitchen floor and—in case it did happen—throw myself between the food and the dogs before they got to it. All of this works better, of course, if the dogs have a place to sit or lie on outside the kitchen.

As it happened, there was a rug at the end of the kitchen area, so I didn’t even have to provide a dedicated “stay training mat”. The rug became the go-to place for the dogs to settle down on every time I entered the kitchen and we did “stay training on the fly”.

  • Whenever I walked to the kitchen, I directed (see below) the dogs onto the rug and gave them a treat each.
  • Whenever they followed me into the kitchen or moved into the kitchen at any stage, I immediately directed them back onto the rug—every single time.
  • Initially, I delivered treats while the dogs stayed on the rug at a very high frequency, i.e. every 1-5 seconds.
  • As the dogs improved, i.e. stayed on the rug more often, I decreased the frequency of treat delivery but kept it random (no fixed intervals) and sometimes gave a higher value treat or more of it.
  • When one of them walked into the kitchen, but the other one stayed, the one who moved was simply directed back on the mat and the one who stayed received a treat.

If you have practised hand targeting (see previous chapter), “directing” a dog is easy. Otherwise you can use a treat as a lure to get started. Try to transition quickly to not having food in your pointing or targeting hand though. The goal is that the dog does the behaviour first and then you bring the treat out and deliver it.

The whole exercise may be easier, if you can ask your dog to lie down on the mat. A dog is more likely to “settle” while lying down rather than sitting or standing. However, this has to be either pre-trained or you could simply lure your dog down on the mat with a treat to begin with. Don’t worry about this, if it adds too much complexity for now. Your dog may even lie down by themselves after a while.

Maybe you don’t mind having your dog in the kitchen or following you around, which is perfectly fine. But there will always be situations when it can be extremely helpful to have your dog out of the way or settled on a mat.

Merlin & Daisy have learned “on the fly” that staying out of the kitchen pays off.

As you can see, teaching your dog to wait, stay or come can be done in a rather casual way and be made to fit into your daily life. Yes, overall it can actually take longer and does not teach behaviours as reliably as carefully planned and executed dog training protocols and sessions. But, if it helps you to teach your dog anything at all and make your life—and that of your dog—easier, it’s worth a go.

How to Get Your Anxious Dog to Play

Being sick is no fun. No matter, if our ailment is of a physical or mental nature, it robs us of having a good life and doing the things we love. Anxiety, phobias or depression can be as debilitating as broken bones or battling a disease. And it’s no different for our dogs.

But, just like us, dogs can benefit greatly from engaging in physical and mental activities, solving puzzles or playing games. It may start as nothing but a temporary relief or a distraction, but it may also grow into a newfound appetite for life. Often, the first step is the hardest, so here is some advice on how to get started with your dog.

Having to Worry About Their Environment Can Make Your Dog Sick and Unhappy

Does your dog shy away when someone tries to touch them, trembles at the vet or groomer or gets upset by noises? Does your dog seem withdrawn or inactive despite being neither physically incapacitated nor very old? Does your dog growl at people or other dogs, or worse?

Dogs who worry about their environment most or all of the time have a stressful life. They often do not have the confidence, drive or energy to engage in playful or investigative behaviours. Instead, they stay where they feel safe and avoid attracting attention. If they are pushed out of their safe environment, they may respond with fearful or aggressive behaviour.

The reasons for this can be multiple. A dog may have been born with a natural shyness or had adverse early life experiences. They may have suffered some form of trauma or been exposed to regular verbal or physical punishment. Or maybe they simply missed out on good socialisation during the critical first few weeks in life.

Although it may seem the easiest option to just leave the dog alone, it usually does nothing to improve their quality of life and their mental health may deteriorate further. Also, the old “leave the dog alone” advice for any dog that shows aggressive behaviour doesn’t really work anymore these days, at least in our modern urban environments. Dogs live in close contact with us and conflict is almost guaranteed since neither dogs nor people are always in a position to get out of each other’s way. So, we better make sure our dogs are happy where they live and look after their mental health as well as their physical health.

Getting Your Anxious Dog to Play Can Add Greatly to Their Quality of Life

Complete care for anxious, fearful and fear-aggressive dogs requires

A great option for enrichment for anxious dogs is capturing and shaping a behaviour. It is a non-invasive—and therefore non-threatening—way to get your dog to do things. The initial behaviour can be as simple as your dog looking at an object near them, let’s say a cardboard box you just put on the ground. If you want to capture this behaviour, immediately praise (or say a cheery “yes!” or use a clicker, if you prefer) and give your dog a tasty treat every time you put the box down and your dog looks at the box.

It will usually only take a few repetitions for the dog to connect the dots: I look at the box –> I get a tasty treat. Soon the dog may not just look at the box, but actually move towards it. After all, isn’t it interesting that looking at a box earns you a treat? There must be something about this particular box. So, let’s check it out!

Eventually, your dog may offer other behaviours such as pawing at the box or biting it, so you reinforce these behaviours and eventually stop reinforcing merely looking at the box. You have shaped your dog’s behaviour from noticing the box to engaging with it. From there you might decide to shape ripping the box apart, so you only reinforce biting and no longer pawing. Next you reinforce vigorous biting and no longer gentle nibbling.

Where you go with this is up to you and your dog. Maybe your dog discovers how much fun it is to rip cardboard boxes apart and doesn’t need food reinforcements anymore or they love finding some tasty morsels you have hidden inside the box. The important thing is that your dog is having fun. And, hopefully, you have fun watching your dog being happy.

Jezz the Anxious Collie Having Fun

The following video shows some scenes of shaping engagement with an object, in this case a carry tray for coffee cups. It started one day when a friend and I had take-away coffee at a park with Jezz, the anxious Collie. There was no particular agenda. Jezz simply had a sniff at the tray when I tossed it on the ground and it went from there. Now she runs at it, picks it up, tosses it into the air, sometimes rips it to pieces and seems to get a genuine kick out of doing so. That was all that mattered. Anxious Jezz having fun!

While this may not seem a remarkable behaviour for dogs without anxiety issues, for dogs like Jezz, who can jump at her own shadow, this is a huge step forward and almost wondrous to watch. Here is how we got there:

A Safe Environment

The first crucial ingredient is the environment: There is a clearing surrounded by natural bushland, set along a creek in suburban Melbourne, where Jezz loves to hang out. In fact, I believe she would happily adopt this place as her permanent home. We frequently see the iconic Kookaburra and other native birdlife and there is even a hive of Australian bees being busy in a tree hollow. It’s a little oasis where Jezz feels safe and comfortable.

Suitable Reinforcement

Next, the reinforcer: I needed food which Jezz loves and wants more of. I mostly used freshly cooked or dehydrated chicken breast and sometimes cheese. Don’t make assumptions about what type of food your dog will work for. Test it by offering a large range of goodies. Most dogs prefer moist treats with meat, fish or cheese to dry kibble.

Observational & Timing Skills

The moment I saw Jezz sniff at the cardboard tray one day, I praised her with a cheery “Yes!” and immediately reached into my pocket for a treat. Jezz knows what reaching into my pocket means: There is a high chance she gets a tasty treat. How does she know this? Because she has experienced it many times over: I reach it into my pocket and out comes a treat.

My timing was crucial here. If I had left even a few seconds pass before reinforcing Jezz with praise and food, she would not have made the connection between her investigation of the tray and the treat delivery.

Being able to watch Jezz approach the tray meant I had to be vigilant and ready to reinforce her with food. If I had missed one or more approaches, I could have missed my chance entirely since without the food reinforcement there would have been no reason for Jezz to continue approaching the tray.

Differential Reinforcement

To develop Jezz’s new found skill further I had to take it up a notch and be more discriminating about which behaviours I reinforced and which ones I ignored or reinforced to a lesser extent (lower value treats or praise only). Differential reinforcement simply means that we reinforce certain behaviours but not others. The “other” behaviours can be anything that the dog may also be interested in doing at the same time, but which doesn’t get us closer to our goal.

In Jezz’s case I simply wanted to encourage any engagement with the tray that looked like play. Grabbing it and running with it or tossing it into the air was great, but she also enjoyed pawing it and chewing pieces off it, so I reinforced that too. Eventually I stopped reinforcing her for merely approaching and sniffing the tray. As a result, she did that less and, more often than not, went straight for the more playful behaviours of grabbing, tossing, running with the tray and—once she got a little tired—dissecting it.

If my goal had been to teach Jezz to pick up the tray and bring it to me, I could have only reinforced her when she put her mouth on the tray but not when she was pawing it. Typically, after a dog has put their mouth or teeth on an object a few times, they start lifting it off the ground occasionally. Once the “new” behaviour, in this case “lift off” happens often enough, the simpler behaviours, in this case “mouthing” are no longer reinforced. Then we wait for the next behaviour to pop out, in this case “taking a few steps with the tray in her mouth” and once this occurs at a sufficient frequency, we no longer reinforce a simple “lift off”. And so on.

When to stop reinforcing simpler behaviours and only reinforce the next closer approaches to whatever end goal you have in mind is a judgement call and, if made too early, can lead to frustration and eventually quitting in the dog. On the other hand, reinforcing the same behaviour for too long, can mean progress is very slow and the dog may even quit because it gets boring!

Here is anxious Jezz with her new toy. Happiness can be found in the most simple things.
Jezz at her favourite nature spot with coffee tray

What’s Wrong With Anti-Bark Collars?

So-called “anti-bark collars” aim to silence a dog’s voice by delivering electricity, odours or ultrasonic sound to the dog’s senses. The use of these devices can have serious short- and long-term welfare implications for the dog, so why do dog-loving people use them?

Deceptive Marketing

Across the bench, the language used to promote anti-bark collars and similar devices is misleading, presumably to dispel any lingering doubts a potential customer might have. Apparently, people do have doubts about these gadgets and rightly so. But instead of properly addressing those doubts and being clear about possible side-effects, the product descriptions are full of meaningless labels.

Undisclosed Fact: Anti-Bark Collars Aim to Silence Your Dog Via “Positive Punishment”—A Method Which Is Neither Safe nor Humane

The marketers are at pains to ensure you that the devices are

“safe”, “harmless”, “gentle”, “without pain or fear” and “humane”.

and their modus operandi is a benign

“correction”, “vibration” or “stimulation”.

Despite this lack of unpleasantries, the collars are obviously designed to stop your dog from barking, so we are made to believe that a

“safe static correction“, a “gentle, yet effective, spray”, a “spray of harmless citronella” or a “harmless but effective ultrasonic sound”

can do just that.

Of course, all of this sounds a lot better than naming the actual process behind the reduction in barking. We can’t know how the dog feels about whatever “stimulation” they receive, but if it does indeed lead to less barking in the future, then the correct term for the process of how this was achieved is punishment (or more correctly: positive punishment—more on that below).

Putting the word punishment on the product description isn’t so good for sales, I would assume. But, more importantly, naming the exact mode of behaviour modification by which those collars operate would call for full disclosure regarding the known risks associated with it.

Undisclosed Fact: Your Dog Always Barks for A Reason and May Not Be Able to Just Stop

The companies also want to assure you that your dog’s barking is

“unnecessary”, “excessive” and a “nuisance”.

Thus, the use of anti-bark collars is completely justified, because—clearly—your dog barks for no reason and way more than they should. So, it’s perfectly fine to give a them a “reminder” to turn their annoying barking off. Nothing wrong with a little zap to zip it, right?

But, who makes that call? Who decides, if or when your dog’s behaviour is unnecessary or excessive?

Where in the product description is the suggestion to consult with a qualified canine behaviour expert to identify why the dog is barking in the first place?

Dogs do not bark “unnecessarily” or “at nothing” or “for no reason”. Just because the reason isn’t obvious to us, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Proponents of anti-bark collars want us to ignore this. They try to make us believe that our dogs are not normally functioning biologically beings but rather something we can turn off on a whim, like an annoying TV commercial.

Rounding up the sales pitch are often entirely inappropriate qualifiers such as

“deluxe”, “attractive” and “exclusive”

to cause further distraction from exactly how these devices work. More glitter thrown into your eyes.

Anti-Bark Collars Need to Come with A Risk Statement Until A Total Ban Is in Place

Maybe the product descriptions were written by people in the marketing department who are more accustomed to selling the latest lifestyle gadgets or fashion accessories. Advertising a product that aims to change the behaviour of a living organism is a whole different ball game. It requires disclosure about exactly what will happen to the individual who is exposed to the device and how this will affect their short- and long-term behaviour and well-being.

Positive punishment—which is what all these collars rely on—has known risks, and everyone who considers buying these products needs to be made aware of it. Add to that the risk of leaving your dog alone with a device around their neck that can not only malfunction but function in a manner you did not expect.

What we need clearly displayed on anti-bark collars (and related devices, such as electric fences) are risk statements, similar to what we see on cigarette packs. Better yet: Let’s just ban all of these contraptions and stand shoulder to shoulder with other progressive countries that have already done so, instead of being the laggards.

The Risks Associated with Anti-Bark Collars

The science of Animal Learning and Behaviour tells us that behaviour is controlled by environmental conditions (external and internal). So, a dog’s barking might be triggered by the neighbour’s children playing in their yard, a noisy truck rumbling past the property, a hot air balloon flying over, a burglar breaking into your house or because the dog is in pain or suffers from fear or loneliness. Internal conditions are impossible for us to fully understand but we can detect them by watching the dog’s behaviour and body language.

In addition to triggers, behaviour is also controlled by consequences: A behaviour is likely to occur more often in the future, if it leads to favourable outcomes for the animal (reinforcement), and less often, if the results are not so good (punishment).
Anti-bark collars operate via positive punishment (adding something to the dog’s environment to reduce the behaviour of barking). Punishment can be a very effective way to reduce behaviour, so what’s so bad about it?

Aversive Consequences Can Create Negative Associations with Any Trigger Or Anything In The Environment

The timing and “clean” execution of positive punishment may be easy enough in a laboratory, but there is no guarantee your dog won’t form unintended associations when they receive the shock, spray or sound from the anti-bark collar. Anything that the dog may hear, see, smell or otherwise perceive at that time may become associated with the negative experience. The neighbour’s kids, the cat on the fence, a hot air balloon flying over—anything. Now the dog feels even more motivated to bark when confronted with those elements in the future. Anxious and aggressive behaviour can easily follow.

Aversive Consequences Can Cause Apathy, Anxiety And Aggression

Attempting to block or suppress an individual’s behaviour by providing aversive consequences has known risks. Dogs who are happy and confident may become anxious, apathetic or aggressive following the use of anti-bark collars. This can manifest itself only in certain contexts or it can generalise and affect the dog’s behaviour in other situations. The frightening part is that dogs who show less behaviour overall, i.e. dogs who become less active or even apathetic, are often labelled “well-behaved” dogs. But a decrease in overall behaviour is not a sign of being well. It’s a sign of being mentally or physically ill.

For dogs who bark out of anxiety, for example those who suffer from separation anxiety or noise phobias, the use of aversive consequences can be particularly catastrophic. The collars simply heap more nightmarish experiences onto the dog’s already troubled mind.

When an individual is at the mercy of forces they cannot control, their quality of life is seriously compromised.

The Well-Being of Beings Is All About Control

It may seem the use of an anti-bark collar means giving your dog a choice: “Shut up or suffer the consequences. It’s up to you!” But, the dog may not have such easy control over their barking, and even if they do, how does it affect their emotional health, if they can’t speak up anymore?

There Is No Joy In Confusion And Frustration

Let’s imagine you attend a show by one of your favourite comedians—the type that makes people laugh so hard that their bellies ache and their eyes water. But soon you realize that something is wrong. Every time you laugh out loud, a bug that is stuck deep down in your ear starts buzzing. When you stop laughing, the buzzing stops. You have no way of removing the bug from your ear or squashing it. You try to suppress your laughter to avoid the annoying buzz, but the comedian is just so darn funny, you can’t help but burst out laughing. Would that drive you mad?

It depends. Maybe you get used to it after a while and keep laughing out loud. Or maybe it is so frustrating or even painful that you leave the show, see a doctor and get that buzzing bug out of your ear. Lucky you for being able to seek help.

And Then There is Only Panic

Now assume you get yourself trapped in a secret room in a medieval castle and no one knows you’re there. You yell out for help when all of a sudden a high-pitched sound causes a sharp pain in your ears. You are momentarily confused why your cries for help would seem to trigger this ear piercing tone, but your intense fear to be forgotten and die a slow and horrible death in this room is overwhelming. So, you keep screaming at the top of your lungs despite the pain in your ears and you bang on the door until your hands bleed. Finally, with your voice failing, your ears pounding and your fingers broken, you realise that no one is coming to rescue you. You are all alone.

Hopefully, by that time you wake up and realise it was all just a bad dream. Lucky you.

If the latter scenario sounds fantastically dramatic, just think: How panic stricken does someone have to be to mutilate their own body? Separation anxiety can do that to a dog. They do not bark for no reason. They are screaming for help.

No matter, if your dog barks out of joy or concern, to talk to other dogs in the neighbourhood, raise the alarm or cry for help, it is a valid expression of their personality and their state of mind. If we simply put a lid on it, we may do a lot more harm than we ever imagined.

How To Reduce Your Dog’s Barking Without The Fallout

Make Your Dog Feel Safe

If there is any suspicion of separation anxiety, address this right away. This is a welfare issue and any attempts to suppress your dog’s cries for help will only make matters worse. With the help of a vet or behavioural vet and trainers who are experienced in desensitisation protocols for separation anxiety, you can make your dog feel better and remove the reason for their barking.

The same goes for noise phobias or any fear- and anxiety-related problems. Get help so you can help your dog.

Make Your Dog’s Life More Interesting

Lack of stimulation is a problem for most dogs who spend too much time alone, especially when there is not much going on in their lives even when you are home. Taking your dog to the park or for a walk before you go out for the day and leaving them with food puzzle toys rather than feeding from a bowl is a good start. However, depending on your dog’s individual needs, a 10 minute walk around the block and a toy with dry kibble might not cut it. So, find out what activities it takes to make your dog happy and tired. Sports, games, interactive toys, food puzzles and positive reinforcement training are all good options.

Keep Your Dog Inside

Noises in the neighbourhood are often a trigger for barking. If your dog has noise phobias, this is a serious matter which falls into the same category separation anxiety and requires expert help. Even without a strong fear response, your dog might become distressed or highly aroused from exposure to certain noises. Since, unfortunately, you can’t control the world around your home, this means the dog must have access to the house or a place that muffles the outside sounds.

Consider leaving your dog inside while you’re out, at least during certain times when specific neighbourhood noises in your area are more likely to occur. Many dogs do much better when they can sleep inside the house during your absence. There are less distractions and they are less likely to be woken up by noises. Leaving the radio on or a white noise machine can help too.

Combine this with increasing your dog’s physical and mental stimulation and you have a recipe for success. No need for reach for a gadget that promises you quick relief but doesn’t mention the real price you pay.

RESOURCES

Pierce W.D. and Cheney C.D. 2017, Behaviour Analysis and Learning. A Biobehavioral Approach. 6th edn, Routledge, New York

Before You Stick a Needle in Your Dog or Cat, Turn Them into a Husbandry Junkie

Two weeks ago, I allowed someone to stick a needle in my eye. What’s more, I volunteered for the procedure and was aware through the entire operation which lasted about half an hour. As a result, I can see sharper than I did before, so I’d call that a success.

As humans, we are able to mentally prepare ourselves for unpleasant, painful or outright dreadful things. We can elect to place our health or even life into the hands of experts we trust. We can also elect to be sedated. Our animals are not so lucky. They are frequently subjected to scary procedures and every time they are more afraid, more petrified, more ready to fight or flee. I’m not even talking about sticking needles in their eyes, but standard veterinary procedures such as mouth, ear and eye exams, temperature taking, blood draws, injections, pilling and more. For our animals these can be just as scary.

Unlike us, our dogs, cats, feathered or scaly friends can never rationalise what is happening to them. They will never understand that it is for their own good. When they don’t move on the exam table, it’s not because they are stoic—it’s because they are frozen in fear. If they struggle to get away, they are not stubborn—they are fighting for their life. Their instinctive reactions cannot be overwritten with human logic, but we continue to tell them that everything is going to be OK and then do the equivalent of sticking a needle in their eye. We do it, not because we are mean, but because we believe there’s just no other way.

Well, there is. And it’s worth investing some time and effort into it. The one thing that can make your animal cooperate with veterinary and other invasive procedures is husbandry training. In fact, it escapes human logic that we haven’t adopted the same approach that we use with zoo animals (and have been for decades) for “small animal” practise. Yes, it is easier to hold down a dog against their will than a gorilla, but just because we can take a forceful approach doesn’t mean we should. The emotional fallout and effect on the animal’s well-being can be significant and long-lasting. The “let’s get it over and done with quickly” attitude is understandable and has often worked for veterinary staff, and even the animals’ owners, in the past, but it has never worked for the animal. Now, attitudes are changing.

Humans are becoming increasingly savvy in interpreting their animal’s body language and are less willing to compromise on animal welfare. No one wants to see their animals or patients suffer. But the fallout of coercive handling also goes further than the animal’s well-being: Animals with anxiety can seriously affect their humans’ quality of life, they can be a risk to veterinary staff, their emotional state can make diagnosis and treatment more difficult and people may avoid taking their anxious animals to the vet altogether.

So, arm yourself with a bucket of treats and start doing some mock vet procedures with your dog, giving a treat after each handling. If your dog is already anxious, it’s best to work with a qualified professional to get you on the right track. To see the transformation from a dog who’s scared of the vet to one that strides into the vet practise, tail up and wagging, eager to jump on the table, is quite extraordinary.

Here is me and my good friend Hero practising a few procedures at the vet:

RESOURCES

The Academy For Dog Trainers’ Husbandry Project
Fear Free Happy Homes
Interview with Dr Marty Becker, by Companion Animal Psychology

Dog Bites Are Preventable

A young boy gets bitten in the face by the family’s nine year old dog who just wanted to have a quiet nap. But the kid had other ideas and climbed on the sleeping dog’s back to ride him “like a horse”. Lo and behold, the dog bites.

What does it take for change to happen? Change to human behaviour that is, since the dog was simply behaving like a dog. I’m also not talking about the boy’s behaviour. He was simply behaving like a boy. That leaves whoever was—or rather should have been—supervising.

Dog bites to children are not accidents or come out of the blue. They are preventable.

A Wrong Picture of The Family Dog

I grew up with Lassie. I get it. The fictional, loyal-to-the-death dog who throws herself into danger and saves children and adults alike. A dog who protects good people and brings bad people to justice. A dog with the highest moral standards in the universe who shows everyone else how to be a good person. No one ever needed to supervise Lassie with children.

Were we left to believe that our dogs are like Lassie and that they won’t bite, even if a kid sticks a lit sparkler up their nose (yes, that actually happened)? Surely not. So, why are we so immutable when it comes to understanding dog behaviour. No, it’s not about dominance. No, there’s nothing wrong with the dog. No, it’s not about certain breeds. There’s nothing abnormal about a dog who bites. Biting is what they do when they feel threatened. Our job is to make sure they don’t feel threatened. Otherwise, a guinea pig might be a better choice for a family pet. Those unfortunate creatures don’t have an aggressive bone in their body, which makes them the perfect, well, guinea pigs.

What Everyone Can Do to Prevent Dog Aggression

Dog bites are allegedly under-reported, which tells me that people do want to protect their dogs. We love our dogs, but we are shocked when they behave like dogs. The solution is not that we somehow learn to overcome our genetic fear of predatory animals, but that we learn and spread the knowledge about aggressive behaviour in dogs. The cute looking white fluffy dogs above, for example, are born killers. West Highland White Terriers were bred to go underground to hunt and kill other animals. There’s nothing cute about that. The fact that they are dressed like dolls may fool us and our children about their true nature. A nature they share with the dogs on the left, who are having a good romp.

There’s nothing wrong with putting clothes on your dog. In fact, it can be a very valuable exercise to teach your dog that being handled by humans is a great thing (because it’s followed with lots of tasty treats, of course!). Given how much our dogs are being touched and handled by us, groomers, vets etc., we better make it enjoyable for them from an early age on. It gives the dog less reason to become afraid and defensive and reduces the risk that uninvited contact (for example by exuberant children) leads to fear-aggression and possible injury to us or our children.

Additionally, we all need to be proactive in pushing for humane dog training methods, if we want to significantly reduce bite incidents. All those medieval tools and techniques that are meant to stop a dog from behaving like a dog need to go. Positively reinforcing what we would like them to do, combined with appropriate management and supervision and, of course, giving them an outlet to be dogs, is the only way forward to give our dogs less reason to become defensive.

Let’s Learn and Educate Together and Protect Children and Dogs

Maybe all those books and movies about cute, hilarious or heroic dog characters that we grew up with have compromised our judgement, who knows. What is clear though is that dog bites are not being addressed in our society the way they should. There are TV ads reminding parents of not leaving their young children alone around water. How about something similar for child and dog safety? Sure, far fewer children die from dog bites compared to drownings, but let’s not forget that a lot of dogs die, because they bit a child.

Let’s put a stop to this. Let’s not allow our children, or even ourselves, to believe that a dog is a fluffy cuddle toy who should endure to be poked and grabbed and ridden like a horse. Let’s learn and educate together and protect our children and our dogs.

 

FURTHER RESOURCES

Stop The 77
Doggone Safe
I Speak Dog
All About Dogs
Fear Free Happy Homes

When Fear of Aggressive Dogs Makes Dogs Aggressive, We Have Our Lizard Brains to Thank

Once We Were Prey and We Adopted a Predator

When we are faced with sharp pointy teeth, like in the picture above, it triggers a primal emotion inside us. Sometimes the feeling can be so fleeting that we don’t even notice it—maybe because our experience or knowledge quickly overrides our initial emotions—but we all have it in us: the fear of predators. The reason is, of course, that we were once prey. Back in the days, before we had the power of stone, fire and steel, fear of predators kept us alive because we avoided them. It’s our evolutionary legacy that, despite having unleashed fire and fury on every creature we fear ever since, we cannot shake this quintessential element of basic survival instinct. And this fear has been exploited, and sometimes fuelled, by authors and script writers, from fairy tales to horror movies to news reporting.

It is entirely reasonable then that we fear our dogs. Even the tiniest handbag dweller can render your hand a useless limb with their little canines. And technically, although only a B-grade horror flick could have an entirely improbable story line where a Chihuahua severs a person’s carotid artery, death by toy dog is a possibility.

Size Matters, Says Our Lizard Brain

The reality is, the little monsters tend to get off scot-free, no matter how much they snarl, snap or even bite. We may even laugh when tiny Cesar bares his teeth at a 50-kilo Bullmastiff. “Little dog syndrome”, we casually say in their defence, while we drag the noisy ball of aggression away. Turn the tables and there isn’t much defensive rhetoric you can come up with. Some people quiver, if your square-headed companion simply sets eyes on their dog. Little do they know that Bullmastiffs—like the boy in the photo—are often the sweetest dogs. The adverse reaction to these dogs is completely understandable, though. Large, powerful dogs resemble our ancient predators so perfectly well whereas little cute fluffballs can hide their deadly teeth behind their button noses and doe eyes. But those miniature fangs are there, waiting for that ankle or finger or carotid artery. This is not to say that small dogs are more likely to be aggressive than big dogs, but because managing a small aggressive dog is considerably easier than wrestling a heavy-weight who’s blown a fuse, small dogs have better survival chances. We keep them alive and we keep them at home or on leash.

Their bigger conspecifics are rarely that lucky, with certain breeds copping it especially hard depending on the current fashion. One day it’s Rottweilers, next it’s Dobermans, then it’s Pit Bulls (more precisely: the American Pit Bull Terrier or any dog that looks vaguely similar) with their mythical “lock-jaws”. Those dogs lose their lives because of an image problem, no matter if they committed any offence or if their offence was ridiculously trivial. There is no rationality behind it other than our ancient deep-seated involuntary fear of predators. But, we modern day humans make plenty of lizard brain decisions, so it’s not really that surprising.

How Our Fears Can Kill Dogs

When dogs interact in play, they show us plenty of predator-style behaviours such as chasing, pouncing, showing of teeth, making contact with teeth and growling. And what do we do, more often than not? We intervene. We pull the dogs apart or restrain them and try to teach them with lots of “no” and “ah-ah” that aggression is bad. We want our dogs to play nice. We want calm and gentle dogs. We don’t tolerate anything that we deem aggressive behaviour. This is our lizard brain talking.

The reason this is so devastating is not only that many dogs lose their lives for no other reason than our fears, but that we often make things worse for them, much worse, with our fears. If we deny dogs to behave in a species-typical manner—and that includes aggressive or aggressive-looking behaviour—we may in fact create aggression problems that weren’t even there in the first place.

If puppies are not allowed to learn how to communicate with their conspecifics, future encounters with other dogs can be challenging, and even dangerous, because of misunderstandings, wrong or missing signals and defensive behaviour. We may raise our puppies to be illiterate in their own language, and all because we thought we could, or should, teach them to communicate nicely and in a way that didn’t worry us.

Just as dogs need to be able to talk to each other in their own language—teeth, barks, growls, tumbling, humping and all— they need the liberty to tell us when they feel threatened or uncomfortable. Punishing growling, snarling, snapping or any other form of antagonistic communication, be it directed at humans or other dogs, can create “silent killers”. How often a dog can tolerate being pushed to their limits of how much fear, anxiety and distress they can endure, only the dog knows. We’ll know once that dog bites.

Train Your Brain and Help Safe Dogs

Unless we accept that our dogs are a predatory species, for whom aggressive displays are a normal form of communication, and train ourselves to understand their language, we will always be slave to our lizard brains and make lizard brain decisions.

We can learn how to control our deep-seated fear of sharp teeth by watching lots of dog-dog play. I had an uncle who was one of those people who picked up a foreign language simply by immersing himself in that language. Mind you, his grammar and writing was shocking, but his communication skills were excellent. When it comes to dog language, we are still trying to figure a lot of things out. At least we have started to realise that we got quite a few things wrong in the past, mostly because we couldn’t resist interpreting their language using our own cultural and grammatical rules.

So, get yourself to a dog park during peak hour and watch. Depending on the attendees, you may see a large range of typical dog conversations. We have made things a little challenging for our dogs by creating such great diversity within the species, so you might come across the occasional problem due to dialect. But most importantly, look for those exposed teeth and snarly faces. Watch the fake fights. How are the dogs moving? Are they jumping around like excited kids? Are they taking turns? Does the one you thought was attacking the other suddenly fling herself on the ground, paws paddling in the air?

Watching dog play, and even the occasional altercation, provides an invaluable opportunity to learn canine language, but only if we free our minds from preconceived ideas. Let the dogs be our teachers. After all, they are the native speakers. If we can see dog behaviour for what it really is and learn to control our fears where they are unwarranted, we can safe lives. The more of us realise that most dogs are neither trying to kill each other nor us, the better we can make rational and compassionate decisions, as befits our species.

Is Your Dog a Hippie Dog?

What’s a hippie dog? That was the first question that popped into my head when a friend once asked me why hippie dogs were always so well behaved. The dogs she had in mind were the type that you would see off leash in public areas, typically hanging out with people who were, well, also just hanging out. I went through a hippie phase as a teenager and I remember it was all about being “anti-establishment”, whatever that meant. I think, what I mostly loved about it was the sense of freedom, the sense (or rather illusion) of not being bound by any societal rules. You could say, a hippie dog—not giving a care about leash laws and not forced to follow anyone—is a dog free to choose. So, why do they choose to hang with their people?

Hippie Dogs Are Happy to Stick Around

A common concern I hear from clients is that they worry their dog may run off, if let off the leash, and my first response (although I don’t always say it out loud) is usually “why would they?”. What are the reasons a dog would not stay with the people they consider their family? A dog who has just been adopted from a shelter and not settled into their new home yet is a good candidate for running off into the blue yonder, maybe never to return. So are, one would assume, dogs who are unhappy in their homes, because something causes them serious ongoing or repeated stress. But otherwise, running off is generally a temporary thing, for example to meet other dogs, say hello to people, chase after someone else’s tennis ball or bother the local wildlife. The dog, once satisfied with their adventure, typically returns to their humans. But, just in case you aren’t eager to wait that long or your Kelpie keeps herding the children playing soccer or your friendly Lab disrupts the Tai Chi class or your 50 kilo Bullmastiff makes a beeline for the young family having lunch on a picnic rug, read here how you can get your dog to come back.

The attachment a dog feels to their people plays a factor in staying within range, no doubt. However, I have seen dogs behave in a way that people call loyal despite not having a good relationship with their humans or not having a happy home. I assume this sort of loyalty is a behaviour favoured by evolution: to stick with what one knows, because there’s usually less danger involved. In particular dogs who are anxious and lack confidence are prone to fear what they don’t know and less likely to explore and venture far. On the other hand, any sudden scare can send them dashing off across the road. The behaviour of hippie dogs though is not fearful at all. Quite the opposite, these dogs are as chilled as a cucumber and nothing seems to faze them. My guess is, they follow their people around because they want to, not because they are afraid not to. A positive relationship, built on trust and reinforcement of desirable behaviours, instead of force and coercion, is certainly a good idea, if you want your dog to stick around of their own free will.

Hippie Dogs Have Seen It All

But there’s more, of course. Hippie dogs don’t seem to get excited about much at all (and don’t say it’s probably the drugs!). You don’t see them run across the road, if they spot another dog on the other side, they don’t chase after the cat on the fence, they don’t jump up at people and they don’t bark at the garbage truck. The crucial component which makes a hippie dog is, I suspect, their stellar socialisation. Genetic makeup matters too of course, but if we are lucky and our dog has happy little genes, then the environment the dog grows up in is the biggest thing we have to focus on. Hippie dogs seem to have seen it all. They are not afraid of new people or novel things, because apparently their early environment was so rich with everything our crazy human world has to offer that they feel comfortable wherever they go. The rarer something is the more attention the dog will pay to it, so a dog with an impoverished socialisation is more likely to get overexcited or anxious when they see other dogs and people than a hippie dog for whom other dogs and people are nothing special.

Make Your Own Hippie Dog: Socialise, Handle with Care, Train with Kindness

So, would you like to have a hippie dog? I have to be honest: I highly suspect that the hippie dog is a mythical creature. Or maybe they are extinct. Nevertheless, there’s nothing stopping you from trying. You and your dog may end up a lot happier.

By the way, the hippie dog has an evil twin. Well, to be fair, they aren’t actually evil. Most of them are just scared most of the time. Guard dogs are on high alert, if anything in their environment raises their suspicion—which is almost everything. They were either trained or bred to fear what they don’t know, or both. In Australian states trained guard dogs are automatically classified as dangerous dogs. Any dog who ferociously barks at or goes after strangers—no matter if trained, born or raised that way—is potentially useful as a guard dog but makes a lousy family pet. They also tend to have a pretty lousy life (imagine going through life constantly looking over your shoulder in expectation of danger). Guard dogs and other stranger danger dogs don’t relax around people they don’t know, they have a limited environment where they feel comfortable and they have a very narrow, or non-existent, social circle. They are the exact opposite of the hippie dog.

The bottom line is, if you want a companion dog you can take everywhere and be social with, do not put the fear in your dog. If you already have a fearful dog, do everything you can to help them fear less. If you want protection, get an alarm system. Let’s populate the world with hippie dogs. Ok, we don’t have to call them that.