Change is in the air and it is causing anxiety. As we learned from the latest instalment of the climate change debate, strong emotional reactions are not limited to the change itself—be it the change in climate or the change required to deal with it. We also quarrel over how to change people’s minds. How do we package and deliver the message that change is necessary? Is it the factual narrative of someone with decades of expertise and experience, like David Attenborough, or is it a passionate and emotional plea from someone who is young enough not to be a cynic, like teenager Greta Thunberg? I say it’s both.
We Need Both Passion and Wisdom to Combat Suffering and Injustice
We need more Davids and more Gretas to help us adapt to the changes which are an inevitable part of life and social living. We need them so we can combat suffering and injustice. We need them so we can make the world a better place for all. We need them so we can all live long and prosper.
Passionate calls to and for action are crucial to every major social change in our society. We need Gretas, so we take notice of problems, and we need Davids, so we can understand and tackle the problems. Unfortunately, we allow demagogues, salespeople and politicians to manipulate us with their one-liners and misleading promises. We are, overwhelmingly, impulsive shoppers and unaware consumers—not just of products and services but also of information—and it does not bode well for us and most of our fellow creatures.
Gretas can talk to us on the same emotional level that prompts us to buy miracle anti-wrinkle cream and magic dog training collars. But there is an important difference: Gretas have Davids behind them to back up their enthusiasm with solid scientific data. Sometimes they are even the same person.
Traditional Dog Training Methods Are Still Causing Suffering and Distress and It Needs to Stop
teenager I wanted to scream from the rooftops, just like Greta, about
environmental destruction, about animal abuse, about social injustice. These
days, I have more than my passion to add. I have made a career in animal
welfare and while my focus is on dog training and behaviour, my work is
relevant to community safety and human welfare.
While trying to help dogs and their people, I have witnessed the fallout from traditional training methods and equipment. The lack of change in dog training, and in animal welfare in general—despite decades of research and a heightened awareness of animal sentience—is maddening. At times I want to be a Greta and vent my frustration in a passionate speech to the world: Why are we still forcing animals to do what we want by making them fear us and causing them pain and distress? Why don’t we have better laws to protect animals and send offenders to jail instead of letting them off with petty fines for animal cruelty? Why do governments continue to show knee-jerk reactions to dog bites, such as discriminatory and entirely useless breed-specific legislation, instead of being proactive with community education programs on animal welfare and safety? Why are aggressive dogs labelled “vicious” instead of being recognised as victims? The list goes on.
Despite the frustrating state of things, I have to be more of a David than a Greta, at least in my work. I don’t change people’s minds with emotional pleas but by showing them a better way to solve their problems and achieve their goals. The ones who insist on using force—despite the known fallout from coercion, despite the risk for the animal and the wider community and despite having learned about force-free alternatives—are the ones who will be left behind.
Population Growth Increases the Risk for Aggression in Dogs and People, so Let’s Act Fast and Make a Better Future
Human societies have survived and prospered because of their ability to change and adapt. But now we have to change faster. We don’t have the luxury of space anymore. We are increasingly crammed together in urban communities and the risk of conflict is rising. With an ever growing number of people and domestic animals, complaints and confrontations become more likely and more acrimonious and mental health problems affect humans and other animals alike. We need to take care of ourselves but we also need to treat our animals kindly and with respect. A stressed dog is a much higher bite risk than a dog who is allowed to make choices and feels safe and happy because of it.
We can all be
Davids and Gretas and play a role in facilitating change, no matter how
seemingly small the contribution. A conversation at a dog park, a casual
comment, a friendly suggestion is all that may be required to set a person and
their dog on the path to success and away from tools and techniques which cause
pain, fear and frustration.
The change in dog training is already here but it is not happening fast enough. This is why we need many more Davids and many more Gretas. You can be part of the change.
I very rarely eat ice cream, but if I do, it’s always vanilla. Years ago, I read somewhere that my generation was addicted to vanilla because there was vanilla flavouring in pretty much everything we ate or drank as babies. Not sure, if that’s a myth, but to me, vanilla tops any other flavour, including those with mouth-watering names such as chocolate chip cookie dough or new age vibes like keto kefir coconut.
There is nothing plain about plain vanilla. It’s tasty.
It’s uncomplicated. It works.
Transparency is Lost in the Battle for Newest and Sexiest
You’d think we don’t have to change something that works, but humans never stop in their quest for new and better things. And that’s great, of course. Think new technology which can make our planet and our lives healthier and safer. On the other hand, the constant churning out of new products, services and ideas isn’t always about making things better, let alone the betterment of humankind. Instead, we need new products and services to make our economy tick over. Business relies on it, marketing tells us we need it and we happily consume it. And, if forest bathing, pet jewellery or garlic ice cream makes us happy, then that should be a good thing.
Problems start when the colourful marketing and tempting promises lure us to buy a product or service which subsequently doesn’t deliver or even causes harm. Competition also means that established products and services may get thrown under the bus for no other reason than being considered “dated”, unless someone discovers that the “old stuff” actually worked really well, dusts it off, applies a new coat and sells it again.
What is lost in all of this is transparency. What exactly
does a product or service give us for our money? If we peel away the layers of
spin, which target us on an emotional level, what is it that remains?
Finding the Plain Vanilla of a Product or Service Gives Us the Power to Choose Wisely
The “gourmet wild-caught salmon terrine with baby garden
peas and turmeric sprinkle” may make our mouths water, but the cat doesn’t even
care that the mush in the sachet is the stuff that was swept off the floor at
the close of the wholesale market. Falling for appetitive labelling rather than
reaching for the generic “cat food with fish” item on the supermarket shelf usually
results in nothing more than a slightly higher price tag, so no harm done.
But if the boot camp operator guarantees to turn our dog
into the “perfect family member” in just a few weeks, if the doggy day care staff
assure us their experience in dog training results in “better behaved” and not
just tired dogs, if the behavioural trainer talks about “relaxation exercises”
and wants to “improve our relationship with our dog”, we need to ask a lot more
questions. What exactly do these people do to change our dog’s behaviour?
Just like a plain vanilla version of the delicious sounding cat food is protein, fats and carbohydrates, we can find a simple explanation behind getting a “better behaved” dog: Behaviour change via operant conditioning.
The Plain Vanilla Mechanisms Behind Behaviour Change are Operant and Respondent Conditioning
The most used category of animal learning in dog training is behaviour modification by consequences (aka operant conditioning). The dog is likely to repeat a certain behaviour in the future in a similar context, if it has resulted in a consequence they consider positive. Equally, they are likely to avoid doing things in the future which have resulted in something they consider negative.
The dog also associates positive or negative emotions with people, other animals, things or events which are present or occur in the environment whenever they experience something they consider negative or positive. This is in fact the second relevant category of animal learning (aka respondent conditioning) and it always comes along for the ride, if we invite it or not.
The questions we need to ask before we buy is: Does the product or service provider intend to change our dog’s behaviour by providing positive or negative consequences and what emotional associations might our dogs form with us, other people, other dogs or anything else in their environment as a result of this?
If Language Blocks Us from Making Good Choices, We Need to Ask Questions
Right now, dog training products and services are still
heavily geared towards providing negative consequences to stop the dog
from doing whatever they are doing and it taps into our cultural acceptance
that “bad behaviour” should be punished. What it ignores entirely is that the “bad”
behaviour we see in our dogs is usually perfectly normal dog behaviour (i.e. we
are punishing the dog for being a dog)
but also that it may not even be under the dog’s voluntary control (i.e.
despite negative consequences the dog is simply not capable of changing their
The problem is, especially now that positive reinforcement training (i.e. providing positive consequences for behaviour) is slowly but firmly gaining followers, we are not always told that the goal is to punish our dog’s behaviour or that a specific product or method causes negative emotions in our dogs, let alone the potentially devastating fallout from this approach. So the language we may encounter carefully avoids going into the nuts and bolts of the mechanism that causes behaviour change.
Being a “better leader” does not stop our dog from lunging and
barking at the other dog and neither does a “training collar”. Instead, yanking
the dog by the collar, using a commanding voice or sending an electric shock through
the training collar and into the dog’s neck is what might achieve the change in
behaviour, as long as it frightens or hurts our dog enough to override the urge
to go for the other dog. And that only, if our dog has enough voluntary control
over their actions to begin with.
On the other hand, a trainer or product may appeal to us because they sound modern and “new agey”. Taking a holistic approach, strengthening the bond with our dog and creating a calming environment may well be part of the overall approach, but it still doesn’t tell us how the intended behaviour change occurs. Having a good relationship with the dog does not stop the dog from lunging and barking any more than “being a good leader” does but providing positive consequences for an alternative behaviour might.
Or maybe the trainer proposes a different plan? Rather than focussing on providing positive consequences for behaviour (i.e. operant conditioning) we attempt to create positive emotions with whatever causes the dog’s behaviour (i.e. respondent conditioning). And—lo and behold—the dog’s behaviour changes as a side effect of changed emotions! Yes, such is the power, and interwovenness, of operant and respondent conditioning. It works both ways.
Transparency and Simplicity for the Win, Now and in the Future
The gist of all this is that we need to be smart consumers and not only for the sake of our dogs, but for all dogs and everyone who loves, lives and works with dogs. Once we understand how behaviour change is achieved, we can evaluate what a product of service provider is offering and choose the one which is transparent and puts our dog’s welfare first. And if the trainer advocates a different or “new” method, we can question the mechanism of behaviour change.
Of course, research never stops. It will increase our understanding of how animals, including our dogs, perceive and interact with the world, why they behave the way they do and how they learn. In time, it may well modify our current knowledge and practises or extend them. Right now, we have all we need to teach our dogs useful skills, help them form positive associations with the world they live in and make them happy.
And let’s not forget: Apart from operant and respondent conditioning, there is an even simpler way to change behaviour: We can manipulate the dog’s environment and add or remove things. After all, if there’s no dog to set them off, our dog has no reason to go berserk. Just like a puppy, who only has access to their own toys, is not going to shred our pillows. Management of the dog’s environment to influence their behaviour (sometimes referred to as antecedent arrangement) may be the plainest vanilla of all.
This post is part of the Train 4 Rewards Blog Party thanks to Companion Animal Psychology.
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
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
of house training
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.
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.
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
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! :)
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 the 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
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 lawsuits.
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
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.
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.
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