Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Knowing when to 'down tools' for the day...

Training dogs should always be a process of behavioural improvement and emotional development with a constant aim to be further ahead at the end than when you first started. Or at least that is how a session should be...

Over the years I have seen many dogs become stagnant or experience extreme regression because the handler dragged a session out for 2 hours when the intention was to only be a 20 minute session. While this is merely an exaggeration to emphasise my point that sometimes we just fail to see when we should down tools for the day and save it for another training session. 

The resilience and determination of some handlers to battle through a problem is, admittedly, quite admirable but unfortunately this can cause more creases than it irons out and could quite potentially jeopardise any future session you may wish to engage in with your dog. Having an argument over something late on into a session will cause the dog to become despondent, fearful, anxious and sometimes aggressive towards the handler. 

In my early days of learning how to train dogs and build drive I was always taught to finish while the dog is still motivated. By doing this you are creating more motivation and desire to work with you and respond to you the next time you engage in a session. 

While some types of pressure are acceptable to be used in the space of a training, you as a handler, must know when the necessary becomes unnecessary and whether your relationship with the dog is evolving or dissolving as a result of this.  

If you feel the session is going to reach a point where it's becoming stagnant, it's advisable to dramatically reduce the level of complexity to achieve a level of success in the dog's mind and then down tools till the next time. 

I, personally, always end my session with totally informal tug games and my dog winning the toy and going back in the car or in a crate, signifying the end to a positive and productive session.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Rules of Play: Yes, Good & No

It's been a year since my last posting, much to my disbelief! It never ceases to amaze me how life can flash before your very eyes without you realising.

In this blog post I thought it was time to discuss the 3 words that practically covers the entirety of how I train dogs... Yes, Good and No. To enlighten those who do not train with me, I shall go onto more detail on what each of these cue's should mean to the dog:

  1. YES: The behaviour you have just exhibited is desirable and will be followed by an immediate reward signifying the end of the exercise. An example would be: The dog has just completed a 2 minute Sit-Stay, you return to him, give the Yes cue followed by a reward and then end the exercise by allowing him to become mobile again. 
  2. GOOD: A 'check-in' cue, you have just exhibited a desirable behaviour and I want you to know you're doing a good job, but, we haven't finished yet. An example would be: The dog is showing good body position and intense focus during a heeling exercise. You offer the Good cue which can be followed by a smaller/lower value reward just to keep his motivation topped up and still keeping his head in the exercise. This allows you to prolong the exercises within reason.
  3. NO: A correction cue that can be coupled with an intense and brief action that is uncomfortable for the dog. You have just exhibited an undesirable behaviour I want you to stop what you're doing so I can re-direct your behaviour and bring your focus back onto me. An example would be: You're playing tug with your dog and give him a release command and he fails to release. This is when the No should be introduced with firm & constant pressure on a check collar or slip lead until he releases. The biggest thing one should be aware of is once the dog has stopped when given the No cue you must immediately follow through with a Good. By doing this the dog will then understand that stopping on a No is the right thing to do. 

A typical exercise I use to help start to create an understanding of these 3 cues is 'Rules of Play'. As owners, we all want to be able to engage in games of fetch or tug with our dogs, but, sometimes our dog's high drives to tug with a toy or to chase a ball cause them to become forgetful & impulsive in how they conduct themselves. We get scratched, jumped up on, accidentally bitten, have the toy's snatched from our hands and failure to release a toy when directed to do so.

So it is vital that, like with all games, some 'rules' are implemented. When playing fetch the rules are as follows:

  1. When the fetch article is brought into sight, you must keep your paws & mouth off my body. 
  2. If the article is in my hand or on the floor at your level you do not touch it unless you are given the Yes cue. 
  3. For the game to continue, you must bring it back to me. 
  4. (This one is optional) If you are bringing it back to my hand, you must release immediately. 
  5. (This one is also optional) If you are dropping it at my feet, you must do so immediately and give me space to bend over, pick up the article and stand up straight again. Preferably in a Sit or Down position. 
I use the No cue to correct jumping up, reluctance to release/leave-it and/or give me space when I go to pick up the article. 

When playing tug the rules are as follows:

  1. When the tug article is brought into sight, you must keep your paws & mouth off my body.
  2. If the article is in my hand or on the floor at your level you do not touch it unless you are given the Yes cue.
  3. For the game to continue, you must release immediately. 
  4. If I allow you to win the toy you must retrieve it back to be able to engage in Tug again. 
  5. Upon release you must give me space to be able to make the article passive again. Preferably in a Sit or Down position. 
The No cue is used under the same circumstances as I would with a game of fetch. 

Below is a video of me reinforcing the Rules of Playing Tug with Rocky, a 2 year old SBT. He has excellent levels of fetch and tug drive, but, in the past he became manic when a toy was brought into sight and became impulsive in his behaviour, failure to release on command and snatching at the toy was the 2 rules he broke regularly. Notice how I give the No cue once the article is been made active and brought into sight, this is just to reinforce that I do not want Rocky to engage with the toy until given permission. When given the Yes cue he engages with enthusiasm and when asked to release he does so almost immediately (his teeth did get stuck in the toy on both occasions, hence the slightly delayed reaction). 

Forming this basis to Rocky's training has enabled me to be able to take his training further and not be conscious of where the toy is when I work with him. Holding the toy on the outside of his head during some focussed heeling is reinforcing that the toy is passive and non-motivating until given the Yes cue. Making training with toys much safer, controlled and just as, if not more, fun!

A regular usage of those 3 cues and using the Rules of Play will help the dog to gain a better understanding of what is desirable and undesirable while creating a learning space that has clarity and less pressure.

Friday, March 28, 2014


An open, lowered body posture can be an inviting and engaging form of making yourself more appealing, especially young puppies. 

Any dog who lacks the ability to return to their handler when called is, perhaps, one of the most common behavioural problems I come across weekly through my classes and 121 training. Not to mention a problem you can witness first hand by just taking a stroll through your local park and observing owners stood in the middle of the playing field making fickle attempts to recall their dog, resorting the screaming blue murder and a few choice obscenities while their dog(s) gallop care-free to every corner of the park. Not only is this total lack of basic control highly embarrassing, it is also highly dangerous. 

While your dog is running at large and not under control you are potentially in the possession of a dangerous dog. Your dog could be responsible for a traffic collision, damage to another dog, damage to a person or, even worse, damage to a child whether it be intentional or unintentional. Unfortunately a jury will not accept the excuse... "he was only playing" or "he's never done anything like this before" when you are before the courts being charged with owning a dangerous dog. 

So with that cold, harsh reality firmly stamped in, we must understand that a good recall is the most important aspect of a dog's training and to be able to have this concept firmly drummed into any dog's head, one must teach their dog an element of respect and with this respect shall come trust and following on from gaining trust, ultimately, comes freedom.

Before we even begin thinking about the prospect of taking your dog off-lead, we must rewind back to the very very basics of dog training and there is two ways in which a dog should perceive you as their owner and , ultimately their leader, you must be fun and assertive in almost equal measures.

Start off in your home and garden by calling the dog to you keeping the command as short, simple and consistent as possible either simply saying the dogs name or another command such as: 'come, here,' or couple both the name and command together. For example 'Fido-come' or 'Fido-here'.

When he responds reward him with what triggers his motivation the most whether it be a toy (engaging in a game of fetch or tug), a fuss or a treat (if using treats make sure they are extremely high value such as meat-based food and use little pieces so he doesn't get full too quickly). Try not to do this too many times perhaps 5 times throughout the day would be more than enough and try to avoid doing this everyday, the more random and infrequent it is the higher his intensity to please and follow the command will become.

Once he is coming every time you call him in the house/garden, you are then ready to move to the next phase of training which will be an empty playing field (try to find several you can go to so the dog does not get used to just one environment) on a long-ish lead (6 feet maximum, not a Flexi lead!) and walking round the centre of the field and randomly calling him to you and running backwards with your arms open and slightly bent over, again, keeping the command as short/simple and consistent as possible and rewarding fairly each time. Again, you should do this only 5-6 times when you take them onto the field. In between these sessions the dog should never be let off-lead anywhere. Once the dog is consistently coming to you on a 6ft lead, increase the lead length to a horse lunge line (30ft is more than sufficient) and repeat the same until you have enough confidence to drop the lead and let it drag and recall your dog.

Once you & the dog have gained confidence doing this try doing it with dogs in the distance and the greater the distraction the higher value the reward should be. You are effectively making your reward worth more to the dog than the distraction he is faced with.

It is perhaps worth mentioning the 'golden rule' when it comes to training the recall, never make your dog sit when he comes to you before you reward him. This is completely counter-productive in achieving a good recall as you are rewarding the dog for the sit exercise rather than coming back to his name.

In my opinion, I would never let my dog run free in a public space such as the park or woodland. By letting my dog free run and rough play with other dogs I am, essentially, teaching them that other dogs are more fun than I am. Naturally this will be the case for the vast majority of dogs as they will gravitate to something that is more relate-able than humans. When I walk my dog off-lead I like to think of it as a time for me and my dog to bond without the worry or distraction of other dogs chasing them or tensions breaking out and a dog fight occurring.

So to conclude, the recall is an absolutely crucial part of your dog's training and quite simply if he is not reliable when free, do not grant him it!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Wait/Stay... cutting out the unnecessary jargon

Due to my original interest in dogs being Competitive Obedience and Basic Obedience Training being at the core of what I do presently. I have always been looking to find ways to improve the fluidity of the dog's learning process and refine the communication between myself and the dog in such a way that it is almost easy.

While browsing through Youtube clips I stumbled across one filmed by the US company, Sit Means Sit Dog Training owned by Fred Hassen. This clip in particular hones in on allowing the owner to consider the relevance of using the 'Stay' command in their training programme. 

This gave me the opportunity to reassess my usage of the 'Stay' and equally the command 'Wait' also. During my time attending Obedience classes with my own dog the instructor always enforced the idea of teaching the dog the differentiation of the 'Stay' and 'Wait' commands. It was drilled into my head that:

 "Stay means stay there till I come back and Wait means wait there till I give another instruction."

I am sure those of you who are reading this that also attended local Obedience classes will probably have also had the same experience and Fred Hassen's video, for me, had completely turned my way of thinking about these particular commands on it's head. 

Fred offered the idea that when you command a dog to 'Sit/Down/Stand' then a dog cannot physically do anything more than remain or 'Stay/Wait' in the 'Sit/Down/Stand' position. So really if you have a dog that creeps forward or moves in anyway on a 'Stay' exercise or he comes before instructed when he's meant to be in the 'Wait' position on a recall then the dog is not sitting/laying down/standing. 

The concept of giving a 'Stay' or 'Wait' command, from my perspective, is purely a psychologically reassuring one. To be able to understand the true concept of a 'Stay/Wait' requires the ability to rationally and logically think, something a dog is incapable of doing. Which then clearly tells me that the dog does not truly understand the human concept of these commands which, in turn, means the theory of teaching these in the light of it being beneficial to the dog is flawed. 

While I have criticised the usage of these concepts rigorously above, I have actually found one minor advantage to allowing a 'Stay/Wait' command to be used. I have found it helps with teaching the novice owner/handler self discipline and to consider what they are saying and when it is relevant to give these commands, therefore, creating an awareness of their actions and thoughts in the present moment and their consequences whether they be good or bad. 

To go back to my original point about making communication easier between handler and dog. I have found that, all in all, the 'Stay/Wait' commands are what I would consider unnecessary jargon in your training programme. They open up the possibility for communication error on the handlers behalf if they get muddled up between the two for different exercises and they also, more vitally, open up the possibility for: difficulty in processing, confusion and eventual failure on the dogs part. While I see failure in some contexts as a staple part of a dogs learning process, in this particular context I feel it is totally avoidable and allows you more time to focus on training more engaging and productive things that cannot be miscommunicated. 

Remember, keep it simple... 'Sit/Down/Stand'... that's all you need to say to be understood if it is taught correctly!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Our relationship with our dogs...

When man first began the rigorous, yet, delicate task of domesticating wolves he had an underlying motive, he was intuitive enough to realise that these animals could serve a purpose and assist man in their daily lives. Dogs soon began to hunt with man, guard the women and children and sleep with man by the fire. His undying loyalty to serve his human hunting companions is something to be appreciated and while their loyalty to man and certain desirable traits were bred into them, their primal initiative to thrive on their own independence and to lead the pack had been increasingly bred out of them.

The Australian Kelpie has origins that can be traced back to the Dingo and has been selectively bred to herd and drive livestock for hundreds of years. 

Over the years the more man's ambitions and ideas to thrive and survive had expanded the more jobs our dogs had available to them and the more refined the breeding of dogs became. Soon there was dogs who would guard livestock, drive livestock for miles, hunt and kill quarry, retrieve wounded or shot game, pulled sleds, protect our homes and, for royalty, the Toy breeds that sat on the laps of Duchess' and Ladies.

As time went on, Industrialisation and the improvement of technology meant that those who made their living off the land as farmers or hunters became a very fickle and non-profitable way of life. Families moved from the country and into the cities meaning their dogs fell into disuse. Most were sold off, culled or in the more fortunate cases the families took them as well and they lived out their dogs as fireside companions, but this was a rare situation.

... so what happened to dogs after that?

During the Victorian era, it became fashionable to own a dog as a pet. Dogs were purposely bred by breeders, pet shop salesmen and general joe public to be sold as a companion for the white, middle class families that thrived during that time. These dogs resemble the dogs that live among us today, companions or pets.

It was indeed royalty and the middle to upper class people that made sure pet dogs thrived in our villages, towns and cities giving them a comfortable future beside man serving a purpose that was served on a more emotional wavelength rather than serving a true practical purpose. It became more about lighting up a dark and dreary home with the presence of a creature that was always in good spirits and served to keep those lonely few company. Proving to be a fantastic and loyal friend.

Over the past 30 years the Labrador Retriever has become one of the most, if not the most, popular breed to own for their happy go-lucky nature and their extreme biddable nature. This has made them popular with a lot of 'first-time' dog owners.

This is where dogs have gone from strength to strength in the past hundred or so years. While, agreeably there are those who still work their dogs to fulfil their original jobs. Pet dogs and fireside companions have become more and more in demand as time's gone by and I agree dogs bring a lot of happiness, friendship, company, inspiration and unity into our lives but have we, through our very human nature, lost sight of realistically satisfying the needs of our dogs and nurturing them to their full potential?

I would have to say yes, it is probably totally unintentional on the behalf of the vast majority, but, one must understand that dogs cannot: chain together logical utterances that we understand, they do not walk on two legs, have opposable thumbs or the ability to think rationally.

Why is that you may ask?...

My answer simply being that they are not human, they are a domesticated animal that have entirely different, albeit, basic needs and see the world in the most layman's way possible. As I have previously mentioned, the initiative to thrive off their own independence and lead a pack has been bred out of them for pure convenience on our part. They rely on us to feed them, water them, provide shelter and ultimately they want to please us and accompany us.

Most people, unfortunately through misguidance or through the lack of education out there, make the huge mistake of humanizing their dogs, otherwise known as anthropomorphism. They find great comfort in projecting their emotional needs and wants onto the dog believing he may understand and that is how he wants to be treated. It is totally OK to give a dog affection and to love him and appreciate him, but, you must remember he is an animal effectively. One prolific dog trainer would say;

"He is not a member of my family. He is my family's dog."
While I appreciate you feel you are doing your best for your dog by pushing these humanistic qualities onto him, unfortunately, he does not see or appreciate it the way you think he does. Without exercise, control and affection in that order of importance you will never be able fulfil the needs of your fireside companion.

Humanisation only causes confusion, insecurity and many of the behavioural issues that are seen in modern society such as: separation anxiety, possessive tendencies, people aggression, dog aggression, phobias and general lack of awareness for respect and boundaries. Once a dog is made aware there is a structure to follow he will begin to listen and respond more to you as an owner because he is trying to get it right.

Respect the dog for what he essentially is, not, what you essentially want him to be by ignoring his needs and wants. See the world through his eyes, he will never be able to see it through yours!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Separation Anxiety

As a trainer, I have seen a huge increase in the past 2-3 years in dogs who suffer from 'Separation Anxiety'. The term Separation Anxiety can be simply defined as:

"A condition that occurs when a dog is separated from his handler that manifests itself in stress and fear related behaviours within 30 minutes of the handlers departure."
These dogs, when left on their own, will pace, whine, bark, howl, chew or destroy, vomit/defecate/urinate and/or salivate. 

Anyone who has experienced this type of behaviour will know full well that it is not uncommon to come home to disgruntled neighbours waiting at your front door with your dog wailing and howling excessively, defecation, puddles of urine or vomit, doors open or eaten and whatever furniture was in the same room as the dog was destroyed beyond recognition. I have seen dogs scratch through plaster walls till their feet were bleeding and I have seen a dog that has destroyed a 3 piece suite right down to its wooden frame .

I have been eager in my search to find and pin-point exactly what causes dogs to begin exhibiting such distressing behaviours and have found the root cause of it all to, simply, be the fact that owners spend far too much time in the company of their dogs.

Dogs who suffer from Separation Anxiety, on average, spend 75% or more of the day with their owners and while this does build a very close relationship between the dog and his handler, it unfortunately does not do the dogs ability to be independent any favours whatsoever.

When forming a rehabilitation programme for these kinds of dogs I place a huge emphasis on regularly leaving a dog or puppy on his own for random intervals  throughout the day with you in or out of the house for long and short periods of time, always randomize the length of time you leave them for. If at all possible I highly recommend doing this using a crate 100% of the time.

One must make the crate appealing to the dog as a place of comfort and safety before leaving him in it on his own. I simply begin this process by feeding the dog his daily meals in his crate with the door shut and I will also put a blanket in their or some towels (nothing expensive so if he chews it you will not be too concerned) if you have a dog that does tend to chew and eat whatever he is left alone with then I'd recommend not giving him a bed at all and just making sure the crate is equipped with a metal tray as a base. Give him something to keep his brain occupied as well such as a frozen Kong stuffed with food and make sure there is a bowl of water in there also. I'd also leave a radio on in the same room on low volume if possible and cover his crate with a blanket. The darker a confined space is the safer they feel, covering a budgie cage to quieten him down is a classic example.

You will also feel safer leaving him at home on his own because he cannot damage anything or himself while he's inside the crate.

It is totally understandable that he will cry and wimper the first week you begin this new ritual, but, keep at it and NEVER stop leaving him for random intervals throughout the day. Its always good to keep this sort of thing fresh in his mind.

This method of resolving Separation Anxiety has been tried and tested on well over 20 dogs that I have had recently come to me for rehabilitation for this sort of issue with intensity varying greatly and feel it is one of the most practical ways to assist in resolving this behaviour. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Manners of local dog walkers

While walking our dog(s), whether it's a leisurely walk round the streets or a hike in the country, it should be a time where we can enjoy a precious moment with our much loved companions and possibly take some time out to reflect on the day and all of it's triumphs and downfalls.

Unfortunately, it is all too common to have these rare moments of inner peace and bonding time spoilt by the distinct lack of manners shown by other local dog walkers. Whether it be someone with an aggressive dog who lacks control of their dog and doesn't apologise when it reacts to your dog and just laugh it off like one big joke or the dog walker(s) who's middle name goes something like 'It's alright he's only playing.' or 'Don't worry mine's alright with other dogs.' When their dog has hurtled across the field and pesters your dog who has been walking quite contently on his lead and their owner's stood on the other side of the field either reassuring you that their dog is friendly (or just downright rude, it depends on how you perceive it) or making a fickle attempt to recall their dog for 10-15 mins before they realise all of the convincing statements and, quite frankly, poor attempts to become assertive with their dog has failed and they must come and get him.

There are probably some of you who are reading this and suddenly realise either recently or in the past you have been one of those owners that watches their dog run away to try and make friends with a strange dog on a lead and doesn't take a blind bit of notice of what you're saying. The question I pose to people in my class who admit to being this person is...

 "You know that your dog is OK to mix with other dogs quite happily off the lead, BUT, how do you know that the dog they've just run to go see that is on the lead is as friendly as your dog??"

9 times out of 10 my students reply is they do not know how friendly that strange dog is. For all they know it could be a perfectly friendly dog, a dog that dislikes other dogs and is quite nervous or in a worst case scenario another dog who is severely dog aggressive and will grab hold of another dog at any opportunity. How many of you would be prepared to take that risk?

In my eyes it simply boils down to common sense, if you have a dog that runs off to see other dogs and doesn't come back then you do not let it off the lead when there is other dogs around and if you see another dog on the lead take your dog to a different area where he cannot see the other dog, or, an easier solution is just to put your dog on the lead.

I think it would shock many people if they knew how many of the dog-aggressive cases that I work with were all caused by this once very friendly dog running over and being attacked by another dog, leaving it with a serious mental scar. Or nervous dogs being so overwhelmed and frightened by overly friendly dogs while they are on the lead and having no choice but to react and bite.

Laws are now getting stricter on dog attacks and according to the, newly reformed, Dangerous Dogs Act all a dog has to do is invoke fear in a person of being attacked or being intimidated by a dog and that is more than suitable enough to make a prosecution. We all need to take on a stronger sense of responsibility for our dog's actions and become a lot more aware of what consequences their actions can have on yourself, other people, other dogs and, obviously, the dog itself.

Worst case scenario being that your dog is ordered to be destroyed. Its about common sense, responsibility and an awareness of other people's dogs and what they could potentially be capable of.