“Performance dogs” – Do they have fun?

I got told a couple of times lately: Shellbe (my German Shorthaired Pointer who I compete in Agility with) really covered you there!

It was in competition or training when I made a mistake and Shellbe did everything she possibly could to make up for it. And she did! Isn’t that what friends are for?

Almost Flying pic www.pinnicle.com.au

I hear it more often in Agility circles but it probably happens in other competitive sports as well: I am getting my next performance dog! I have to say this makes me cringe.

What does it mean, getting a performance dog? Does it mean the main aspect of the relationship will be the chosen sport? What happens if that does not work out? What does the dog do the rest of the time? Even ‘performance dogs’ only train and compete part time. There are probably 22 hours left in a day where they are ‘just’ pets. Since when have our egos become so big that it is not enough to have fun in Agility or Rally and get the occasional qualification card or even win? But that it needs to be perfect every time, even for the ones who do not train for perfection.

To be honest sometimes I am a bit disillusioned with competitive dog sports. Most of us are doing this as a hobby and not for living. Our dogs did not ask to be there and do Agility, Rally or Obedience. We make them do it! It is our job to make it fun and if we cannot make if fun I think we should have a break or at least take a deep breath.

Dogs are transported to trials all over the place and then spend 7 hours in their crates to just come out for their runs. Fairly predictably they cannot concentrate, run out of the ring or get marched off the start line because they broke the start line-stay. The dog is frustrated, the handler is frustrated and it goes downhill from there.

Or a dog barks or lunges at another dog at a competition, leashes are jerked, dogs are yelled at. This is a highly stressful environment for dogs and handlers and we all suffer from trigger stacking.

This scenario goes along the lines: The first run was bad because there was another dog too close to the ring, someone left a toy or food pouch on the ground, then a competitor yelled at a dog in close vicinity, it is really hot and windy and flies everywhere. Around lunch time the dog has had it and reacts to lots of stimuli he would normally cope with but not any more.

The same goes for the handler, the judge made her wait, the steward got the numbers wrong and then just when they lined up at the start the timing gear fails or a dog runs into the ring. The handler who normally copes with this has had it. Trigger stacking for the handler, too.

We need to keep in mind what the least intrusive training methods are and use them. Susan Friedman proposes a Hierarchy of Intervention Strategies with six levels

I personally think we are well-advised in dog sports to remain within the first four levels. Level one is ‘Distant Antecedents’ which deals with medical, nutrition and physical environment, for dogs these would mean adequate exercise and food as well as mental stimulation. I do think most handlers in dog sports are really on the case there and are doing an amazing job.

Fun Agility. Pic Le Hammer www.caninefunsports.com.au

The second level are immediate antecedents which are environmental settings, motivation and cues for a specific behaviour. Are long car rides and extensive crating at competitions really in the best interest of the dog?

Level thre is positive reinforcement which delivers a reinforcer for the correct response. If the behaviour falls apart in competition this could be an indication that the reinforcement history is not long or strong enough. The last acceptable level is ‘Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior – reinforce an acceptable replacement behavior and remove the maintaining reinforcer for the problem behavior.’ We all know how difficult this is in a competition. Our reinforcers are often weak (praise, the next obstacle) and it is extremely difficult to find a non aversive way to let the dog know when a mistake was made.

Common problems like the dog leaving the ring, missing a contact or breaking the start line stay are often met with the dog being removed from the ring. If you remove the dog from the ring you are using negative punishment (we take away the possibility of a reinforcer) and we are already beyond level four of intrusiveness. Is this really the best and most ethical approach to these problems? I do not think so. We should really look at other things, training level, time spent in crate, reinforcement history, nervousness of the handler and the dog, to name just a few.

If you use even more aversive tools like startling the dog or throwing something at the dog, which was recently recommended for a dog who picks up toys in Rally. While this might be effective (which I doubt), there is no place for positive punishment in dog sports. The dog might stop picking up the toys but most likely he will be stressed and not enjoy the sport anymore.  For the record, there is no place for this in any ethical dog training. Effectiveness is not enough to justify certain tools. As frustrating as it might be, we have to go back to relationship building, distraction training, better and more precise reinforcement delivery, again to name just a few.

Sometimes it also helps to just have a break from it all. Do other things with your dog, try a new sport or just have a bit of a holiday.

On a holiday!

Another often seen situation is a disappointed/frustrated handlers and the dog knows. Disappointment, frustration, tears, anger have no place when competing with your dog. Do not get me wrong I am occasionally disappointed, we all are, it is a human reaction. But the dog does not need to know. I know myself and I make sure my dog does not have any bad experiences in a trial environment ever. Every single time we come out of the ring she gets a jackpot and spends at least 20 to 30 second eating it. She gets this regardless of the result. This gives me time to recoup if it went wrong and she does not realize that I am disappointed. If you get disappointed, try to find a procedure so your dog does not realize it.

Here a few things that could make it easier and more enjoyable (obviously apart from proper training):

  • Relax. We are not competing for sheep stations (at least not here in Australia).
  • Try to bring back the fun. Most of us started a sport because it looked like fun and it was, but then it all got a bit too competitive.
  • Be realistic, if you train once a week you will most likely not win.
  • Compete against your personal best not the others. If you are, like me, no spring chicken anymore, the younger competitors will probably run faster!
  • Do other things with your dog, ‘normal’ walks, play, trick training, go to the coffee shop or just hang out.
  • If you get very nervous and suffer from peer pressure, I can assure you, if you are competing for fun and as a hobby, in most cases only your friends are watching you or maybe not event them. The wider community really does not care, again relax.
  • Keep it fun, celebrate the good ones, learn from the mistakes and if it went really pear-shape, forget about it.
  • Enjoy your dog for what they are and not what you want them to be.

First published The Pet Professional Guild

Jekyll and Hyde – Social Off Leash But Reactive On Leash?

It might be a coincident but over the last few weeks I have met a lot of dogs who are reactive on leash. They bark, lunge, whine and pull towards other dogs on walks. Some will aggress if given a chance and hurt another dog.
Leash reactivity presents in at least two forms, dogs who are reactive on leash but fine off leash and dogs who are reactive and do not get on with other dogs off leash either.

Despite the behavior looking very similar, the motivation is completely different. For dogs who do not want to interact it is a distance increasing behavior. The behavior dogs show who are generally fine with other dogs is a distance decreasing behavior. These dogs are very frustrated by the fact that they are not able/allowed to approach the other dog.

Loose leash walking!

I recently met a dog who was just adopted into a family. She barked and lunged as soon as she saw another dog. There was no information available if she was ok off leash but the owners were not too keen to try as her on-leash displays looked rather scary. A first session on leash was not giving much away as the other (normally neutral) dog was not too sure about her either. This dog clearly had a communication problem. But something just did not add up and I started looking for a potential playmate. It turned out she was social but just had inappropriate manners on leash. Even for professionals it is not always clear if the behavior is distance increasing or decreasing which makes it really important to test our assumption before developing a treatment plan.


This blog focuses on dogs just like her, fine off leash but react on leash.

There are a lot contributing factors that make social dogs behave like ‘I am going to kill you’ when on leash. It might be a learnt behavior; the dog has figured out if he behaves like Cujo he will eventually be able to meet, much to the horror of the other dog. Or limited escape routes make the dog feel scared or trapped by the leash and they are not able to display appropriate body language. Barrier frustration is a build up in frustration because they are prevented from accessing the other dog and interact.

Most of these problems are caused by a misunderstanding of what dog to dog or better puppy to puppy socializations means.

Puppy to puppy socialization should facilitate three different skill sets: There are times for having a fun play with other dogs, times to just relax in the presence of other dogs and sometimes it is just a quick say hello and keep moving. All three skills should be taught in puppy pre-school.

Puppy class

It should be made clear from the very beginning that there is no interaction if on leash, even for cute puppies. On leash interaction or play gives the puppy the wrong information. However, as puppies love to play they also should have the opportunity to play with other puppies off leash.

Once the puppy is a bit older and walks on a leash the main contributing factor is that we make our dogs meet every other dog they see in the street (and very often head on). Yes it might be cute while the puppy is still very young but once the ‘puppy license’ has expired there will be trouble as older dogs will not put up with out of control teenage dogs in their face.

We assume this to be socialization and a proper way of meeting dogs. It is not! If dogs meet unrestraint by leashes they will do the ‘bum sniff’, use circular motion or meet sidewise. A head on approach is confrontational. To make things worse we will reprimand a dog who is a bit unsure about other dogs and wants to get away or growls. This will quickly escalate and the dog might find meeting other dogs on leash scary.

These dogs have to learn that they cannot interact with every single dog they meet. But how do we teach this?

As with most problems prevention is much better than cure. A puppy pre school that caters to the three skill sets (fun play, relaxed company, quick hellos) can make a huge difference to how the dog will behave as an adult.

But if the dog already displays barking and lunging then we have to teach that the leash means no interaction, ever! The environmental cue is the leash which is the distinguishing feature and a pretty clear cue to the dog. We need to teach the dog to walk on a loose leash and an attention cue to manage passing dogs. Other dogs should become a cue to go into a close (or heel) position and focus on the owner

All these behaviors will have to be taught out of context (meaning with no other dogs nearby), once they are on cue we then start far away from other dogs so the dog remains under threshold at all times. We then very gradually decrease distance and eventually will be able to walk calmly past other dogs.

But we also need to cater for their social needs, meaning appropriate interaction and socialization with other dogs. This can either be a well run play group or day care or a good off leash area.

Once the dog realizes that there are times for play, times for relaxation and times for just calmly walking past it becomes a whole lot easier and dog has now the skill set required in our modern world.

First published Pet Professional Guild


Beware of the Behaviour Chains

Isn’t it frustrating, we try to train your dog not to jump up but it gets worse? It is the ‘behaviour chain syndrome’.

Sitting pretty
Sitting pretty

We train behaviour chains all the time, sometimes on purpose and sometimes by mistake. Behaviour chains can be great and useful or useless, ineffective or even dangerous.

There are lot of behaviour chains that are useful, like a ‘go to mat’ cue, ‘come when called and let me touch your collar’, a formal recall or retrieve in obedience. We often train these using back chaining.

This simply means we teach the last behaviour first and make it very rewarding. The last behaviour then becomes a reinforcer for the one that precedes it. This can be an invaluable tool.

The ‘go to mat’ cue is taught by starting with being on the mat. This calm behaviour is rewarded heavily with chews such as pigs’ ears or roo tails. When the dog loves being on the mat, we start sending to the mat, staying very close, and then gradually increase the distance. Very quickly we are able to send the dog from further and further away to her mat or bed. Once this is reliably on cue (a success rate of about 80 %), we can start introducing distractions, including the door bell and visitors. Wouldn’t it be nice if your dog calmly went to her bed chewing her favourite treat when visitors arrive? The perfect dog! If you want to be fancy you can actually transfer the cue from your verbal ‘go to mat’ to the door bell. How impressive would that be? To do this, ring the door bell, immediately followed by the verbal cue, reinforce and repeat. Once the door bell becomes the cue, we then can omit our verbal cue.

On the other hand we tend to train behaviour chains by mistake when dealing with unwanted behaviours.

A classic example for this is a dog who jumps up. The dog jumps up, we ask for a sit, the dog sits and gets a treat. The dog learns to jump up, then sit, and get a reward. That kind of approach will not decrease the jumping but most likely make it worse. You are teaching a behaviour chain: “jump – sit – get treat’. The dog will not learn to sit without jumping.

A similar scenario is loose leash walking. This goes along the lines: The dog pulls on the leash, the owner stops, asks the dog to come back into position, dog comes back, gets treat, forges ahead; owner stops, asks the dog to come back into position, dog comes back, gets treat, forges ahead, etc etc. This will never teach the dog to walk on a loose leash! It teaches the dog to pull, come back into position and then pull again. All we are teaching is a yo-yo action.

In both instances the dog performs the unwanted behaviour first, then the one we want (and we think we are rewarding it) but we cannot get rid of the unwanted one!

The solution is to teach the behaviour you want first by using a lure and practice in different environments and reward generously; making sure the dog ‘understands’ the cue in a lot of different contexts and situations. We need a long and generous history of reinforcement for the wanted behaviour. We then have to manage carefully and set the dog up for success.


Going back to the jumping up: First we teach the sit in many different environments and reward generously, then and only then we go back to the context where the dog is likely to jump and get READY! If the dog approaches, we ask for a sit BEFORE she jumps and reward.

If the dog jumped up, we take a deep breath (yes we made a mistake) wait for a sit and reward. We do not cue the sit. The dog needs to find out what gets her the treat. But do not yell or push the dog down, this just might be the game the dog was waiting for. If we manage carefully we should get a reliable sit for greeting very quickly.

For loose leash walking, we use a similar set up. First teach the position, start with the traditional ‘heel position’. Dogs find that easier than just a loose leash. Get the dog to do a step, reward, then two, three, four steps. Start in a very low distraction environment like your back yard.  It is important to have a very high reinforcement rate but at the same time increase the number of steps until you reward very quickly. Once the dog gets it, gradually introduce distractions. When the dog walks nicely in that position we can start to relax criterion and eventually will have a dog who nicely walks on a loose leash.

Loose leash walking!
Loose leash walking!

Another common ineffective behaviour chain is to ask for a sit when the dog comes back, especially in the early training stages. This is not an effective way of teaching a reliable recall. In pet dog training most owners just want the dog to come back but it seems many are having trouble teaching it and most dogs find the environment much more rewarding than the owner. One reason is the notion that the dog has to sit when he comes back. I have seen many dogs happily running to the owner, only to be told to sit. And many dogs then seem to say: Not with me! And run off and in the future avoid coming back.

Coming back should be taught in such a way that the dog comes running really fast towards the owner, close enough for the owner to touch the collar and later hold it. This has two benefits, we know we can get our hands on the dog and in the case of an emergency hang on to them.  We first teach the collar touch and then move away gradually and rewarding for a fast approach. This is a behaviour chain for reliable recalls with some added safety.

Full speed recall
Full speed recall

Asking for a sit in the early stages of training might work at home and in low distractive environments but outside of that we need much more value for the coming back. If we ask for a sit in we might inadvertently poison the come cue!

There is nothing wrong with behaviour chains but make sure you are teaching the right ones.


First posted by Pet Professional Guild.

Dogs and Children

I recently shared some training tips with  Bupa Pet Insurance​. I mainly talked about the interaction between dogs and children.

Recent research indicates that while children will recognize an angry dog they have difficulties recognizing when a dog is scared.

Children are very likely to get bitten by their own family dog. However, if both dogs and children are taught to respect each other life becomes much easier.

That said, children and dogs have to be supervised actively at all times and children and dogs should never be left unsupervised.

Puppies and children
Puppies and children

You can find some training advice here Expert Advice

One of the main problem areas are sleeping spaces and around food. Like in most cases, prevention is much better than cure.

Children have to learn to leave a dog in his bed or crate alone and respect their personal space. We used to say let sleeping dogs lie and this is still true!

While it is helpful to teach the dog a solid leave it cue it is even more important, especially with puppies, to exchange. They need to learn that we are not just taking things away but in most cases they are getting something better. So if your puppy has taken off with a sock (as long as it is not an emergency) calmly get a treat and ask the dog to exchange for the treat you are offering. Try not to chase, this might just be the game the puppy had been waiting for.

It also pays to do the food bowl exercises a couple of times a week. While dogs deserve to eat in peace, they also need to be safe around the food bowl. Put half of the dry food in the food bowl and while the dog is eating, calmly add more food (dry food and a few treats). Very quickly the dog will learn that your hands coming to the food bowl bring more and better stuff. She will learn that hands are a good thing and not bad news. Your dog should start to look forward to hands and people coming near her when she is eating.

It is also beneficial to encourage positive interaction between children and dogs. A great way is to encourage trick training, fetch or hide and seek and discourage rough housing or chasing games.

Close the door

Teach your dog to close the door or turn on a light:

These tricks are taught with targeting. Teach your dog to touch your hand with her muzzle first. Present your open hand about 10 cm away from your dog’s muzzle. It is better to start with the hand to the side and not right in front of her face. Most dogs will touch if not remove your hand and try again. Once she touches your hand, say yes (or click) and reward. If she does not touch, smear a little bit of your treat on your hand.

Once you get a reliable touch, stick a post-it note on your hand and ask your dog to touch the post-it note, mark and reward.

Once that is reliable, slide the post-it note down, this way your dog is going to only touch the post-it note and not your hand. Mark and reward.

If she does this reliably transfer the post-it not to your target (door or switch).

You can teach a foot target the same way.


Having fun with your dog!

I do not know about you but I love having fun with my dogs.

There are a lot of different ways of having fun and it means something different to everyone. It depends on you, your age, fitness level, personal preferences, imagination and personality. It also depends on your dog. Their age and fitness level, breed disposition, temperament and their personal play style.

Many of us know about the popular dog sports such as Agility, Dock Diving, Herding, Rally O or Fly ball.

Fun Agility. Pic Le Hammer www.caninefunsports.com.au
Fun Agility. Pic Le Hammer www.caninefunsports.com.au

However, some dogs are not suitable for high arousal sports or are not comfortable in the presence of other dogs or strangers. And some owners have no interest in joining a club or to actively compete.

This does not mean you cannot have fun.

There are sports that cater for dogs who do not enjoy the company of others or high arousal activities. One is Nose Work where dogs initially learn to search for their toys or rewards and later on for a specific scent. The other very new one is The K9 Scent Scramble. In this sport dogs are diving through or into a ball pit to retrieve a specific item. This looks like a lot of fun! https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=6&v=RUSvgvTVr5w

Older dogs might consider a massage or acupressure much more relaxing than any other activities. There are specialized professionals who offer these services.

Older dogs enjoy some relaxation.
Older dogs enjoy some relaxation.

Inside on a rainy day and you and your dog need to do something?

Lets start with the oldies but goldies:

Hide your dog’s toy/food: Cue your dog to sit and wait (if necessary ask a family member to restrain him), hide his toy and let him look for it. If you have never played this game start easy by letting him see where you put it and then make it more difficult. If your dog does not retrieve just get him to indicate where the toy is.

Hide and seek: Get one person to hold on to the dog, the other person (with some treats handy) hides. Then the dog goes and looks for the person and gets a big reward when he finds her.

Which hand? As a precursor to shake and high five: Put treats in both hands and ask your dog to sit. Put your hands (fist closed facing up) in front of the dog so he can reach your hand with his paw. Most dogs will sniff first and if that does not work, they will put up the paw to scratch. Before they scratch open up your fist and let him have the treat. Repeat until you get a reliable paw on your hand. Once you get that, remove the treat from your hand (but pretend it is there), as soon as the dog lifts his paw open up your hand, say ‘shake’ and reward from the other hand. That should result in a shake very quickly. Once this is reliable, ask for a shake and as soon as the dog lifts his leg, change the position of your hand to a high five.

The tree cup game: Get three cups, put a treat under one, move the cups around and ask your dog to point to the one where the food is. Again, make it easy in the beginning and then gradually more difficult.

Food dispensing toys such as the muffin tin, toilet rolls, Kongs,

Teach your dog to close the door or turn on a light: These tricks are taught by targeting. Teach your dog to touch your hand with her muzzle first. Present your open hand about 10 cm away from your dog’s muzzle. It is better to start with the hand to the side and not right in front of her face. Most dogs will touch if not remove your hand and try again. Once she touches your hand, say yes (or click) and reward. If she does not touch, smear a little bit of your treat on your hand. Once you get a reliable touch, stick a post-it note on your hand and ask your dog to touch the post-it note. Once that is reliable, slide the post-it note down, this way your dog is going to only touch the post-it note and not your hand. If she does this reliably transfer the post-it not to your target (door or switch).

You can teach a foot target the same way.

Make a video showing: If you get really bored, why not making a video of your efforts and show off your dog’s skills.

There are a lot reasons to have fun with your dog, some activities are just for a bit of mental stimulation, others that involve training, especially trick training, have additional benefits.

Confidence Building: Dogs who learn new things on an ongoing basis might find new situations in daily life less challenging. They learn that using their brain and finding a solution or trying something new is not scary but rewarding.

Improves training skills of the owner: Lets be honest, when training ‘proper’ obedience most of us are a bit serious. When we train a trick we are much more relaxed, our timing is hopefully better and our reinforcement rate higher. Dogs love this and they really do not care if it is obedience or tricks. They also might engage more with their owners and enjoy ‘real’ obedience training more.

Improving the relationship: Dogs and owner who have fun together stay together. Fun is an important part of every relationship and makes the more stressful times easier to navigate.

Gives the dog a job: I meet a lot of young dogs who I call ‘unemployed’ and they then become ‘self employed’; meaning they create their own jobs such as digging up the yard, chewing the pool lights or bark at anything that moves. A 10 minute trick training session is as good as a half an hour walk and makes them very tired.

Ice breaker for people who don’t like dogs: If a dog performs a cute trick, it can be just a high 5, this might put a person who is nervous around dogs a bit more at ease.

Focus: Trick training, because it is so much fun, increases the dog’s focus which can have a positive effect on the more serious things you want to teach your dog like ‘heel’ or ‘stay’.

Defuse scary situations: If your dog knows tricks and they encounter a scary situation, you might be able to ask for a ‘high five’ which takes the focus away from the scary thing and back on you.

Physical benefits: Trick training can improve stamina, increased flexibility, balance, or core strength to name a few. This might also be true for the owner.

Happy training!


First published http://www.australiandoglover.com/2016/06/fun-things-to-do-with-your-dog.html






Are you Ready for your New Puppy? And if Yes for how Many Years?

Puppies are just too cute, it is almost beyond words. However these cute puppies grow up very quickly and become ‘real’ dogs. The puppy stage only lasts for a few months and the honey moon phase is often over after a couple of weeks of sleepless nights and urine stains on the carpet. So make sure what you really want is a dog and not just the puppy.

Too cute for words!
Too cute for words!

Pointing out the obvious, a puppy is a 12 to 15 year commitment and a lot of things can change during this time. Some are out of our control, such as family and relationship break downs, death, or sickness to name a few; others are very predictable: moving out, getting married, having a baby, the children are growing up, going overseas, having an extended holiday, changing jobs, moving, again just to name a few.


Considering the high number of dogs in rescue shelters, not every new puppy owner has thought about changes in their lives and how they will care for their dog during these challenging times.

I recently posted on my Facebook page that: “If you work full time, have three children under the age of six and work full time, do not get a puppy.”  My argument was that the puppy would not get the training and socialisation she will require to grow up into a well adjusted dog. I also said that the puppy should not be left home alone for long periods of time in the first few weeks.

There was a backlash: How did I dare saying that some people should not have a dog just because they work fulltime? How could I deny a child the opportunity to grow up with a puppy? I was called arrogant, out of touch and a few more things.

Is owning a dog a right or a privilege? I just read the book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets by Jessica Pierce, it really makes you think twice.

We love our dogs but is this enough? I do not think so. I also do not think owning a dog is a right. It is a privilege that comes with a lot of work and a lot of sacrifices. Forget about sleeping in for a few months or years, forget about going out every night and forget about extended holidays.

Before you make a decision ask yourself do you really have the time and commitment it takes to bring up a well adjusted and confident canine citizen? Will you still be in a position to look after your dog in 12 or 14 years time?

Are you ready for sleep less nights, puddles on the floor, the puppy pre-school, daily socialization outings for the next 12 to 18 months?

Are you prepared for the challenges of the teen aged dog and the heartbreak of living with an older dog?

Living with an older dog can be heart breaking.
Living with an older dog can be heart breaking.

I meet a lot of mothers whose families decided to get a puppy for the children, sometimes against the wishes of mum. But often, after the initial excitement, it is the mothers who look after the puppy and they struggle to deal with the additional responsibility and to provide appropriate care. Not because they do not try but because they just do not have the time, next to a full time job, the children and much more.

My tip here for all mums: Unless you want a puppy do not get one: Not for the children, nor the husband (who works full time, too) or for your other dog! It is not going to work.

Here a list of some of the NO – NOS and excuse me for being blunt

Do not get a dog if you

  • will not allow the dog in the house
  • are not able to put the time in for socialization and training
  • work very long hours or travel a lot
  • have very small children
  • or a household member is allergic to dogs
  • are not in stable financial position
  • are a clean freak with a designer loft

Before getting a puppy you should also consider alternatives such as rescue dogs. Considering your life style you might be better of with a senior dog or rescue Greyhound.

Lets assume you are ready.

  • Make sure you research breeds that match your life style and find a reputable breeder. I leave this topic for another day. If you buy a dog online or from a pet shop you are most likely supporting a puppy farm and while your puppy may have a loving home, her parents never will. They will live in appalling and cruel conditions and you are supporting this inhumane industry.
  • Even experienced dog owners can find puppy hood a bit overwhelming. One key point with socialisation is that you cannot postpone which means it makes sense to plan the arrival date carefully.
  • Get consensus in your family on the basics: sleeping arrangements, exercise, house training, where is the puppy allowed before the puppy arrives and stick to them.
  • Puppy proof the house which means remove dangerous things such as electrical cords, cleaners, small objects and set up a confinement area including crates and baby gates.
  • Be ready with the essentials such as beds, collar, id, leads, treats, food (in the beginning same as the breeder), toys, food dispensing toys, interactive toys and more toys.
  • Get in contact with service providers such as puppy pre school, day care, walkers, groomers in your area.

On a different note, in Switzerland prospective dog owners are required to take a course BEFORE getting a puppy or a dog. This course consists of four hours theory to prepare for the arrival of the new family member. While this is minimal it prevents impulse buying and at least sets prospective owners up for success. The sale of dogs in pet shops has been banned for decades.

While you probably will never be fully prepared for a puppy or a dog you can be fully committed to make your puppy the best dog she can be. This will help navigate the set back and the challenges ahead.

Bringing up a well adjusted dog is very fulfilling, great fun and worth every minute!

First published by Pet Professional Guild




Dominance, Resistance to Learning and Switzerland

Why is it so difficult for some to let go of the dominance myth and associated punishment based methods?

I just re-read an interview with John Bradshaw. If you have not read his book ‘In Defence of the Dog’ you are missing out.

No I will not write another blog on dominance. I think we are well and truly beyond that.

It is easier to teach an old dog a new trick than a dog trainer.
It is easier to teach an old dog a new trick than a dog trainer.

I am pondering the question why are there still ‘professionals’ out there who either steady fast insist that you have to dominate your dog and use aversive training methods or call themselves positive but still use punitive or aversive methods (physically manipulating the dog/puppy, using ‘no’ and ‘ah ah’)?

Seminar 7 Flyer - July 17 2016 Flyer
Fun with Fido our latest seminar

And why does this group of trainers have more exposure on TV and other media? Does the dominance group have the better marketing? Are these trainers more into self promotion? Do these trainers spend their money on marketing instead of further education? I don’t know.

But there might be something deeper and darker to it. Life is frustrating for some and anger often not very well controlled. The thought of being able to dominate (and hurt) someone weaker might have appeal to some. And if ‘permission’ is given by ‘experts’ to use those methods why would a certain group of dog owners not do it?

There might also be some out there who are just not educated enough and do not understand the basics of the learning theory. Another reason could be a lack of empathy.

We know using fear and intimidation will cause compliance but at what cost to the relationship. It seems common sense and we do not do it anymore with our children (well most of us anyway). So why do some insist on doing it to our dogs?

Shouldn’t we all know by now that ‘force is not compatible with mutual respect.’ [1] It also destroys trust and inhibits learning. Effective learning is a cooperative process in a trusting relationship.

There has to be an element of maintaining ‘cognitive consistency’ Leon Festinger (1957) proposed the cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.’[2] [3]

Dissonance can be reduced in three ways. Individuals could change their attitude. This is often difficult because people have trouble changing behavioural responses. Secondly, they could acquire new information that supports their original believes or thirdly they could reduce the importance of cognitions.

In dog training this means despite all scientific evidence that the dominance theory used in training is outdate, some reduce cognitive dissonance by acquiring ‘new’ information that supports their belief and reducing the importance of cognition. In this case it goes along the lines. It is better to use the dominance theory and its associated punishment based methods to save the dog and/or get the results fast. This is an argument commonly used by rescue groups and balanced trainers supporting these groups. Basically arguing that the result justifies the means, which is another fallacy in itself as punishment does not establish a different, more appropriate behaviour it merely suppresses the unwanted one. In addition to that the side effects can be severe.

Another reason could be that by now ‘balanced’ trainers are so committed to their outdated knowledge that they will very likely resist any new learning. They have said for years now that a force free way is not working. That means they now lack motivation and ability to change and the cost of learning is immense.[4]

Cost of learning used in the psychological sense. If you learn something new that makes your old knowledge obsolete you have to change everything. It means you are not just adding new knowledge but the new way replaces and questions the old way. It becomes even more problematic if there was a significant emotional investment in the previous believes. [5]

For balanced dog trainers this means they have now reached a ‘point of no return’. They cannot change without loosing face and significant investment monetary and time wise to catch up. It also means they will only become more resistant and probably defend their old ways til the end.

This means we can only wait for a generation change and until then have to go with Bradshaw: “They [dogs] need defending from people who persist in the old methods and don’t take any notice of science.”[6]

We are waiting for the new generation of dog trainers.
We are waiting for the new generation of dog trainers.

Or there is one other way: Switzerland introduced a licence for dog owners in 2008. A ‘side effect’ of this was that the dog training industry had to be regulated. All dog trainers now have to have a basic education including an assessment (total of 140 hours minimum), at least three years experience in dog training and having passed a practical exam with their own dog, similar to the Canine Good Citizen Award in Australia. These trainers then need to adhere to a code of ethics and do further education to keep the accreditation valid.[7]

How would that be for a start?


[1] http://www.dogbehaviorblog.com/2014/02/a-paradigm-shift-from-punitive-to-positive.html

[2] http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

[3] McLeod, S. A. (2014). Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

[4] http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/resistan.htm


[6] http://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/jul/17/dog-training-john-bradshaw-animal-behaviour

[7] https://www.skg.ch/files/live/sites/skg/files/shared/Aus-%20und%20Weiterbildung/Reglement%20Ausbildung%20SKN.pdf

Balanced dog trainers

Balanced trainers popping up right left and centre. What does it mean ‘balanced’ trainers? Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Balanced trainers define themselves (and I try to keep this objective) as using all four quadrants in operant learning. I will not go into the details but what distinguishes them from force free trainers like me is that they will use tools such as check, prong and shock collars or (positive) punishment such as yelling, jerking, hitting as they see fit. Most ‘balanced’ trainer will use (positive) reinforcement such as praise, interaction, treats as well. They will also say that the four options are all suitable for training, depending on the situation. To be fair, most will try to use positive punishment as little as possible.

If they tell you that upfront, it is then obviously your choice if you want to go ahead with this kind of training or not. There is no law against this and it is still very common.

Their argument goes that with positive reinforcement only, you cannot train a dog.

Guess what I do agree! In addition to reinforcing and rewarding the good things you need to manage and set up for success.

I am not going to watch my dog bark, run off or harass another dog. I will also not watch my puppy chew up the furniture or my hands.

But my approach to teaching is based on mutual respect and trust. I will not force my dogs to do things but I will TEACH. This is not the same thing.

Positive trainers like me use a lot of management tools such as confinement areas, carful supervision, management and a lot of reinforcement based training. I will also break it down into small steps so the dog has every chance to succeed.

And yes sometimes we get it wrong and the dog does the wrong thing. We are all just humans. In these instances we use ‘interrupt’ calmly with their name, ‘redirect’ meaning ask for an acceptable alternative behaviour and ‘reward’. Be careful, if you have to use this too often you are just training a behaviour chain. This means you teach the dog to first, jump up then sit to get a treat. This also means you are reactive (sorry the pun) and not pro active.

I have made a choice for ethical and moral reasons not to use positive punishment (I will also not use negative reinforcement just to be clear). I know they can work to suppress behaviour but they are not teaching an acceptable alternative, they can be detrimental to dog’s wellbeing and affect the bond and trust.

If I have to make a choice between a seemingly quick fix and a lasting and trustful relationship I am always choosing the later.

I am following a few of the balanced trainers for different reasons and I am really trying to understand their reasoning.

However their argument is just not cutting it. One is asking for case studies to proof that punishment can have severe side effect, trying to make the point that the science is not there (here you go http://eileenanddogs.com/fallout-aversives-punishment-negative-reinforcement/ or https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201205/is-punishment-effective-way-change-the-behavior-dogs) to then proceed to say that he has case studies to proof the opposite. Well that is a classic, anecdotal evidence is not science.

Another one goes on to describe the problems we can create when ‘training in drive’ caused in his example by the use of toys in training. Then he changes tack and blames food to create too much drive. While there is the odd Labrador that goes ‘crazy’ for food there is an easy solution to that, just use lower value food. Problem solved.

In my experience, food is actually calming most dogs down!

They also seem to miss that perception is changing on what are acceptable ways of treating other beings. It was ok to use corporal punishment in schools until the 1970ies in Australia, not any more.

But the real give away about ‘balanced’ trainers is the language they use and the vitriol against positive trainers; calling the positive trainers a cult, extremists and more, just to mention the ones that can be used in a professional context.

I am very passionate about no PAIN, no FORCE, no FEAR but I am not slandering, intimidating or swearing when discussing the ‘balanced’ approach. I am trying to understand and reason within socially accepted norms.

It is 2016!



Socialise your puppy but let them play, too!

50 years ago not too many trainers or owners talked about socialisation. Not because puppies did not need it, but because for the most part puppies ‘self-socialised’, they wandered and roamed the neighbourhood, accompanied children to school, hung out with other dogs, sometimes got into bingle with one of them, occasionally a child got bitten or a dog hurt by a car. Even 20 years ago back in Switzerland our dog would go to work with my husband, roam the streets, spend time with strangers, steal sandwiches and come back when it was time to go home. He got picked up by well meaning people occasionally and once by police. It was no big problem, no fines either and it was a different time.

Do not get me wrong, I do not advocate puppies to roam and wander the streets. Things have changed dramatically and most dogs are much more than a pet today. They are a family member and the thought of them being unsupervised out and about is too stressful for most responsible dog owners. However, on the other side, dogs are not allowed anywhere unless on a leash and with their owners these days. This makes socialisation very important and more difficult.

We probably all agree that early stimulation and socialisation is beneficial for the development of our puppies. Proper socialisation is the most important task when raising a well adjusted dog. You can teach an old dog a new trick but if the short window of socialisation has closed we are always playing catch up.

Socialisation at a basic level is respondent conditioning – creating an association between two stimuli, in the case of puppy socialisation hopefully a positive one. Most will also agree that the most important window of opportunity is between about 4 weeks to 16 weeks. After that the window of opportunity starts to close and often closes quickly. A properly socialised puppy is more likely to perceive the world as a safe and fun place. Whereas an under socialized puppy could be fearful of new things and might end up being cautious or even anxious.

Breeders have to play an important role and more and more breeders are really on the case. Puppies are born in family homes and exposed early to the normal noises and coming and goings of busy households. They invest a lot of time and effort in early handling, socialising their puppies to a wide range of stimuli, including strangers, other animals, surfaces and more. They also create a stimulating environment with environmental enrichment for their puppies, where puppies can freely explore and investigate in their own time and pace, interact and manipulate. This contributes to puppies being more inquisitive, better able to cope with stress and able to solve problems. Most good breeders will also start early training.

Chillax, that is his name!
Chillax, that is his name!

Responsible owners will keep socialising once they have brought their new puppy home. However, in addition to lack of exposure there is another way to create a fearful puppy: Inappropriate exposure. If we are not careful we might create negative association and sensitize puppies and make them scared.

Imagine this scenario, a well meaning mum takes her brand new puppy to see her daughter play soccer, pops the leash on and goes to the park. Her daughter’s entire team runs up to the puppy and tries to pat. The puppy might feel trapped but the leash prevents her to back off and she might get really scared by this overwhelming experience. The puppy now has a bad association with the lead, open space, girls of a certain age, screaming children, and more.

The bulldog class!

Socialisation has to happen at the puppy’s pace and the puppy has to be able to make a choice. If a puppy decides not to approach a certain stimulus then we need to accept that. There is nothing wrong with encouraging but under no circumstances should the puppy be forced into it.

Create a positive association with fun play, interaction, tasty treats, cuddles and pats.

Puppy pre schools are a great opportunity to socialise your puppy to a wide range of people and environments. It is also the place to set owners up for proper training and help with trouble shooting.

There can be a saturation point however, where it all just becomes too much, if there is no choice anymore and the puppy cannot proceed at her own pace. This can happen in a group situation where well meaning owners and a bit of peer pressure sends the puppy over the edge. So a word of caution there you do not want to scare or sensitize your puppy.

A puppy class can only provide a certain amount of socialisation, maybe 5 %, the rest is homework.

However one important aspect of a well run puppy school should be socialisation with other puppies. It seems this has ‘gone out of fashion’ a bit, at least in the Australian context and it baffles me.

Most dog owners with the appropriate information can socialise to people, surfaces, noises and environments but who has access to other puppies of a similar age? Hardly anyone! Even if a puppy will never go to an off leash area, they will meet dogs in social settings and need to be able to interact appropriately. A well run puppy pre school is often the only place where a puppy can safely meet other puppies and practice appropriate body language.

Most puppies love to play. They need to learn to interact and meet other puppies of different sizes, temperaments and looks.

On leash interaction causes the exact problem we try to prevent with supervised and moderated off leash interaction. On leash puppies cannot approach in a circular motion, leashes get tangled and head on greetings are the outcome. It also creates the wrong expectations. If I walk my dog on leash down to the local shops I do not want her to interact and try to play with every dog she meets. I want her to walk with and pay attention to me.

Of course a lot of puppies are excited off leash and will greet head on but very often and after the initial exuberance they will display more appropriate body language, especially if the play is professionally moderated.

I also strongly believe that puppies who spend the entire time in puppy pre school on leash and are prevented from interacting with the other puppies can either become frustrated and might start lunging and barking when meeting other dogs on leash or worse become fearful of other puppies.

And like any other part of socialisation there is only a limited window of time and you cannot and should not take your puppy to the dog park. There are many reasons for not taking your puppy to the off leash area too early: The puppy is not fully vaccinated, the dog park is unpredictable and potentially dangerous for a puppy or a small dog, a lot of adult dogs do not like puppies in their face and one bad experience can cause a lot of damage! A puppy pre school without moderated off leash interaction is in my opinion a lost opportunity.

To raise a well adjusted dog, super socialise your puppy. Do more than one puppy pre school, visit moderated play groups, take the puppy to new environments on daily basis, introduce friendly children, adults on an ongoing basis and make it a pleasant and positive experience. Let the puppy proceed at her own pace and let her make choices.

Despite the window of opportunity closing you have to keep it up so the ‘socialisation muscle’ stays strong, fit and healthy! You will need to expose your teenage dog on an ongoing basis and in a positive way to new experiences and even mature dogs benefit from social outings. I recommend taking a young dog up to about a year to new and different places two to three times a week, once they are over a year and up to about 3 years, take them to a new place or for a new experience once a week. Just to make sure! And don’t forget socialisation is not just exposure but associating the experiences in a positive way.

First published on www.petprofessionalguild.com