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The Listen Dog Blog

Welcome to the Listen Dog Blog!


I'll be keeping it up-to-date with regular catch-ups on what I've been up to, plenty of original articles on obedience training and behavioural best practice, plus top tips and ideas you can work on at home with your own four-legged friend!


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By listendogtraining, Jan 4 2017 08:00AM

I know it’s hard to resist cuddling and attempting to sooth your dog when he’s quivering with fear as a result of a loud firework display or an intense storm, but reassuring a dog by offering affection and attention whenever the dog demonstrates fearful behaviour is a bad idea, because it will only serve to reinforce the dog’s fearful behaviour, rather than eradicate it.

If your dog receives a reward every time he behaves fearfully, he’s more likely to display this behaviour next time, and increase this behaviour, rather than cease it. It is a basic principle of animal behaviour and training - documented by B.F. Skinner when he discovered he could systematically change the behaviour of rats by giving them a food reward when they pressed a lever – that rewarding a behaviour – even if that behaviour is as a result of an emotional response - makes it more likely to reoccur. As Thorndike’s Law of effect states, responses that produce rewards tend to increase in frequency – therefore a fear response, which produces an over-attentive and affectionate owner (rewarding for the dog!), is likely to increase in frequency rather than decrease.

If you plan to use treats as part of a behaviour modification program to help overcome a dog’s fear or phobia, timing is critical, in order to ensure that you do not inadvertently use the treat to reward the fearful response. Instead we need to desensitise the dog to whatever triggers his/her anxiety and combine this with forming a positive association, instead of a negative one. Of course, as per Thorndike’s Law of Effect, if you treat the dog for behaving anxiously, he will only continue to do so. Instead, we must attempt to distract the dog, or calm his anxious behaviour, long enough for him to display a positive behaviour at the presentation of his fear-trigger, which we can then immediately reward.

It is worth remembering the valuable role that the olfactory system and the dog’s sense of smell can play in this process; the olfactory system bypasses the usual decision-making process, and is linked directly to memory and emotion. As a result, we can take advantage of it to recreate a positive association where there was once a negative one; engaging the dog’s nose with a super-smelly treat can help to override the dog’s usual reaction (fear) giving us the opportunity to reward a better behaviour, and thus, encourage this as a preferred response, going forward... timing really is crucial!

As an owner it is also important to lead by example, and show no anxiety regarding the stimulus yourself; more than likely the dog will look to you for guidance, and take note of your actions and state of mind as indicators of whether his fear is truly justified or not.

Eventually, with plenty of repetition, patience and determination, we can turn the dog’s response around, so that he is either ambivalent towards the trigger that once scared him, having been shown (because we cannot ‘tell’ as we would be able to with a child who was afraid of something), repeatedly over a long period of time that nothing bad ever occurs, and ONLY good ever comes of it, or he might even respond by looking for the treat he has come to expect.

By listendogtraining, Jan 3 2017 09:00AM

Generally speaking, fear in a dog will manifest itself as a result of one of three influencing factors. These are: learning and experience, a lack of adequate socialisation or habituation, or a genetic origin.

The first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life are regarded as critical in terms of socialisation and habituation; owners are recommended to expose their puppies – in a positive way – to as many sights, sounds and experiences as possible during this period of time when their puppy is least likely to react with fear. As Fogle states in ‘The Dog’s Mind,’ “Pups that are deprived of this normal exposure to common stimuli during their critical periods of development quite simply become fearful dogs when they mature... virtually all dogs will show a fear response to new and unusual stimuli that they have not experienced before they were sixteen weeks old.” So for example, if the puppy spends its early months kept exclusively indoors, in a quiet environment away from busy streets, cyclists, noisy traffic, heavy rainfall, etc. then it will more than likely really struggle to cope with exposure to the big wide world without fear or anxiety, as it matures.

Alternatively, it could be that due to a negative experience, the dog has inadvertently been conditioned to be fearful at the presentation of a certain stimulus. For example, if the dog is involved in a painful collision with a cyclist, he could develop a fear of cyclists as a result, because he learned, via this experience, that cyclists cause him pain.

Of course, it is also possible that a dog’s fearfulness is in fact genetic in origin; it is indeed true that puppies inherit characteristics from their parents – it is thanks to this passing on of genes, in fact, that we are able to selectively breed dogs that vary quantitatively in terms of aggression, maternal instinct, and other key traits.

If you are struggling with a fearful dog, it is critical that you seek out professional assessment so that the right course of action can be determined – but have heart! There are plenty of ways and means that fearful dogs can be rehabilitated, and go on to become happy companions!

By listendogtraining, Jan 2 2017 08:00AM

Old-school theory on pack structure is reliant upon two assumptions – the first is that dogs will adhere to the same social structure as wolves, and the second is that captive wolves will be entirely unaffected by their captivity, and will act socially exactly as they would in their natural environment and habitat… and we now know that both of these assumptions are entirely false!

Bruce Fogle describes the rigid wolf-pack hierarchy as being based upon a ‘dominance – subdominance – submission’ structure with a dominant wolf, subdominant tag-alongs, and the submissive pack members, who perform ritual passive behaviours, such as crawling, keeping their heads low, and licking the lips of the dominant wolf. It was a widely held belief that the alpha would defend his position with aggression if necessary, and quash any challenges to his position – an idea that many trainers of previous decades translated into modern dog-owning practice, suggesting that our dogs’ errant behaviours are caused by their misguided belief that they are the leader of the pack, and that we as owners must seek to educate them otherwise, and take that title for ourselves, in order that they might become submissive and therefore compliant.

However, in 1999 Mech highlighted the dramatic changes in wolf behaviour that were caused by their captivity, stating that within a natural and free wolf-pack, dominance is not manifested as a pecking order, dominance contests are extremely rare, and the typical free wolf-pack functions more like a symbiotic family unit, sharing out the leadership, labour, and responsibilities to ensure survival.

Whilst captive wolves make frequent challenges to their pack leader, free wolves do not. We forget the many differences that captivity presents – manipulated by man, the captive pack consists of unacquainted wolves unnaturally brought together from different sources; they have a stable and predictable food supply, and there is little outside threat to their existence – no real risk of injury or death. In other words, all the reasons to work together and form a harmonious pack no longer exist in this artificial environment – there is no opportunity or encouragement for them to act naturally.

In stark contrast, free wolf packs have been observed to actually have a lot in common with our human family groups – a breeding pair and their cubs will co-operate together as a unit to ensure their survival, and rather than challenge the elders’ position, the young (once matured) will often leave to find another lone wolf and form their own pack – something which isn’t possible in captivity. Coppinger suggests that pack formation is not a genetic inevitability, but merely an efficient response to their environmental situation, stating ‘wolves live in packs primarily because adult pairs can then efficiently share with their offspring the surplus food resulting from the pair’s predation on large prey.’

Varying pack studies aside, there are now numerous studies available on free ranging and feral dogs – because we must remember that ultimately, dogs are not wolves – most if not all of which reveal that many of these dogs in fact live independently, without ever forming social packs with dominance hierarchies. Thomas Daniels, who observed free ranging domestic dogs in New Jersey, noted that whilst the dogs were familiar with each other, they weren’t overly social or cohesive, they rarely fought, and there was no evidence of territorial behaviour – findings similar to those of Alan Beck who observed Philadelphia dogs, and Ian Dunbar who observed dogs in California.

Now it could be argued that these dogs are not living in the wild, with a scarcity of food or any real threat of injury or death from serious predator so, like the captive wolves, perhaps their behaviour is affected by their environment – but then wouldn’t that support an argument against dominance theory and pack hierarchy once again – certainly where its application to our domesticated pet dogs is concerned? After all, our pet dogs are living in a massively artificial environment with 100% security against predators, a surplus of regular and reliable food... there is no need to resort to the safety and security of pack structure when there is no real threat to their survival, if it is to be believed that packs are formed out of sensible necessity rather than as a result of genetic instinct.

We must also remember that domesticated dogs are neither wild dogs, nor are they wolves. So much human interference has taken place, with selective breeding to give us the selection of domesticated dog breeds that we have today, which has had a massive impact on dog appearance, behaviour and temperament across the breeds, that these dogs are so far from the wolves which have been studied, that there is plenty of room for myriad differences between them.

Coppinger’s research showed that even feral dogs – without restrictions on all the vital elements of survival, such as food, water, and shelter, were happy to live independently or harmoniously in small groups with a loose social structure, far from the cohesive family unit of the wolf-pack. Dogs are not wolves. Humans are not dogs. Humans and dogs co-habiting is so far from being a wolf-pack, it starts to become odd to insist that we behave like alpha wolves before our pugs, in order to ensure a successful home-life.

Old-school theory which argues that almost every negative behaviour is down to our dogs attempting to challenge our dominance, or climb up the pack hierarchy is unfortunate in that it allows us to blame something else for what could in fact just be put down to poor training. If you subscribe to this theory that we must create a hierarchical pack in order to stop our dogs pulling on the lead, then people resort to some unnecessary and absurd behaviours (such as eating a biscuit before feeding the dog, performing alpha rolls, etc.) when actually teaching a dog to heel well can be taught with positive training. Your dog is not pulling on the lead because he believes himself to be superior to you… he’s pulling on the lead because he’s excited to be out of the house, you’re walking too slowly, and you haven’t taught him not to!

So whilst I whole-heartedly believe that as owners, we should provide our dogs with guidance and a good education in order to make it clear what we expect from them, I have every faith that we can achieve this with positive training, not by seeking to construct and enforce a hierarchy, so that we can go on to consistently remind our dog that he is at the bottom with a series of fruitless and sometimes cruel engagements.

By listendogtraining, Jan 1 2017 11:00AM

A dramatic shift of opinion has occurred in the world of dog training over the last 50 years; Burch and Bailey note that in the 1930s and 1940s, most trainers believed that animals needed to be ‘broken’ in order to work properly, whereas today’s trainers for the most part advocate an entirely opposing ideology of positivity and reward.

These dog trainers of the ‘old-school’ variety were firm advocators of training by punishing undesirable behaviour, arguing that your dog will obey you if he fears the consequence of disobeying you. However, the modern approach to dog training today has taken a massive shift towards more positive methods, promoting the achievement of success by encouraging and rewarding the right behaviour, as opposed to punishing the wrong behaviour.

Science too seems to support this theory, as we now know that dogs are more likely to learn a selected behaviour successfully, if they are forming a positive association during training. Thanks to the hippocampus (an important part of the limbic system, involved in learning, emotions, and the formation of memories), using positive stimulation to develop desirable behaviour means that lessons are linked to favourable emotions, and are therefore more properly fixed in the dog’s brain. For example, every time you give your dog a command, if the behaviour you are commanding him to perform contradicts the behaviour his instincts are compelling him towards, your dog has a decision to make. By offering a reward that your dog considers more valuable than the natural reward he may receive by following his instinct, you are creating a positive association in the dog’s mind with fulfilling said command. By associating a positive emotion to the dog’s memory of this command, you are more likely to cement it in the dog’s mind, and find it successful in practise. So if the particular lesson is an exercise in recall, you could reward your dog for responding to your call with a piece of ham or chicken – a valuable reward in the eyes of a dog, especially if you dog is food-motivated. If this is repeated often enough to create a strong positive association in the dog’s memory, then the dog is much more likely to return to you even when his instincts tell him to do otherwise – if he sees a cat he’d like to chase, for example!

As a result of such modern science, most contemporary dog trainers now advocate the exclusive use of positive methods, such as food rewards, conditioned reinforcers (such as clickers), and the whole-hearted exclusion of all aversive punishers.

Evidence that positive punishment can have an undesirable effect is even evident in the canine world; Erik Wilsson’s aforementioned study at The Swedish Dog Training Centre looked at the social interaction between mothers and puppies, and noted that the evolving behaviour exhibited by mothers as their puppies grew from 3 weeks of age to 8 weeks of age was capable of having a permanent effect on the minds of those puppies. He noted that some mothers were much more severe with their aggressive altering of their relationship with their puppies from a ‘care-dependency’ relationship to one of ‘dominance-submission’ as they grew, and that this had a direct bearing on how that puppy would ultimately behave with people. For example, when trying to wean their puppies, some mothers were much more aggressive than others, and would continue to punish them even after they withdrew from her. Wilsson said that the social bonds within these litters were weaker than those within litters where mothers had been more benign, and that these puppies ended up less socially gregarious with people; they were less likely to approach even a passive human, and when tested playing ‘fetch’, they were less likely to perform than the other puppies.

So, whilst learning the art of dominance submission through maternal punishment is critical for every puppy (so that s/he may grow up to become well-mannered and able to properly socialise with others of his species) it has become evident that a mother who applies too much positive punishment can actually have a very inhibitive effect on her puppies’ future personalities, and interactions. Puppies may grow up overly anxious, less willing to socialise, and less willing to interact in training exercises and play activities.

In this case, the more punishment received (above the critical threshold), the worse off the dogs ended up. But does this mean we must rule out punishment altogether? Perhaps not – perhaps it means taking a more measured approach – which professionals in the area of canine behaviour management are far better equipped to do than Joe Public. Most agree that dogs need limitations and boundaries in order to become well-balanced – this does not mean they should be hit, shocked or hurt for choosing to disobey a known command, or performing an unwanted behaviour – but in some instances a firm verbal reprimand may be put to good use.

For those who are unable to distinguish between what is ok, and what is ‘too much,’ the safest advice would be to rule out punishment altogether, in order to avoid the erroneous application of punishment, and the disastrous effects of such an error. Burch and Bailey confirm that caution regarding the use of punishment is critical – as it can result in aggression, extreme shyness, extreme fear, and more. Perhaps advising the general public against punishment in its entirety is simply the easiest way to guard against its erroneous use. If a dog owner angrily hits a dog for urinating on the rug, then this is physical abuse, as opposed to the systematic and planned use of punishment.

In broad terms, unwanted behaviours can be ignored, in favour of lavishly praising the juxtaposing desired behaviour when it occurs, or they might, by some trainers, be calmly corrected in a planned and controlled manner, especially when all other punishment-free approaches have been thoroughly applied – any form of punishment that causes unnecessary pain or distress, is just abuse.

Most owners do not want to see their puppy or dog in pain, distress or any other form of suffering – so if the use of positive-only methods mean that more owners will seek out, stick to, and even excel at training schedules they are introduced to by professionals, then that can only be a good thing!

However, whilst our knowledge of dogs’ minds and behaviours improves, it is interesting that we are choosing to entirely exclude a form of canine behaviour and critical communication that is massively present – and crucial - amongst the canine species. Why is it that we are choosing not to apply the use of positive punishment, when it is so extremely evident as a form of communication/training amongst dogs themselves?

Bruce Fogle highlights that during the socialisation period of a puppy, the mother-pup relationship between a bitch and her offspring evolves to one of dominance-submission – and referencing a study carried out by Erik Wilsson at The Swedish Dog Training Centre, Fogle highlights that ‘inhibited bites’, ‘growls’, and ‘mouth threats’ were all amongst the behaviours used by mothers to redefine their relationship with their puppies as they grew older. So if dogs use positive punishment as a form of interaction/communication within their own relationships, why don’t we?

One argument put against the use of positive punishment is the viewpoint of some that as a species, we may be cohabiting with dogs, but we are not dogs, and our dogs know that we are not dogs. So to attempt to mimic them is not the right thing to do. Cesar Milan’s controversial ‘mimicking’ of the mother bitch’s corrective snap (delivered to a dog with his hand) is one such example, and is frowned upon by many as an unnecessary physical punishment.

However, if one were to argue that we should not be mimicking dogs, then the only solution is to behave and communicate simply as a human. Do we use punishment within our species? Of course we do. If you were to behave disobediently at school you might be punished by having to write 100 lines; it’s an aversive punishment used to decrease the frequency of a student’s unwanted behaviour. We punish criminals with prison, or community service, and we might punish children with extra chores if they have been naughty. The world would be a very different place if our only response to crime was to ignore it entirely! So, to play devil’s advocate, a supporter of the use of punishment might argue that if dogs use it amongst dogs, and humans use it amongst humans... then it is somewhat confusing that the dog-human relationship must be managed entirely without it.

The reason the reaction to the use of punishment in today’s society is now so strong, is likely a direct result of the abhorrent and extreme punishing techniques known to have be used in old-school training methods. Old-school trainers -particularly those working in the military- believed, at the time, that dogs must experience consequences for negative behaviour, rather than being lavished with food rewards for good behaviour, alleging this to be a better way to produce reliable obedience, since these dogs were depended upon to keep their handlers alive and safe in serious situations. Unfortunately for the dogs being trained at the time, some barbaric forms of punishment – like prong collars, electric shocking, hitting, choking and shaking – were commonplace. As a result of the entirely justified modern outcry against such awful forms of punishment, it would seem that ALL forms of punishment have now been grouped under the same umbrella term, and thrown out alongside. (Although ironically, even people who claim to use ONLY positive methods can still be seen to shout a stern ‘NO!’ when their dog misbehaves, or yank angrily at the lead when their dog starts barking at the nearest cat.)

I think a balanced conclusion should be that when it comes to any form of behaviour modification or training, positive reinforcement should always be the first port of call – and there’s plenty of research to testify to that effect. Elly Hiby published a paper in 2004 after comparing the relative effects of reward and punishment, concluding that the dogs trained using rewards became more obedient, whereas those trained using punishment displayed an increase in bad behaviours. In 2008, another study was published further supporting Hiby’s findings, which stated that positive reinforcement led to lesser displays of fear and attention-seeking behaviours, whilst dogs trained using punishment were showing increased aggression in comparison.

By listendogtraining, Dec 31 2016 09:00AM

These two types of rehabilitation form the basis of how we treat dogs who have a negative emotional reaction to any given stimulus – be it other dogs, men, women, children, traffic or anything else which causes them distress.

Whilst both immersion therapy and desensitisation involve exposing the dog to the stimulus that causes them fear or anxiety, they wholly differ in their approach. Desensitisation involves overcoming the fear gradually, at a slow and comfortable pace, ensuring the dog does not become overwhelmed at any stage of the process, whereas immersion therapy – otherwise known as flooding – involves presenting the cause of the dog’s anxiety directly to the dog, and all at once, allowing the dog no opportunity to escape or avoid the situation.

So, if we were dealing with a fear of other dogs, for example, desensitisation would involve a gradual exposure to another dog, at first from a great distance and for a short period of time; perhaps the dog would only glance at the other dog walking past at the very end of the street for a second or two. As time went on, the exposures would become slowly and steadily closer in proximity and perhaps longer in duration, all at a pace the subject dog appeared comfortable with, until s/he could happily allow another dog to pass by him unaffected on a walk.

Immersion therapy, in stark contrast, would involve introducing the dog to another dog in close proximity, which may then immediately be walked towards and around him. Flooding (immersion therapy) is a far quicker approach than the slow and steady desensitisation, however it can cause overwhelming anxiety and stress in dogs – some have become so traumatized that they lose control of their bladder and bowels, whilst others resist flooding so intensely, that they become aggressive, and the problem is only made worse.

Whilst there are some professionals who have and continue to practise immersion therapy, at Listen Dog Training we advocate a slow and progressive desensitisation-based approach, as although it can take longer, the risk of causing more damage to an already anxious dog is minimal, and it is a wholly safer method for your everyday dog-owner to utilise.

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