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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, Dec 30 2016 07:00PM

‘Classical conditioning’ – otherwise known as ‘Respondent conditioning’ was discovered and observed by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist who was studying digestion in dogs at the time. He noticed that the dogs would salivate before they were fed, and investigated the idea that perhaps the dogs were associating the lab assistants who fed them (or even the sound of the door opening) with the immediate presentation of food, and so tested this theory by ringing a bell just before the dogs were fed. He presented the sound of the bell immediately prior to the food, several times, before going on to present the sound of the bell alone. He discovered that, after this exercise, the dogs still responded by salivating, even though food was not present.

This type of response can be described as unconditioned or reflexive – the dogs cannot help but salivate when food is presented, it is a natural physical response that they do not decide upon. In classical conditioning therefore, an unconditioned stimulus (food) elicits an unconditioned response (salivation). It is a natural reaction. The sound of the bell began as an entirely neutral stimulus which elicited no response, but eventually became conditioned (by its association with the arrival of food) that it ended up causing the once unconditioned (but now conditioned) response of salivation. And it is this process of conditioning which is described as ‘Classical conditioning’.

Whereas the unconditioned responses that form the basis of Classical conditioning have a biological basis related to survival – i.e. reflexive actions of the glands – Operant conditioning, in contrast, involves the muscles of the dog which control his voluntary actions, such as sitting, running, and barking.

Operant conditioning was the work of B.F. Skinner, who wanted to take Pavlov’s findings (and the work of another scientist, Lee Thorndike) on to the next level, and explore how behaviour could be influenced by reward. It is the work of Skinner which now forms the basis for what we traditionally refer to as ‘dog training’ – teaching a dog to respond to verbal commands such as ‘sit,’ ‘stay,’ etc. Skinner discovered that dogs learn faster when the desired behaviour is consistently rewarded – so if every time a dog responds to a certain cue by ‘sitting’ he is then given a treat, he will eventually learn to sit on command, by realising that this select behaviour is being rewarded, and voluntarily deciding to perform said behaviour. In stark contrast, the responses elicited through classical conditioning are not voluntarily decided upon by the dog, but brought about as mere reflex reactions, which are elicited on cue simply because this chosen cue was so frequently paired with the original, natural stimulus.

So to conclude, operant conditioning conditions voluntary responses decided upon by the dog, whereas classical conditioning conditions the involuntary, biological reflexes. To this end, it is operant conditioning that we apply in order to train assistance dogs, trick dogs and general obedience… whereas it is classical conditioning that we apply to help with socialisation, fear-rehabilitation, and the overcoming or prevention of any other problem behaviours that are a direct result of how the dog feels.

By listendogtraining, Dec 29 2016 07:00PM

Despite the fact that every decent dog breeder, trainer, and behaviourist will wax lyrical about the importance of good socialisation and habituation from an early age, there are still many dogs who grow up with fears and anxieties because they simply haven’t been exposed to the big wide world in the right way at the right time.

Any poorly socialised dog suffering from such issues must be reintroduced to the world slowly, and in an entirely positive manner. For example, if the dog shows anxiety or fear around other dogs, do not flood him into sensory overload with a trip to a dog-filled park, instead slowly introduce the concept of other dogs in his vicinity at a great distance. If another dog is visible in the distance and your dog spots it, praise and treat him incessantly. This kind of classical conditioning can be used to gradually build up a positive association in your dog’s mind, with the presence of other dogs. The same method can be applied to a range of anxiety-inducing stimuli, such as traffic, children, or men. Generally speaking, the best way to reduce fear is to keep introductions incredibly gradual, and make strong positive associations throughout.

As advocated by behaviourist Nicole Wilde, this process of desensitisation must be done steadily; never flood a dog with the trigger that frightens him, as this can be a traumatic experience for the dog, will not help to resolve the problem, and can in fact make matters worse, because now the dog has a problem trusting you as well.

So if we take the sound of the hairdryer as an example, you could first turn it on upstairs whilst your dog is downstairs, and treat the dog. Then repeat this with the hairdryer in a nearby room on the same floor, then again in the next room, then again with the doors open, and then in the doorway of the room the dog is in, and so on and so forth.

For fearful dogs, confidence-building is a lengthy and heart-rending process, which requires dedication and understanding on the part of the owner; progress will be slow, but much more effective if taken at this pace. Be careful to pay attention to your dog, and watch out for subtle signs that your dog is getting stressed or anxious, such as excessive yawning, lip-licking or scratching. If, at any point during the desensitisation process your dog starts to display these behaviours, take a step back to a point in the process where your dog was not reacting with stress at all.

It is also critical to educate any friends and family who will be coming into contact with your dog on the current state of affairs, and ensure that these people do not behave in a way that may compromise any progress that is being made – it is incredibly frustrating to put in oodles of hard work as an owner, only to have a house-guest come striding in and undo it all in one fell swoop! If for example the dog seems fearful of people, spread the word to ensure that no-one approaches your dog quickly or noisily, or reaches out to pet the dog when it has not yet sought out contact.

Be wary of any behaviourist who says they can ‘fix’ your dog’s problems in ‘just one session’ – such results will probably be obtained using less than positive means, and will likely be short-lived. Genuine rehabilitation takes time, patience, consistency and dedication, but with commitment, and the help of a good professional, you can certainly rehabilitate your dog from a range of anxieties, and help him to enjoy life!

By listendogtraining, Dec 18 2016 02:53PM

When two dogs are meeting, their body language and greeting behaviours are so important in terms of whether they end up perceiving one another as a potential threat or a welcome playmate. Sometimes, when humans intervene in this initial greeting, these crucial body signals can be unwittingly interfered with, misread entirely by the other party, and lead to an unnecessary aggressive encounter, which could have otherwise been totally avoided!

For example, when a dog approaches another dog in his line of sight, he may become instantly excited to get over there and greet that dog, pronto! If he is on a lead, he might well start pulling energetically in a bid to reach the potential new playmate quickly. As a response to this, the owner will likely pull back on the lead to try and regain control of their excitable hound, creating a tension which their dog will strain against. Unfortunately, this straining posture inadvertently becomes a completely accidental display of some potentially aggressive looking body language. To the other dog, the dog straining on the lead will appear to be leaning forward (due to the tension on the lead) and likely staring at their potential playmate because they are so desperate to reach them despite their irritatingly reserved owner! The other dog however may instantly read this body language as threatening, and respond accordingly, which could quickly lead to a fight. Loose leads are an absolute must when it comes to greeting dogs out and about – if you can’t manage it, and you don’t know the other dog you are approaching, walk the other way.

Similarly, it must be noted by owners how important it is that their dogs are allowed to perform the correct social greeting behaviours when they do meet other dogs. Pheromones are one of the biggest contributors to non-verbal communications amongst dogs – which is why they are so obsessed with sniffing each other’s rear ends! If an owner were to interfere with this ritual and pull their dog away from another’s behind mid-sniff, their dog would be perceived by the other dog as behaving incredibly rudely – which again, could cause an attack.

The common act of sniffing one another’s rear ends when two dogs meet is like the equivalent of two people shaking hands – to not perform this behaviour is considered abnormal and a slight against the other dog. Bruce Fogle describes dogs as having ‘a veritable cornucopia of pheromones that activate or inhibit other dogs’ minds’; these pheromones are present in a dog’s saliva, faeces, urine, vaginal and preputial secretions, as well as their anal, perianal and dorsal tail glands, and provide a vast array of information to other dogs, including sexual status, social status, health information and more. In the same way that we might verbally introduce ourselves to a new person in order that they might learn some basic information about who we are, dogs learn this introductory factfile from the act of sniffing... and it is not to be interrupted!

By listendogtraining, Dec 18 2016 02:04PM

When dealing with problem behaviours with their dogs - particularly male dogs - many owners believe, or have been assured that castration is the answer to their problem. Whilst it's true that yes, castrating a male dog can indeed help eradicate some unwanted behaviours, there are many instances in which it will have no effect whatsoever.

As a general rule, castration is more likely to solve an unwanted behavioural problem, if that problem is sexually dimorphic – which means that it is more common in, or specific to, one sex as opposed to the other.

Roaming is a good example of this; this is the act of a male travelling to find an acceptable bitch in season in order to mate. This is noted to be reduced in 90% of cases post-castration.

Scent marking is another good example of a sexually dimorphic behaviour, as it is a male behaviour, influenced by testosterone, and therefore much more likely to be affected by castration. Ben Hart at the University of California notes that urine marking in the house reduced in 50% of cases, with a rapid reduction in 20% and a gradual reduction in 30%.

Inappropriate sexual behaviour, such as excessive mounting or humping of other dogs, people or even objects is also related to sex hormone, and it is noted that post-castration, dogs displayed less mounting of people in 60% of cases.

It must always be noted however, when considering castration, that if the unwanted behaviour cannot be attributed to testosterone, then castration is not the correct solution at all. For example, if a dog is behaving aggressively due to fear rather than sex hormones, then behavioural therapy is the route to take in order to improve the situation.

If in doubt as to the root cause of your dog's behaviour always seek out professional behavioural or veterinary advice, to ensure you make the best decision for you and your four-legged friend!

Should I Castrate My Dog Or Not?

There are arguments on both sides regarding whether or not castration is acceptable. Those opposing may cite that it is unnatural to strip a dog of its reproductive capabilities, and deny it the experience of indulging in the accompanying hormone-related behaviours. Some people believe that it is cruel to never allow a dog to fulfil his instinct to mate, or that denying a bitch the opportunity to ever experience motherhood will leave her in some way discontented. Surgery itself is never without risk, and many might argue that it is not worth putting your dog through potentially life-threatening surgery, when they are in absolutely no state of ill-health.

On the other hand, castration and spaying remove the risk of some cancers of the reproductive organs entirely, and so could be argued as a preventative surgery of potentially life-saving benefit. And from the dog’s perspective, we must also look at the world in which we are asking our dogs to live in, and the social rules we expect them to conform to.

In the wild, for example, it is perfectly natural and acceptable for wolves to attack other wolves they encounter on their turf – whereas we as owners would be quite disgruntled if our dog showed such aggression to every dog he passed on his daily walk.

Competition over resources is also natural in the wild, whereas in a home environment, a dog who becomes dangerously possessive over his food bowl is most unwelcome.

There is also today’s rate of dog abandonment to consider – with rescue centres full to the brim and healthy dogs being euthanized every day, is it morally just to allow your dog to potentially produce more puppies whilst there are already so many dogs out there in desperate need of loving homes?

And if you plan not to castrate but also never to breed... then take a moment to consider how frustrating the experience of being forced to pass by a bitch in heat can be for an entire male!

By listendogtraining, Dec 18 2016 01:56PM

Dogs produce both Cortisol and Corticosterone; these hormones, produced by the adrenal gland have the effect of instigating a fight or flight survival mechanism, so they are often produced in response to the detection of escalating levels of adrenocorticotropic hormone, and the increased excitability or anxiety which this is linked to.

It could be that the dog is experiencing stress or pressure, be it psychological or physical, and so Cortisol and Corticosterone are produced as they reduce the sensation of pain – in terms of functionality, this would help to prepare the dog for a potential attack, which could be the cause of his stress.

However these also have a known anti-allergy quality, and are therefore commonly prescribed by vets for skin complaints. Whilst it would require very high doses to have an adverse affect on the behaviour of the dog being treated, it is worth questioning whether a dog is on any such prescription drug, in cases of sudden unexplained increases in aggression.

Generally speaking, it is always a good idea to get your dog checked over by a vet before you begin any program of behavioural modification, as there are indeed many medical conditions, unnoticed injuries, illnesses and prescription medications that can actually be the cause of your dog’s behavioural problem – especially in cases of sudden and unusual aggression.

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