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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, Sep 5 2017 01:04PM

For decades, we as dog owners were taught that in order to achieve a harmonious home life with our canine companions, we must dominate our dogs, however modern theory is now turning old-school practise on its head – and here’s why...

The studies from which the old-school dominance theory were developed, were all based on Rudolph Schenkel’s 1947 studies on the behaviour of captive wolves. In 1999, L. D. Mech challenged these studies by highlighting the dramatic effects on wolf behaviour that were caused by 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 (think Big Brother House for wolves); 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. Ray 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) and most - if not all - of these studies 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 medley 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.

We do not need to assert ourselves as an ‘Alpha’ figure over our dogs, because modern studies show that neither free-roaming dogs nor free-roaming wolves actually behave in this way.

In fact attempting to dominate using punishment can have these detrimental effects:

Increase the dog’s fear or anxiety about the situation in which it is used. For example, if your dog barks every time he sees another dog, and so you hit him, yank his choke chain or give his electric collar a little zap to prevent the barking, you may end up with a dog that develops an extreme aggression problem around others of his own species. Why? Because you’ve taught him that every time a dog appears, he experiences pain! Good luck letting him off-lead at the park once he’s learnt that lesson. He may end up doing his best to keep those other dogs away – whatever that takes.

Decrease the dog’s ability to learn. Science has proven to us that the parts of a dog’s brain responsible for making associations and creating long-term memories function better when the dog is enjoying himself! If you’re doling out punishments for bad behaviour rather than rewards for good behaviour, your dog will end up miserable, and your training will be less efficient!

Inhibit behaviour – but leave the underlying emotional response unchanged, leading to bigger problems... Let’s take separation anxiety as an example. Every time you leave the house, your dog barks incessantly, and your neighbours are complaining. So you start ‘training’ him out of the behaviour by leaving the room, and promptly returning with a water bottle to spray your dog in the face every time he barks. The barking might eventually stop. But you have not dealt with your dog’s underlying anxiety about being left alone at all... if anything you’ve now given him cause to fear your return as well as your departure – so now he really has got a lot on his plate! Now that he is afraid to bark, his anxiety is likely to manifest itself in other ways, which could include house soiling, destructive chewing, and a whole host of other problem behaviours.

Damage Your Relationship. Why did you get a dog? I’m guessing because you wanted a companion, either for yourself or your family, for you to bond with and enjoy. Repeatedly doling out aversive, painful and scary punishments to your dog does nothing for his relationship with you, contrary to any old-fashioned rhetoric you may have been told about dominance and ‘alpha’ leadership.

Remember, your dog is not trying to take over the world; he’s just after a nice life... aren’t we all?!

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, Apr 8 2016 04:15PM

It’s incredible just how many emotions and messages dogs can convey through the use of their tails; for example, the way a dog carries its tail in a given situation can communicate his pack position (whether he believes himself to be undeniably the top dog with a tail held vertically, and curved over his back, or whether he’s feeling frightened or completely bottom of the pile, with his tail between legs), his state of mind (a lowered tail might signify that he is feeling uneasy or unwell whilst a fast tail-wag shows obvious excitement), and his true intention in spite of contradictory behaviours (for example a broad tail wag during play fighting is there to reassure everyone involved that the dog’s seemingly aggressive actions are for the purposes of play only, and that he means no harm).

It’s no surprise then that dogs with docked tails can often face problems when it comes to how other dogs respond to them in social encounters, as they are missing a vital communicative tool.

For example, they are unable to use a lowered tail to signify submission or appeasement if they need to, and they are also unable to offer a reassuring wag during otherwise seemingly aggressive play behaviour – two situations which could possible lead to an unpleasant encounter if the dog’s intentions are misunderstood as a result of his docked tail.

Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, docking was banned in England and Wales; however an exemption was put in place for spaniels, terriers and hunt, point and retrieve breeds that are used to work, as long as the docking is carried out by a vet within the first 5 days of the puppy’s life.

At Listen Dog, we strongly recommend you do not invest in a puppy with a docked tail – not only is it entirely unnecessary in a pet, but it will strongly hamper your dog’s ability to communicate with friends of his own kind… which could end him up in all sorts of bother!

By listendogtraining, Apr 8 2016 02:49PM

When it comes to recognising fear in a dog’s posture, the signs are unmistakable; the dog will cower and shrink, attempting to make itself as small and seemingly insignificant as possible. Since insecurity and fear are linked emotions, it would make sense to follow the standard presumption that the dog who displays shrinking, submissive behaviour is actually the insecure dog, as opposed to the dog who is displaying dominant physical behaviour, whereby the dog attempts to make itself appear as large as possible.

Some people argue to the contrary however, that the dog who attempts to make himself as large as possible, is in fact doing so as a result of his own insecurity; and is behaving thusly not because he is dominant, but because he feels concerned, anxious or worried… i.e – completely lacking in confidence about the situation he has found himself in.

In her Article, ‘Understanding How dogs Communicate With Each Other’ Pat Miller describes the studies of Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian dog trainer who collectively referred to submissive or appeasing gestures as ‘calming signals’. Rugaas described these gestures as demonstrating the dog’s intent to get along with other pack members – which could be argued to contradict the beliefs of some others, who would suggest that these gestures are an instinctual response of fear or anxiety in the presence of a more dominant dog (or person!) Rugaas implies that these behaviours are in fact deliberate, and decided upon as the best course of action by a confident dog whose motivation is keeping the peace – and ultimately, self-preservation.

Pat Miller goes on to sub-divide appeasing gestures further into: active submission and passive submission, with active submission being recognised by an increase in activity alongside a diminished posture, whilst passive submission is displayed by decreased activity and a lowered posture. With active submission, it is suggested that the ‘submissive dog’ actually wants attention from the individual he/she is interacting with, whereas the main goal of a dog displaying passive submission is to divert attention from himself entirely.

So if it is taken into consideration that there may be two types of submissive reactions, it could be argued that one IS born out of fear/insecurity (passive submission – the dog is concerned at what this social interaction might lead to, or feels unable to deal with situation at all, so attempts to avoid it entirely), whilst the other is displayed by the more CONFIDENT dog, who is simply happy to appease (active submission – the dog wants to make it blindingly obvious to the dog they are communicating with that they pose absolutely no threat, and are not looking for a fight, and are happy to be direct in their communication of this).

So perhaps it might just be the case that some dogs behaving submissively are not doing it due to their own insecurity at all, but simply because they know it to be the best way to have a socially pleasant encounter, and are happy to play the peacemaker.

Never judge a book by its cover!

By listendogtraining, Apr 2 2016 10:00AM

Dogs can be noisy companions, but if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, here’s a quick guide on what all that noise really means…

The Five Barks:

1. The first type of sound dogs make is an infantile cry, whimper or whine. The effect of a pup’s cry on its mother is so powerful, that it triggers a release of oxytocin, which in turn affects her mammary glands by stimulating milk let-down. It has been noted however that dogs actually maintain the use of these infantile sounds throughout their adult lives, for the benefit of their human owners, since they illicit such a positive response of attention!

2. Warning sounds, such as barking or growling, are used by dogs to communicate that there is a potential threat or something that we should be aware of, or that we ourselves should not confront the dog. Rapid strings of three to four barks, repeated after a pause suggests that the dog is suspicious that there may be something nearby, but it is, as yet, unsure as to what it is. Continuously rapid barking is used to raise the alarm; the higher the rate of barking, the more concerned/excited the dog is, which may reflect how close the perceived danger is. Growling is very straightforward – it is a warning to stay away. Depending upon the dog’s body language it can be a growl induced by fear, and a dog’s attempt to defend itself and avoid a potential fight, it could be a possessive warning to stay away from the dog’s food or toy, or it can be a simple statement: come closer and I’m happy to attack you.

3. Eliciting/calling sounds like howling or attention-seeking barking are the dog’s way of trying to establish communication, or companionship. David Mech analysed vocal communication in wolves and noted what he called a ‘loneliness howl’, which some dogs who are suffering from separation anxiety have been known to produce. It is a call out for the other members of their ‘pack’ to respond or return. Howling is used by the wolf to coordinate and reunite the pack amongst other things. Attention-seeking barking is a similar sort of communication; this string of intermittent singular barks is a common response to being confined or left alone, and is again a call out for companionship.

4. The yelp is used in cases of withdrawal, distress or pain, and is easily recognisable.

5. Pleasure sounds, like the continuation of infantile sounds into a dog’s adulthood, seem to be reserved only for communication with humans, as opposed to other dogs and are most commonly a moan, which can sometimes mix with a high pitch whimper.

How Can I Tell Whether My Dog Is Warning, or Attention-Seeking?

Barking can signify an imminent threat, excitement and more; but attention-seeking barking and warning barking can often be differentiated by the frequency of the bark. Rapid midrange barking for example signifies the basic alarm call: someone or something is coming, and action should be taken to prepare. The rate of barking will likely increase as the dog becomes more excited and the threat is perceived to be getting closer, whilst a lowering pitch suggests the threat is now close.

Attention-seeking barking however is a little more sporadic-sounding, more like a string of individual barks, each punctuated by a pause. This is a dog’s way of calling out for companionship, whilst an individual bark with a slightly elongated and stuttered beginning, accompanied by a play bow is, of course, an invitation to play.

Remember How Dogs Really Communicate…

A dog’s voice is not at all its most powerful form of communication – if you really want to know how a dog is feeling, you are better off observing their body language. Fear-based aggression can typically be identified by a crouching stance (lowered body), a lowered head, ears flattened back towards the dogs head, a lowered tail, accompanied by snarling and exposed teeth.

It is also important to understand how a dog will read your body language, so that you can ensure you are sending the right signals out to any dog that you greet, particularly an unknown dog you are meeting for the first time.

For example, staring a dog straight in the face – which is obviously a polite way to greet another human – is in fact incredibly confrontational for a dog, and may well be interpreted as an indication that you are an aggressor. If the dog you are meeting with perceives you as a threat due to this ‘confrontational ‘ greeting, you may well find the dog preparing itself to attack, rather than happily accept a pat on the head!

The best approach to take when meeting a new dog is to remain calm, quiet and relaxed, and let the dog come to you. Allow it to sniff you, and if it wanders off, wait for the dog to decide to return to you, rather than follow after it. Once the dog itself decides to initiate contact, you can then greet it with some affection, although still try not to make direct eye-contact at first, to ensure you don’t accidently send any signals that may mistakenly be perceived as threatening.

So many dog bites could be easily prevented if we tried a little harder to communicate with dogs in their language, rather than punishing them when they fail to understand ours!

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