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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 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, Nov 10 2016 12:11PM

The hippocampus is described as the most important part of the limbic system, because it is responsible for emotions and memory, and plays a dramatic role in the capability of a dog to be taught and trained.

For example, dog trainers of the ‘old-school’ variety were firm advocators of training by punishing undesirable behaviour – 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, achieving success by encouraging and rewarding the right behaviour, as opposed to punishing the wrong behaviour.

Thanks to the hippocampus, 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!

So if you want your dog to really remember something, hijack the way his mind deals with committing information to memory, and ensure he’s feeling good during training. The easiest way? Ditch the punishments and dole out the rewards!

By listendogtraining, Nov 10 2016 10:40AM

Today’s dog exists in a wide and wonderful array of breeds. This diverse spectrum of shapes, sizes and colours is bursting with dogs which have been uniquely ‘designed’ to serve a purpose - or selection of purposes - befitting the requirements of man; from companion, to hunter, to protector, to herder, and so on.

As a result of the multiplicity of roles available today for man’s best friend to serve in, dogs are selectively bred to strongly possess any traits relevant to the selected task at hand, which would make them well-suited to the role.

A favourable trait for a hunting dog, for example would be a keen and strong nose; hounds are notoriously adept at picking up scent trails and locating prey based on this trait. A working dog like a sled-pulling Husky, on the other hand, has a completely different purpose, for which a keen sense of smell is not a priority; (in fact it would be detrimental to have a sledding dog stop the smell the roses every 5 yards!) in this case, a dog may be bred with increased strength, stamina and endurance in mind. And finally, if the dog’s purpose is to serve as a protector or guardian, (to provide security to a property or person) they may be bred to be moderately more aggressive, with increased alertness.

Always take a breed’s primary purpose into consideration when choosing a puppy – think about the effect owning an energetic working dog, for example, might have on your family, and ask yourself whether you are able to offer the dog all the appropriate outlets for all that energy and endurance on a regular basis, in order to prevent frustration, and problem behaviours manifesting.

Remember, all dogs display instinctual behaviours – things they are naturally driven to do, and things which some owners may find problematic, such as chasing small animals, or digging up the garden. Rather than trying to prevent these behaviours altogether, it is better to try and channel the dog’s focus and energy into another, more positive or ‘civilized’ activity, or the dog will become frustrated. One example of such an activity, designed to exercise both a dog’s mind and his body, as well as releasing any pent up energy, is agility.

A well-exercised and adequately mentally stimulated dog is less likely to become bored, or frustrated at home.

If a dog displays a strong prey drive, and is always chasing after cats and squirrels, then hunting or retrieving is an excellent activity to utilise and channel this behaviour into something positive. Flyball is another great form of exercise, for dogs who enjoy running, jumping and retrieving.

The key to keeping your dog content (on top of providing him with a safe home, a good diet, and adequate exercise) is to ensure that his natural drives and instincts are fulfilled in healthy ways. If in doubt, do not hesitate to get in touch!

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!

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