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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!


If there's anything you'd like to see covered here, simply drop me an email at: 


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By listendogtraining, Jan 24 2017 08:12PM

Something I am always reiterating to clients, is that there is very rarely such a thing as a ‘quick fix’ when it comes to dog training and behavioural rehabilitation. If you want long-term, positive results, you need to take a long-term committed approach to focussing on the way you interact and work with your dog. I know it sounds like hard work, but dedicating yourself to putting the effort in now can have life-changing results for the both of you, if you manage to stick with it!

Three years ago, I was at my wits’ end with my Labrador cross Nova. She was born to two hyperactive, reactive parents, entirely by accident, and I took her on as an 8-week old puppy not knowing any better. I also had two children, both under the age of 3 to manage… and to say I had a lot on my plate was an understatement! Life was chaotic, and Nova’s behavioural problems made her much more of a chore than a delight. She was dog-reactive, hyperactive, destructive… you name it! We had taken her to puppy classes and paid private trainers… but nothing really seemed to make the changes we were so desperately seeking – until I took the plunge, and my husband and I agreed I was going to dedicate myself to the cause whole-heartedly. It was go hard or go home time – so I went hard! I enrolled in a 2-Year Canine Behaviour Diploma, volunteered at a local rescue, studied a number of other training and behaviour courses, graduated everything with distinction and applied for full accreditation with the Pet Professionals Guild. Now I was the pro who could tame the beast that lived with us… and I did! Three years later, Nova is an absolute delight to share our home and our lives with – the children adore her trick performances (which have earnt her a few prizes so far) and my once dog-reactive hound is now free to frolic safely and happily with any dog she chooses on our daily off-lead adventures.

But none of this was achieved quickly, or without great effort, dedication and perseverance. I kept notebooks, pin boards, checklists, flashcards… you name it and I had our latest training sessions and schedules scrawled out all over it. There were exercises we needed to repeat daily for her to learn to replace old unwanted behaviours with new ones, not to mention the myriad new cues I needed her to learn to keep her thinking/problem-solving brain active, and her reactive/anxious brain away from the control panel!

What I desperately wanted – but could not find anywhere – was a journal/planner that was designed specifically for dog owners and trainers, to help them design, plan and implement a long-term training programme that would guarantee them results. A place where goals, tricks, cues and behaviours could be listed and logged, training sessions could be recorded and progress could be charted… but it seemed like nothing like that existed. So I thought… I’ll create one!

And The Listen Dog Training Planner was born! This fantastic planner contains more than 60 pages designed specifically to help dog owners plan their training goals, and chart their progress, week after week, to keep them right on track towards their target training goal. This book is the companion no dog owner or training enthusiast should be without!

Filled with modern, positive, professional guidance and top tips throughout, this planner is filled with pages specially created to enable you to get the most out of training your dog. There are sections dedicated to puppy training, trick training, behaviour training, weekly planning, dog show tracking and so much more - that’s more than 60 pages for you to utilise to take your dog training to the next level!

The best thing about it? It’s downloadable – so once you’ve paid for it once, you need never buy another one! Simply print out and fill up your planner, use the weekly pages to progress, and once you’ve reached the end of the dog training planner, you can instantly print out another! Build upon your dog’s obedience and abilities in 8-week blocks, and you will be amazed at what you can achieve.

Want one of your own, so that you and your dog can achieve great things this year, too? These fantastic dog training journals are now available here!

Happy training!


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, 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 10:54AM

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself repeatedly talking to clients about the importance of using ridiculously strong-smelling treats in training and rehabilitation exercises, so I thought I’d go into a little detail on the matter here, in case anyone else could use a little help that only a handful of freshly cooked sausage will achieve!

The limbic system is the most primitive part of the dog’s brain, and is responsible for experiencing and expressing emotions, which can directly affect behaviour. It controls memory function, and is responsible for the way in which the dog perceives the world around him, and his own relationship to it.

The limbic system is made up of the amygdale (where aggression and fear are generated) the hypothalamus (which controls the release of hormones) the hippocampus (important for memory function) and parts of the cerebral cortex (where behaviour is organised) as well as other structures.

There is a direct link between the limbic system and the autonomic nervous system, which means that physical behaviours can be caused by emotions , e.g. a dog’s hunger and thirst is suppressed when he feels sad, which can result in many dogs not eating when they are left home alone, only to consume their food and resume drinking when their owners return. When there is any conflict in a dog’s mind over which course of action to take – because what he wants to do and what he has been instructed to do, differ – then this conflict is dealt with in the limbic system.

In terms of encouraging a dog to obey our instructions, even in times of conflicting desires, we must attempt to override this system, by either increasing the reward he gets for obeying our command, and making it greater than the reward he might naturally receive if he disobeyed (catching that cat he’s just spotted, for example) or by punishing his decision to ignore our command. If however, the reward you offer is of a lesser value to the dog than what it is currently doing, it is the limbic system that is responsible for your command being ignored.

How Does Smelly Food Help?

So important is a dog’s sense of smell, that a large part of its brain is devoted solely to the analysis of odours – the olfactory bulb. A dog has two olfactory bulbs, each weighing around 60 grams, which is four times as heavy as human olfactory bulbs. Pair this with the fact that the human brain is ten times bigger than that of a dog, and it becomes evident that the canine brain has 40 times the amount of its brain dedicated to smell alone, than we humans do.

The olfactory system is so incredibly important, as it means that a dog’s sense of smell bypasses their usual decision-making process entirely, and is linked directly to memory and emotion. As such, behaviourists can exploit this to help dogs very quickly overcome certain problems.

For example, engaging a dog’s nose with a smelly treat at the right moment can help to create a positive association where there was previously a negative one, helping to override the dog’s usual reaction to a chosen stimulus, which may previously have caused problems such as anxiety or aggression. So a dog that is anxious in the company of other dogs, children, or the vacuum cleaner, for example, can be taught to react positively if the reward is SMELLY enough. (Put the dry biscuits down and get out the cooked sausages!)

In stark contrast, a dog’s sense of taste is actually not that impressive; dogs have around 1700 tastebuds, whereas we humans have around 9000. It makes sense then, that when it comes to eating, the taste of the food is actually not the overriding factor when it comes to whether your dog is going to eat it or not, and is by no means as influential a factor to a dog as it is to a human. Smell is in fact believed to be the most important factor to a dog, followed by the texture of the food, and finally, how it tastes. So like I said – put those dry biscuits down, and get some juicy meat in the oven! The smellier the better when it comes to helping your dog commit a new skill to memory, or overriding a negative association and forming a shiny new positive one.

By listendogtraining, Nov 9 2016 02:55PM

We’ve all been there (honestly, I have too!): you’re all set to transform Fido into the next trick dog extraordinaire, clicker in hand, bait bag at the ready... you begin engaging your dog, and what happens? He stares at you blankly like you’ve left the building entirely.

‘What is this human prancing about for? What does she expect me to do? And why is she waving that bit of cheese about? If only she knew how ridiculous she looked...’

No matter how hard you try and lure the dog to even partially attempt the manoeuvre you have in mind, he is having absolutely none of it.

‘I’ll just sit and wait this little episode out. I feel like she wants to give me the cheese... if I’m patient enough normality will return, and I’ll eat it and leave!’

Some dogs are what we call ‘biddable’. Typically, dogs bred to work closely alongside humans, like Labrador Retrievers (hunting companions) or Border Collies (shepherding dogs) are incredibly biddable when it comes to obedience and trick-training, because they possess an extreme compatibility with mankind; they have been bred specifically for how well they take instruction and how enthusiastic they are to do our bidding!

Then there are those who are not so ‘biddable.’ I don’t want to shoe-box any dog by its breed, because each and every dog is an individual in its own right, but if we take breeds like hounds and terriers as an example, I can more easily demonstrate what I mean. These dogs have been bred to think more independently; to make decisions for themselves and work towards the best outcome regardless of human intervention or instruction. A terrier would be a very poor ratting dog if he waited for his human to instruct him to capture each rodent, and likewise a hound wouldn’t have a very high success rate if he had to hang around for a human to direct him. We rely on these breeds to do their work independently – to follow their own noses and pounce on prey when they deem it fit to – for optimum success in these fields.

So being a less biddable dog is by no means indicative of a dog being less intelligent – far from it, rather that a dog is less acquiescent; they are less inclined to do what you are asking of them, quite simply because they didn’t think of it themselves.

So How Do We Get These Dogs Excited About Trick Training?

A lot of tricks can taught to a biddable dog using ‘lure and reward.’ If your dog is not interested in the lure however, this method falls flat on its face pretty sharpish. So let’s switch tactics and explore a training method called ‘free shaping.’

Hunting for the behaviour that will make the clicker ‘click’ and the human drop the cheese can be the biggest reward available to an independent-minded canine; an exciting process can be far more important to these dogs than an actual goal. Think about how excited children get during an Easter egg hunt, even when the prize is only a small chocolate egg or two: nothing that spectacular, and nothing the kids haven’t had before. But in the context of a ‘hunt’ suddenly those little prizes become a whole lot more exciting – more so than if they were simply handed over to the children at the beginning of the day with no fuss whatsoever. Well it’s the same for dogs who are on the ‘hunt’ for that magical behaviour that makes the human drop the cheese!

If you teach your dog using free shaping, he will become animated, excited and ambitious; a dog who is used to free-shaping will throw out all manner of behaviours when a piece of cheese comes into play, hoping each time to hit on the correct one and release the treat, but enjoying the entire process of trying, and learning. Free shaping can turn even the most scatterbrained dog into a training maniac!

What Is Free Shaping?

Free shaping is the art of building a desired behaviour by rewarding approximations of that behaviour, and gradually holding out for closer and closer approximations, until you hit the jackpot.

Let’s take fetching an object to a human as an example: I want to train my dog to fetch me my slippers. To begin with, I’ll sit in the room with the dog, a clicker, some treats and my slippers... and I’ll do nothing. I’m looking for any behaviour at all that would be the tiniest approximation of him fetching my slippers – and I’m going to let him work this out for himself. The first rewardable move would probably be for him to look at the slippers, or point his head away from me, and in their general direction. As soon as he does (no matter how long it takes) I would immediately click and treat. (Clickers are a fantastic tool for free-shaping, as they enable you to mark the precise moment/behaviour that you wish to reward). After a while, the dog may do this again (probably by accident at this stage) and I would immediately click-treat again. After a while, the light-bulb moment occurs, as the dog realises looking at the slippers gets him a treat. So he offers this behaviour repeatedly. Now you hold out for a closer approximation: I want him to look at them and take a step towards them. Click-treat. Once this behaviour is offered repeatedly, I’m going to hold out for more once again. I want him to look at them, walk towards them and nudge them with his muzzle.

You see how it works? You do not lure your dog to perform a behaviour; he must work it out entirely for himself based on experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. All of a sudden, the thrill of the chase is more fun than eating the cheese! And the more you often you do this, the more you’ll find yourself with a dog who is thinking, experimenting, throwing out behaviours, and working things out in his brain. If you put in the time and effort to create excitement in your dog’s mind for the learning process itself, you’ll find yourself working with a highly focussed, highly engaged friend who is as enthusiastic about trick-training as you are!

Try This Free Shaping Exercise:

Step 1. Place a shoebox lid on the floor, and reward ANY interaction with it. Do not lure him, just reward ANYTHING he does with the lid – look at it, paw it, bite it. We are teaching the dog that exploration, and action earns him rewards... doing nothing earns him nothing! We are teaching him to think. (If it helps, you can throw the treat in the lid after the click to give him a clue that this is a ‘hot’ area! You can also put your hands behind your back if your dog is just obsessing over the treats.

Step 2. Choose a behaviour, and shape it (e.g ‘pick up the box lid’). Break that behaviour down into frames (e.g. 1. Dog looks away from me; 2. Dog looks at box; 3. Dog takes a step towards box; 4. Dog lowers muzzle towards box; 5. Dog opens mouth, etc.) and reward each behaviour. Reward each tiny frame at least 3 or 4 times, before you hold out for more – do not allow the dog to fail too much or he will become frustrated/discouraged.

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