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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, May 15 2017 10:47AM

In recent years, the problem of ‘reactivity’ has come to the forefront in the dog training world – and it’s something I have a lot of experience with. When I got my oldest dog, ten years ago, he started his life with us as a happy and confident youngster. He was socially inquisitive but not overbearing, and interacted kindly with those of his own species and those of ours.


Sadly, within his first year, he went on to experience two highly intimidating encounters with dogs many multiples of his size, which had a dramatically detrimental effect on his social interactions going forward. One encounter involved him being chased and nipped into a rabbit hole by two uncontrolled German Shepherds - hats off to their herding skills, which were 100% en-pointe for their breed… but I wish they’d been on-lead – the other was an outright attack from a stocky dog who helped himself to a firm grip on my youngster’s skull before eventually being prised off by an owner who reassured me his dog’s behaviour was nothing more than amicable.


Unfortunately, my tiny terrier cross didn’t take it amicably and, as a result, his once happy-go-lucky demeanour was replaced with a desperately anxious persona when in the presence of other dogs, which he fronted out with highly aggressive outbursts directed at any and all canines within his line of sight.


Rest assured, my now 10-year-old mongrel is a mellow old soul these days, who will happily engage with every canine we encounter on our daily adventures; any whom he becomes wary of after a customary bum-sniff receive a curt vocal warning to back off and nothing more, those he approves of are invited for a quick rotating frolic before we all go along our separate ways. These are healthy canine interactions.




Now… dealing with a 3kg reactive dog is one thing, but a dog displaying these same reactive behaviours who weighs 25kg+ presents an even more difficult-to-manage problem to owners, who are pulled into roads, pulled right off their feet, and even suffer serious shoulder/arm/hand injuries as a result of trying to maintain control of their large reactive dog. So, what can be done?


If you are experiencing reactivity issues with your dog that are having a major impact on yours and your dog’s daily lives, then don’t hesitate to get in touch with a quality dog behaviourist or dog trainer in your area who can help you devise the best plan for dealing with the issue going forward.




Remember that generally speaking, reactivity is a fear-based response. Your dog is attempting to manipulate what it perceives to be a threatening environment using the only tools available to it. When we leash our dogs and take them out into the big wide world, think about how much control they relinquish to us. Who decides which path we take? The speed we travel at? When it’s time to go home? How tight that collar is? Whether we’re going to stop at that lamppost or power-walk straight past it because we need to get to work soon? We do. Dogs just come along for the ride. Now imagine you had that little control over your own journey from A to B, your hands are tied behind your back, and a madman wielding an axe has just appeared on the path up ahead you. You’re being dragged towards him, and he’s running towards you. You need to change his mind about coming towards you: reactivity.


Never scold or punish your dog during a reactive outburst – I have clients say to me “It’s so embarrassing when she does this, how should we snap her out of it?” The answer is: you’re looking in the wrong place for the solution. If your dog is already reacting over-threshold (all focus on the subject in question, entirely non-responsive to physical manipulation, vocal reprimand or food offered by owner) then it is too late for you to reach your dog right now. You have no choice but to increase the distance between your dog and its subject, until your dog becomes responsive once again. Now, look at how far away you are and take note…this is your control distance going forward. Never force your dog any closer than this to another dog, and if you spy another dog in the distance further away than this, begin the slow and steady process of counter-conditioning now.


You can read more about counter-conditioning in my article on classical conditioning against anxieties, here.


In the meantime, do not hesitate to get in touch with a quality dog behaviourist or dog trainer in your area who can help you devise the best plan for effectively dealing with the issue going forward. There are many things you can try under the supervision of a professional which can help to address your dog’s instinctive emotional response to the presence of other dogs (or men, or cars, or whatever it is that causes your dog to react), your dog’s choice of calming behaviours/coping strategies, and the priority of your dog’s focus when out and about.


It is not impossible to help improve life with a reactive dog… ditch the 5am walks and take action that your dog will thank you for!





By listendogtraining, Jan 5 2017 08:00AM

When it comes to dealing with separation anxiety, an owner must first of all ensure the dog’s needs are being met at the most basic levels. Ensure the dog is adequately exercised, and in the case of a dog with separation anxiety, I would recommend a good bout of physical activity (a long walk, a game of fetch at the park, etc.) before the owner is due to leave the dog home alone. Of course different breeds have different requirements depending upon their physicality and intelligence levels - a pug will not require the same amount of exercise as a Labrador Retriever for example - but all require daily mental and physical exertion in order to spend excess energy. It is worth noting that instinctual drives are a lot stronger in some breeds also (the prey drive for example) and if left unfulfilled in this area, some breeds will show real signs of anxiety and frustration. Border Collies are an incredibly intelligent breed, bred to herd – if they are bought as family pets and given little to do all day, they can become anxious and frustrated. Similarly, Labradors are also working dogs, bred to retrieve – a great idea to help a Labrador fulfil these urges and alleviate frustration would be to enrol them in a flyball class, or play retrieval games of your own; throwing a tennis ball for a good old-fashioned game of fetch is a great example. Excess energy and frustration only adds fuel to the fire when it comes to anxiety and the resultant destructive behaviour, so first and foremost, ensure this box is ticked, and excess energy is well and truly spent.


As an owner, it is important to remember not to scold the dog for chewing up furniture or destroying your belongings when you return home to find carnage – the dog probably did this hours before your return, and so won’t link any punishment you dish out to the act of chewing up your home.


As John Fisher notes, punishing the dog upon your return will in fact only serve to intensify the tension and anxiety; not only is the dog concerned about being left, but it now has the added concern over what bad thing will happen when the owner returns.


Always keep hellos and goodbyes calm and neutral; do not over-excite your dog and increase his levels of excitement and anticipation at this critical time. Some owners will bend and lavish their dog with attention the minute they step through the door after a day at work, squealing sweet nothings in a high pitched voice, which only serves to whip the dog up into a frenzied and completely unbalanced state.


Owners must also remember that it is not the moment that they step out of the house that the dog becomes anxious... it begins minutes and even hours before. Just like Pavlov’s dogs, the pet dog will have come to recognise a sequence of behaviours, or even individual behaviours as indicators that they are going to be left alone, through repeated association. Because Pavlov repeatedly served food after he rang the bell, the dogs were classically conditioned to respond to the bell alone. In just the same way, owners classically condition their dogs in the home, by repeatedly leaving the house every time they put their shoes and coat on, for example. Where the owner’s act of putting on his coat was once a neutral stimulus, because it has been repeatedly paired with the owner leaving, it becomes a conditioned stimulus. The dog has been classically conditioned to feel anxious, before the owner has even left the home, so it’s a good idea to break this cycle, by breaking this association. The owner can do this by repeatedly performing these actions that previously caused anxiety in the dog, without leaving the home. So an owner might put on their shoes and coat, then sit and read the paper, before putting the shoes and coat away again; or pick up their house keys and handbag, then take them into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. You could even re-condition these stimuli with a new, positive association – put on your shoes and coat, then take your dog into the garden for a 10-minute game of tug or fetch.


Instigating a good program of separation training is also key to success in this area. John Fisher highlights the importance of first getting the dog to accept separation whilst the owner is still in the house; if the dog follows his/her owner throughout the house constantly, then he will never cope with being home alone. Remedy this by gradually introducing some distance. All the key elements of desensitisation are to be remembered here; do this slowly, over a period of time, and taking small steps that the dog is comfortable with. For example, begin by leaving the dog alone in a room, just for a moment, with you on the other side of the door. Then increase the amount of time you are out of the room for. Next, take yourself into the garden, just for a moment. Again, begin to progressively increase each interval of your absence. Keep working to increase the amount of time you are absent, and the distance between you and your dog, but keep it gradual. Eventually you can reintroduce the anxiety triggers, previously mentioned.


Work slowly and patiently – successful desensitisation is not a quick process, but if carried out in the correct manner with patience and perseverance, the results can be life-changing! As always, if in doubt, always seek the advice of a professional and allow your dog to be individually assessed.




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!





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