Motivation

When I started out in dog training, one of the buzzwords was ‘motivation’. I heard how a dog has got to be motivated to work with you/for you. If they won’t do what you want, they’re not motivated enough. Motivate them more! Use better treats. Better treats not working? That’s ok, just take away their meals and hand feed them throughout the day in return for them doing what you want. In fact, in the early days, I went to hear a very well-known dog trainer speak, and he said that he simply refused to work with anyone who wouldn’t commit to this method of getting their dog to earn each mouthful of food.

Now, call me a nay-sayer if you will, but as far as I’m concerned, this idea of ‘deprive and reward’ is simply not a kind way to interact with your dog. And it’s not ‘positive’ dog training.

Eating = survival

The reason dogs are motivated by food is because they need it to survive. Anything we need in order to survive is going to be inherently valuable to us. To only fulfil that basic need conditional to their compliance with our every wish is not fair.

Just imagine having to earn every mouthful of food individually. How stressful would that be? This means the dog has to be constantly on alert, just to ensure they get this basic need met. Your relationship with your dog becomes based on the somewhat menacing premise of ‘sure, you can eat… but only if you do exactly what I say.’

What are you asking your dog to do and why?

If the only way you can convince your dog to do something is to compel them to do it (essentially by threat of starvation), why is that? I’ve outlined what I find to be the most common reasons for training problems below, and in any of these situations, just increasing the value of your rewards until the dog complies (and he probably will eventually comply – we all have a price, especially if we’re constantly hungry!) is not going to benefit the overall well-being of the dog, and could in fact, adversely impact it.

1.      Does the dog enjoy doing whatever it is you’re asking them to do?

Sadly, a lot of the training we do with dogs is for our egos or our entertainment. We feel good if we can get the dog to perform. We tend to teach tricks that indulge us, rather than life skills. If the dog enjoys what you’re teaching them to do and deems it a useful skill, it’s likely that you won’t need them to be hungry in order for them to cooperate. I don’t think my dogs have ever turned their noses up at a bit of chicken, despite regular meals being provided!

If your dog does not enjoy it, is it really necessary? Is there an alternative?

2.      Does what you’re asking them to do cause them pain or discomfort?

If what you’re asking your dog to do is causing them pain, you simply shouldn’t be asking them to do it. We can inadvertently be the cause of our dog’s pain (read more here), their conformation can make certain acts uncomfortable (I’ve come across many people who consider it a real achievement to convince a greyhound to sit, despite the fact that it is not a position most greyhounds would ever adopt naturally, as they’re simply not the right shape for it), or they could have an underlying health issue. The environment can also play a part- would you want to sit on cold wet grass in winter? Or a burning hot pavement in summer? Tiles and wooden floors can be slippery and create issues when the dog tries to move around. Compelling them to do something which is causing them pain has the potential to exacerbate any underlying health problems.

3.      Is the dog in a state of stress and unable to focus on the task at hand?

If your dog is too stressed to focus on the task at hand, your focus should be on getting them out of the stressful situation, reducing their stress and giving them coping mechanisms. This stress can be anything from being overwhelmed by the environment, being in the presence of triggers (other dogs, loud noises, bikes etc.) to chronic stress from a stressful lifestyle, not enough sleep or the wrong sorts of activities. If your dog is stressed, they are not in a position to learn anything, and the focus should be on stress reduction, not motivation.

4.      Does your dog understand what you’re asking them to do?

If they don’t understand what you’re asking, take a look at how you’re asking. Is your body language at odds with your request? Do you need to break it down into smaller steps? Is what you’re asking them to do sensible from a dog’s perspective? One example where we humans often fall down in this regard is asking a dog-reactive dog to ‘sit’ when they see another dog. Firstly, sitting when you’re in a state of agitation goes against everything your body will be telling you to do. Second of all, sitting is a calming signal, part of a dog’s communication toolkit. We’ll never understand all of the nuances of canine communication, so expecting your dog to utilise a feature of their communication on command in response to a perceived threat from another dog, is rather unfair. Just because he’s getting paid for it and therefore complying, doesn’t make it feel right.

 

So how should we manage our dog’s food?

fia eating smallFood should be a pleasure for your dog, and it should be provided reliably and predictably in a stress-free environment. Ensure your dog has enough good quality food, often enough, preferably with a bit of variety. If you plan on using food throughout the day, and your dog has weight issues, by all means put someof your dog’s allowance aside. But they should still be having a substantial meal which they can eat in peace and at their leisure.

 

For food rewards, you can always use small amounts of lean protein like chicken, which is unlikely to impact your dog’s weight and is usually a big hit. I often fry lamb’s liver and cut it up into very small pieces. Some dogs will even be quite pleased with fruit and vegetables.

Remember, if your dog is not interested in taking tasty morsels, something is probably wrong. They are probably stressed or in pain. I’d happily bet that in 90% of situations, it’s not a lack of motivation.

 

Fags and Fido- Another Reason to Quit?

As New Year’s Resolutions abound, many people are attempting to quit smoking. That’s obviously great news for them, their family and friends, but also for their dog. We don’t often consider the impact that smoking can have on our pets, but understanding the serious implications the habit can have on furry family members can serve as an extra push to kick the habit.

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Passive Smoking

The detrimental effects of smoking on the smoker, as well as on their family, have been widely publicised, and it is well known that smoking, as well as passive smoking, can cause serious health problems, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and lung disease.

We also know that 85% of cigarette smoke is invisible and that toxic particles accumulate on the surfaces of our homes, including furniture and carpets as well as clinging to our clothes and hair, long after the smoking has stopped. These surface accumulations are known as third hand smoke, and are thought to be even more carcinogenic than second hand smoke. The particles are released from the surfaces they cling to and react with other indoor pollutants, creating a further toxic mix. Airing does not remove these particles, clothes and surfaces must be thoroughly cleaned to get rid of them.

And, we also know that it’s not just people who are effected by second and third hand smoke. Our pets are even more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of the by-products of smoking. This is because:

  • They can absorb the toxins clinging to carpets and floors through their paws;
  • The toxins will transfer to their coats, which they may then lick (particularly problematic in cats, who are fastidious groomers!);
  • They are lower down and closer to the carpets and furniture and the particles they will be releasing;
  • They often do not have the opportunity to remove themselves from the smoky environment.

Research into the effect of passive smoking on dogs has shown that living with a smoker leads to:

  • an increased risk of nasal and lung cancer;
  • cell damage;
  • increased weight gain after neutering;
  • an increased risk of corneal ulceration (ouch!).

Although there are limited amounts of research into the effects of passive smoking on dogs specifically, I think it is safe to assume that they will also be subject to the myriad of problems experienced by humans who are subjected to second and third hand smoke. I also can’t help but think how much more unpleasant it must be for dogs to be around cigarette smoke with their far superior sense of smell.

Nicotine

The other risk to dogs from smoking comes by way of nicotine poisoning, and ironically, this can be more common whilst owners are attempting to quit, owing to the presence of nicotine replacement patches, gums etc. in the home. The toxic level of nicotine in dogs is 0.5-1.0mg per pound (approx. 500g) of body weight. 10mg/kg of body weight can be enough to have fatal consequences. The effects of nicotine poisoning can be seen within an hour and include:

  • Vomiting;
  • Abnormal heart rate;
  • Drooling;
  • Incoordination;
  • Hallucination;
  • Tremors;
  • Weakness;
  • Collapse.

If you think your dog has ingested nicotine containing products, do contact your vet.

Mitigating the Risk

If you are a smoker, you can reduce the risk to your dog by not smoking in the house. Remember, however, that the toxic particles will still be present on your clothes and hair, so this does not eliminate the risk to your pet.

If you are quitting, the great news is that your pet will be living in a much less toxic environment soon. In the meantime, be sure to keep all nicotine containing items out of your dog’s reach, including cigarette butts, which puppies particularly will often pick up to investigate, and which contain high levels of nasty toxins.

Christmas Puppies

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When I was working in London, January through to March was always one of my busiest times for puppy classes. These first few months of the year nearly always saw me more than double the number of classes I ran to cope with demand.

The reason? Christmas puppies!

Every year, the dog world appeals to people not to buy puppies for Christmas. And we’re not being curmudgeonly, I swear! We’ve just heard too many heart-breaking stories about the fate of Christmas puppies, and the older dogs who are often abandoned to make space for a newer, cuter replacement. Yet the demand for puppy classes in the New Year shows that Christmas is still a really popular time to buy puppies.

So, what sort of thing should you consider if you are thinking about a Christmas puppy?

Where will your puppy come from?

As a dog trainer, I know about the Christmas puppy rush. Guess who else knows? Puppy farmers. They try to cash in on the demand, and if people are in a rush to buy a puppy in time for Christmas, the risks of them falling foul of an unscrupulous puppy farmer are higher. There are lots of really good guides out there to avoiding puppies from puppy farms (like this one). Ending up with a puppy from a puppy farm increases demand for puppies bred in deplorable conditions and sentences female dogs to a lifetime of having litter after litter, each one taken away from them. Additionally, your chances of having a sickly puppy or one with behavioural problems rises exponentially. You can read more about puppy farming here.

Who’ll do all of the hard work?

Puppies take a lot of work. Who’s going to spend the Christmas period taking puppy out every 30-60 minutes, cleaning up the accidents, making 4 meals a day for puppy, picking things up off the floor that your puppy will chew, and comforting children who don’t understand why the puppy is nipping them or chewing the new toys that Santa brought them? It’s not many people’s idea of a perfect Christmas!

Puppies are not puppies for long!

Christmas puppies, as with all puppies, don’t waste much time growing up. By 6-8 months of age (just 4 months after you bring your puppy home), you’ll have a dog who has the size and appearance of an adult dog, and who acts like an adolescent. According to figures from the RSPCA over 600 pets were abandoned over the festive period in 2015. But the real peak in animal neglect occurred 6 months later. By then the Christmas puppies had become summer adolescents. Adolescent dogs can be really hard work. But many Christmas puppies don’t even make it to the summer- the reality of having a peeing, pooing, barking, nipping puppy often hits home a lot sooner, and shelters always report an increase in puppies being handed in the weeks following the festive period.

Are you prepared for a significant ongoing financial commitment?

Who else finds it depressing looking at their bank account figures in January? Now imagine you’ll have to shell out for vaccines (I haven’t priced these but I’m guessing you’ll be paying E80-E100 each vaccine visit), puppy classes (E100-E150), dog food, leads, harnesses. Does everyone in the household go to school or work? Add dog walkers or daycare arrangements to that too. I read recently that over an average lifespan of 15 years, a dog will cost you £10,000-£20,000.

It’s a gift with a lot of responsibility attached!

Christmas puppies are usually gifts. Does the recipient definitely want a puppy? Are they prepared for all of the responsibilities that come with a puppy? I had a client once whose husband had surprised her with a puppy. They also had an 18 month child and the husband worked away. She needed the added responsibility of a puppy like a hole in the head!

And please, please don’t buy puppies for children. Children cannot be expected to be responsible for another living being. It’s not fair on the child, and it’s not fair on the dog. An adult in the house needs to be willing to take responsibility for the dog (for the next 12-15 years) long after the kids may have lost interest of moved out. Of course it’s fine if the children want to help out in a supervised capacity. You can read more on dogs and children here.

Is it really the best time?

Christmas is chaotic for most of us. Do you know what a baby dog, who’s just been taken away from his mother and siblings and placed in a new and potentially frightening environment definitely doesn’t need in their first couple of weeks??? The excitement of Christmas. They do not need to have a multitude of (perhaps tipsy) visitors cooing over them and handling them. They do not need new owners who have to keep leaving the house for their next festive engagement. They do not need excitable children running around. Rather, they need calmness, stability and time (and up to 20 hours sleep a day) to slowly get used to their new life in a way they can cope with.

What about a Christmas rescue dog?

Thinking of adopting an older dog instead? Always commendable to choose a dog in need, but unless you’re a Christmas recluse, I’d still recommend holding out until a calmer time. As with puppies, settling into a new home can be difficult for a rescue dog. Rescue dogs are often really exhausted from the stress they’ve had to deal with, and some need weeks of just sleeping. They need their new owners to have time to just be with them. As with puppies, they need calmness and stability and time! Expecting them to deal with the excitement of Christmas as soon as they arrive is a big ask.

So if you really want a puppy, why not clear some time in your calendar during spring (as an added bonus, spring/summer puppies are often easier to toilet train than winter ones as they tend to find going out in the warmer weather less objectionable), take your time to find a reputable breeder and to research the breed of dog that will be most suited to your lifestyle. If you’re thinking of getting the dog for someone else, why not tell them of your intentions, and get them this wonderful DVD about caring for a puppy as a stocking filler, and enjoy Christmas without the added worry of a new furry arrival!

 

Creating an Enriched Environment for your Dog

When I was doing my Education with Turid, enriched environments were one of the first things we learned about. An enriched environment is basically an area that’s been set up to stimulate the dog’s senses- things to look at, sniff, touch, investigate, climb on, etc. The dog should be left to interact with the enriched environment without any input from the humans and be free to walk away when they want to.

I’ll admit, I was sceptical… it sounded almost too easy to be true. Would putting out random stuff for a dog to investigate really make a difference to their behaviour? Well, 18 months later, at the end of our course, we all had to present a project. Some of my fellow students had been working in shelters, and for their projects had put Turid’s methods into practice in the shelters, including the enriched environment, and recorded their findings. A lot of the dogs these people were working with had real issues- some were reactive to other dogs, some were reactive to people, some were just incredibly stressed or shut down. The changes they reported back were incredible. The dogs became calmer, and more focused and their behaviour improved.

 

Shelter dog Sheena

A shelter dog (courtesy of Caroline Lewis) unwinding in an enriched environment.

So if I wasn’t convinced before, I certainly was then. Often, we’re reluctant to try the more simple things, especially for complex problems. We think ‘that won’t work for my dog’, and we don’t try, or we give up too soon. But if enriched environments can help shelter dogs, often some of the most stressed and ‘difficult’ dogs in our society, there’s no reason not to try them with our own dogs.

 

When to use an enriched environment

Dogs are naturally curious creatures, so really an enriched environment is a great idea for any dog. Putting out new things will pique their curiosity, and as they amble around investigating they’ll be using their brains and developing confidence. And of course, it’s interesting, in the same way as browsing your favourite shop or discovering a new place and seeing new things is for us.

Bad weather day? Dog on restricted exercise after an injury? It’s a great way to alleviate boredom! You don’t need to go anywhere, you just need to find new things to put in the same place.

Enriched environments are also particularly useful with dogs who are scared or stressed. It’s a great way of providing mental stimulation without subjecting them to walks or places they might find stressful or scary. Also, because there’s no human input once the environment has been created, the dogs’ confidence can grow. They’re making decisions and thinking for themselves. They have choice, an essential component for overcoming fear. They’re getting practice at encountering strange or new objects in a safe space, which they can leave at any time.

With dogs who are scared or stressed, they may initially have very little interest in investigating. They may constantly look to their owner for reassurance. They may find the enriched environment overwhelming and leave very quickly. That’s absolutely fine. Just try again a few days later. And then a few days later. You can time your dog to see if they begin to get more confident/more interested/more relaxed.

For dogs who are over-excited or lacking focus, environmental enrichment can teach them to slow down and begin to engage with their environment. Once they slow down, they can begin to think before they act. They’ll be using their noses, and sniffing slows the heart rate, calming them down (read more about sniffing here). As with fearful or stressed dogs, it may take some time before they’re relaxed enough to really engage with things. That’s fine too, stick with it!

 

Tips for creating an enriched environment

  • Don’t use anything that could injure your dog;
  • Don’t use anything that you wouldn’t want your dog to pee on or destroy (they don’t tend to, but if you suddenly have to leap up and try to get something from your dog you’ll be undermining the object of the exercise);
  • Your enriched environment can be inside or outside;
  • Your dog should be off-lead and free to move towards/away from things as they wish;
  • Change things up each time you create an enriched environment. Things will lose appeal once they’ve been thoroughly investigated. Have lots of things to rotate, introduce new things when you can, or lend your items to friends so they come back smelling different;
  • Don’t distract your dog. Don’t praise them, don’t stroke them, don’t call them away, just leave them to it;
  • Let them leave once they’re ready to- no pressure, no targets. They may wander away and come back, or they may leave and lie down. Just let your dog lead
  • All that investigating is more work than you’d imagine- when your dog is finished with the enriched environment, they’ll probably be very tired. Make sure they have time to rest!

 

Things to include

There’s no recipe for an enriched environment. Just use your imagination! Kids can be really good at coming up with novel ideas. Here are just a few suggestions to start you off:

 

Things that smell interesting Things that feel interesting Things that look interesting Things that move/make noises
  •  Laundry
  •  Other dogs’ toys/bedding
  • Things that smell of other animals- sheep’s wool, animal skins, horse’s brushes. I once got some used hamster bedding from the local petshop!
  •  Safe plants and herbs
  • Sticks from the park
  •  Hay bales

 

  • Tarpaulin
  •  Sandpit
  •  Soft furnishings
  • Leaves in autumn
  •  Dried seaweed
  •  Hay

 

  • Traffic cones
  • Teddy bears
  • Black sack with clothes or other items in
  • Household items- vacuum cleaner, drying rack
  • Cans/tins suspended from strings
  • Toy buggies or carts
  • Wind chimes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a video of Seren, a 4 year old Duck Tolling Retriever, exploring an enriched environment (with thanks to Kirsty Grant for the video and Seren’s human, C. Holborrow!).

Have you any good ideas for things to include in an enriched environment?? Do leave a comment if you have!

 

 

The Gift of a Growl

 

‘He growled at me the other day!’

This is something I hear commonly from clients. It is always uttered with a tone of shocked and offended indignance which would lead you to believe

growl

Ok, so it mightn’t look pretty, but growling is a wonderful warning system, and a really clear piece of communication which should never be punished.

that their dog had done something truly awful.But growling is a normal, natural, functional part of the dog’s vocabulary, and one we misunderstand terribly. Almost invariably, when people tell me that their dog has growled at them, they see the growl as a threat. An indication that the dog wishes to harm them. The irony is that a growl is exactly the reverse of this! Dogs growl to avoid conflict.

Dogs don’t speak the way we do, but that’s not to say they don’t have a complex system of communication. Their communication comprises body language, sounds, and odour.

Their range of sounds includes whining, whimpering, barking, howling, ‘chatting’, yelping, and of course, growling. As a highly social species, one of the primary purposes of communication for a dog is to avoid conflict. Growling is no exception. A growl says ‘I don’t want to fight, but I do want you to know I’m not comfortable with this’.

A growl rarely comes out of nowhere. If a dog is feeling uncomfortable with a situation, you can nearly always spot it in their body language first- they freeze, they look away, they show the whites of their eyes. They might lick their lips or yawn. However, we humans often miss these signals, and when we do, the dog is forced to escalate their behaviour, and a lot of the time, nobody hears the dog until they do growl.

And a growl is a wonderful gift. The growl itself is not an act of aggression, it is the only way the dog can make itself heard when all of his other signals have been ignored. If you punish a growl, you are disabling a really useful warning system. If a dog’s body language is ignored, and his voice is punished, he’s only left with one way of communicating- his teeth.

So, if your dog growls at you:

  1. Stop what you were doing and give the dog space;
  2. If you really need your dog to do something, try and think of a less confrontational way of asking him to do it. For instance, if he’s eating something he shouldn’t, he may be happy to leave it if you offer him the opportunity to do a treat search elsewhere;
  3. Come up with a plan for dealing with similar situations in the future. If your dog growled because you tried to move him from the couch, perhaps you could do some work around training an ‘off’ for future use. If the issue was food he shouldn’t eat, perhaps you can teach a ‘leave’;
  4. Question your own motivation. Often people are moving a dog or acting in a threatening way because they’ve been told they need to show their dog who’s boss. This sort of thinking is based on outdated theories and will only serve to damage your relationship with your dog and lead to more serious problems down the line. Don’t take things from your dog or make him move for the sake of proving you can.
  5. Most importantly, don’t punish your dog in any way. You can read more on the pitfalls of punishment here.

Don’t silence your dog. Don’t lose the gift of a growl.

The Dog House Blues Tearoom, Howth -Dog Friendly Spots in Dublin

 

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With the weather as it was (that is to say, unusually hot for Dublin!), we made a trip out to Howth this weekend. This presented me with the perfect opportunity to scope out the Dog House, a dog-friendly tea room and restaurant that I’d heard of from a friend.

Howth is a super place to bring your dog, with lots of great walking spots around- Deer Park, the cliff walks, walks along the pier for those who require flat surfaces, and of course, the beach. I usually bring my dogs to the Hole-in-the-Wall end of the beach, which is often a little less busy than the end closest to the Dart station. When the tide is out, you can walk right the way around from the hole in the wall to the Dart station.

The Dog House is situated just to the right of Howth Dart station if you take the main exit through the ticket office. It has both outdoor and indoor seating. Dogs are only permitted in the outdoor area but it is spacious, covered, well-sheltered and cosy, with the air of a trendy youth hostel!

There was background music (easy listening, nothing offensive!) and some general restaurant-related noise, but none of it uncomfortably loud for my own rather sensitive human ears. Although dogs’ hearing is better than ours, I suspect that the level of noise here was no greater than what you might find in a lot of houses.

There are couches and arm-

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Penny, a canine visitor making herself at home on the couches!

chairs, many covered with throws. Dogs are allowed on the chairs and sofas, so no need to bring your own dog bed here!

The layout is quite good and even if there were a number of dogs in there, it would be easy to maintain a comfortable distance. A lot of the seating areas are in little hubs, so the furniture and other customers would form natural barriers for dogs who didn’t want to be too close to others.

Water bowls are provided, and when I asked our server about snacks for the dogs, he told me they have little bowls of chicken in the kitchen fridge, should they be required by the canine clientele.

I also enquired as to whether there’d been any issues with people complaining about the dogs. I was told that some people did grumble, and request that the dogs be asked to leave, but they were informed that the dogs were allowed, and would not be asked to leave. So nice to see the canines maintained equal standing in this fine establishment!

So, in short, paws out of 5:

Local walks: 5

Dog-friendly layout: 5

Creature comforts: 5

Doggy drinks and snacks: 4 (losing a paw only because it wasn’t apparent that doggy snacks were available, and it seems a travesty for any dog to miss out on a bowl of chicken!)

Noise: 3

Staff dog-friendly: 5

NOTE FOR NERVOUS DOGS: If you have a nervous dog, avoid the seats by the main thoroughfare. If you move to the back of the restaurant there are some seating areas back from this where your dog might be better able to relax.

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We humans had to eat too… in the interests of research of course!