If I were to ask any dog owner “Would you like a well trained dog?” they would likely say “Yes!”.
Then if I were to ask the same owner “Would you like a well behaved dog?” they would likely say – “You just asked me that!”.
These two terms, well trained and well behaved, are similar and often used interchangeably to describe our dogs. Perhaps more often the opposites are used too – badly trained or badly behaved!
To me however, these terms mean quite different things – in this blog I want to explain what they mean to me and why having a well trained dog might not be the best thing you can hope for…
Well trained to me means a dog that has been taught basic cues and behaviours to a reasonable standard. The training has been effective enough to allow the dog to learn when owner says “Sit.” the dog lowers its rear to the floor. It may also mean the dog can down, stay, return to the owner when called and leave an item when asked.
I am definitely not going to be so contrary as to say this is a bad thing! I think a solid foundation of behaviours such as this is crucial for the safety of owner and dog, not to mention how it makes owning a dog more enjoyable and manageable on a day to day basis.
There are also plenty of fun and unusual tricks that dogs can learn with their owners – I don’t see these as frivolous or unnecessary either – on the contrary I think that this kind of engagement between dog and owner helps to build a strong bond, exercises the mind and body for both human and dog, and showcases just how dynamic and effective positive training can be.
One such example was at DogFest in Windsor last weekend where at the Clever Dog Company stand trick competition a rather unassuming delightful lady and her beautiful 5 year old terrier Rosie calmly asked – “Can we have a go?”. They both then proceeded to wow the crowd with a frighteningly efficient, calm and cool display of cup stacking that was precise, impressive and so blasé that it actually made it even more incredible to watch.
Rosie and her owner were clearly very attached and had an awesome training relationship – topped off by the calm sit from Rosie as she waited for her food payment for completing the trick, tail wagging softly as she went. It was a wonderfully understated feat and Rosie was calm, in control and content from beginning to end.
Then as soon as they both came, waved off by a smiling crowd and Clever Dog Company team (including me!), owner and dog trotted into the distance.
Impressive as training is, not to mention positive and highly skilled training, a dog that is only well trained does not to me mean that dog and owner will be happy and content (although Rosie was well trained, well behaved, and very calm, comfortable, charming and gentle along with it).
Training our dogs responses to cues, basic commands, or even fancy tricks often describes a dog that does what you want it to, when you ask.
Which is great right?
Except that this is probably less than 1% of an average day – even if you ask your dog to sit before everything you are only asking, and they are only doing, for a small proportion of the day, week, month, year or lifetime.
So what about the other 99% of the time?
What use is a dog that will sit on command, execute a perfect down stay for 10 minutes or weave through your legs if it is terrified of being left alone, reacts to people and/or dogs, pesters you for food at the table, gets into trouble with dogs off lead in the park or is so boisterous in the home that everything breakable has been well and truly broken?!
Before I go on, this is not an attack on dogs like this, indeed many rescue dogs end up in kennels for one or many of these reasons! This is why they can be more challenging (and rewarding!) to adopt than other dogs, and this is why I am magnetically drawn to working with them. I am rather trying to paint a picture that there is a lot more that can be done to effect our dogs behaviour for the better, than just training.
Dogs that exhibit any of these behaviours are not well behaved in my eyes – even if they are well trained. To be clear again, this is not to say dogs are deliberately ‘misbehaving’ when they act like this, rather owners would benefit from understanding everything else that effects their companions behaviour with the exception of what commands they know. What causes excitement, fear, arousal, worry, desire and frustration and thus triggering the accompanying undesired behaviours.
These dogs haven’t been taught the life skills to cope and be comfortable, at ease and assured in the world that they live in. They may not have learned; how to interact with other dogs politely, that strangers should not induce fear or worry, that being left at home alone can actually be a fun thing or that calm behaviour gets the best rewards.
It is often hard to forget that the world dogs are born into is incredibly human focused. Here are some things dogs aren’t born knowing – and thus we need to teach them:
– what cars are
– that people other than family can be safe and nice too
– that shoes aren’t toys
– that toys are toys
– that being calm gets rewards
– that being out of control or demanding doesn’t get rewards
– that houses aren’t for peeing in
– that mum and dad will come back eventually after they leave for work
– that dogs have social rules too
– that cats, rabbits, gerbils and soft toys aren’t dinner
– that fireworks aren’t life threatening
– that coming back when you’re running off gets the best treats of all
– that walking with the lead loose actually still gets you to the park in the same amount of time
– that cushions aren’t romantic partners
– that human legs aren’t romantic partners either!
– and many, many, many more!
So what we want to do is ensure our dogs are well behaved – that they have the skills and coping mechanisms to be comfortable, calm, appropriate and happy in 100% of our daily lives (or as close to 100% as we can get!)?
There are two ways we can achieve this;
1) proper puppy training, socialisation and rearing – the preventative method.
2) positive, effective and compassionate training and behavioural rehabilitation and management – the treatment method.
In addition to either preventative or treatment based training, every dog needs several important things to be happy, content and comfortable – to be well behaved in other words. These include:
– Appropriate exercise
Appropriate to your dogs age, stamina, breed and personality. A dog that is well exercised and has their physical energy directed towards appropriate activities (walks, fetch, agility, flyball, even play) will be less likely to direct that energy to inappropriate activities.
– Mental stimulation
Mental stimulation, or mental exercise, is just as important as its physical counterpart! Dogs need to use and develop their brain power to lead full, fulfilling and trouble free lives. If your dog is not provided with enough to occupy and stimulate their brains, they can easily find other, less deliberate activities to engage in – barking at the window, chewing your shoes and a whole host of other irritating issues. To find some amazing brain exercises for your dog that are quick and cheap read my blog on the subject here.
– Appropriate diet and veterinary care
This is a no brainer really. A dog that has the right amount and type of food (i.e. something they are not allergic to), as well as medical care as and when they need it, will be far more likely to be content, happy and ‘well behaved’ than a dog that might be lacking in these areas. An underfed dog may be prone to begging or bin raiding, a dog with untreated illness or injury may become irritable due to the pain this causes and a dog that has allergies to something in its food may lick, chew and scratch itself 24 hours a day.
Here a good relationship with your vet is such a bonus, as they should always be the only person to diagnose or treat any illness or injury. Good health is a must for a dog to be comfortable, happy and well behaved.
– Freedom for things that induce fear or worry
Understanding what scares or worries our dogs is also very important. There is thankfully a host of tools and techniques that can be used to treat fear – from uncertainty around a few things, to extreme phobias, behaviour modification programmes can have amazing results! Ensuring that you understand what your dog is worried around, if anything, will help you to try and reduce this impact on your dog’s life as much as possible – alongside a training programme to help them learn that these things aren’t that scary after all.
– The opportunity to display normal behaviours
A lot of ‘misbehaviour’ in dogs can be traced back to their need to display certain behaviours – either general dog behaviours, or ones more specific to their breed. Huskies love to run, as do sighthounds (though with a lot less stamina!), terriers like to dig, collies like to herd and use their brains. All (well all that I have met) love to chew – not only is it calming, but it also is something they need to do relatively little in modern life as food is provided in bite size chunks! Dogs also love to smell! For ways to incorporate this more into their lives see my blog on ‘Smell Walks’ here. If you can give your dog an appropriate way to do any or all of these things it will help their behaviour too. The frustration that builds when a dog has natural urges that cannot be expressed can often lead to misbehaviour of many kinds.
So to summarise a well behaved dog is one that is well trained – and lots more on top. A solid foundation of consistent and positive training the basics is mutually beneficial for both dog and owner – as is a little extra training just for fun!
Along side this a well behaved dog needs exercise, both physical and mental, the right diet, the right medical care when they require it, not to be scared or worried day to day, and to be allowed to do things that most dogs were designed to do everyday.
Lastly, they need you.
They need your company, your attention, your time, your energy, your love, your patience, and often your opposable thumbs to open those tins of dog food!
Dogs are unique in the world as they are the only animal so intrinsically tied to human life and us humans ourselves. They love our company (some more than others), but spending time with us, socialising with us, and playing with us are all essential things for our dogs too.
I would bet that the better behaved they are, the more enjoyable these things are for you too. By all means please keep up the motivation to keep your dog well trained! But maybe have a think tonight about how you might help them be a little better behaved (and happy, and content, and secure, and comfortable) too.
Then the next time someone compliments you on your well trained dog, you might be tempted to smile and say – “Actually I like to think that he is well behaved.”.
Then when they ask “Isn’t that the same thing?” you can point them in the direction of this blog…
I am going to start with a ground-breaking fact.
Dogs and people are totally different.
I know, incredible right?!
In fact, as dogs are an entirely different species to us, with different appearance, physiology, motivations and needs they are very, very different.
However, the more that I understand about dog behaviour, the more it is clear to me that we can learn a huge amount about why dogs act the way they do, by comparing it to how we act as human beings.
Take for example things that dogs find pleasurable – things that most, if not all, dogs do regularly, that are obviously great fun and serve important purposes for mental and physical wellbeing.
If we compare them to things that we do as people, we can paint a picture of why dogs act in seemingly odd, frustrating or fascinating ways – and by making a comparison to things that we do everyday, we can understand how important and enjoyable these acts are – and also how to allow our dogs to do more of them each day!
No, not after they have rolled in the local fox poop. Dogs really smell!
Dogs are incredibly designed to detect, process and get a vast amount of information about their world through their noses. They have up to 300 million receptor cells inside their noses dedicated to just this purpose – people have a relatively tiny 6 million.
Think about it, if dogs are being used to detect explosives, drugs, smuggled ivory, cash, and even people trapped under metres of rubble after natural disasters – this is a pretty powerful tool!
Dogs are very much ‘nosey’, whereas humans are designed to be more visual creatures – taking in our world through our vision – seeing beauty, danger, friends, the news, our favourite TV programmes, or browsing through our social media feeds all with our keenly evolved sense of sight. We gain millions of pieces of information through our eyes every day, sight is how we experience the world – “Nice to see you.”, “How do I look?”, “I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.”.
So when our dogs are out and about on their regular walks, they like to sniff right? And if what I see driving past dog owners everyday is true, then a lot of owners soon get frustrated and pull their dog along from whatever it is they are investigating.
So what is the human equivalent to a good dog smell? I would say it is seeing, looking, using our eyes. Basically every way that we explore our world using vision.
If you’re still struggling to grasp the depth of this, try imagining wearing blinkers all day, so that all you can see is in front of your feet. Then whenever you try and look up, see what’s coming, watch the news, explore on Facebook, see who has come through the door, or see your neighbourhood around you, someone pulls you away to focus back at your feet again.
This would be a pretty unfulfilling time wouldn’t it? Pretty unstimulating, boring, and even frustrating? Exactly.
So how can we help to add this pleasure into our dogs lives a little more and ‘take the blinkers off’?
The wonderful Alexandra Horowitz sums it up perfectly by advocating taking your dog on ‘smell walks’.
She goes on to say that dog walks are often not done with the dog’s sake in mind – they are very much a ‘human walk’ – keeping a brisk pace, getting to where we need to be and back efficiently.
Try thinking of dog walks more like you taking a leisurely, stress free and calming walk around breath-taking scenery – you’re not going to be marching along, head down, checking your texts whilst trying to get to the end of the walk in time for Corrie are you?
No. You’re going to walk, and stop, and look, and walk, and look, and look and stop and look, and be filled with happiness, and look again.
Now remembering how much dogs ‘see’ with their noses, why not give them this pleasure on the walks that you take them on?
Let them linger at a lamppost, or double back to re-examine something really interesting. Let them choose which direction to take by following their nose (though not blindly into traffic, or into a lake with you attached!). Let them smell until they decide to move on. Or simply let them stop and smell the air. Let them walk, and stop, and smell, and walk, and smell, and smell and stop and smell, and be filled with happiness, and smell again.
If you only go half the distance of a normal walk, I don’t think your dog will mind. I mean would you mind walking a mile through this…
…compared to two miles of this?
I think not!
Our dog’s lives are often far less interesting than ours, be it being left at home alone, or hurried along on walks, or having the same old toys lying about for years.
Why not try this the next time you walk with your dog? Remove your expectations of your ‘normal route’, don’t fret about getting round the block your usual three times, set a time for when you want to be home, and turn round and head back halfway through this time – and most importantly let your dog’s nose lead the way!
Let them ‘see’ the world at their pace, and let them pay attention to what they want to pay attention to, remove the blinkers and let them experience the doggie equivalent of a walk of a lifetime (everyday!).
So, what are you waiting for? Why not take your dog on their very first ‘smell walk’ and let us know how much they enjoyed it?!
For me, one of the most thrilling parts of being a dog trainer is the feeling (when it’s going well) that you’re really communicating with the dog that you’re training. It’s a feeling like no other, and when you’re ‘in the zone’ with your dog it’s a wonderful thing to experience.
The dog is really understanding me. I am ‘asking’ for what I would like, helping them to understand how to achieve this, and then helping to ingrain this as part of our dialog for the future to come.
I am 100% sure that I am not alone, and this kind of ‘connection’ isn’t as difficult as it seems to achieve. I have no doubt that everyone reading this will have experienced moments with their own dog where they ‘knew’ that their dog understood them – that’s kind of what really good training is anyway, isn’t it?!
But have you ever stopped to think if we are understanding what they are saying back to us?
How well do we, as a nation of over 60 million people, understand what dogs are telling us?
Do we know where to look?
As human beings we are programmed to pay a good deal of attention to language and words to communicate – it’s how we have conversations, how we express love, how we argue with our siblings and how we communicate on blogs such as this.
Dogs by comparison are far less focused on audible communication.
It’s true that dogs make a wide range of noises – some don’t make many, whereas some are veritably conversational. However if we really want to ‘hear’ what our dogs are saying, we need to use our eyes.
Canine body language is as fascinating as it is beautifully expressive. It can tell us the blissful joy of a rescued dog splayed over ‘his’ new sofa, or the heart warming ‘full body wag’ of our dog welcoming us home from work.
Alternatively it can tell us less happy, but even more important things.
It can tell us when our dogs are worried. Stressed. Scared. Unsure. Anxious. Not just one shade of these emotions either. A spectrum of emotions can be conveyed from the subtlest signs, to the most vehement protests. Some of these signs may surprise you.
I hope that they do, because the more memorable the lesson, the more chance that it won’t be forgotten.
In this blog, I want to talk about (and look at!) some crucial things that our dogs are saying to us, in the hope that we will be able to listen to them, and more importantly respond to what they tell us in a kind and compassionate way.
A lot of these pictures may seem subtle, but that is exactly the point, these are often our dog’s ‘whispers’ to us – telling us that they aren’t happy. These are the communication equivalent of the 90% of the iceberg below the surface that often go ignored, chuckled at, or even encouraged.
These are the whispers that, if they are not heard, can often lead to our dogs needing to ‘shout’. Either literally by barking in anger or fear, or through growls, lunges, snaps and unfortunately, bites.
So why am I talking about this today? Well, if you were to take the response to ‘viral’ videos, cute GIFs and ‘touching’ photos as a reflection of our general knowledge of dog communication as a population, we may want to look again.
Here’s a few examples:
Many of you may not have heard of the term ‘whale eye’. In other words its the distinctive gaze of a dog where the whites (or sclera) of their eyes are visible. This can be a subtle sign that your dog is not comfortable. In the pictures below you can see the whites of the eye clearly visible – the dogs don’t look too happy in general either do they!?
So with all of that in mind – knowing that when you see this signal in a dog it might feel uncomfortable, worried, like it wants whatever is happening to stop – how do you think this dog is feeling?
With that answer in mind…how does the full picture make YOU feel?
Like us, dogs yawn when they’re tired – but unlike us, dogs also yawn to show discomfort, worry, uncertainty or low levels of fear. If your dog hasn’t just woken up, or isn’t snoozing on the sofa, it is likely that yawn is being caused by something unsettling to the dog, not a lack of sleep!
Now with this new knowledge, apply it to this picture and tell me how this dog is likely feeling?
So what does the full picture tell you?
Dogs aren’t perpetually hungry (well, depends if you have a Labrador or not!) – at least they aren’t always hungry when they lick their lips. Indeed, dogs lick their lips incredibly often, and very often when having a camera pointed in their faces! However, a vast array of unsettling and worrying things can cause a ‘lip lick’ – and if you see your dog doing this, it is very likely that something is making him or her feel uncomfortable.
So, you know the game by now…how is this dog feeling?
So, is it just me that actually finds the full picture rather terrifying?
Lastly the classic ‘guilty’ look of a dog ‘who knows they have been ‘naughty”. Apart from the over use of apostrophes, the last sentence is rubbish. There I said it. There is no proof that dog’s understand the complex human concepts required to ‘know’ that they have been naughty by chewing your sofa when you left them alone for 8 hours, and then to feel guilty about doing it.
Instead, they are just what they look like – scared.
Either because your tone and body language upon returning home are worrying, unusual and slightly (or less than slightly) imposing and aggressive. Or maybe because the last time you came home you shouted at them too (because their separation issues haven’t been cured in a day) and they are probably worried because they fear another telling off is coming their way.
Remember, not guilty, just scared. Is that how we want our dogs to feel?
These dogs above, 3 of which are dogs that have just been rescued off of the streets, to me look scared, worried and sad. Just like this dog below.
So the full picture gives a different perspective to the cute and funny ‘naughty dog’ don’t you think?
So that’s it, a whistle-stop tour through some key dog communication signals, and how the popular media often misrepresents them as cute, endearing, naughty, hungry, tired or tolerant. In reality the dogs aren’t feeling any of the above. They are likely uncertain, worried, scared, unsure and all of these emotions and feelings can be the precursor to levels of ‘aggression’ that humans actually understand.
So the next time you see a picture with a child hugging a dog, have a look at what the dog is saying. Is it displaying any visible signs of discomfort? If so it is likely the dog will suffer in silence or feel the need to increase the communication levels to something more dramatic. If this does happen, the likelihood of someone, especially a child getting hurt is increased, and the future for the dog would not look too rosy either! All of this because of being unable to hear what our dogs are telling us.
By understanding when our dog feels uncomfortable, we will be more equipped to stop, take an assessment of what could be worrying our pet, and remove the dog from that situation, or stop what we (or our children) are doing that may be causing the worry in the first place.
Remember our dogs are talking to us all of the time – if we are all a little more able to understand what they are telling us, we will be able to understand their whispers, and protect them from ever having to shout in the future.
(Sourced from: http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2016-04-03/this-dog-was-less-than-24-hours-from-being-put-down—now-it-can-fly-a-plane)
I remember it vividly. I was genuinely nervous, my heart was in my mouth. Unable to bear the tension, I wanted to fast-forward what I was watching to see if he managed to do it, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of the TV!
Here I was, watching a dog that I had never met, do something seemingly absurd, and I was captivated. My heart was pumping in my chest and I was slightly bemused at how invested I was in this amazing little story!
Of course it captivated many more than me – Sky 1’s Dogs Might Fly was a revelation. In case you missed it – yes, they taught a dog to fly a plane, and yes, you need to watch the whole series!
It’s only after the excitement died down once the series had ended that I realised just what had happened. Not only had some very talented and skilful trainers and behaviourists trained not one, but three, dogs to fly a plane. These were also not ‘ordinary’ dogs. They, and their 7 friends who completed some pretty amazing pre-pilot training too, were ALL rescue dogs.
Yes, I know!
Each one of these 10 unique characters were selected from a rescue or rehoming centre specifically for the show.
These dogs were unwanted.
They were the ultimate underdogs.
Oh, did I also mention that they were trained to this exceptional level in only a few months, using ONLY positive and reward based training methods.
Yes, I know!
For anyone who hasn’t seen the show I urge you to find it (legally, of course) and catch up on the series – it was a truly uplifting watch, and apart form making me incredibly jealous of all involved, it also did things in the entirely right way from a training and welfare perspective as far as I am concerned. Right down to finding each dog a hand-picked forever home after the filming had finished!
So, short of me professing my admiration for these wonderful dogs, their trainers and their new families, why am I mentioning this TV programme?
Well I thought it was the perfect example of how much you can do with positive training, how much you can be amazed by rescue dogs, and how much hope it must instil in trainers and owners of rescue dogs across the country.
Don’t worry – I am not saying by any means that we can all teach our dogs to fly planes, but there are some amazing lessons to learn from these flying dogs, and I thought that I would share how these lessons challenge some common assumptions about dogs in general, rescue dogs specifically and positive, reward-based training.
1. The sky is (literally) the limit for rescue dogs
Apart from the awful pun above, there is nothing not to like about this story. It proved that rescue dogs, with unknown pasts can be trained to an exceptional level, just like any other dog that hasn’t experienced life in rescue kennels. There is nothing intrinsically bad, or lesser, or wrong with dogs in rescue centres – indeed some come from loving homes that heart wrenchingly have to offer them for rehoming as they can no longer look after their dog themselves. Even those who are found on the street, with no microchip and no history available can be just as endearing, and are all definitely deserving of a second chance at a happy life.
Dog’s Might Fly proved in stylish fashion that each of the 10 dogs selected were capable of some truly extraordinary things – given the right attention, understanding, training and a big dose of patience.
2. The sky is (literally) the limit for positive, reward-based, training
Firstly, let me be clear. The trainers on the show are incredibly skilled and experienced in their field. Teaching a dog to fly a plane, or to do the host of the tricks that they each performed on the show, is not simple, and is not without challenges. I can only imagine the trials and tribulations along the way for each dog. One thing is important though, it was all achieved positively, with reward based methods. No force, no pain, no fear needed. Just an impressive grasp of the science behind how dogs learn, some undoubted skill in applying a handful of training techniques (and maybe some cheese and a clicker), and did I mention patience?!
There are still people who doubt the effectiveness or relevance of positive training, seeing it somehow as ‘soft’ or second rate, or ineffective. However there is little doubt that the feats achieved on this show, and many others that can be achieved using force-free training, are incredible.
They trained a dog to fly a plane for goodness sake!
Surely this must give us all hope that positive training should always be seen to be the best and only way to train our dogs, to do anything.
Not only is it impressively effective, it is also fun, enjoyable, and rewarding for both trainer and dog.
It’s a no-brainer surely!?
3. You can teach an old dog new tricks
The ages of the dogs on the show varied, but none could be classed as puppies, and the majority were fully mature adult dogs.
It was well and truly confirmed that you can teach an old dog new, and impressive, tricks. You can teach any dog new tricks given the right methods and the right tricks. Age is not a restriction to learning, and just because a rescue dog (or any dog) is 3, 5, 10 years old it doesn’t mean that it cannot learn from, and absolutely love, training.
All we need is something that will motivate the dog (usually a tasty food treat), some basic understanding of positive training methods, a bit of understanding of the dogs communication with us, and did I mention patience?
4. Rescue dogs are in no way lesser than their non-rescue counterparts
Rescue dogs come in all shapes and sizes, breeds and cross-breeds (and ‘mongrels’), ages and temperaments. The only thing than unites them all is that none of them have a forever home. They can be handed over by owners, found as strays, or rescued from sometimes horrendous circumstances.
They were all still born as dogs, still have (usually) four legs, a tail that can wag and the same need and desire for a real home with a human family. They just didn’t get it from day one.
They can be just as handsome, charming, funny, intelligent, beautiful, affectionate, awe-inspiring and loveable as any dog that has spent their whole life in a loving home.
The feats that these amazing dogs can acheive can only go to prove that rescue dogs aren’t really different at all – they are just unwanted.
Many rescue dogs end up where they are through no fault of their own, and even those with behavioural or training needs, didn’t develop those needs deliberately. Diamonds in the rough are still diamonds – some just need a bit of a polish!
5. All dogs can’t be trained to do the same thing (if you’re being fair)
Although the training of the dogs on the show was pretty incredible, what was more uplifting for me, as a trainer, was that no dog was forced to do it. Throughout the show, if a dog became too nervous or uncomfortable with the next level of training, it was stopped, and the dog was sent to their hand-picked forever home.
The trainers and hosts understood and respected the dogs body language and communication and didn’t push them past what they were comfortable with. This means, of course, that not all dogs want to fly planes!
It also means that not all dogs will be the best, or the most comfortable at learning certain exercises. Some dogs might love agility, some might be worried by it. If they are, I would hope to find something different and equally rewarding to train them in, except this time something that doesn’t worry or scare them.
Whereas we all want our dogs to be well behaved, happy and content – I think we should also understand that some will be better at some things than others, and if you’re being fair to the dog, you should try and find what they enjoy too – and train them in that as well!
6. It won’t always be easy
You may be forgiven up to now for thinking that I believe training a dog is an easy, blissful and wonderful experience every time (it can be sometimes!).
However I know full well how frustrating, draining and difficult it can be at times. This is not the dogs fault, but usually it is challenging and difficult because we are not training in the optimum way. As I mentioned before, I am sure the professionals involved in the show endured many difficult moments, especially as there will have been a deadline to complete all of this within!
Challenges and ‘off days’ are normal, especially if we are training our dogs to do something that they find difficult. However the more we do it, the easier it becomes, and it is (almost) always fun and enjoyable along the way.
Dogs are wonderful, wonderful animals. However owning, training and looking after one, especially one who may need extra training and behavioural help can be difficult. But it is always worth it. Some dogs probably end up in rescue centres because their first owners underestimated the time, emotional and financial investment that goes in to truly incorporating a dog into your family – every rescue dog deserves a chance to live with a family that is willing to make that commitment unreservedly.
So that’s my food for thought on this landmark achievement in dog training, and I hope it has provoked you to find out more about this wonderful story.
Above all, I hope that it continues to highlight that there will eternally be something special about rescue dogs, and something fundamentally superior about positive training methods.
I am so pleased that Dogs Might Fly proved, in public, to a mass audience that, using positive methods, with some patience, skill and lots of understanding, our rescue dogs can be taught to do some amazing things (let alone the basics to be happy and comfortable in a new home).
It also proved that a second chance, some understanding and the investment of some love and commitment can help ‘just a rescue’ blossom into a happy, fulfilled, content and loved dog.
But, to me, it didn’t prove that rescue dogs were special. They didn’t need to prove it.
We knew that they were special all along!
It will come of no surprise to you all that here at the Underdog Trainer we LOVE rescue dogs, and wholeheartedly believe that they can make amazing, life-long, companions just like their non-rescue cousins! So if you, or anyone you know is planning on visiting a rescue or rehoming centre soon to look for a new best friend, below are 10 tips and suggestions to help make the very most of the experience.
1. Be prepared before you go
This sounds obvious, but have a good think about what exactly you want from your companion – and be honest with yourself, this will save a lot of time and potential disappointment in the long run. Decide on realistically how much time you will have for the dog, what experience you have, what size and breed you want, and then research to see if after learning a bit more this is still what you want! Also, things like how long the dog will be left, who it will come into contact with regularly and whether your garden is secure and fully fenced will all be things to think about – this will all influence which dog will be the best fit for you and your lifestyle, and most importantly vice versa!
2. Prepare yourself
It is undoubted that some people find rescue and rehoming centres upsetting places – and to an extent they are. They can be noisy, smelly and overwhelming emotionally as you walk past kennel after kennel each with beautiful dogs looking out. However, speaking as someone with experience, these dogs are loved. They are the lucky ones that have been found or brought to the centre to be cared for, fed, kept safe and warm, exercised and if their lucky trained, socialised and maybe make some friends too. The staff and volunteers at rescue and rehoming centres may have dogs of their own, but they treat those in their care with just as much affection, I know that I did! Although a kennel will never replace a warm and secure forever home, try not to be put off going to your local centre by the worry of being traumatised – they can be surprisingly uplifting places!
3. Talk to the staff and volunteers
Whether it is specifically to talk about a dog you are interested in, or to ask for advice, or just to talk about dogs in general, these people can give you incredibly valuable information and insight into all of the above. Especially for dogs that have been at centres for longer periods of time, the staff get to know them intimately, and will be able to tell you more specific (and often, adorable) information that may not be included on kennel sheets, or online write-ups. Please note: rescue and rehoming centres can be incredibly busy places, especially when they are open to the public, so don’t be offended or put off if there may be a bit of a queue forming or a delay in getting to talk to a member of staff – its never personal, and trust me, that perfect dog will be worth a little wait.
4. Listen to the staff and volunteers
This may seem obvious, and it kind of is with regard to listening to what they say about the dog, and the things discussed in the point above. However, you will be an instant favourite of all staff and volunteers if you listen to, and respect, centre rules. Although many different combinations of rules can apply, the one to stick with is ‘Ask First’. If you have not been told by staff that you can do something, assume you cannot – whether it is feeding the dogs in kennels, putting hands through bars to stroke them, or taking photos – all of these can be restricted in centres. I would suggest it is best to save all of that pent up ‘cuddle fever’ until you find out more about the dog, and meet it outside of the kennel. It can be incredibly frustrating to look after dogs, care for them, put signs around their kennel asking for them not to be touched, and then have someone thrusting their arm (or worse, their child’s arm) through the kennel bars. This can be incredibly dangerous, as rescue dogs can be nervous, worried or react unpredictably even if they look approachable – it simply isn’t worth the risk. As well as injury to yourself, a bite incident for a dog will likely make its chances at finding a new home either much smaller, or zero. This isn’t to mention any diseases or illness carried by one dog that can be transferred to others (including your own at home if you have one) by stroking multiple dogs through the kennel bars. It simply isn’t worth the risk.
5. Meet the dog outside of the kennel
Looking round the kennels you may have found one, or more, dogs that have melted your heart and that you want to take home. Maybe it is the one who pawed at you, or the one who sat obediently looking out with his puppy dog eyes, or maybe the one who dropped a ball at his kennel gate wanting to play. Whichever dog caught your eye, be sure to meet them outside of the kennel before you mentally say ‘That’s the one’. This isn’t to check whether the dog is equally handsome in daylight, or to say that first impressions can’t be accurate, however many dogs in rescue can behave a lot differently outside of the kennel environment. Shrinking violets might blossom into playful lunatics, barking or boisterous looking dogs might mellow and calm into peaceful giants away from the stress of kennels, and playful rogues might prove more independent once out and about. It may also be the case that the dog doesn’t change character or behaviour at all, however kennels are incredibly stressful and artificial environments. If you want to get to know your best friend properly, get to know them away from this stress as much as possible.
6. Don’t be disheartened if it is not the ‘right fit’
It may be whilst discussing the dog with staff, or seeing how the dog interacts outside with you and your family, or even after you have gone home to mull it over – sometimes the dog and your lifestyle just don’t match. Whether the dog can’t be left for as long as you will leave it, or if it is too boisterous for your young children, or doesn’t like cats, or needs more time, exercise and experience than you can offer at this moment, all of these are common, and totally sensible reasons why the dog won’t be right for you. This is also where a good relationship with knowledgeable staff can help, they will be honest about what the dog needs, so be honest about what you can provide. If the first dog you meet isn’t the right fit, they may be able to suggest another to try, or it may just be the right dog for you might not be there that day (especially if you have a lot of circumstances to consider – work, children, other dogs, other pets, limited experience etc). I always used to say my aim working at a rehoming centre was to find each person a dog that they would happily care for forever – I can safely assume that everyone who works in rescue would much rather wait, or work harder to find the right dog for you, than see the wrong dog be adopted and inevitably returned shortly after. This also means you have to right to be unsure – if you don’t know if the fit is right, then say so too. I think that adopting a dog (or any animal for that matter) is a far more important decision than finding a car or a house, there is so much more emotion and investment put into a dog, so don’t be afraid to treat it like the big decision that it is!
7. Let the dog come to you
When meeting your potential new best friend, find out what you can from their carers about what they like and don’t like, whether you can play with them, or give them treats, then slowly get to know them. Gently approach and touch them if their carers think they wont mind – think of it as a new friendship that’s going to last for years and years (because it will) you wouldn’t go and bear hug someone you’ve just met on a first date, and act like best friends, so let the dog get to know you at their own pace they may be super confident and playful and it takes seconds, or they may be shy and reserved and it takes a lot longer to gain their trust. Again don’t be disheartened, and enjoy the process. There is no rush needed to get to know them, and the dog will enjoy your company a lot more if they don’t feel threatened or worried.
8. Introduce them to everyone they will live with
It is very likely that the rescue centre that you go to will insist on the dog meeting everyone in the household before any adoption can take place. However, if they don’t insist, it is best to do this anyway. Whether it is a partner, a housemate, children or parents, it will be very important to understand how the dog reacts to each person. It could be the case that the dog might be fearful of people who look a certain way (if they had a bad experience with someone who looked like that in the past) thus they may be wonderful with you, but might not be comfortable around your tall bearded husband, or your small red-headed mother (nothing against these two groups by the way!). So take the time to make sure each person is comfortable with the dog, their energy levels and play styles etc. Additionally make sure that the dog is comfortable around each person. It may seem arbitrary, or like an unnecessary part of the process, however this can help to build important bonds early on, can flag any potential issues before you commit to taking the dog home and can ensure that the whole family is involved in, and happy with, this exciting but life-changing decision.
9. Be in it for the long haul
This step cannot be understated. Owning a dog, let alone a rescue dog that may need extra care and understanding to become part of your family, is a huge decision. Visiting, meeting and finding them can be overwhelming and emotional and no doubt incredibly rewarding. However, it may not always be perfect days ahead. Toilet accidents, chewing, separation issues, reactivity to dogs, terrible recall, attention seeking, pulling on the lead, hyperactivity, or wanting to sleep in your bed and not the kitchen can all happen. Sometimes it’s more than one of these. Sometimes they will test your patience. Sometimes you may even doubt that you made the right decision – that’s why it is so important to follow the advice above to make sure you make the right decision at the centre. Thankfully there are loads of people that can help if issues arise, or if you want to put into place steps to prevent them arising – namely us at The Underdog Trainer, or any other professional trainers and behaviourists who use positive training methods. There aren’t many dog behaviour issues that can’t be made better, reduced or removed by a good trainer or behaviourist, so don’t give up hope – and don’t give up on your dog. Heartbreakingly many dogs are still returned from whence they came for training issues that are minor, incredibly common, and fixable! Please commit the same energy, emotional investment and care giving intentions to your dog, as you would to a child. If the going gets tough, the tough get a trainer in!
10. Give back (whether you adopt a dog or not)
Most rescue and rehoming centres in the UK operate as charities, some are lucky enough to be large and well supported, some are small local operations that may struggle to make ends meet month to month. Anything and everything is valuable to each centre, and you might not know how much you can offer. You may be bitten by the ‘rescue dog bug’ and want to volunteer your time, or sign up to walk dogs at the centre. You may want to help by assisting at events, or doing some promotion for the centre in the local community. You may have skills that they could be in desperate need of – plumbers, handymen, social media experts, or even dog trainers! You may have a spare few pounds, or want to buy some food or supplies for the dogs that you met. You may even want to leave some personal feedback on Facebook, Twitter or in person if you had a positive experience (this is such an impactful thing to do, as a lot of social media responses focus on the negative, don’t be afraid to redress the balance!). You may want to sponsor a dog, a kennel or make a regular donation. Or you may just want to send us some photos of the dog that you adopted, sleeping peacefully on the sofa, finally enjoying a blissful uninterrupted rest. Or maybe a photo of their visit to the beach or even of them cuddling watching TV with mum and dad. There are so many images of rescue centres that move their staff and volunteers to tears, not all of them are happy. So please send those pictures, they may be your dog now, but they were once all of ours.
They will forever be the best thing that you can give back.
tel: 07917 033060
As humans, we sometimes underestimate the amount of things we can do during the day to stimulate (or relax) our minds. From reading, to the latest boxset on TV, to baking, to knitting, puzzles, computer games, yoga, reading, playing a musical instrument, or even studying or learning a new skill. All of these activities are reinforcing for us, and that’s why we keep doing them, they provide an outlet for our energy, keep us sane, happy and mentally healthy.
What we mustn’t forget here too is that we can do this whenever we like, with our human brains, opposable thumbs and access to our hobbies we can do what we like, whenever we like (unless we’re in work…so maybe not whenever we like!).
For dogs it can often be much more difficult. They do not control their environments the way that we humans control ours. They can’t pull a favourite book off the shelf (to sniff or chew more than read maybe), they can’t swipe into the iPad for a few games of Candy Crush, and try as they might they can’t stuff a Kong, or prepare some mental games for themselves like a human can.
As you probably know a lot of dogs often can find ways to entertain or stimulate their minds if nothing is (deliberately) provided, however this can often be a source of irritation for their owners. Dogs chewing shoes, clothes or other items, dogs practicing attention seeking behaviours, and dogs who can’t settle and seem restless or ‘hyperactive’ could all be suffering from a detriment of mental exercise, the right amount of which is essential to a healthy dog.
Although every dog is different, each will need an appropriate balance of physical and mental exercise to keep them stimulated and physically and psychologically healthy. The benefits of a few mind games or mental exercises for your dog are enormous. Not only does this help provide stimulation for your dog (which can actually tire them our more than physical exercise!), it will also help in training your dog as they will be more focused if they have had a chance to exercise their brain. It can additionally help to reduce or prevent behavioural issues arising out of a lack of mental exercise such as boredom related chewing or destruction, attention seeking behaviours, hyperactivity, inability to settle, boisterousness and many others.
Just as daily walks and play sessions are thankfully the norm for most dogs in the UK, it is really so easy, effective and rewarding to add mental exercise into our dogs’ everyday routine.
Try it for yourself and see if a week or two of daily mental exercise has noticeable effects….I’m confident that it will!
So, if a lot of dogs don’t get enough, there are heaps of benefits, and it can be really simple and easy to provide mental games and challenges for our dogs, we should do it right?
Exactly! But how…?
Here are 10 great toys and games that you can use for your dog to help enrich their days, tire their bodies and minds and make them love you even more! (Most of these 10 cost next to nothing to make and can be made from things around the house.)
1. Kong’s are a dog trainer’s best friend. These durable rubber toys can be stuffed with your dogs favourite treats, or the inside can be smeared with pate or soft cheese. Once your dog is hooked, they will lick, chew, paw around and gobble up all the treats they have inside – no matter how long it takes. Great for keeping your dogs busy for periods of time, as well as giving them a great brain work out too. The awesome Oli Juste will show you the right way to stuff a Kong right here.
2. Snuffle Mats are brilliant DIY enrichment games that you can make at home for next to nothing. Using just a rubber mat with holes in and some strips of old fleece blanket, or sheets, or even old clothes. Check out this video on how to make one for yourself (for a fraction of the price of buying one in the shops!). Try scattering treats in under the fleece and watch your dog root and snuffle until they are all gone! Top tip: For super energetic and active dogs, try putting some or all of their dry food in the mat and make them use their brain to get their dinner.
3. Search in the garden or yard is a simple game that can be taken basically anywhere. Start with some of your dog’s favourite high value treats (hot dog pieces, cheese, or chicken maybe) and begin to toss them into the grass or around the garden then help your dog to find them with a point or encouragement. Keep making the distance a bit bigger and if you can, ask your dog to stay whilst you hide the treats so that he can see where you’re putting them, then ask him to ‘find it!’ – behind plant pots, chair legs or on steps are all good ideas. After a few repeats your dog should be hooked. Start asking him to “Find it!” before he darts off in search of treats and he will begin to learn that “Find it!” means go and hunt for some cheese! Top tip: This is a great distraction device too if you are out and about and your dog seems worried or alert to something up ahead, distract him with a ‘find it’ and toss some treats nearby. He’ll be so busy sniffing for treats that he’ll forget about what’s up ahead (don’t forget not to get too close if your dog is worried, it may be best to distract him to break his attention and then move away from whatever he is focused on).
4. Toilet roll tubes can be easily turned into a free mind game for your dog, put some treats inside, fold in each end so that the treats are secure in the middle, and let your dog work out how to get the treats out himself. Note: This may require a little hoover afterwards, or sweeping up any torn card pieces – your dog will have a great time though!
5. Empty plastic bottles can be made into a free and easy mind game too. Put some (non wet) treats inside, and make sure you remove the top and the plastic ring around the lid and any labels or glue residue, so that your dog doesn’t chew or swallow any of these nasty bits. Then place on the floor and watch your dog work out how to get every last treat out, using his big old brain.
6. Tennis balls can be used for more than chase and fetch. Try putting some dog treats in the cups in a muffin tray. Then put a tennis ball, or similar shaped dog toy, on top of each hole so that your dog has to move each ball to get to the treats inside – another free mind game to make your dog’s day more exciting (if you have 12 tennis balls or toys lying around!).
7. I couldn’t talk about mind games without mentioning the vast array of professionally made dog puzzles on the market. Available in most pet shops and online, these can be a long term investment and durable addition to your dog’s routine. They can be filled up ready, and given to the dog when you leave the house. Giving him something fun to do in your absence, and also helping to show that being alone without mum and dad can be a positive thing too! (That’s the same for all of the mind games and toys – why not leave your dog more than one?!)
8. The amazing tennis ball strikes again! For a simple bit of enrichment if you’re pushed for time, try putting a tennis ball on top of your dogs dinner? Sounds odd right? But your dog will then have to move the ball here and there to get to his dinner, making him exercise his brain, as well as his mouth. Top tip: This is an especially good trick to try if your dog bolts their food down quickly, as it will make them eat slower and more steadily.
9. Touch training is a gift that keeps on giving. It basically means teaching your dog to gently touch anything with his nose – a great way to start is to use your open palm. Hold your palm flat in near to your dogs nose, and give him a treat if he shows interest, a sniff maybe, then keep rewarding closer behaviours until he touches your hand with his nose. Repeat this a few times until your dog is consistently touching your palm when you present it close to him, then you can add a word before you put your hand down next time – “Touch.” maybe. After a few more repetitions your dog should know that touch means nose to palm, and means that he gets a treat. Once the foundations are laid, you can use this in a huge range of ways. Call your dog to you, call him past distractions, work towards agility ramps or see saws, teach spins, 2 leg stands and a whole range of tricks just by gently controlling where your dog positons himself.
10. The bucket game is a relatively new addition to the mind game repertoire, but don’t be fooled by the name, you don’t even need a bucket to play! Basically what we will ask is for our dog to focus on a bucket, or cup, or box, or tub of treats placed near to them, and we will reward this attention with a treat from the container. This is a great way to help build impulse control, confidence and allows to dog to start (by looking), and stop (by moving or looking away), the game whenever they want to – allowing them to have a real conversation with us about how comfortable they are. This is especially good for shy dogs as distractions can be very slowly added as the dog’s concentration and confidence grow. Check out the game’s inventor the wonderful Chirag Patel show you how to start right here.
One final note: Don’t forget, don’t make these games too hard too soon. Sure, once your dog is ‘addicted’ to Kongs lined with pate, they might spend an hour licking the last morsel off – but, if the game is made too difficult, or the access to the food is tough at the beginning the dog may lose interest or become frustrated – the exact opposite of what we want. So when stuffing toys, or putting treats in boxes or bottles etc. make it relatively easy for the dog to ‘win’ at first, so they learn the game can be fun, and then you can have fun yourself seeing how the dog can tackle slightly more challenging games after that.
It’s as simple as that! I hope you will try one or more of these this weekend and maybe even start to add mental exercise alongside physical exercise as a ‘must have’ part of your dog’s day. They will definitely love you for it!
Plus you’ll see how clever and determined your dog really is!
tel: 07917 033060
So, this is it, our first blog post and the beginning of a journey of education and discovery that I hope helps to spread the word about kind and communication based training across the country, no wait, the world! Small goals eh?
But, first I thought it would be useful to cover the most basic of all questions, why I do the job I do, and why you as owners and dog lovers are on this site – it might seem obvious at first but the more you think about it, the more surprising the answers might be…
So here it is…
…”What is dog training?”
Yep, that’s right, I asked it!
The traditional view might be of a village hall with puppies running about, learning how to sit, and stay and come back to their owner when called. Or even a slightly more modern version being YouTube videos of how to make your dog do twirls or bark on command or stay with a biscuit on its nose for 60 seconds.
And to some extent that’s probably right, training is often seen as training your dog to ‘do stuff’ when you want them to – from the basic obedience for safety and control, to the more eccentric ideas for fun and internet fame. Probably when you think of this training you imagine spending a few minutes, or sessions a week practicing until the dog can do it – or until you can provoke that ‘thing that they do’ with a word.
So is that what training is? Little pockets in your day, your week, or your life, where you teach your dog a specific thing? And then that’s it, once they can sit, stay and dance to classic pop tunes then that’s the training over with? Training work is done and you and your dog can live happily ever after…?
All of that is fine and a fair reflection on what training has been traditionally, however the more we understand how dogs learn, how perceptive they are, and how adept they are at reading and responding to peoples emotions, the more I felt I should really be asking – what isn’t dog training?
Put it this way – I personally believe that we are training our dogs (and even other peoples dogs) every time we interact with them. Sure our dogs may be able to predict our routines and tell when ‘walkie’ time is after a few days in a new home, but even this is teaching them the reliability of this routine!
I firmly believe that we are training our dogs whenever they are learning something from us – and this is pretty much all of the time!
Now that must sound a little daunting at first – that everything we do can impact what our dog does and how it behaves – but think about how powerful that is! Every day with our dog is a chance to teach it something new, about the world, about our relationship, or about new and exciting experiences that we can share together.
A bit of basic science will help me explain here – I will keep it short! Basically, scientists and dog trainers around the world are now pretty much all in agreement on the importance of the laws of learning in animals (including humans). The most relevant here are as follows:
1) Dogs will continue to act in a way that results in positive outcomes (cheese, attention, getting to the park)
2) Dogs will no longer act in a way that results in negative outcomes (no cheese, being ignored, stopping on a walk)
These two little rules then mean that we really can (and do, whether we like it or not!) train our dogs every second of everyday. Here’s a few examples…
a) Being calm and relaxed on the other end of the lead when meeting a new person can help our dog to learn that there is nothing to worry about and to be relaxed when you are relaxed. Learning – yes. Training – yes. Useful – yes!
b) Calmly ignoring your dog when it jumps up to say hello, and lavishing it with fuss and attention when its four feet are on the floor can help our dog to learn that jumping up is a rubbish thing to do because it doesn’t get any attention – being calm and on all fours is the best choice. Learning – yes. Training – yes. Useful – yes!
c) Understanding your dogs’ subtle body language when it is worried, nervous or anxious can then mean you can ignore it if appropriate to reassure the dog that you are not worried and they shouldn’t be either. Or alternatively it might mean you decide to turn and walk the other way from the loud roadworks up ahead, or that scary looking dog approaching. Either way you are teaching your dog to trust you and that you understand his emotional state and respect it too. Learning – yes. Training – yes. Useful – most definitely!
d) And what about this one? Coming home to a dog that has chewed up your favourite shoes, sat next to them looking ‘guilty’ because he ‘know what he has done’ and telling him off means he will learn his lesson – and if he does it again he is just being spiteful? How this actually applies to the dog is he will have chewed the shoes for a reason – not because they are your shoes – maybe he’s teething, maybe he was anxious or bored, or maybe its because they smell of you (gross perhaps, but very charming for a dog to like your smell!).
His guilty looks are very likely a sign of fear and anxiety about the impending telling off – which he can predict if it has happened the last time you returned home, or the tension from your anger and frustration that he can sense from your tone of voice and less than friendly body language. And through all of this, he wont even think about the shoes, because he chewed them hours ago, and dogs memories do not associate punishment with things that happened in the past. So we have ended up training our dog;
– to keep chewing shoes and shoe like things (because we haven’t taught him to do anything else, given him an alternative chew toy, or maybe we haven’t put our shoes somewhere he can’t get them)
– to be worried when his owner gets home because the last few times he has been told off and he doesn’t know why.
Learning? – Yes. Training? Yes. Useful – Absolutely not!
We are constantly giving our dogs information about how they should feel, what behaviours are worth repeating and what behaviours just end up getting ignored and thus become boring and relatively useless. Sometimes we are not telling them what we think we are telling them, and sometimes we are not understanding their reply. This breakdown in communication is incredibly common, and thankfully very easy to address with a bit of effort and a curious mind.
So there we are, that sums up a little about why we do what we do here at the Underdog Trainer. Training is not simply about teaching basic commands or tricks, but it is about how you and your dog behave around each other all of the time. Really, we are all dog trainers all of the time, just most of us don’t know it yet.
It is always a great to keep in the back of your mind, that you have the power to teach your dog every second of every day – but it is also a responsibility that can have incredible results. With some basic knowledge of training, body language and why dogs behave like they do I believe every owner can help deepen their relationship with their dog in an empowering and positive way.
So, when will you train your dog next?