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What’s in a name?

June 12, 2014
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Sunshine first

Sunshine first

Puppies study their environment with high level scrutiny, they are like mini-video cameras – they see everything. When I pick up the kettle I will walk to the sink. When the alarm goes off I will begin to stir. When the garden door opens birds will lift from the feeders.

Along with their observation skills I add “labels” to all activities, as if I was teaching a child our language. John Pilley in “Chaser: Unlocking the genius of the dog who knows a thousand words” carefully explains teaching Chaser from 8 weeks old the names of her toys and the activity she was doing, as she does it. Outstanding results. Although half my heart belongs to collies, I have no doubt many other types of dogs also learn our language – given the opportunity to do so.

Chaser’s proven results means we need to be thoughtful about how many words we use, and when we use them.

  • Food on the floor

This took 7 meals to learn.As with any associative sounds it needs to be regularly topped up to elicit the response. I reserve this only for the conditions “food on the floor – hurry, hurry, it’s going fast”.

As a gang racing to the front gate to greet the deliveries I can “cuckoo-whistle” several times and drop food on the kitchen floor. It is not dependant on behaviour, but the last one there gets the least amount of food.

For many people this is the start of their recall cue. It should elicit a run towards you. Because I begin this with my own pups at about 4 weeks, there is a very strong response to find what is on offer. This is respondent conditioning. It is not dependant on the behaviour of the pup for food to be put to the floor. As I scatter raw mince on the floor, the pups begin to search around. I make my “cuckoo” whistle, over and over again. At 6 weeks my pups can go into the garden and roam around to explore because I have a secure “collect the litter” call. Merrick arrived without this response, hence a necessity for a Flexi to go in the garden. But with four meals a day, often split into 6, I had many opportunities to introduce the sound as food was put to the floor. She recognised my routine of food preparation within 2 meals, and I could begin the sound whenever she was aware that food was about to go to the floor. With a multi dog household, food was always fed in her pen/crate to prevent the other dogs having a taste. The “cuckoo-whistle” would then send her off to the crate in anticipation of the food.

Heaven - sunshine AND turf

Heaven – sunshine AND turf

  • Upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside


Every route we take has a name. To begin with this occurs because the pup wants to follow you, or avoid being left behind. As you demonstrate your intent, you will see the pup anticipate your route and go ahead of you. If you approach your garden door you are most likely to open it and go out, not just dust the back of the door. As the pup goes ahead you can associate the name of the route. Useful when you need to pup to go downstairs ahead of you to avoid congestion. Useful because the pup can begin to learn words and sounds.

  • What you are doing

If we program our thinking to understanding the meaning of what we want, not what we don’t want, this begins our path to co-operative living, rather than restrictive living. I have a particular dislike of the term “leave” in a positive training environment. We may just as well teach “stop pulling”. It may be what we want, but it leaves the dog in a vacuum as to what to do. Are we walking towards B or going away from A? If we label it “go away from A” the dog may never arrive at B.Control your thinking into clear action – walk towards B – not open ended vacuums.I now can associate a cue “I’m busy”, when the toys are attractive and engaging for self-employment, and not me. This is not “settle down”. That would be a very specific way of lying down, or a specific location – in the crate. The only recommendation is that when you are “busy” you keep one ear open for ominous silence …. it usually means something undesirable is being extracted from the kitchen cupboard!


Most pups need a top up of “are we OK?” every 10 minutes, when they ask this question, respond, give them 10 seconds of Okay-ness and then turn away back to “I’m busy”. (I think a great cue for this would be “go do stuff”)

At the other end of the spectrum, I want to be able to work, eat, watch TV, and have the pup nearby but not interactive. I am busy. This is definitely a “go away from A” and you can please yourself what you do. I begin this when she is engaged with her toys, or playing with Nanny-dog, and I will be in the same room, but engaged in a non-pup activity. I differentiate between: sitting up at the table (eating, typing) and sitting back from the table (open to a pup conversation).

Not “leave” but “walk on by”, “look at me”, “walk this way” ……

This is labelled at every opportunity, what you should not be doing is never labelled. As I leave the kitchen and wish the pup to stay there, with the help of the puppy gate, I give the label “you wait there”. The same for the front gate when I go to feed the chickens. Going into her crate as I close the door, in the van crate. This will develop to a wait on the grooming table, as I turn to collect a different brush. It directly translates as “short term separation, you do not need to follow”.

At 15 weeks she has a building vocabulary:

Hurry-ups          go pee, I am following you with the umbrella and in my slippers, so HURRY ……This is the classic association-by-doing cue, and is useful over the dog’s life 1000 times.

That’ll do            end of game time, toys are going to bed.

Chase!                Run after the thrown toy.

Ready?                I’m about the throw the toy.

Tug-tug               Let’s skin this rabbit, pull, share, tug.

Go find               look for treats on the floor

Each toy is being named: dong-dong, chicken, bunny, rat, mouse, tom-tom, cucumber, banana, etc etc (I shop at IKEA children’s section). Make a note of the toy’s names – or as John Pilley recommends write the name of the toy on the toy in an indelible marker.

Destinations: off to bed (upstairs to her bedtime crate), in the car, kitchen, inside, outside.

My older dogs watching the kettle protocol: she make hot stuff, pick up and turn right, we’re staying in the kitchen, turn left and she’s going through to the lounge. As soon as I make the left turn they will have headed off to the lounge.

Actions: settle down (she is very readable when tired that she is looking for a place to flop, this will be: first choice: patch of sunshine, second choice: by my feet, third choice: her own bed.)

Walk on: when we are out and about and she is trotting along focussed on where we are going. This takes familiarity as at the moment “walk on” is about 2 metres before we respond to wildlife marketing.

Positions can be labelled: sitting, drop, standing

Am I teaching her a heel position or how to stand in a bowl? Absolutely not. Our most important learning is communication, language, relationship.

Labels to emotional states

Absolutely. I can see her getting tired, being full of joy, affectionate, alert, excited. I look for opportunities to associate my future reinforcers. When she charges towards me with her toy for a play time I clap. Feeding her treats I add a “yummy”, I use a whistle sound for celebration.

Love Person!!

Love Person!!

Long before any scientist studied learning theory, the traditional naming of behaviours was by telling the animal what it was doing as it was being done. I have eighteenth and nineteenth century books on “dogge breaking”, and “sheepe dogs of the north” and this was the successful protocol. All writers understood that a stimulus must be effective to trigger the behaviour before a label could be associated. Move the sheep in such a way that the collie needs to move to their left to prevent escape = “come bye”, walk up onto the scent of a bird hidden in the grass = “steady-up”

For any action that continues over and over again you can repeat the label/cue, as the action is repeating. It takes an impressive short amount of time before the label can be used to begin the action.

Probably the one label that deserves the most thought is her name. The choosing of a name is worthy of several hours of consideration. It needs testing before the pup has any idea of its significance, it needs to be shouted in public. You think it to yourself as you are with this new soul and feel the “click” when you know this is who they are.

Child was “Merrell” for a couple of weeks, and one evening when she was sitting on my lap I discovered it was Merrick. A quick trundle around Google found “The Merrick”

“The Merrick is the highest summit in Southern Scotland and lies at the heart of the Galloway ranges. …..Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly”

Yep, that sounds about right! Scottish breed, knowledge, experience and skill to use correctly.

I have seen the recommended protocol of “say the pup’s name and give it a piece of food” become no more than association of food. Pup hears the name, stands passively and licks their lips. Huh?

I have no ambitions on becoming a food dispenser in my pup’s eyes.

I associate her name when: she is running towards me with all the joy and love a pup can have for “Person!!! Love ya!!”

When she is sitting on my lap having an affectionate cuddle.

When we re-unite after separation – our greeting sessions where we exchange promises of all good things.

When she hears me call her name I want an emotional response that encompasses connection and joy, not “got chicken huh”?

Merrick: Learning Happens Every Second

June 10, 2014

15 weeksNature has designed young animals to learn at an astonishing rate. They are sifting through all the information presented to them every second and filing away what is relevant, what may be relevant and what proves to be most definitely not. On top of this process relevancy changes from one week to the next.

The information is coming into their filing system through:

What they see and watch ~ many hours of studying people’s patterns, room layouts, garden birds

What they feel ~ through contact of their feet, their fur, how the air moves, sunshine and rain on their fur

What they hear ~ from kettles switching off, TVs, dogs barking, helicopters

What they scent ~ every item has a smell to assess, explore and memorise

What they put in their mouth ~ from toys to turds, it’s all about reading new experiences

At 12 weeks Merrick enjoys sitting in the garden observe life passing by. She used to only do this when I was in the garden, but her confidence and security has developed sufficiently to be able choose to leave me in the kitchen and take up her observation post. The luxury of a British June – doors open all day long. This is the same as every Gordon that has lived in this garden – the highest point with the best view, rich, passing air and sunshine of course. She regularly comes back to check where I am, usually bringing me trophies.

From her observation post she has learned where the Blackbirds are nesting, pigeons have sex at every opportunity (it is Spring) and the dining habits of all wildlife.

She potters around exploring the output from all the fine dining at my feeders, every turd is “smelled”. She has graduated from reading her own output, I can only surmise that there is relevant information stored there. Turds are no longer part of the trophy hoard, but we have yet to venture into the woods and sheep grazed orchard.

Trophies were acquired within a couple of hours of hitting the ground. This began with the bark mulch off the flower beds. Although fenced off for their own protection a small head was able to shop. Not a suitable source of nutrition for a 7 week old child. On the first occasion I swopped this for a tastier item – cooked chicken. On the 43rd occasion she had learned to bring me bark and on the question “swop?” she would go straight to the fridge for her chicken piece. Learning happens every second. That routine took 3 days.

We have matured from bark, to toying with gravel that tosses around the kitchen with great aerodynamics, doesn’t float in water (I even found a piece of gravel in the toilet bowl) and this week’s trophy is turf. Freshly lifted turf.

My available choices varied from punishing the behavior to reinforcing the behaviour and the rainbow in between. There are risks and advantages across the spectrum.

My developing relationship with is my greatest priority – far greater than any trophy, unless the trophy presented a serious health hazard. Punishment was not an option; I really could not care about a kitchen covered in bark mulch, a sofa littered in pebbles and shoes filled with turf. Punishment may also develop secretive trophy hunting where I would not know what she was testing.

Swopping the trophies for chicken increased the behaviour of her bringing me the trophies, but possibly not the behaviour of trophy hunting in the first place. I suspect that is reinforcing by itself, a part of learning. Novel items need to be explored for future usefulness and functionality. This is a developing creativity. Could punishing that inquisitiveness have long reaching effect on her desire to learn? Does the child that continually asks “Why?” questions become disinterested with “just because” non-answers.

By building up this aspect of her naturally curiosity and making sure I become an integral part of that behaviour can be developed in so many different ways in the future. We have an excellent carry back to me, with anything, her thought when she acquires q “new book” is to share it with me. Not her playmate/nanny, me.

I am pushing myself to consider that every action, experience, event, response has a purpose that can be of future use. I may not see it on first occurrence but I am learning to open my mind to the belief that every lesson is there for a reason.

Trophy hunting is about exploration in her environment. In later life we may put this under the label of “environmental enrichment”. At the moment I call it developmental enrichment. Along with her innate curiosity I supply at least 10 new “books” every day.

What does she learning from the activity:

Look at every object for possibilities: can it be eaten? Does it feel good on these sore gums (teeth start changing next week), can I build a nest with it? Does it fly? Does it squeak?

Strawberries are today's new story.

Strawberries are today’s new story.

Pouncing on it with her feet is a future kill-skill. Tossing it into the air is also a kill-skill – for particularly prey that can bite back – rodents. Biting it with different part of her teeth, at different angles are all part of the eating process. Bones just don’t slide down the throat unless rolled around the mouth in a particular way. Exploring new smells and recognising familiar smells. Bark mulch is no longer of much interest, gravel stones seem to be fading. I add to the smell-taste experience with foods. Strawberries and tomatoes are definitely pounce and fling items. Celery is a roll upside down and play with your feet. Crunchy plastic boxes and water bottles. Empty cardboard cartons. Rolls of paper towels, 6 new rolls of paper towels. (Shut the pantry door, was the human-learning here). Orange peel. Cutlery in the dishwasher. (Put the knives in top-down)

These activities are laying down a learning system that begins with observe, explore, scent, taste, carry, chew. Memories and reference points are a key part of life – so we do not keep making the same mistakes and we can learn what is successful. What is fun and what is boring?

At the same time I am part of this learning process, either as a consequence effect or as the originator. Do I have to teach her how to sit? Absolutely not. Am I facilitating her learning? Absolutely.

This IS nature’s classroom. A protected trial and error process that expands all her neural pathways for future learning. Protected from danger and trauma by supervision and safety processes.

Perfect childhood.

But as usual with perfect childhood, lots of cleaning for the grown-ups!


Exciting times – you have new puppy!

January 10, 2014


Better than all your birthdays put together. A complete package of such cuteness that your insides turn to warm caramel. A huggable, wriggly, kissing snuggler. Gaze affectionately at your deep sleeping pal and watch them dream of adventures in grassy fields, snuffling under leaves and sighing contentedly at your feet.

In anticipation of this living pleasure you blew your credit card to the enthusiastic pet store. A crate for safe sleeping lined with soft, cosy bedding. Expensive puppy toys scientifically manufactured to provide the perfect psychological enrichment. Food that would shame Harrod’s Food Hall with exclusive ingredients. Designer bowls that are just the right shade of colour and pattern to match the bedding, crate, cover and coat. A full wardrobe of miniature lead and collar, harnesses, jackets, brushes, combs and shampoos. Puppy pads for  accidents, extra fencing for the garden, a picker-up of poo and a lifetime supply of bags.
To follow the enthusiasm of your pet store you will be welcomed with professional enthusiasm by your local veterinary practice as they introduce you to the reality of private medicine. The gloom of future bills will be brightened by an insurance policy that will equal the equivalent of a small people carrier.

Three weeks of sleeping on the sofa should be anticipated to ensure you do not enter the nightmare of hostile neighbours. Puppies can scream for several hours, break your heart and kill any chance of your enjoyment of the following day companionship as they sleep soundly.


Six weeks of uninvited strangers fondling the cute package craddled in your arms. Your diligence at providing the perfect socialisation will introduce you to canine versions of paedophiles. Entire, large, mature male dogs seeking hormonal relief, with equally passionate owners full of absurdly mythical advice.

Nine weeks of boisterous playtime that you embark upon in the hopes of some quiet time when you may wish to go out for dinner.

Twelve weeks of life-by-chewing. Every surface that can be contained within the expanding mouth will be tested for taste, resistance to needle sharp pressure, nibbled for relief of boredom. That which is not fixed to the house will be researched for mobility and digestibility in both small and large chunks which may or may not arrive out the other end. Experienced friends will boast that lack of appropriate production will result in a four figure private medicine bill for the extraction surgery and after-care.

At this point in time the object of your emotional investment, increasing debt and loss of  social life will be planning their career path to Be More Dog than you would care to share your life with.

The illusion of pleasant walks will turn into a contest of wills, wrestling with ridiculous pieces of equipment designed to keep your arm joints in working order and a dog that embarrasses you at every opportunity. People that were previously gravitated to your package of cuteness now cross the road to avoid the pavement swimming, hoarse breathing, rasping, lunging, swearing alien.

A beautiful day at the park represents a frequent view of their anus and the finger-up tail as they disappear to spend three hours of cruising the local gangs and wildlife. A walk together is dismissed in seconds as their rising instincts sends them on a mission to seek sex, kill critters and eat rubbish in any order, or even all at the same time.

pups1Visitors find excuses not to come to your house. Dinner invitations have dried up. Weekends away have completely evaporated. Sales reps, delivery guys and your local postie have warning graffiti on your gatepost.

This bag of hormones will hump anything that can serve the function and respond to urinary messaging at every opportunity.

Playtime has matured to serious combat sport that requires dedicated clothing.

You are now ready to consider swapping this mistake for a loaf of bread. All the ungratefulness and lack of appreciation will dispel the fondest memories. You begin to take detours pass the local rescue centres. Can you stand the embarrassment of seeking help?


Taking on any young animal is a long term responsibility which will demand more time than you imagine, more expense that you could consider and a serious change in your lifestyle. That is the reality. Impulse buying the wrong sofa can be rectified if you swallow the expense. Impulse buying a puppy can result in personal grief for you and your family and quite possibly result in a very unhappy future or end the life of that puppy.

But, if a puppy is your life-goal then plan it well, consider the 15 year costs and benefits. Do the research. Visit dog training classes, talk to their clients, talk to the teachers. Feel the sharp end and volunteer at the local rescue centre. See the type of gambling you are toying with. This type of gambling is not just losing what you can afford, but destroying the well-being of another animal.

Research the inherited functionality of a breed, do not choose on kerb appeal or to compliment your ego. Reality is that collies can chase moving objects: every single car, bike, bus, lorry, bird, child, low flying jet. Reality is that gundogs want to hunt 12 hours a day though mud, pond, bramble and forest. Reality is that terriers can chase for England and kill ten Guinea Pigs in sixty seconds.

If you want a double-coated breed that is designed for living outdoors then seek a career with a vacuum cleaning company. You will learn more about the inner workings of all types of cleaning equipment and develop a seriously good tool kit for extracting the coat-wedges deep in the pipes. The insulating hair will coat every part of your house and have a particular fondness for all fabric parts inside your car.

Go to a breed show and talk to the specialists that have met the reality of their passion head on and still maintain that passion. These are the people whose love of their dogs is strong enough and big enough to see them through the tough times. The tough times are unavoidable, but with support, the inexperienced can survive. When they are three years old you will find you love them again.

Having done your research take a hard and realistic look at your life style and ask the brutal questions. Are you going to give up luxury furnishings, a pretty garden and change your social life? Have you neighbours that will ignore day-long howling whilst you work on your career? Will you be able to maintain the self-discipline to be up and out at 6am on a dark, wet, winter morning? Will you be able to give up the holidays, spontaneous weekends away and evenings out?

Will your love and responsibility be up to the high demands of parenting a young animal?

It takes an hour to acquire a puppy.

It may take many, many months before you realise that this was a really serious mistake. You may be able to walk away from your error, but will the pup?

Heaven is happiness in mud

Heaven is happiness in mud

A thousand shades of grey

November 11, 2013

The internet has proven to be as much of a blessing as a liability. My view leans towards the blessing but with an endorsement of: take care. Increasing knowledge must be viewed as a Good Thing. I have no doubt that clicker training would never have flourished so widely or so speedily without the internet. But as much as this is a good thing, the impact of YouTube has flourished some really bad techniques alongside some really good training. Telling the difference is the skill we need to share. That is nothing new, when presented with so much material enthusiastically wrapped in words of “expert” and “experienced”, be it on TV, books or the internet we have no idea if this expertise is just marketing, genuine expertise, or expert in their own opinion.

Skill sharing

The one skill I would like to focus our minds towards is the terminology or language we use to describe our dogs, their personalities, behaviour and training solutions.

I hope the days of describing a dog as “a bit nasty” are disappearing. Usage of that term tells you more about the user than the dog – their whitewashing view of a dog based on one situation. It is not that long ago that I had a client who commanded their dog to “be nice”. What in hell is THAT behaviour?

It tells me more about the user: “Do not embarrass me. Again”. It also tells me that they may be expecting some “not nice” response from their little bitch who has just tolerated an extremely rude and invasive snort by an adolescent young male. “Be nice” may well be the request to their over-whelmed little bitch to tolerate this offensive behaviour, but in fact the bitch may well interpret it as “I am not going to support you as my loss of face in the presence of my own species is more important than you”.

And we wonder why “trust” evaporates when in the company of people??

Consideration and thoughtfulness do not arrive overnight and it may take 20 years to make a significant difference to the view of every day folk towards their dogs. But we must make a start since the viral spread of certain terms are beginning to cause more troubles, not alleviate them. When knowledge travels down the social avenues it can be easily tainted and distorted with ignorant nonsense that relieves potential embarrassment.

The avoidance of blame for a dog’s behaviour is very often the lack of “socialisation”. Because of course the person did everything right, socialised the poor puppy over and beyond its skill level and now has a reactive dog.

Sigh. The modern label for a Bit Nasty.

Another laborious task for the overloaded dog professionals to fight against.

Reactivity can never be black and white

Or exclusive to Border Collies!


Reactivity lives is a world of shades, from:

White. Non reactive: severely depressed, mentally exhausted or clinically categorised as dead.

Very light Grey. Under reactive: showing signs of mental fatigue, tired of trying to react, on the verge of no longer able to respond.

Mid Grey. Averagely reactive: able to respond to changes in the environment, assess, and maintain an alert and watchful state

Dark Grey. Over reactive: scanning for all changes in the environment, orientation to the changes, increasing arousal, some time needed before returning to a watchful, alert state

Black. Hyper reactive: fast scanning and rapid orientation, high state of arousal, over stimulated by novel environments, extreme stress responses.

I think you may begin to sense my reactivity to the use of this term. If you exchange the term “react” to “respond”. It goes from a negative description to a normal, desired descriptive term.

All dogs should be responsive to their environment. It is their normal state of being, it has kept them alive for thousands of years. It is what makes them useful as alert guard dogs, patrol dogs – always scanning the environment with sight and scent for threats. Hunting dogs – constantly alert to the opportunity of (specific) prey. Dogs generally will be seekers of thrills and excitement; threats and events to avoid.

It is the State of Being Dog.


Anything other than a heightened degree of environmental alertness should be regarded as possible illness, mental fatigue, or as a result of aversive punishment.

This state of alertness is what makes the trainable dogs, super-learners. They become sensitive to our cues and develop the desired lightning responses that result in enviable “top dogs”. The skill we are using to our advantage is the same coin that makes them sensitive to their environment – all of it. If we want to pick and choose what they respond to then we need to invest time in teaching them that skill.

Today’s society is beginning to develop a non-reactivity as a defensive response. “Bovvered?” The youth response to being informed that their behaviour is not acceptable. We also have to shut down our response, or reactivity, to the behaviour of others. It is part of sharing the same environment or neighbourhood. The fireworks enjoyed by the few, but causing stress to the many. Noise, pollution, and all the other invasive events that we need to “not react” to. We are sliding towards a non-reactive society, or could we use the term non-caring instead? It that what we want our dogs to be as well … non-caring.

I wonder if living in that degree of stress actually causes more mental fatigue than we are aware of. Certainly when I experience the enforced proximity to the noise, pollution and behaviour of fellow travellers for long hours I can become tired. Perhaps that is my continual need to discipline non-reactivity? As we say when despatching a traveller – “may the seat next to you be empty”. That space around can make a very significant difference to your state of arrival. Why are the aisle and window seats always booked first?

Time and Space are your best friends

Whenever we disregard either Time or Space, we are in danger of compromising the dogs’ response and pushing them towards extreme, and stress-filled reactions.

An event happens, car door slams, and the dog is not given sufficient time to analyse before a response is required. The oncoming Person With Dog that arrives in the dog’s space when a suitable dog-response is inhibited by attachment to non-responsive person.

I am always in awe of dogs’ ability to seek the suitable response when given the time and space to do so. The dog that has been labelled as “reactive”, but when allowed to view the  stimulus at a suitable distance (when an alerting response is observed, but the dog remains able to respond to learned cues from us, such as a name prompt), can maintain alert, but not escalate to overreaction. If the stimulus remains at that distance for long enough the dog will have “filed” away the information, views the threat, and managed their response …. “whatever”.

We have thousands of such events to teach the dogs. Can they generalise? Absolutely. Given the valuable Space and Time strategies, which require patience and planning from the other end of the lead, the dogs can teach themselves when extreme reaction is required and when you can just graduate to “Bovvered? Whatever.”

I am sure most of you have experienced that drama trained skill in your dog. My adults are very skilled at playing “bovvered?” when a youngster tries different tactics to distract their engagement in the much envied bone, sofa, piece of sunshine.

I remember an occasion when information was withheld from me because the holder of that knowledge knew I would “over react”. Absolutely right. I cared very deeply about the consequences and impact of that information. Are we making “reactivity” aligned with caring?

Descriptive terms so often depend on “it depends”. It depends on the environment, the threat, the level of arousal, the previous 60 minutes of stress It depends on the experience, view and knowledge of the describer. If we are relying on terminology to label behaviour, mis-use can direct us to a solution of no potential value. That also presume that the diagnosis was correct in the first instance.

Sadly too many dogs are arriving at the Barn mis-diagnosed, with an owner travelling the length of the country and breadth of expertise seeking a solution that was never going to be of any use. Often this is a breed specific trait, an innate, selectively bred response that is dumped into a category that the behaviour analyst is familiar with.

Border Collies are reactive by nature. If they were non-reactive they could not function in their job. When a ewe ponders the green grass on far yonder hill, the collie has to read her aspirations and make a minute adjustment in balance to persuade her to change her mind. The collie will react to a yearning look that possibly covers a cunning plan. Not wait until she sets off with determination. Superb trait in collies …. reactivity. No shepherd would want a dog without reactivity.

NO dog should be labelled as reactive. Just as we should avoid the terms of “stupid”, “thick”, “crazy”, “freaky”. Laziness can cause us to be mean with words, choosing one word instead of an accurate sentence. This single word is inevitably inaccurate and it also colours our response, thinking and reaction.

How many shades of “friendly” or “unfriendly” should be we consider?

  • Friendly when proven to be safe to do so
  • Friendly when approached with respect and courtesy
  • Unfriendly when smoke-smelly hands wish to fondle our face
  • Unfriendly when open arms are intent on capture

… and all the shades between.

Remind yourself to always think in Shades of Grey, and being reactive, or caring, is more than a good thing.

Dental Treatment By Tug

May 14, 2013

I have just spent a happy weekend enjoying my chosen sport – heelwork to music. Quite a luxury weekend off but no time away from dogs or training.

Most of my business is spent in a wide variety of aspect of behaviour analysis, adjustment, modification and plain repetition – training. This has taken much of my free time since I was 19 years old to secure a good understanding of the underlying science. In them days there was not a lot of accessible science that I could understand, but exposure to trainers in many other fields, such as my colleagues joining me for a quick Caribbean cruise: Ken, Alex and Jesus have broaden my horizons considerably.

Ken Ramirez is from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He trains about 120 staff as trainers of a variety of over 30 different species, including dogs, and enjoys an extensive conference and consulting circuit all over the world. Alex Kurland is a clicker trainer of horses and pioneers the way forward in a environment fairly hostile towards positive training. Jesus is our academic inspiration, Associate Professor of Behaviour Analysis at North Texas University. He takes a great delight in sharing our philosophy and can provide the scientific answers that (most of the time) I can get a grasp on. This understanding, sharing and generalisation of our knowledge and techniques grows our education – and subsequently well being of the animals we love.

We share many of the common problems that arise from training with all species: communication & reinforcement. Neither Ken or Alex use punishment on animals that are  somewhere over the other side of the pool or field, or animals that can punish trainers in an impressive way. Their animals are never subjected to the protocols we often take for granted in sports-dog training. You cannot “wind up” a sea-lion to get a “more drivey” performance. Much of their training time is spent developing a relationship of trust and respect that evolves from a truly positive experience for their animals. The type of trust that means you can perform a scan on a pregnant Beluga without capture, box-load a fearful horse without force. They are masters are getting results that inspire through their elegance, understanding, and thoughtfulness.

And, yes, they need to get performance quality behaviours, often several times a day. Ever been to Sea World? Ken has worked with a team of divers and dolphins that performed a 22 minute routine with no food reinforcers. Neither did they require their teeth being wrenched out of their head by tugging.

Dogs are not helicopters

If we look at how they kill their prey it would vary from a quick shake to break the neck in the case of rats and small critters. A sharp side-to-side shake. Natural for terriers. If no more rats are presenting themselves, then the dog would move on to skinning techniques. For larger prey there is the grip to hold whilst the pack drag down the larger animal. For collies in particular they are designed to nip and nag, not maintain a continuous hold or shake. Our gundogs are extremely poor at grip. The jaw that is functional to carry will have a strong neck, but not a strong bite.

Much of the tug training protocols evolved from the bite work training for GSDs and their cousins to build arousal and strengthen the bite action. There is often an accompanying slapping or pinching to the body. This is a reflex designed for increased grip when hoofed prey to use their legs to strike against the body of their predator.

Building tug training with eye rattling aggressive techniques serves very little purpose for a performance dog. The dog is not designed to take this level of structural abuse, neither are your arms, hands, shoulders or neck. Continual wrenching of the dog’s head up and down will cause serious damage to their neck, tear ligaments and certainly not provide a good muscle structure that enables a balanced carriage in a dressage type of performance. Ever noticed your arms ache? Think what may be happening to your dog’s neck, back, jaw muscles, shoulders.

Ever seen your dogs playing together with this type of action? They may make short shakes but they certainly would not bounce their opponent up and down again and again.

Secondly our dogs are not designed to function in this high level of arousal. You may certainly function well with a level of arousal but if this goes too high, your ability to make decisions will be impaired, your ability to remember simple functions will reduce and you will become fatigued very quickly. Sound familiar? Just being around people preparing to enter a competition in a state of arousal and you will hear their voices go up a pitch, getting flustered is common, forgetting the routine seems normal and not remembering where the exit of the ring is seen repeatedly. You can smell the arousal anxiety in the people! Small wonder the dogs cannot recognise our behaviour under these conditions.

If we want to give our dogs an emotional association with the performance venue it needs to be one of security and comfort. Then they will be able to perform as they “do at home”.

Musicians, dancers, acrobats, athletes perform when relaxed, properly conditioned and comfortable. Sure they are motivated, but that is not the same as aroused. It is easy to mistake arousal for “he’s enjoying it”. When the muscles are tight or tense the performance will not flow. It is about conditioning good physical and mental technique.

Arousal does not equate with reinforcement. In fact over-arousal can put the dog in such a state they make more errors, particularly of the vocal type. It can drive levels of anxiety higher, if you saw this in a person you would call it “getting flustered”. Stamping your foot and telling them “for goodness sake calm down”. How does that work for you then?

Arousal does not equate with motivated. Being motivated is not the same as being excited. It is often about really tight focus, clear understanding of what needs to be done to achieve an end goal.

What we are seeking is a reinforcer that we can use in the competition environment where food is not allowed. Anticipation of a strong reinforcer is reinforcing in itself. It needs a long history of practice so that when a particular series of events happen the dog can recognise the forthcoming reinforcer. This is your mental conditioning.

Pool-side at the Shedd Aquarium you will see the trainers using many, many different reinforcers. It is not just fish, fish and more fish. See the Belugas laugh when a bottled water is sprayed over their faces, they think a tongue scratch is worth jumping hoops for. Neither of these events are naturally occurring reinforcers but the trainers spend a lot of time building them to be additional reinforcers. They are paired with reinforcers that are natural over and over again until they become reinforcers in themselves, and importantly the association with the natural reinforcer is regularly refreshed.

We like to touch our dogs. For many of us this is a primary reason for living with dogs. There is a pleasant sensation felt on the palms of our hands when stroking fur. But can we presume this is equally pleasurable for our dogs? Maybe not, we need to learn how to share the enjoyment so that we equally get pleasure from it, not one at the discomfort of the other. Touch comes in many forms and the dog will try to tell you what they like and do not like. Do they seek more when your pause? Do they “shake off” your touch to realign their coat?

The definition of a reinforcer is something that makes the likelihood of the behaviour repeating or getting stronger. Even food can stop being reinforcing when you are full, or feeling sick with anxiety. What is reinforcing is decided by the recipient, not the deliverer. We can never say “oh but he enjoys it”. A dog may “enjoy” wearing an uncomfortable head collar, but if it predicts an opportunity to go out and about they will get excited when they see it – for the outing, not the wearing of the equipment.

In the days before play and food were introduced as our rewards we used our voices to let the dogs know we were happy – which is not necessarily a reinforcer (OK, good for you, you’re happy, I’m not) and physical touch to incentivise the dog to continue the behaviour. Hmm. I don’t remember it being a particularly inspiring protocol. Quite bland often and not clear communication.

The usual protocol was to scold what you don’t like and praise what you do. But this made a enormous error is assuming that the dog knew what we did not like, was motivated to avoid it and perform what we did like. Hah! That gap in understanding is wide enough for four London double deck buses

That protocol may work for some motorists – punishment for speeding, but does it incentivise careful driving?

We can use many, many different types of games with our dogs that are based on a positive, interesting, stimulating and reinforcing experience. This neither needs food or jaw wrenching. Watch the disc dogs – for them it’s about chase, watch the gundogs – for them it is about carry, watch the collies – for them it is about control of movement. By using their natural reinforcers we open up a whole Games R Us store of fun and reinforcement. Watch your dogs play with each other – what do they like to do? What do they repeat again and again? Sharing a toy and running side by side? Flirting and teasing with a toy?

Play with your dog, enjoy your dog, make sure it is safe for your dog and they are comfortable. Build your performer both physically and mentally. This is a sport for our ego and enjoyment, we need to ensure it is not at a cost to our dogs. A “fried” or confused dog is not a happy dog.

As for wrapping a yucky tug around your neck … doesn’t it stink?

Lead-off Good, Lead-on Bad

May 2, 2012

How do you ensure walking with you is not poisonous?

Every piece of equipment you put on your dog is punishing to some degree. All dogs will try to remove the least obnoxious collar when first introduced. Some equipment worn around the face will, for some dogs, invoke a lifelong need to remove it. Equipment is designed to make management of dogs easier for the benefit of people. Just because your dog gets excited when they see the equipment, it does not mean they “like it”. The production of the equipment is a pre-cursor to leaving the prison, just as your walking boots and coat.

Many of my  clients are able to recognise that their dogs’ behaviours on-lead are different to off-lead. The differences between these behaviours evolve from thoughtless associations.

I always remember Ian Dunbar’s remark on punishing a puppy for peeing in the house. Jump up, scold puppy, remove it from warm, sitting room carpet and evict onto cold, wet grass. Shut door. Either the pup will learn to pee outside, or learn to avoid you and pee where you cannot see it. You will discover it sometime later, either because of the increasing smell or because you need to move the sofa. This is the problem with punishment – we cannot control the fallout.

How does equipment punish?

Just because the collar is pretty and of lovely soft fabric it does not make it pleasant to wear. At the least it will irritate. I have a lovely necklace on a very fine chain, that I would enjoy wearing more often if the chain didn’t seem to catch those very fine hairs on the back of my neck. And having experienced a hair cut yesterday I lived the rest of the day with one rogue hair between my bra and skin. And ladies – you know what that feels like. That need for  “adjustment” that should not be seen in public, and the only solution is a full removal, isolation and dismissal of offending 1mm of hair. Goodness knows what a collar all around the neck can do – particularly if the collar wears away the guard fur to a bristly length.

Then we also have the jingling, for some dogs every movement is a jingle. They wear their collar 24 hours a day, with some serious metal work clanking under their chin. At least let them sleep in peace.

Dogs can wear a collar and enjoy both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of life – a poottle around the garden first thing in the morning checking out the overnight wildlife, through to a grab and yank to be stopped from snatching the custard tart dropped on the floor. Often the collar itself does not represent punishment or pleasure since both emotions are experienced when wearing a collar. But once we attached the collar to a lead it changes context and we begin a catalogue on unpleasant associations.

1. Frustration. Prevention from going to explore, investigate, chase and play; the main pleasures of being out and about, Going for a walk is to go shopping for sniffs – reading the myriad of scents and stories left by other animals. Frustration can begin with very young, inquisitive puppies, designed to learn from the experience of smell – taste – touch. Just the time when they are introduced to the collar being attached.

2. Being pulled around. The lead-collar is used to pull the dog where the person wants to go, at the speed the person wants, which removes choice for the dog. The direction may give every signal of “avoid” to the dog, but they have no choice and are dragged along.

3. Trapped. Being fondled by Stranger. This also goes under the euphemism of “socialisation”.

I was also exposed to “socialisation” as a child. I do not fondly remember Uncle Bert that stank of booze grabbing me, nor Aunt Ada who insisted on rubbing her whiskery cheek on mine. As a young child I put up with it, but at 15 years old I had learned avoidance.

The same with puppies, they will tolerate invasive greeting when they are young, but learn that this is not good manners as they grow older and try every form of communication to say “no thanks”, but because these socialisation experiences are happening when on-lead and next to the owner, they cannot avoid with grace, they may need to resort to avoid by threat.

4. Forced rudeness. Dogs are extremely skilled social creatures, and when their skills are developed in the right environment, they can move around mutual territories without causing offence or extreme reactions. They would stand-off on initial awareness, probably a good 15  metres (40ft) away and do some air sniffing, perhaps stand still with a pleasant tail wag (Hey, we OK?) and wait for a response before proceeding any closer. They may then move to the nearest scent point and leave more liquid information, or if the other dog has already done so, move over to read their information. It is gradual, respectful, and allows an escape if things don’t pan out.

Now you are walking along the street with your dog trotting at your side and you see another dog coming towards you. The progress you make towards each other is double the speed you are walking (remember the trains heading towards each other in Maths class?). Your dog will see a strange dog heading directly at them, with a speed indicating serious intent, a hostile approach. The width of our pavements prevents the space that represents respect and good manners. Before you know it the dogs are far too close, uncomfortable and forced to react. On-lead, next to you.

5. Walking out of balance. Dogs have four gaits: walk, trot, canter, gallop. When moving with their walking human pack, we usually see walk and trot. For dogs larger than a Cocker Spaniel, and a person less than 2m/6ft their trot is slightly faster than the human-walk, and the dog’s walk speed is too slow. (You can see the video of this: Movement Video on YouTube). At the other end of the scale the very large breeds can walk with our walk.

The restriction of the lead, in conjunction with punishment based head halters and harnesses,  prevents the dog from either of their natural movements, walk or trot, and they are forced to pace. This is the same as if you were using your left arm going forward with your left leg, and right with right leg. After 20 paces, your back will begin to tighten up, and probably your fists clench in frustration. Now imagine a group of people walking towards you, very fast, with that peculiar pacing action – be suspicious huh? If you have a dog unable to pace, the outcome is yo-yo walking. Dog goes to end of lead, stops, waits for you, or is pulled back to your side, over the next 10 steps the dog is back at the end of the lead again. On-lead, next to you – uncomfortable.

6. Training. Not what I would call training, but often deliberate punishment through the equipment for human-perceived transgressions. On lead, next to you. Training class, chaos, shouting, barking, being bum-sniffed without warning, too close to other dogs. Yeah, love being on-lead.

7. Visiting the torture clinic. Aka The Vets. Which has every indication of being a Very Bad Place from the fear-scent of previous visitors. Drag, pull, collar tight, finger up bum. On lead, next to you.

8. Street walking. Breathing pollution. Sneeze, yuck. Bad smells, squealing brakes. On lead, next to you.

Off lead is heaven

Explore, run, walk trot, stop, start. No pacing. Follow, search, aaaah, read a good article, add perfumes to your neck and shoulder. Pleasure. Chase a pigeon, nibble some sheep poo, move away from weird oncoming dog.

Free choice, to be touched or not, free choice to be sniffed or not. Unlimited credit card in favourite shop.

Without thinking we exaggerate the pleasure of being off-lead in comparison to on-lead. All the bad things happen on-lead and all the true pleasures are off-lead. Any wonder that the dog’s behaviour is quite different? Not only is the association with the equipment but also next to you. This is worrying, if your dog spends most of the time trying to move away from you shouldn’t we take notice? Additionally there are often specific occasions and environments  when this association is predictable – walking down the street, training classes, meeting people and dogs.

Your options:

1. Never take your dog out on a lead.

In some environments totally impractical. But you may be able to go to the woods, park your car, let the dog out directly to free running? It is a rare dog that grows up in a safe environment where restriction is unnecessary.

2. Never let your dog experience free running.

All pleasant and unpleasant experiences are in association with the same environmental cues. You can cue close walk with me with a certain lead, or collar, and free running with a long line, or self-retracting lead and harness. Or you can free-run with your dog on a lead?

3. Give more pleasant experiences, and block or avoid unpleasant experiences on-lead.

  • Give your dog time to make choices, when you want to change direction. Invite, don’t pull.
  • Walk slower so that your dog can move at a natural gait, or jog at their trot.
  • Respect that they go out for the pleasure of sniffing, give them time to sniff.
  • Cross the road, move away when you see fast on-coming, hostile, dog-person traffic.
  • Don’t force intimate contact from either strange dogs or people unless that is the dog’s choice.
  • Teach your dog structured scent games: tracking, substance searches etc, enjoy their activity with your dog whilst on-lead.
  • Play, games of tugging, sausages games within the length of the lead. Ensure pleasures and play around you, not always throw and chuck and dog runs off.

Be Aware.

In reality we need to use equipment to keep the dogs safe from threats they cannot understand or have the skills to avoid. Make sure you do not unbalance the association with this equipment with most of  the unpleasant events in outdoor life happening on-lead, and all the most pleasant events off-lead.

Deep into the woods

December 19, 2011

Since the dawn of dog training the old joke reminds us that the only thing dog trainers can agree on is that their training method in the best one. The fact that this joke exists should send red warning flags to the innocents walking in our woods. It becomes increasingly difficult to know which method is “right”, and whether it will suit the dog, the situation and trainer’s skills.

My  decade of travelling to many different training facilities have given me a expansive view of the outcomes lots and lots of different methods and their variations. Personally I would not wish to begin to try to research through the forest of books all claiming astonishing result if you follow Their Way. There is an overwhelming choice.

To begin your first step is to find a training adviser with whom you share the same ethical platform. You may need to review several of their protocols to establish the location of that platform since their location may not be obvious, and in some cases it can “wander” about. This often occurs when they lack a solution for a particular exercise and have regurgitated traditional thinking. This should ring warning bells, an ethical platform should go across the whole of their advice. If anything you read makes you uncomfortable, then put the book back to resell. If you are going to invest your dog’s training or your training career in a particular methodology make sure that the adviser (read: Author, Expert, Guru here, with tongue in cheek), has an extensive background in using that method personally and has also taught it to many other person/dog partnerships. The “theory of how this should work” is simply not good enough. You want a solution that has an excellent road history, not only by the adviser but many other people with different skills and different dogs. You want a method that has been tried and tested, generalised and put through the idiot filter and still survived. Some methods are very specific to the trainer’s skills and extremely difficult to replicate if you do not have those skills. These are often the instinctive trainers, very talented, great results but will often teach “this is how I do it” rather than through knowledge and understanding.

My reliable analogy for dog training is the world of cooking. At one end we have the professionals making a successful living, running a business, training apprentices, publishing books, and at the other end the part time enthusiasts who need some quick solutions. We also have the neglectful participants who regard food as a necessity and their microwave more essential than the stove (Me). Equally the dog world has those same professionals and neglectful owners who wish they could engage with their dog in the same fashion as the stand-by microwave. Until the last couple of decades much of the non-professional access to cooking was by recipe books, the science behind the process was explored and researched by the specialists, and we relied on their sharing skills through the recipes. As much as a loaf of bread comes in many different forms, so does the dog training solution.

Following recipes, for training or for cakes, will stifle creativity and independent thinking. If I  wish to cook a pie I still read the packet’s instructions for the oven temperature and duration. After 30 years of shop bought pie cooking, I still have not learned why some pies need longer cooking than others. I do not understand enough of the science to be a creative or independent cook. Each solution or recipe will suit different needs, or different “palettes”. It now becomes our job to have sufficient knowledge to sift through these recipes and find the solution to suit our dog.

The growth of comparison websites has filled a need for an expert, or person with knowledge and understanding, to voice their opinion on what is available be it in digital cameras or web hosting. Recently I have used a webinar comparison website, since I did not know enough about what makes the strong points and the weaknesses of the functionality of these services. Extremely useful. Maybe one day someone will have the energy and expertise to build a dog training methods comparison website (hint hint). I have listed here some examples of training protocols with their strengths and weaknesses, and then a list of simple questions that you can use as a check list before you jump in.

 1. Treat in hand drawn away from the body. Click for looking at your face.

This was an early strategy when clicker training was in its first growth stage. Teaching the dog to not mug your hand holding the treats, and also establish an understanding that going away from the treat gets the treat. The “zen” of operant conditioning. The early days of clicker training were working hard to move people away from the lure-cue, “sit, Good sit” type of protocols and this exercise did a pivotal job demonstrating that it was the click that the dog tried to trigger, not the begging for food that the lure protocols stimulated.

The principle is sound but this particular application will leave you with a dog that will avoid looking at this hand movement. If taught well, this means the dog can become blind to hand signals, always staring at the face. This will restrict you to verbal cues only. This may be a disadvantage if you want to cue your dog with “choreographic gestures”. Our faces are notoriously shut down in expression, and you will often see a dog move backwards to be able to see the whole of us to understand what we are asking. They look at our posture, the placement of our shoulders relative to our hips, our intent, our energy, speed of gestures, angle of the head etc. Restriction for face only communication can leave a dog “blind” to reading our signals. Seeking the same learning outcome you can teach the dog to choose between food in the hand or touch a target in the other hand.

In conclusion a sound protocol but some limitations for the future use of hand gestures.

2. Treat in hand, back off treat when hand held open, click, treat given to mouth.

You can begin to see the same principle repeating in this protocol, location of the treats should not be the focal point. Direct treat begging is to be avoided. (Luring is not a sin, but that is a Webinar for a later day, Intelligent Luring – Feb 5th 2012). This protocol is often used as the default, in that all treats whether in an open hand, placed on the ground or offered are the cue to back away and hold position until released. If you need all reinforcers to cue this response then this is an excellent nursery exercise. I have seen it taught to a high degree where a dog averted their head to a box of treat dropped to the floor.

This protocol can restrict training where deliberate placement of the reinforcer is part of the behaviour cycle, where the dog is free to collect the treat after the click. For example: cueing a sit, click in the sit, the dog steps forward to a standing position to collect the treat from the hand. The dog is then at the opening point to begin another cycle of sit-from-stand practice. If your dog will not take food from the open hand and food is always fed direct to the dog’s mouth, then the dog will remain in the sit after the click waiting for the food, a cue would be needed to release the dog to step forward. Additionally if the dog is conditioned to wait for food delivery, the sit becomes a well anchored, relaxed posture. Perfect in some conditions, but not desired when the sit is preceding an a activity, for instance setting off in heelwork.

One of the advantages and blessings of using a clicker is the option to separate the behaviour from the reinforcer delivery.

If this protocol is taught so that the scent of food, placement of food or food in the hand becomes the cue for stillness (self control), then the dog may become confused when you wish to free-shape new behaviours. You will need to plan to have a cue for free shaping to release the stillness, especially if the dog sits or lies down when free shaping. These can become “terminal” behaviours that the dog will not self-release from.

You can teach a particular signal cue when holding the treat as “follow” (Intelligent Luring) and the open hand as come and get the treat. This open hand will trigger the dog to walk towards it, even when there is not treat on offer, a useful every day, instinctive behaviour for people to ask for a dog to come close (and catch the collar).

In conclusion a useful protocol where the reinforcers cues non-action and self control, but can limit other forms of learning with blanket associated environmental cues.

3. Click is a cue for …..

This may be one of your first questions. Yes, the click marks the behaviour, and reinforcement is to follow, but the click is also a cue. Your choices are:

  • a) Remain in position/behaviour, the reinforcer will be delivered to you. This is appropriate if you want a static understanding of training, click will cue stillness.
  • b) Release from position/behaviour and come collect your reinforcer. This is appropriate if you want animated training, but when you are toy training the danger with the click as a release can result in the dog lunging for the toy on the click.
  • c) Orientate to the reinforcer and respond to the delivery cue. This is a combination of both a) and b). The dog can be in a settled, lying down position, the click signifies, in this context, you will walk towards the dog and deliver the treat in situ. The dog can be free shaping going round an object and on click will turn to look at you on the click to see where the reinforcer is to be delivered, placed or thrown.

You can make the click as a cue contextual to the behaviour, but this takes serious planning and good discipline to use effectively.

4. What is your default behaviour?

Your default behaviour needs much thought and consideration. This is the behaviour the dog will adopt in preparation for training, in anticipation of a cue, and when in doubt – they do not understand what is required. Your default can be a position, or a movement, or a lack of movement.

  • Choice A: Stillness default.  This default will require a release cue from the behaviour to collect the reinforcer. Suggested cues are “free”, “re-lease”, “OK”. For example: The dog will lie down on cue, toy thrown forward, dog clicked, released to “get it”. The dog can touch the target, be clicked, and then cued “OK” to move away from the target to collect the treat, or wait at the target for the treat to be delivered, then cued “OK” and be free to move for another set up. This accompanies 3a), Click, remain in position until cued to release. This may be an ideal protocol for a contact point in agility, or an open door etc.
  • Choice B: Move to location on default. This default means that the dog will place themselves in a particular place, making the decision to move to that place, the opposite of stillness. This default interpretation can be used for: the heel position, the dog moves and remains at your side when not cued, or waiting for a cue, the facing in front in the stand, the dog may be cued to spin, and will return to this position until cued, or waiting for the next cue. This can be used with 3b) where the dog will self release from the behaviour and move to collect the reinforcer.

You will need to decide which default is in the majority for your training expectations. If you wish to teach a dog movement to position as the default, then you may find you cue “re-lease” 70 times a session in training. On the other hand if your dog moves as a default, then you may need to cue “wait” 70 times a session in agility training.

Choose the least number of requirements to counter as your default, in other words the least amount of times you have to open your mouth. You can teach both defaults in different environmental situations. When around agility equipment, agility training, other dogs doing agility your default would be stillness, when at home doing free shaping, sitting in a chair in the kitchen your default will be movement. And of course the opposite.

If you are teaching different defaults to environmental cues be rigorous and concentrate when you are training. If you know you may be sloppy, or forgetful when you are nervous then do not begin a protocol that requires skills you do not have. No dog needs the additional confusion that comes from you not paying attention.

5. Noise. With meaning.

The first sound a pup will hear as their ears begin to open, even before they are physically “open” is the sound of their sibling sucking the teat. I have no personal memory or experience of breast feeding, but I suspect the human inclination to make the same sound to babies comes from a similar root. This noise is extremely effective with a litter of pups and works up to a period just past final weaning. The response will begin to naturally fade at around 12 weeks if not continually paired with a reinforcer. In simple words, you make a noise like you are nipple sucking, the pup runs towards a hopeful sucking session and you feed. After 12 weeks their innate response to run towards something shifts to the sound of regurgitation, or squeal of dying rabbit. Up-chucking has yet to become a popular recall cue but we steadfastly adhere to nipple sucking as a cue for attention for the dog.

Mature your noise maker. Nipple sucking after 12 weeks is Just A Sound. Having seen a client struggle to attempt to make more and more strenuous nipple sucking sounds at her dog, deaf to everything but the possibility of birds, this is not a recommended protocol with a future unless you are exercising your pouting muscles. If you want to keep the sound-response link then you must regularly condition it. Kissy-kissy-treat, practice.


You can replace this with a short whistle, or even as a more practical, useful sound, the dog’s name. Pups can be whistled, or “bugle-called” from 4 weeks in pre-feeding conditioned practice sessions. Forget the teat recall, move onto the food bowl recall.


Clicker training is a plethora of “assumed rules”. As you go deeper into the woods you will begin to see many different types of trees all flourishing with very productive results. Now you have to choose which tree to hang your hat on, a bit of htis tree and a bit of that can get you into major trouble unless you are skilled to fully understand how the protocols work and where it may lead you in the future.

There is rarely a right or wrong method, choice is more reliant on “it depends ……” on what you want the dog to learn, how good your skills are, how much time you have, where you are going etc.

Essential questions for adopting a protocol:

  • What does this protocol teach the dog?
  • Do I need the dog to learn this?
  • Have I the skills to teach this?
  • What are the contigencies “it depends …. “?
  • Do I have the self discipline and skills to use this with diligence for the rest of the dog’s life?
  • Will the other people involved with the dog be able to apply this protocol?
  • Are there associated cues that could hit me on the head further down the road?
  • Are there other options to achieve the same results?
  • Is this protocol compatible with my future ambitions for this dog?
  • And probably most importantly: Do I fully understand this “recipe”?

In my fortunate travels I see more failure that occurs not from the method chosen but the sloppy application or lack of understanding. Then of course it is the protocol or method that must be at fault. When we are standing at this point there are important questions to ask:

  • 1. Did I follow the process carefully and diligently?  This is the most common reason for poor skills, a key part of the process has   been missed out, mis-read or the terminology not understood.  
  • 2. The process, or you, have made assumptions.  Often the process is based on an assumption of previous learning, background   or reinforcement history. If these are not assessed, or not appropriate then the  process may be accurate but the required components are not present.  
  • 3. Is the process at fault? Often the process has originated in laboratory conditions, with non-dog species, rats or pigeons, and not exhaustively tested across the board (the process has not be sufficiently generalised). Additionally the process is often devised by other than animal trainers. These factors can make the application to dogs seemed sporadic, it will work with some dogs but not others.

If we are going to build a Training Methods Comparison Website send me your reviews of the published protocols. Clear explanations, advantages and disadvantages, risks and benefits, cost analysis etc. Innocent trainers need that information without prejudiced and a hefty dose of luck!