A Behaviourist? What should that word really mean?

A ‘Behaviourist’ is about much more than letters gained through college. Some things can’t be learnt at university alone.

Wikipedia vaguely says: ‘A dog behaviourist is a person who works in modifying or changing behaviour in dogs. They can be experienced dog handlers, who have developed their experience over many years of hands-on experience, or have formal training up to degree level’.

Why do I call myself a Behaviourist?

I call myself a Behaviourist simply because it’s the word the general public and potential clients search for. They have their own concept of what a Behaviourist is and what they need.

This is what a dog ‘Behaviourist’ really is in my opinion:

  • A dog lover
  • A person lover
  • A shrink
  • A trainer
  • A friend
  • A listener
  • A motivator
  • A problem-solver
  • A supporter
  • A non-judger
  • A sponge for knowledge
  • An enthusiast for learning
  • A holder of meaningful practical qualifications
  • Someone experienced who has lived life themselves
  • A professional who is answerable and accountable

Can anyone call themselves a Behaviourist, then?

Yes, anyone can call themselves a Behaviourist. There are no qualifications legally required. The unwitting public can be blinded by a ‘Behaviourist’s’ claims to belong to associations with letters after their names that are totally meaningless.

In their desperation to get help with their dog, how many people do their research?

This is what makes public awareness of the Charter so important and membership of the leading force-free associations that continually check and vet their members for ongoing learning, ethics and standards.

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You and Your Dog’s Uniqueness. (A word in the ear of first Time Dog Owners)

Your uniqueness.

In choosing your canine friend, your first dog, I hope you did your research well or chose a responsible rescue.

Wherever your new friend came from, whatever his or her start in life, she’s yours now.

She’s living with a unique you – your first dog.

You very likely have high ideals of being the perfect dog-parent. You want to get everything right from the start. You research diligently. You ask questions.

You may well join a Facebook group for advice. You chat to your friends who have dogs.

And here is where the trouble starts and very likely before your new dog or puppy has even joined you.

Asking on social media

Sharing a question on Facebook in particular can open up a barrage of advice (usually limited and often biased or unethical). Some may be good, some very bad. As a first time dog owner, you don’t have the experience to judge.

The deluge of ‘advice’ encourages you to try one thing after another, briefly. This may be because you don’t have sufficient faith in this advice to stick to it, or because there are other alluring suggestions that promise success to ‘try’.

You are easy prey to those owners and other so-called ‘professionals’ that still are in the harsher dark ages of dog training.

They may advocate dominance and quick-fix results. As the Alpha, you should go through doors first and never let him step in front of you, that he must be crated, never on the sofa or on your bed, that she must go through a series of tricks before being allowed eat and so on.

One common example is being told to leave your puppy to cry all night in a crate, away from you. This has made so many new puppy parents very unhappy – not to mention what this must do psychologically to the puppy.

They quote certain TV trainers to back up their dogma.

Your uniqueness

What applies to one dog doesn’t necessary apply to another. What works with one dog may not work for another.

You are YOU

Your lifestyle is YOURS

Your dog is YOUR dog

There is a multitude of variables: your personality, your family, physical abilities, environment, state of happiness or stress, financial, restrictions, your other dogs, your other animals. Your dog’s past, genetics and personality.

What about your own true preferences when not influenced by ‘other people’ and popular belief?

So together, you and I as a behaviourist, we create your OWN UNIQUE IDEAL STRUCTURE for life with your dog. We come up with a positive, force-free plan that is bespoke within certain unnegotiable constraints.

Positive doesn’t mean permissive. There are boundaries, but they are kind, fair and consistent.

Welfare and ethics

Our plan, after discussion and questions, is a Mix ‘n Match of all kinds of factors both human and dog.

We have flexibility but only within those boundaries that map out the dog’s welfare and needs.

Your uniqueness

There can be no universal template

You are uniquely YOU. Your dog is uniquely your dog. Your dynamics together are UNIQUE.

Instead of listening to what ‘people say’, ask yourself WHY.

If you’re not 100% happy with something – DON’T DO IT.

My job is for you, a first time dog owner, to find out about YOUR dog, YOUR needs, YOUR wishes, YOUR circumstances.

Then, always within the boundaries listed above, we mix and match to create a UNIQUE protocol for you to follow. 

It’s not about imposing anything on you. It’s about explaining how things work, how your dog might feel, understanding how you might feel, providing a bit of the science behind suggestions, and then working something out.

No more ‘try’

Having faith in the advice, you can now ‘do’ rather than ‘try’ …. and be consistent in ‘keeping doing’.

(Of course all this applies just as much to people whose dog isn’t their first).

Join my own Facebook group if you would like qualified support and answers, somewhere you won’t get lots of conflicting advice from non-professionals.

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“Are you a Cesar Millan or a Victoria Stilwell?”

I’ve just spoken to a lady on the phone who had asked a trainer, “Are you a Cesar Millan or a Victoria Stilwell?” and it got me thinking. These two polarise people’s perceptions with the dark side still holding their ground.

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To be fair on CM, he’s nowhere near as extreme as some. It’s his far greater exposure that is the real problem. People copy him rather than make informed choices based on evidence.

Anyway, why do force-free trainers need loads of studies and the weight of scientific evidence to argue the obvious?

Everyone knows that a good proportion of offenders incarcerated for violent crimes and aggression will have had lousy childhoods, many having experienced violence, neglect or witnessed aggression from a parent or other adults.

Exposure to violence in general can warp minds and alter behaviour. AAP Gateway proves the ‘Linkages Between Internet and Other Media Violence With Seriously Violent Behavior by Youth’.

Everyone knows that many of the most violent and desperate criminals very often have had a terrible start in life. Of course a terrible start in life doesn’t necessarily predicate ending up as a violent criminal and many seriously abused dogs have become gentle and loving pets.

Everyone knows that a child brought up with patience, care, love and understanding has a much greater chance of ending up a well-balanced adult than one that is harshly discplined or tormented.

It’s obvious.

Why are we having to take a stand against the notion that teaching a puppy or dog, or any animal in fact, using violence, pain and intimidation is any different to doing the same with a human child; that it will produce a non-violent, non-aggressive, balanced, sociable and self-controlled animal?

People may say about a rampaging kid (it’s sometimes hard not to agree), ‘what he needs is a clip round the ear’ (dog equivalent: pop with prong collar or choke chain).

What he really needs is some quality attention, mental stimulation, some fair rules and boundaries that are consistent and that he understands — and positive reinforcement for good behaviour.

Harsh techniques and gadgets promise quick results. We live in the age of instant gratification. We do what works best in the short term, closing our minds to the future tsunamis we are creating.

I quote Stanley Coren in Psychology Today regarding punitive methods of training dogs.

‘While on the issue of dog training, one of the most practically significant findings found in this research has to do with the effect that the type of training has on a dog’s risk of aggression.

There have been a number of studies that have reported that training procedures based on punishment can have negative consequences ( click here for an example).

In this study the researchers defined such punitive training techniques as including things like physical punishment (hitting the dog), verbal punishment (shouting), electrical or citronella collars, choke chains and jerking on the leash, prong collars, water pistols, electric fences and so forth.

Such punitive techniques apparently increase the risk of aggression in dogs. They are associated with a 2.9 times increased risk of aggression to family members, and a 2.2 times increased risk of aggression to unfamiliar people outside of the household.”

Why do we need studies to tell us this?

It’s should be obvious.

Here is the story of a dog I went to that well illustrates the divide between the methods of the past where the owner must be Alpha and ‘in control’, and modern science-based methods that enable dogs to develop ‘self-control’ by giving them encouragement, reinforcement and choices.

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Mental Health and Wellbeing is for dogs too.


In these days of lockdown, we constantly hear about how the mental health of us humans can be affected.

Have you thought how many of our dogs live their lives all the time?

Eight-week-old puppies deprived company, many older dogs socially isolated for hours at a time, dogs socially distanced from their own species, denied choice where they go; unable to escape from things that scare them.

Isn’t the mental health and wellbeing of dogs what a behaviourist is for?

Where the vet, like a GP, is primarily to concerned with physical health whilst passing more targeted problems onto specialists, a behaviourist like myself is is one of those specialists.

I am primarily involved with a dog’s mental health and wellbeing. A bit like a human psychiatrist or counsellor.

scared 2

If dog owners were more aware of the mental benefits to the dog of using a behaviourist as readily as they choose a trainer, many sad situations could be avoided.

This is the order in which people very often think of getting assistance for their dog:

  • Trainer
  • Vet
  • Behaviourist

I would change the order.

  • Vet
  • Behaviourist. Quite rightly the vet is reluctant to prescribe meds unless the dog is having help from a behaviourist as well. The vet is needed as a number one to check there is no physical reason for the dog’s emotional state. The vet however, unless a veterinary behaviourist, isn’t usually experienced in behaviour work.
  • Trainer

There is considerable overlap between each one of course.


Mental stability surely has to be more important than learning ‘commands’ or ‘cues’. Fortunately nowadays many trainers also double up with behaviour work as the importance of a dog’s mental wellbeing is increasingly recognised.

A dog is now accepted as a sentient being, not as a sort of slave to be dominated, commanded and controlled.

In the UK dog owners, and many vets, are very reluctant to use psychopharmacology on dogs. A dog is expected to suffer fear and anxiety in a way that would long ago have brought counselling and medication to a human. Meds are often prescribed as a very last resort, at a stage in the dog’s mental health where a human may even be either harming themselves or contemplating ending it all.



Thankfully ethics are becoming more and more important in the world of dog behaviour and training.

Here in the UK we now have the UK Dog Behaviour and Training Charter https://ukdogcharter.org. ‘The UK Dog Behaviour and Training Charter provides assurance to the public and other professional bodies that the practitioner they employ has been checked, supported and monitored by a reputable accrediting member organisation’.

So – mental wellbeing for dogs.

I run a thriving dog-owner Facebook support group and am saddened by how few understand that, if they have a disturbed, scared or aggressive dog, it’s the emotions driving this behaviour that need working on with a behaviourist (me). Not correction and ‘training’.

Their first stop is usually, if searching the internet for free information doesn’t work, to look for a trainer or for classes.

I wish that people were better educated in the importance and relevance of general mental wellbeing for dogs. It’s so much more important than learning how to sit, high-five or spin which is a a bit like sending a child with acute anxiety to Saturday morning school to cure him.

A message to my Facebook group members and anyone else with a troubled dog: for your dog’s emotional wellbeing I can help wherever you live. An online consultation can be an eye-opener in your understanding of your dog’s needs.


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Scared of the Car. Will he ‘just get used to it?’. Maybe. Maybe not.


This could be due to motion sickness, to fear or to both. If the dog feels ill each time he travels, then that is enough to make him fearful of getting into it. If motion sickness is at the root of the problem, I suggest you have a word with your vet.

I am going to look into the fear aspect. As with everything to do with fear, in order to reduce fear we use systematic desensitisation and counter-conditioning with no flooding (don’t panic!)


To work properly, you need to take NO CAR JOURNEYS until you reach the stage in your therapy process that he’s happy with it. If a total emergency, use another car so you don’t ‘contaminate’ the one you are working on.

Systematic desensitisation in this case means helping the dog to like the car at whatever DISTANCE is necessary.

Counter-conditioning in this case means, at that distance, to make positively GOOD things happen.

Flooding means forcing over the comfort threshold – too near and causing dog to panic or shut down.

Each dog and each case will be a bit different.

Step onto this ‘Progress Ladder’ on the step BEFORE your dog starts to worry. 

Make sure he is comfortable (harness, not head collar or slip lead). Do this little routine every time on your way out for a walk and when you come home. If you can fit in extra sessions you will make faster progress.

1. Walk around the car, dropping food as you go. If the dog prefers a ball, bounce the ball.If he won’t eat, you are already *too close*.

2. Open the car door – the one you want him to get into – leaving him in the house so that when you come out it is already open. Don’t try to get in. Carry on with number 1 but with the door open. You may need to move further away now.

3. Now walk near to the car. Place food on the bumper. Maybe just inside it. Perhaps put his ball just inside. This may be a big step so be ready to increase distance again.

4. When he’s happy with that, sit yourself in the car it the place you want him to go eventually, leaving the dog outside. DON’T ENTICE HIM IN!! He must choose. No pressure. Chuck him food from inside the car.

5. When he’s happy with that, place the food on the floor near you and just wait. If he doesn’t ump in to get, spend longer on the previous stage.

6. Now he’s happy sitting with you in the car – what next?

7. Shut the door briefly on the pair of you.

8. Get out and leave him there with door open. Feed. Call him out.

9. Same with door shut briefly.

10. Same but walk to the drivers door and open it before returning to him.

11. Now sit in driver’s seat. Chuck food if you can.

12. Now shut driver’s door. Food

13. Now start engine. Food. Sit there with engine running. Food.

14. Move a few inches. Stop engine. Etc. etc.

You get the picture?

When you are ready to take your first real journey, I suggest you park the car about twenty yards down the road and drive home. If he’s relaxed with this, do it a few times before driving away from your house.


If the barking at things moving past or outside, block his view. Use sun guards used for babies. If crate trained, his familiar crate in the boot may help.

If he needs to see you, maybe a hammock in the back seat and belted in. Bear in mind if motion sickness is involved he shouldn’t sway about.

Always open a window a little before slamming door. Dogs have sensitive ears and the build-up of compressed air effect may hurt or scare him.

PATIENCE WINS THE DAY! If you jump ahead you destroy the delicate trust you have been building up. The more he trusts you, the more progress you will make.

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How do we ‘Socialise’ our puppies whilst either in lock-down or social distancing?

Could we perhaps, by looking at things a bit differently, turn this situation into an advantage?

Two words: Habituate and Socialise

Habituate means ‘make or become accustomed or used to something’.

Socialise means ‘mixing sociably with others’.

They both take time and depend upon exposure.


Exposure involves being aware of the ‘thing’ at a distance or intensity, a ‘safe zone’ where the puppy can cope without being scared or over-excited. Where he can look at it, be aware of it and process it.

Exposure also involves counter-conditioning to anything that is causing her fear by immediately finding that ‘safe zone’ – and then pairing that ‘thing’ with something puppy loves, food or fun.

Puppy needs both socialisation and habituation from the very start, well before he’s ‘allowed out’ after his vaccinations. See this from Linda Michaels, Puppy Socialization and Vaccinations Belong Together. The fallout from leaving it to late is that he may enter a sensitive ‘fear period’ where any negative experience may even colour the rest of his life.


Habituating is about puppy generally getting used to everything in her new world, indoors and out. Everything is new. A falling leaf, a car horn, wheelie bins, scooters and traffic, the vacuum cleaner – and people, children, dogs…… The list is endless.

The important thing is not to overwhelm her, to take it one or two things at a time if possible.

Could social distancing actually have it’s plus side?

Social distancing may even be to puppy’s advantage because it may prevent her being flooded with too much too soon.

Ideas for habituating while social distancing or in lock-down: Gradually get him used, at an intensity or distance okay to him (his ‘safe zone’) to household items like vacuum or hairdryer. Watch out for any wariness about anything and immediately work on it, increasing distance and pairing with food or fun.

You can sit in the car and habituate him to traffic and outdoor sounds, bearing in mind all the times the rule about distance/intensity/adding something he loves rules.

There are some good tracks on Spotify that play different sounds and also YouTube, useful for getting the puppy used to the outside world.


We tend to associate ‘socialisation’ with meeting people and other dogs. The very worst thing people can do, even worse than no exposure at all, is to ‘flood’ the puppy with too much, too soon and too close. To scare her.

We get our new puppy home and invite all family and friends for a meet and greet. Poor puppy can’t cope and this could well cause trouble and lack of confidence later on.

Again, social distancing may even be of benefit!!

Ideas for socialising while social distancing: People-watch and dog-watch either from the car or well back behind a gate. Every time a dog or person is in view (or puppy becomes aware), feed him. Build up strong positive associations with people and other dogs.

It seems that while people are ‘staying at home’, the dog walks are much more crowded. There are countless stories of off-lead dogs. Virus apart, this is not a good environment for a young puppy, even if vaccinations are complete.

It takes just one unpleasant encounter to colour his life eventually causing reactivity to other dogs. No ‘socialising’ at all is less harmful as you can always carefully build up. Once damaged, the harm has to be undone first.

Exit procedure for puppy

Then, when the restrictions are lifted, you can gradually expand his/her world and get closer to people and dogs. Have your own puppy ‘exit strategy’.

You will now be an expert at introducing puppy to things gradually and making him feel good about them, so you will now know what to do!

When you are able again to have people to your home, ask them to come in quietly one at a time to start with, move slowly and sit down. Then let puppy decide. Postpone young excitable children till puppy can cope.

Working hard on socialising and habituating with its limitations during lock-down may actually be more beneficial to puppy than otherwise would have been the case  if you had waited for vaccinations to kick in at 12-14 weeks and then overdid it.

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TV – Do our dogs love it or do they endure it?

To take this photograph I have been searching for a football match on TV – a first!

Many of the people I visit have their TVs on all the time, whether or not they are watching anything.  They leave television on ‘for the dogs’ when they go out.

I myself live with someone whose hearing is not as good as my own and who has different tastes to myself. I find it impossible to concentrate on what I am doing with the noise of football crowds yelling beside me or a background of shouting and shooting from an old movie (I accept that many people would feel the same with opera or heavy metal).

Unwanted TV, or any TV too loud (apart, for me, from rock group Queen!) makes me irritable and can give me a headache.

How then must it be for dogs who have to put up with the constant noise in their much more sensitive ears – noise that can be of little or no interest to them?

In addition, to quote Samsung: ‘All electronics will create a slight hum, buzz, or whistle during operation or standby. Depending on how pitch sensitive your ears are you may hear this noise.’

Food for thought?

In order to de-stress our dogs we naturally think of what we can ADD. Add a plug-in to the room, add Zylkene or Valerian to the dogs diet, put on a Thundershirt, add TV or radio when we are out and so on. Should we not also be considering what we could be REMOVING?

Turning off TV, turning electronics off instead of leaving on stand-by, removing the batteries from automatic fresh air dispensers, removing chemicals and perfumed cleaning products… there must be many things.

Turning the power off at the mains for half an hour may be an interesting experiment if we have a highly stressed dog (okay, we will need to re-set time clocks, but it would be worth the effort surely).



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Stress causes dogs to go grey too.

In most of today’s papers (23rd January, 2020):

Stress speeds up hair greying process (in humans), science confirms.

Fight-or-flight response nerves pump out hormone that wipes out pigmentation cells.

So it is with dogs

Does Stress Cause Premature Graying in Dogs asked Stanley Coren Psychology Today, December 2016.

My Pickle, soon to be 10 years of age

‘History records that something remarkable happened to Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), the ill-fated queen of France. The night before her jailers walked her to the guillotine her hair allegedly turned white. She is not the only person whose hair lost its color because of a major stressful event. According to historical reports, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) also had his hair suddenly turn white in the tower of London. This was the night before his execution by King Henry VIII for refusing to sign the act that declared Henry to be the Supreme Head of the Church Of England. More modern accounts tell of survivors of bombing attacks in World War II whose hair turned white as a result of the anxiety they had experienced. Furthermore an examination of “before and after” photographs of United States presidents shows a highly visible increase in the amount of gray hair by the end of a four-year term. Some scientists suggest that this is a consequence of the stresses experienced in that office’.

Of course, the age when a human’s hair begins to turn white varies from person to person. The same goes for dogs. Genetics will play a part, but stress also contributes.

Below is my Pickle at seven months old.

Pickle, 7 months old

To quote Coren: ‘Hair color comes from melanin, a pigment which is produced in each hair follicle. There are two hypotheses as to how graying comes about. The first is that aging wears down your DNA, somehow inhibiting the production of the cells called melanocytes that produce melanin. The second hypothesis says that your hair gets bleached from within because hydrogen peroxide is also produced in small amounts in the follicles. Normally this bleaching compound is kept in check by another enzyme called catalase but eventually this enzyme ceases to be produced’.

Anxiety and impulsivity levels in the dog were analysed and a correlation was proved. Interestingly, female dogs tend to show more greying than males.

So, if a young dog is already beginning to show grey on its muzzle, then we may be able to help with his coping skills.

I wonder, had I not actively always helped my very alert, busy, easily aroused and alarmed little Pickle, whether he would be even whiter around the muzzle?

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‘Me Too’ for Dogs?

I was lying on the sofa, just thinking, observing my own dogs doing their own thing.

They have their casual hello code. They may politely acknowledge a dog they happen to approach or to pass by.

Humans however regularly break the hello code when approaching a resting dog. This a is a code they are unlikely to break with another human. It involves respect.

Of all the species, many of us assume dogs ‘should’ accept if not actively enjoy being touched/molested by us.

‘Me To’ for dogs?

How dogs do it.

Each of my dogs has his or her particular inter-relationships with another, but whatever that is, manners are observed.

The resting dog mostly ignores the one approaching or walking past.

At most, the passing dog may have a gentle sniff of the body and a gentle lick of the face. He or she is alert for any subtle message saying ‘no thanks’.

My peace-loving Labrador Zara may arc around a sleeping GSD Milly. If wanting to engage, she will roll onto her back in front of her.

Cocker Spaniel Pickle may also approach her, wriggling onto his side, tail wagging, then offering her his bits to sniff. Unlike Zara, he’s merely acting submissive I’m sure. It’s manners.

If they want the attention of the resting dog, they may bow and entice. There is unlikely to be any more than the lightest of physical contact (puppies would be given leeway as they learn).

Other hellos between my four dogs when one is lying down are mostly a brief face-to-face sniff, maybe a body sniff and then move on.

One dog may stop and settle beside the other. There is little equivalent to stroking or touching it. At most there is a gentle lick of face or in ears, always sensitive to whether the attention is welcome or not.

Not even my impetuous Pickle will say hello by pawing a resting dog, barking at it or jumping on it!

But what do we humans do?

We approach our lying, sitting or sleeping dog, completely breaking break the dog hello code. No ‘sounding the dog out’ for how he feels. Without warning, a big human paw roughs up the fur. The human is noisy.

The human may even force him from his comfortable spot.

Some dogs may quietly grumble. Then we humans then think we have an aggressive dog.

A dog may have to absorb a lot of human emotion, love, demonstrativeness and so on. Many dogs love it. It can however be hard for a more introvert or nervous dog.

‘Me Too’ for Dogs, I say!

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Shameless anthropomorphism – and why not?

Well, the only reason I can see for avoiding anthropomorphism is it’s impossible to spell.

Wikipedia says: Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities.

For me, in my dog behaviour work, I am teaching dog owners who mostly don’t fully understand their dogs’ reasons for doing things. In fact, many don’t consider the reasoning or emotions behind their dog’s behaviour as relevant at all.

How can we get them to see some of their dog’s world from their dog’s perspective?

Our yardstick for judging human behaviour can be so different to the way we respond to our dog’s behaviour, but is the cause so different?

Putting human words into the Alfie’s mouth can suddenly make sense of why Alfie reacts in a certain way. More importantly, it can give us a clue as to our best response if we want to understand and help him.

Selectively used, anthropomorphism gives me a three-way channel of understanding between myself, the owner(s) and the dog. A large percentage of a behaviourist’s job is teaching the humans how best to behave in order to help their dog.

People I go to would say they love their dogs. It can be eye-opening to them to see, giving the dog a voice with words, how misguided and unintentionally unkind their responses have been.

“What would Alfie be saying to me if he could talk?” is such a simple question. It can open up some very obvious and powerful solutions.

Here are a couple of examples:

Alfie hears something. He barks in alarm. His owner ignores him for a while and then tells him to shut up.

What if their child was screaming, “Help! There is a hooded man outside with a gun and we will all die!?”.

What might Alfie be saying? “Danger! It could be the end of the world! Help!”

Solution? We wouldn’t leave our child to deal with it by ignoring him. We wouldn’t get angry with our scared child. We would help him out.

Alfie is on lead. Another dog approaches. Alfie barks. His owner tightens the lead, keeps walking towards the dog or makes him sit as the dog gets nearer. The owner scolds Alfie.

What if they held their child’s hand in a tight grip. A big dog approaches and he’s terrified of dogs. He might be screaming “Let me go! I’m scared!”

What might dog Alfie be shouting?  “I want to run and hide. I’m scared! If it comes much nearer I shall have to defend myself.”

Solution? Increase distance and gradually teach Alfie to trust them.

Ahropomorphism helps me to put my point over. Hearing their dog ‘speak’ can really open people’s minds.

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