Stepping Stones to Calm and Confident Walks. A Chaining Game for Reconstructing Walks

This is a new game that I’ve developed to help people whose walk is an emotional crisis for their dog.

It’s for dogs that are manic, over-excited and over-reactive, making walks a nightmare. It’s for dogs that are scared or jumpy – or simply don’t want to go out at all.

Reconstructing the ‘walk’.

I have taken ideas from Janet Finlay and Leslie McDevitt Pattern Games, and from Bankhouse Barker’s circuit walks.

It’s all about transforming your dog walk into something quite different – not what the dog has been programmed to expect.

The Stepping Stones Game involves a sequence of actions for the dog, using his or her memory and also anticipation. Anticipation is a really good way of getting the dog’s attention and keeping it. It increases focus which in itself results in calmer behaviour.

Do you remember the game (you may not if you’re if you’re young) ‘I packed my bag and in it I put…..’? I used to play it with my children. One would say, ‘I packed my bag and in it I put (for instance) a toothbrush’. The next one, ‘I packed my bag and in it I put a toothbrush and a Mars bar’. The next one, ‘I packed my bag and in it I put a toothbrush, a Mars bar and a tortoise’ (as the game became silly).

You will build a chain of stepping stones with your dog, based on the same sort of thing.

The wildly excited dog

A dog that is wildly excited may jump up and grab the lead or grab you. He may be over-reactive to other dogs and people, She will very likely pull on lead. A wildly excited dog is experiencing an emotional storm and can’t cope. Any loose lead walking technique goes out the window.

The aim is for excited and over aroused dogs to begin their walk calmly.

The frightened dog

A dog that is terrified out on walks and perhaps very reluctant to go out, may due to fear also be over-reactive. This dog is also experiencing a kind of emotional nightmare. He/she simply feels very unsafe.

The aim is for the sacred dog to start out willingly and more confidently.

The convalescing dog

The third use of the Stepping Stone game is only indirectly to do with walks. It’s for dogs that can’t go for walks who are perhaps having to convalesce; it’s a really good enrichment memory game just for its own sake.

Okay, so this is this is roughly what you to do.

Like the saying ‘charity begins at home’, enjoyable walks begin at home also.

First of all list all the cues your dog knows. You might call them commands, I call them cues. Things like sit, lie down, paw, stay…… Now list the activities and games that your dog enjoys.

To start with have about 10 activities. All right, we may want to make it longer eventually but you don’t use them all at once you add them one at a time.

Here’s an example of links in a stepping stone chain. Your first one could be ‘count aloud taking five slow paces’. Then ‘take five slow paces and then sit’, then ‘take five slow paces, sit, stay for a couple of seconds, drop food’. Then ‘take five slow paces, sit, stay for a couple of seconds, drop food’ and a short game of tug’.

Build your stepping stones until it takes about 10 minutes and do it four or three times a day to get the sequence really learnt and established.

It goes without saying that over-excited dogs stepping stones won’t involve things that are too exciting, or fearful dogs anything that makes her/him uneasy.

The order of stepping stones remains the same, the route covered is variable

Your stepping stones stay in the same order always. It’s best to always add a new thing to the end only.

The ground you cover varies.

You begin only where the dog is most comfortable and calm. Your stepping stones go around the house and the garden, in as many rooms as you can. Vary the exact route each time.

Don’t push ahead too fast. When each step is learned and anticipated you add another stepping stone onto the end.

When your dog is ready, sometimes add walking just outside the front door to your random circuit. Come back in again to continue your chaining in the house and garden.

Harness, lead and other ‘walk triggers’

Two important things to add into your chain are putting on the harness and then a few activities later adding the lead. When you do come to open the front door you’re not having to stop put on the harness and lead.

Add in other ‘walk triggers’ like changing your shoes or picking up your keys.

If the dog is excited or scared when you go out of the door, spend more time in the house and garden before trying again – just opening the door but not going out this time.

Once you establish going out and coming straight back in again you can then gradually take your chaining a little bit further away from your house. Your neighbours may think you’re crazy but they might enjoy watching you as well!

Over time you will be eliminating a lot of the triggers which the dog associates with going out for a walk, causing excitement or fear. They will begin to mean something else, something not loaded with emotions of fear or excitement. You are reconstructing the walk.

It could mean you don’t do anything but this game with no walks at all for a while. It depends upon how severe your case is.

The choice of stepping stones themselves will depend upon a lot of things.

This is very general course. For each dog and his or humans, it’s going to be very individual. What the stepping stones consist of and where they lead is going to depend upon what sort of house they live in and what it’s like outside the house. It will depend on the dog’s emotions, temperament and personality.

It’s going to depend on a lot of things. Work out the best sequence of ‘stepping stones’ for your own dog and then take it slowly, adding one at a time.

Theo Stewart

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Silence is Golden

imagesThere is a lot nowadays in books and the media about humans reading the language of dogs, a pioneer of this being Turid Rugaas in her book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals. 

There is less said about how dogs read us humans. We humans do like to use words, anything from commands to continual background chatter. We only tend tend to consciously use body signals to comunicate with our dogs when employing exaggerated signs to replace words in training or distance work.

Roger Abrantes suggests on the Ecology Institute Cambridge website, ‘Our dogs, I’m sure, think that we talk too much and say too little. My advice to dog owners: when you cannot improve on silence, be quiet’.

His short video beautifully demonstrates the instant connection between him and dogs who don’t even know him – all action and very few words.

Human beings love talking. Dogs may vocalise, but it’s not verbal. Words are the least salient means of communication to our dogs.

Try this: ask your dog to sit in your usual manner – and preferably video it. You will probably find you nod your head slightly or make some sort of movement with a hand. Now try again, keeping dead still and saying the word ‘Sit’ just once. Very likely the dog will do nothing. Now try the nod or slight hand movement without the word ‘Sit, and wait. There is every chance your dog will sit.

Abrantes finishes, ‘Dogs are connoisseurs of silence. Instead of so much talking, I’m convinced your dog would value immensely more a friendly glance or a tiny pacifying gesture. In other words: if you don’t have anything important to communicate to your dog, keep quiet.

Here is the story of a dog I went to that had been bombarded with words, which left him no opportunity to work things out for himself.

Here is my main website with stories of many dogs I have visited:

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Ten Proven Ways to Achieve Aggression in Your Dog


In no particular order.

ONE: Be confrontational

TWO: Steal things off her

THREE: Interfere with his food while he’s eating

FOUR: Overdo contact sports

FIVE: Use physical force

SIX: Assume she wants to be touched especially when she’s resting

SEVEN: Push him into situations he can’t cope with

EIGHT: Allow too much excitement around her

NINE: Chase, corner or trap him

TEN: Watch Cesar Millan

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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 ‘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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