‘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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Distraction ain’t Counter-Conditioning

I frequently go to dogs that, when on lead, react aggressively to other dogs. I explain how the way to change this is to keep ‘distance under threshold’ and then add ‘good things’ that are triggered when Bonzo sights another dog.


Sometimes (often, in fact), over the following weeks the process becomes distorted in clients’ minds. This is even when we have gone out and have worked on the process together.

People extract the easy bit.  They see another dog and then do all they can to prevent Bonzo spotting it. They increase distance or hold Bonzo’s attention. They make ‘good things’ happen for ignoring the other dog (that they have done their best to ensure Bonzo isn’t aware of).

Proudly, they report to me that they are successfully avoiding most dogs. If they see one, they take off in another direction. They ask Bonzo to look at them, ‘watch me’, preventing him for clocking the other dog. They feed him.

These ‘good things’ – food or fun or both – can be connected to nothing in Bonzo’s mind other than their Person having a sudden fit of kindness!

Then they understandably say after a few weeks, “We aren’t getting anywhere. We live in the real world so we are going now to force him up closer to other dogs”. That will, sadly, wipe out any trust they may have built up.

In the time they have wasted, Bonzo would almost certainly have made progress. With regular one-to-one sessions out on walks, an experienced trainer would keep them on track. That’s not always possible unfortunately.

My railway train analogy

I like analogies. I find this helps clients to understand the principles involved.

I ask them to imagine Bonzo is terrified of trains and the only place they can walk him is in a very large field with a railway line at the end of the field.

There will be a distance at which he can see and hear the trains whilst still feeling safe. Closer, and he’s over threshold and will react. Over threshold, he won’t eat and he won’t play.

So, from this comfortable distance, as soon as he hears an approaching train, the food and fun starts. As Bonzo looks in the direction of the train line, either chicken rains from the sky or they start his favourite game.

When the train has passed. The food or fun ceases. No train, no ‘good things’.

With regular sessions, in principle, bit by bit, Bonzo’s threshold should reduce over time until he stands near to the train line without feeling any fear, waiting for his chicken. Counter-Conditioning.


Now I ask Bonzo’s person to imagine she can see a distant red light. When this turns to green she knows a train will soon be coming. Immediately, before Bonzo can see or hear it, she takes his attention, feeds him and runs off away from the field and the train line. He’s not aware of any train.

Distraction can’t ever change how Bonzo feels about trains.

To my mind the command ‘Watch Me’ is Distraction. Used to extreme, ‘Watch Me’ is walking along looking up into his human’s eyes, shutting out everything else.

Distraction doesn’t build up any associations, either good or bad, between Bonzo and the other dog. Distraction might make life easier, but it doesn’t change how Bonzo feels.

If Bonzo first clocks the other dog and then looks up at his person for the good things he now expects another dog to trigger, that is Counter Conditioning.

Here is a nice visual explanation from Donna Hill.


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Dog Owner Reality Check .

A result can take monthsLOSING HEART

Why do so many clients with fearful or reactive dogs, who often have started off so well, lose heart?

The reason is because they just don’t fully accept the time and work that changing fear-based or guarding behaviours in particular can take.

Teaching people is the easy bit. A large part of my job is about keeping people on track.


We live in an age of devices and gimmicks which make things work quickly or instantly. Extra fast broadband, instant online ordering of goods, instant communication and so on.

Changing behaviour is to do with having realistic expectations.

I can say ‘it will probably take many months’ but somehow my words evaporate.

I can say ‘it needs to be broken down into small increments – tiny baby steps’.

I can say ‘follow steps 1, 2, 3 and so on. Don’t attempt step 4 until step 3 is solid. If Step 4 is a disaster, take it back to step two for a couple of days…..and so on.

But somehow, after a couple of weeks of carefully following instructions and perhaps dramatic improvement, they then may think what the hell, and jump from step two to step ten. Now everything has gone pear-shaped.



There is the natural learning curve where things go downhill before they get better – the extinction burst. Behaviours that used to bring results no longer do, so frustration and perhaps anger set in. This can happen both for us and for our dogs.

Another fact to face is that when work that starts off in the right direction is then abandoned or interrupted, things can actually go DOWNhill – even becoming worse than before they started.

Imagine if that you were in constant fear, of attack for instance. Then things start to look safer to you and you dare relax a little. Then, suddenly you discover it was all a con – a sense of false security. You won’t be so easily ‘fooled’ the next time. You will be on extra guard in future. It will take more to convince you another time.

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A friend’s adolescent son was terrified of the dark. His ‘course’ under the advice of a child psychiatrist was for nine months, with daily assignments for the family to work on. Nobody questioned the length of time. I don’t know exactly what the assignments were, but nobody thought it was unreasonable for it to take that long and for everyone in the family to take part and to support him.

Of course, if it ‘doesn’t work’ quickly with a child, we can’t then take him to a shelter for re-homing.


Systematic desensitisation takes a long time, and as it says – is systematic.

If we want success, we simply have to put in the time and effort.


Another question is – just how much do we actually want the end goal? How much are we prepared to sacrifice and how much effort are we prepared to make?

None of it is something we can pay a trainer or anybody else to do for us. Rich people’s dogs are no less fearful than the dogs of poor people, are they?

We have to do it ourselves.

Whatever our work commitments or other constraints, anything is possible if we want it badly enough.


Dealing with anxiety and fear is about identifying constantly shifting thresholds. One day the dog may be okay within ten feet of a particular dog and the next will start to react at fifty feet.

Ignoring things that cause fear altogether will get us nowhere, but nor will pushing over threshold – flooding.

That line, where the dog is aware but still able to cope – to sniff, eat or play – is the threshold.

There are so many variables dependent upon the dog’s own particular combination of anxieties, location, objects of fear and so on.


An easy example, because it doesn’t move about, is taking a dog that is spooked by noisy young children and walking towards a distant school playground while the children are running about and making a noise, watching the dog carefully. His body language will show the moment he starts to become anxious. This is the distance to STOP and to work on making good associations with children.

Gradually, bit by bit, day by day, week by week, the threshold will get nearer to the playground. This also will be variable upon how many times you do it, on the ‘handlers’ demeanor, just how reactive to other external stimuli the dog is, how calm or stressed he is before setting out and so on.


Some dogs, for instance, find everything outside the house terrifying. Then it is a case of desensitizing a dog to the world just outside the front door, or even just inside with the door open.

Now this is a tricky one. How can someone go no further than the front doorstep whilst exercising their dog properly?

Something has to give.

Have they a garden for ball and chase games? Have they a quiet area they can get to by car? Again, there has to be a way if you want it badly enough.

You can’t successfully systematic desensitize just outside the front door whilst later walking the dog down a noisy street full of the very things that scare him.

Which is the lesser of two evils? Lack of exercise or exceeding his threshold?

Lack of exercise can be addressed to some extent if one is creative, whilst exceeding threshold will throw all previous desinsitizing work out of the window.


Punishment or gadgets may look like a quick solutions – they sure do on TV – but they can cause far worse problems further down the line, with shut-down or erupting elsewhere, very likely by way of increased aggression.

I have been to countless dogs where new owners are trying to make good the sometimes unintentional cruelty of past owners.

I went to a Whippet who in his previous life had been punished with a shock collar (which beeps a warning first). In his new home, every time that he heard a beep of any sort he would run around the house screaming, trying to escape from he didn’t know what.

Would anyone imagine giving an electric shock to that friend of mine’s child for screaming when the lights were turned out (punishment), or forcing him to be in total darkness for a while (flooding)?


Despite modern behavioural science proving that the use of punishment and aversives is the least efficient way to correct behaviour, many people would not question doing to their fearful dog something they wouldn’t dream of doing to a child.

This is especially the case if the fear is manifesting itself in embarrassing aggressive and antisocial responses like barking, lunging, growling or even biting, and people are watching for them to ‘control their dog’.

The likes of Cesar Millan still unfortunately promote the out-of-date notion that the use of force solves problems quickly and permanently (good TV) when the opposite is actually true.


What all this means is that, given the right approach, all issues have the potential to be dramatically improved, and many can be totally resolved.

Keeping the ultimate goal held constantly in mind will keep us motivated; holding that image of the life we will achieve for our dogs, in time, should help us through the inevitable tough times.

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Old Person Young Dog

Age is catching up on me fast.

A couple of months ago I went to see a lady who described herself on the phone as a pensioner. She sounded elderly (it turned out she was younger than me).

I have been thinking about this Paws for a while. I have four dogs who are slowly ageing with me.

Even though I am still very fit and active, I could never consider having a puppy again, not least because I would probably ‘park up’ as they say in New Zealand before the dog. (Never again that lovely puppy smell, the cuddles and the multiple trips outside).

‘Small’ not ‘lazy’.

Older people too often get very unsuitable dogs. They think ‘small’ rather than ‘lazy’.

Small dogs are so often bred to be busy.

What about a sofa-loving rescue adult greyhound for laziness (providing he’s not got the kind of prey drive that means he pulls the lady over at the sight of a cat)?

The lady I went to lives alone. She has a 15-week-old Cavapoo puppy – the most gorgeous little thing I have ever seen.

Getting up out of her chair was visibly uncomfortable for her. She walked carefully. Understandably, her way of dealing with puppy was to try to direct operations from her chair.

As we get older, it’s very likely we like our surroundings to be better organised and tidy and  puppy leaving our papers and slippers alone.

Shouting ‘No’ merely fired him up more. It didn’t tell him what he should be doing. He became frustrated and wild and then he became rough.

The poor lady was being jumped at and grabbed, her clothes torn and the thin skin on her hands damaged by the little sharp teeth. He had already chewed through one leash while she held it at arm’s length to protect herself as he spun around with it in his mouth.

What he badly needed was appropriate stimulation.

Enlisting help

This lady is, however, now proving that it is possible for a less-active older person to give a puppy a fulfilling life.

It’s a question of planning and management, including enlisting other people.

The lady is now providing her energetic and playful puppy with a lot of enrichment in the form of chewing and digging opportunities. He destroys a box of rubbish in the search for little biscuits and has a sand pit with buried bones and toys in the garden.

A dog walker calls daily so he can walk and play with a couple of other small, young dogs. Family help her too.

When someone has less energy to put into occupying puppy, who can’t move fast when necessary, an older dog would be the wise choice.

An older dog

An unpalatable truth that I will myself be facing is that if we get a puppy, most likely that puppy will become an orphan eventually – one of the many lovely older dogs whose owners can no longer care for them. See Oldies Club. Adopting one of these dogs would be a far wiser choice. Great for both the dog and the elderly person.

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If they don’t understand English – SHOUT

When in another part of the world, we English have a reputation of expecting people to understand English. If they don’t, we think speaking more slowly and LOUDLY will make us understood.


Similarly, we expect our dog to understand Human – and he does – usually a lot better than we understand Dog that’s for sure.

If we want to communicate something (something that to Archie is baffling, unnecessary and out of any kind of sensible context) we think he will understand us best if we shout.


In general, I suspect people from Dutch to Japanese put in more effort learning English than we do their language.

Certainly we expect dogs to understand our language without making much effort to understand theirs.

I am often amazed at how surprised some clients are when I act as interpreter for their dog. The dog is communicating all the time, or trying to, and most of his efforts are either misread or ignored altogether.

(Yawning? I thought he was tired).

Our dogs are constantly aware of the smallest nuance in our movements, feelings or expressions. They understand us, whether we want them to or not.

It’s hard to fool a dog.

About one in four of us live with a dog, I believe.  Isn’t it time that even non dog-owning humans learn to read Dog – in school. It’s not hard. ‘Dog’ doesn’t use a strange alphabet and we don’t need to speak it or read words. All we need do is understand it.

Safer for us. Less frustrating for dogs.

Theo Stewart www.dogidog.co.uk



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Does ‘training’ really resolve unwanted behaviour?

The dog I went to yesterday persistently jumped at me as I sat at the table. The lady and gentleman were finding it near-impossible not to intervene.

Is traditional training – using ‘commands’ – actually doing no more than getting the dog to respond by doing a trick upon request?

Is it actually teaching the dog anything more than obeying a cue?

jumping upFor instance, when we have a guest and our excited dog jumps up, we tell him ‘Off’ or Get Down’.

He obeys. Briefly.

Then we have to tell him again.

Have we actually taught him anything? No!

What happens if we’re not there?

All we have taught him is to do what he’s told, when he’s told. We’ve not actually taught him not to jump on visitors another time.

In fact, we have probably taught him that the only time he doesn’t jump on visitors is when he’s is told ‘Sit’ or ‘Get Down’! At other times jumping on visitors is okay then?

On walks with our reactive dog, we approach a person or another dog. We hold onto him and constantly remind him to look at us. We use distraction and physical control.

Are we actually teaching him to look away from other dogs? No! What happens if we don’t hold onto him and say ‘Look at Me’?

The trouble with a command/cue and control where changing behaviour is concerned is that it usually works only in the moment.

If the dog finds the behaviour we DO want sufficiently rewarding and clear, he should then eventually do these things of his own bat.

So, when a friend comes to the house, instead of jumping all over them (they will have been primed not to excite him), he will perhaps fetch a toy. If he is taught good things happen only if he’s sitting or if he goes to a certain place, then he will offer the behaviour without being told. Every time.

If on a walk he’s taught to see a dog and then to look away – from a comfortable distance – as this brings him the best rewards, then he will learn to do this without being held tight and controlled every time.

Sometimes ‘training’ in terms of cue words/’commands’ can work against what we actually want to achieve, can’t it.

Keeping quiet can sometimes work a whole lot better while the dog figures out for himself what works best.

It’s our job to make the behaviour we want to be the behaviour that works best. Every time. Not just when we can be bothered!

In addition to teaching cue words, that is what modern training is really all about. Training and behaviour are inseparable.

Yesterday’s dog eventually got the message. Good things, from me, happened when his feet were on the floor. Soon he wouldn’t even have to be reminded.

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