Forcing Square Pegs into Round Holes

Over my many years, I am able to look back to how things were with our family dogs back in the day. I lived in a rural area and it was no big deal if my dogs went walkabout. I don’t remember anything about dog ‘training’ for family pets before Barbara Woodhouse.

Apart from one big dog that scared me by barking at me from behind a gate when I was a child and a Boxer belonging to a neighbour that chewed up my tortoise resulting in my strongly disliking dogs until I had one of my own in my early twenties (a Labrador), I don’t remember problem dogs.

Dogs back then, particularly away from towns, were more able to ‘be themselves’. As I remember it, mongrels were a lot more common.  I can’t remember dogs being overly fussed. Dogs simply lived in our houses, were chased away from our food – and had freedom. If they wanted to hunt – they went hunting.

Dogs’ lives today are for many reasons much more prescribed by us.  There is more traffic for a start. Most of my clients work all day and simply don’t have enough quality time to give their dogs and this often makes them feel guilty. They may then compensate in ways that aren’t particularly helpful for the dog, perhaps by over-indulging them in some way.

Despite our ever-increasing knowledge, it seems there is more and more work for someone like myself. Over the years that I have been working with dogs, there has been a huge increase in the number of dog trainers and behaviourists.

Busy people, instead of choosing dogs that were bred to be easygoing family pets, today are doing the very opposite. It’s crazy.

Why do we choose pedigree dogs, the majority being some kind of working breed? We mix breeds as with the doodles – working genes and brains. Why? We choose dogs that can’t breathe properly or give birth naturally. Why?

Unwittingly we subject our working dogs to a kind of prison. Lucky are the dogs with really dedicated humans who have the time, knowledge and enthusiasm to enrich their dogs’ lives appropriately and give them the kind of lives they were bred to live.

I picked out at random three of my ‘stories‘. Each one is a dog living a life he or she was not born to live. No wonder the huge amount of frustration, inappropriate guarding and hyperactive behaviour we are now dealing with.


Einstein is a Poodle Rottie Doberman mix. Brains, herding and guarding. Is it any wonder that he chases people away – or tries to? Early training and lots of cuddles is good, but not enough.


Pearl is a Jack Russell. Bred to hunt, to be on the lookout for rats for most of the day. Quick bursts of extreme energy. She is alone indoors for ten hours a day. Is it any wonder she is awake at night, that she is short-tempered or that she constantly seeks attention? Her evening walk is good, but not enough.


Banjo is a Beagle. Bred to hunt and to live in a pack. Is it any wonder he doesn’t like being left alone, that he’s destructive, he still messes indoors at two years old and that he chases the cat? Two on-lead walks a day and half an hour of ball play is not enough.

This is what Pat Miller has to say in Whole Dog Journal: ‘One would expect that the rise of force-free training methods and the increased awareness of and respect for dogs as sentient creatures would make life easier for them. We should expect to see a corresponding rise in the number of calm, stable, well-adjusted dogs who are happily integrated into lifelong loving homes. But many training and behavior professionals note with alarm the large number of dogs in today’s world who seem to have significant issues with stress and anxiety, with high levels of arousal and low impulse control.

It’s quite possible this is a function of societal change. There was a time not so very long ago when life was pretty casual for our family dogs. They ran loose in the neighborhood day and night; ate, slept, played, and eliminated when they chose; and many had jobs that fulfilled their genetic impulses to herd some sheep or cows, or retrieve game felled by a hunter’s gun.

In contrast, life today is strictly regimented for many of our canine companions; many live in social isolation, and when they do get out, their activities are on a tight schedule. Owner expectations and demands are high. Dogs are told what to do from the moment they are allowed to get up in the morning until they are put to bed at night, including when and where they are allowed to poop and pee. Some of today’s dogs never get to run off-leash or socialize freely on a regular basis with other dogs. During any free time they may have, they are expected to just lie around and be “well behaved” (by human standards, not canine ones!). They have virtually no control over what happens in their world. Some trainers suggest this strict regimentation is a significant contributor to the stress and arousal levels of today’s family dog. Imagine how stressed you might be if your life was as tightly controlled by someone else.’

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Always Look on the Bright Side Of Life…

At a meeting we were discussing dogs being either pessimistic or optimistic, introvert or extrovert.

Someone suggested that the two things go hand in hand (paw in paw). Would the introvert dog be more likely to be pessimistic and the extrovert more of an optimist?


There were two dogs in the room with us. Paddy, a Springer Spaniel, was a bundle of happiness, running around constantly, giving and receiving love and having fun.

Maisie was a larger dog of mixed breed. She had been found dumped by the road and in a terrible state as a young puppy. She understandably was less trusting – more uncertain around people anyway.

You can see here how Maisie was very suspicious of a stuffed dog, whereas Paddy sniffed it once and went waggingly back to interacting with all the people!

These two dogs were poles apart. The Springer, a real extrovert around people, looks like he’d be a lot more likely to expect the best from things life throws at him, certainly in the context of a hall full of people, than would Maisie.

An article I have just read by Linda P. Case in The Science Dog suggests that we all, whether optimists or not, suffer from a negativity bias. It would stand to reason that a negativity bias would be even greater in a pessimist than an optimist.

Case says, ‘This is the phenomenon in which we naturally pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences compared with those that are positive. It is this particular cognitive bias that causes us to be more hurt or discouraged by insults or criticism than we are pleased or encouraged by compliments and shining reviews.

‘Research studies have shown that the human brain actually experiences stronger neural activity when reacting to negative information compared with when we are given positive information. As a result unpleasant experiences are inevitably more memorable to us than are pleasurable ones’.

This resonates very strongly with me.

What about our dogs?

The *researchers were actually studying emotional contagion in dogs and in the process discovered that dogs paid more attention to negative information than to positive information. When they heard sounds of either a human crying or a dog whining, the dogs showed more signs of stress and arousal than when they listened to positive vocalizations from either a human or another dog.

I wonder which dog would be more empathetic to our feelings though. Paddy, our extrovert, sociable Spaniel, or the cautious Maisie?

I would say I myself am on the optimistic side side of things. However, the effect of one email in the morning from a client who is struggling will instantly wipe out any ‘feel-good’ effect of ten happy emails reporting good progress.

Almost subconsciously I then carry this negative feeling around with me for some time.

What does just one angry shout at our dog or one use of force or punishment do to our dogs’ state of mind? Will not an introverted dog, already pessimistic and possibly more ‘difficult’ or fearful be a lot more affected by punishment than the more resilient optimist?

A couple more thoughts…..

We know one critical word in the world of cyber-bullying can overwhelm an impressionable teenager.

Some people actually seem to enjoy being pessimistic and miserable, whilst people being constantly optimistic can sometimes be a bit annoying!

Remember Monty Python’s classic ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life‘?

I have this song now as an earworm and it’s driving me mad! Play it at your peril.

PS. Dogs, like us, are a mix of all sorts of things. I myself am not too keen on the idea of categorising them with labels but was picking up on discussion and an article. It also depends upon context. Paddy is much more noise-sensitive which probably suggests pessimism of some sort, but in the context of a room full of people he’s an extrovert socialite!
*Huber A, Barber ALA, Farago T, Muller CA, Huber L. Investigating emotional contagion in dogs (Canis familiaris) to emotional sounds of humans and conspecifics. Animal Cognition 2017′ 20:703-715.
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Pawing our Pets

Why do we humans find it so hard to just let our dogs be?

Must tickle that fluff-ball! Can’t resist scrunching that sleek black coat. Ooooh, kiss that soft muzzle. Coochy-coo…squeeze that little pug-face.

Why do I, like so many humans, feel like this? The feel, the smell, the everything... cries out “Touch Me!”.

Why is it we humans so get off on stroking, ruffling, tickling, ruffling and roughing-up canine fur?

Fortunately for our sakes, many dogs love it – but not all. Do we even consider if Archie likes being approached and touched in our urge to lavish physical affection on his cute little face?

“What? He doesn’t like it? But I’m a Dog Lover!”.

Some dog owners I visit touch their dogs all the time they are near to them. Who is more needy, the human or the dog? I sometimes suggest a compulsive toucher spends five minutes at a time sitting on their hands. They could take up knitting.

I also meet dogs that avoid a particular human, usually the one that loves them the most, because they get no peace. This person is terribly upset.

Does fondling dog’s fur give us some sort of high?

Just imagine living with needy members of another species, that you are unable to escape from, that want to paw us all the time. (It can be equally bad when our own species does it).

Even strangers feel they are entitled to join in ‘dog-touching’.

Looking at dogs in a group – dogs just being dogs – do we see communal touching going on beyond a few sniffs and licks here and there? No.

We ourselves may enjoy a certain kinds of non-intimate touching for limited periods of time, like massage. It is likewise for dogs. This is an expert kind of touch that is sensitive to when the dog has had enough. He has choice.


It’s been suggested  before that a dog may rub his body against someone or against furniture much like a cat to spread his scent. Stroking our hand over a dog might seem to him like us scent marking. This would add another unwelcome angle to all this touching from the point of view of the dog.

My most recent case story got me thinking down this path – a lovely puppy that simply doesn’t want to be touched in his bed when he’s resting. Typing ‘being touched‘ in the search box on my website brings up a large number of case stories of dogs that have problems with being touched in certain ways, at certain times or by certain people.

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We Exhale, Our Dogs (and Cats) Become Smokers Too

‘Supervet’ Noel Fitzpatrick was quoted in the Daily Mail yesterday saying, ‘Pet owners have not yet got the message that their dogs and cats can get cancer from their second-hand smoke.’

passive smokingNoel Fitzpatrick referred to this study at the University of Glasgow:

From Glasgow University News: ‘An ongoing study by the University of Glasgow shows a direct link between the effects on pets living in a smoking environment and a higher risk of health problems including some animal cancers, cell damage and weight gain.

Professor Clare Knottenbelt, Professor of Small Animal Medicine and Oncology at the university’s Small Animal Hospital, has been studying the effects of smoking and the health impact it has on family dogs and cats.

Knottenbelt said: “Our findings show that exposure to smoke in the home is having a direct impact on pets….”

This took me back to another ‘Paws for Thought’ I wrote over two years ago: Cigarettes – The Danger to Dogs Goes Way Beyond Passive Smoking

Since I wrote my first ‘Paws’ on the subject, vaping has really taken off. Does this remove the risk for our dogs? Are there dangers to our pets with vaping also?

I quote Mary Simpson from

‘Here’s the problem. Nicotine is toxic to pets – whether consumed through a butt discarded on the street or by getting hold of a tasty smelling mock-cigarette. The vape versions contain the equivalent of one to two cigarettes per and when purchased in packs of five to 100 cartridges and placed within reach of your pooch it can quick spell tragedy for all involved…’


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Sensory Overload – Dogs Also?

I recently visited a teenage girl with autism. She was wearing noise cancelling ear muffs.

She explained to me that without them she simply has sensory overload. They enable her to function.

Her two highly-stressed little terriers, like so many dogs I go to, showed signs of suffering from sensory overload themselves. In addition, their own hearing and sense of smell is far more acute than our own.

Added to this, dogs will usually have little freedom to escape from what is, to them, ‘too much’.

To quote the Puppy Playground website:

The Ears: By the time their sense of hearing has developed, (a dog) can already hear 4 times the distance of a human with normal hearing.  Dogs can hear higher pitched sounds and can detect a frequency range of 67-45,000 Hz, compared to a human range of 64-23,000 Hz.

The Nose: A human has about 5 million scent glands whereas dogs have 125 million to 300 million (depending on breed), meaning their sense of smell is 1,000 to 10,000,000 times better than humans!

I thought I would find out just little more about why these ear covers help someone with autism. Phoebe Caldwell says:

‘…. in general, people on the spectrum find it difficult to process too much incoming sensory information. Their sense organs (the eyes/ears etc…) may be working perfectly well but the brain has a limited processing capacity. ‘If you feed my brain with too much data it will crash’.

Mutt Muffs

Could this not be the similar with certain dogs?

This led me off ona bit of a tangent to Google ‘Can dogs have autism’ and I found this article from Nicholas Dodman. I found there was a lot more on the subject online. Dodman concludes his interesting article on Bull Terriers, ‘At least we seem have found the first canine model of autism and top psychiatrists and neurologists agree that our findings are real.’

Take a look at this – ‘Can Dogs Have Autism‘.

Obviously sensory overload doesn’t necessarily mean autism. Sensory problems alone could be diagnosed as a sensory processing disorder.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a non-drug equivalent to noise cancelling ear muffs for little dogs like those I have just visited – to give them and their family a break if nothing else?

There are, of course, ‘Mutt Muffs‘ which I had always considered a bit of a joke.

Maybe not?

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“I Never Feed my Dog Human Food”

How many times do we hear this?

Where did the idea come from?

What is ‘human’ food anyway?

Both humans and dogs are omnivorous and need much the same things but in different ratios. We can digest grains better than dogs and they eat more meat along with bones – having better teeth for breaking them up. Much of what both species eats naturally would be the same, however.

We humans now eat much too much sugar, salt and additives, stuff we also put into ‘dog’ food. Not natural food for dogs at all. Neither are all the fillers and grains we bulk it out with.

Basically these people are saying that the only food they will feed their dog is processed food, almost irrespective of what’s in it. It has to be bought from a shop, in a packet or tin and labelled ‘dog food’.

‘I don’t believe in feeding my dog human food’ takes on a moral tone.

I myself, years ago and knowing nothing about it, congratulated myself on finding the cheapest dog food. It was often ‘working dog’ or ‘greyhound’ food that was exempt from VAT. So long as it was labelled ‘dog food’ it had to be okay.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that a food for a dog requiring bursts of great energy like greyhounds should contain the most rubbish.

The 10 worst UK dog foods 2017

Today I mostly feed my dogs raw food. It contains chicken or turkey, ground bones and all, with various vegetables added. It’s commercially prepared as ‘dog food’ so that’s okay then.

But chicken or vegetables brought from the supermarket, or leftovers from my own meals, virtually the same constituents even if prepared differently – isn’t okay. It’s ‘human’ food.

Pip’s dinner

I now feed my dogs as I do simply because I believe it to be the best for them. Good food affects both their mental and physical health.

As well as the raw food, I also feed my dogs kibble. It’s the best kibble I can find. At a talk explaining how my chosen brand was sourced and made, I felt sufficiently confident to eat a bit myself. No thank you! ‘Dog food’ is not for me.

My elderly Lurcher, Pip, prefers kibble and raw together. (There are differing views on mixing the two – a discussion for another time).

It’s logical to feed our dogs on the best and most appropriate food for their species whether humans eat it too or not. Ideally the same for ourselves also. (Oh dear, for me that should mean out with the ice cream, potato crisps and wine!).

I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a subtext to all this. Could there still be a school of thought that believes we should not ‘allow’ our dogs to eat the same things as we eat because it might encourage them to feel that they are our equals?

How to be an Alpha Male according to wolves (Readers Digest)

To visit my website along with many case stories of dogs I have worked with, please go to

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‘ Command Your Dog to Sit’

Anyone going to dog training classes over ten years ago will be familiar with this instruction.

I’m getting a real bee in my bonnet about the word ‘command’.

Isn’t it the word used by drill sergeants?

I find that people who have difficulty in motivating their dogs usually use this word ‘command’ a lot.

In fact, I meet few new clients, even those with no intentions of ruling their dog, who don’t talk in terms of teaching their dogs ‘commands’.

The word has sub-texts. The user is an authority figure, simply by virtue of being human. The ‘commanded’, by definititon, is an inferior. One who should rightfully obey due to being subordinate.

If the dog doesn’t obey the mighty human, what then? The implication is that the human mustn’t back down or he/she will lose status.

The command word may then be repeated many times in an ever-louder and threatening tone of voice in an often fruitless effort to enforce obedience.

(The word ‘obedience’ in training is another – I won’t get started on that!).


People get a dog and the first thing they do (believing it’s basic to responsible dog ownership), whether it’s a tiny puppy or a rescue dog….is to start teaching it commands.

I go to an eight week old puppy they have had for two days and they proudly say ‘Watch, I’ve taught her the Sit command already’.

(And why ‘The‘ Sit, ‘The‘ Down, ‘The‘ Stay? I won’t go on about that now either).

A problem of commands is that when they are not obeyed the person has failed.

I suspect this is part of many of the relationship problems between dogs and their humans. This whole command thing can set the most conscientious owner to fail and feel inadequate, and their dog bewildered.

Many dogs’ lives are peppered with commands to do this or to do that and for no good reason.

It can be such a relief for clients to find they can still be good dog owners without issuing ‘commands’.  (Gentle ‘cues’ and ‘requests’ with rewards are another thing).

Yesterday’s dog brought this home to me. The excitable adolescent Jack Russell mix – the most delightful friendly dog imaginable – had learned to switch off. The girl used a harsh voice and bombarded the little dog with loud commands.

The dog took absolutely no notice at all.

They called me because the dog wouldn’t come when called.

I wouldn’t come either if someone commanded ‘COME HERE’ in that tone of voice.

I sat and fielded the little dog’s jumping at the table and other misdemeanors in near silence. Actions can speak a lot louder than words anyway. Each time he did what I wanted I rewarded him with what he wanted.

Walking around the room with food, a gentle ‘request’ to come had the dog following me everywhere.  We called the dog between us with ‘Come’, rehearsing a bright and enthusiastic voice.

The little dog earned food when he came. He was very soon ‘coming when called’.

If there is one magic bullet in many cases of unruly dogs who simply won’t listen – it’s to drop out the notion of ‘commands’ altogether.

Think ‘request’. Think ‘thank you’ afterwards. Ask, is this particular request necessary? If requested, then follow-through is necessary to make the cue meaningful. Is it sufficiently important? Would something else better show the dog what works and what doesn’t?

Fortunately, modern positive dog training is really all about cues and rewards although the word ‘command’ is still everywhere.  Training tricks are fun. Positive doesn’t mean permissive.

If we use the word ‘command’ in any other context than armed services or police – and dogs – it sounds ridiculous: ‘I commanded my child to go to bed’. ‘I commanded my teenager to put his plate away’. ‘I commanded my partner put the rubbish out’.

‘I commanded my cat to come in’!

Here is the story of a dog I went to recently who had been confused and frustrated by too many commands.

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