Snakes and Ladders

I thought of the analogy between the game of snakes and ladders and the random nature of incidents on our dog walks whilst talking out of the top of my head in my phone-in with BBC 3 Counties Radio. Here is the excerpt – just over one minute long.

I remember how different things were in the old days of dog training (and still perpetuated in certain quarters today). ‘Handlers’ with their dogs on choke chains would weave in and out of at least twenty other handlers and dogs in a small hall, shouting ‘Leave it’ at their dogs whilst jerking the chain, each time their so much as looked at or sniffed the dog they were passing.

This was in effect punishing the dog for being sociable.

Thank goodness times are changing.

The ‘controlling’ our dogs in the presence of other dogs relying upon force and painful equipment was a lot easier in some ways. The results were more or less instant. We didn’t have to go looking for those illusive quiet dog-free walking places.


Today trainers and behaviourists have various preferred ways of dealing with reactivity towards other dogs, but they will all in some way involve a threshold – that distance at which the dog is aware of another dog, the trigger, but isn’t yet reacting.

Whether we use Grisha Stewart’s BAT (well summarised by Mario Ancic of, counter-conditioning including LAT – ‘Look At That’, it always involves that threshold point.

Here is another excerpt from my radio show (How to stop Titch barking at other dogs), this time on the subject of counter-conditioning by using food, fun and having a party at a distance where the dog feels sufficiently comfortable.

Few people have access to a large enclosed area and the benefit of helpers with stooge dogs, so it’s not very realistic on a daily dog-walking basis. Eventually with the throw of life’s dice, something unforeseen will happen.

We may be doing really well. We have a system that’s working and our dog already seems more relaxed when he sees another dog – so long as it’s far enough away or so long as we have been able to increase distance quickly enough.

We’ve not yet encountered a snake! We are making slow but steady progress through the hundred squares towards our goal.

Then life throws a die.

A friendly off-lead Labrador comes bounding up to us. Pandemonium. We slide straight down a slippery, twisty snake. This sets us back twenty squares.

We set off again and start to climb ladders. We have nearly reached the point we were at before clashing with the Labrador.

barkingLife throws another die.

A barking, screaming and snarling ball of fur and teeth appears from around a corner.

Whoops. A big, fat, grinning snake takes us right back to square one.


It’s like a game of snakes and ladders we play by ourselves. The snakes are when other dogs come too close.

The only way we can beat the dice is to find that illusive environment with no snakes – only dogs on lead that we can see from a long way off.

Ideally we also get help, doing ‘setups’ with a trainer or friends with placid dogs who are happy to stay at that threshold distance so that we can practise on them. It really is unrealistic to expect this on a daily basis.

Risk encountering snakes or play safe by not playing at all? That’s the question.


About Theo Stewart

I am a dog Behaviourist C.C.B (Certified Canine Behaviourist) INTODogs). I have helped over 3000 dog owners over eighteen years. In addition to online consultations all over the world, I cover Beds, Herts, Cambs and Bucks for home visits. A 'Victoria Stilwell' Positively Dog Trainer (VSPDT) and a full member of the IMDT. Graduate ISCP, International School for Canine Practitioners. My main site:
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1 Response to Snakes and Ladders

  1. Richie says:

    Hi Theo.

    What a great article – love the ‘snakes and ladders’ analogy.

    Our Lab, Harvey, was attacked, twice in short succession, when he was around 6 months old. Ever since then we’ve been trying to gradually increase his confidence again to reduce reactivity. With some dogs, he seems to class them as a threat and will lunge and bark at them (in fear, I believe) but with most, he is perfectly fine.

    This ongoing training is partly for us, as owners, in trying to spot the potential snakes (it’s not always the dogs that you may expect!). If I spot one and don’t feel that the circumstances are right to use it for training then I’ll happily just about-face and walk back the way that we came (I long ago gave up caring about whether other people may find this odd!).


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