‘ 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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Fear of Men – Why are some dogs more wary of men?


Dogs can be more intimidated by men.

Some people, for instance, assume that their rescue dog has been hit by a man, but this is probably not so. There are much more likely reasons.

People in the training and behaviour field know that almost all shy dogs are more afraid of men than women, even if men have been nothing but kind to them their entire lives. See here what Patricia McConnell has to say.

I regularly go to dogs, usually rescue dogs, that are afraid of the very kind and loving gentleman and favour the wife. The men are quite hurt. Here is one of my cases where the dog was scared of men.

Theo Stewart, The Dog Lady

Go to the main website: www.dogidog.co.uk


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Stubborn Dog? Dogged Dog?

Stubborn dogA recent exchange on Facebook got me thinking. It was in response to this picture.

This was how the posts started:

First response: ‘Total rubbish, if a dog is intelligent enough to know what you ask of it, it has the brain power to occasionally think I don’t want to do this. Then it is being STUBBORN until you persuade it otherwise’.

(‘Persuade’??  Hmmm)

Second response: ‘I disagree. To be stubborn, a dog would need to show determination not to do something despite a high enough reward. If a dog doesn’t want to do something, it’s because it hasn’t been motivated to do it or, as is often the case it’s fearful /uncomfortable doing it. I have never met a stubborn dog!’

Me: ‘I have never met a stubborn dog either. Some need more motivation than others that’s for sure. Humans call dogs stubborn because they have themselves failed to communicate properly.’

“Theo, do a cartwheel! NOW!”

No thank you. I can’t do cartwheels at my age even if I could once. Does refusing make me stubborn?

“Theo, step into the lion enclosure.”

No way. It’s too dangerous. I’m too scared. Does refusing make me stubborn?

“Theo, go and sit on the third stair and count to a hundred.”

Why? What’s in it for me? Pointless. Does refusing make me stubborn?

If I knew you were going to pay me in money or chocolates for sitting on the third stair and counting to a hundred – what is to me a totally pointless activity – then I might do it.

If someone tells me to do something I deem pointless, dangerous or impossible and I refuse, am I being stubborn?

Dictionary.com defines ‘stubborn’ as: contrary, intractable, refractory, unyielding, headstrong, obdurate.Persevering. Stubborn,dogged, obstinate, persistent imply fixity of purpose or condition and resistance to change.

Interesting that one of the words is ‘dogged’. Apparently the origin of the word is Old English docga, rare word for a powerful breed of canine.

To quote Dictionary.com: Dogged. adj.”having the qualities of a dog” (mostly in a negative sense), c.1300, fromdog (n.). Meaning “persistent” is from 1779. Hence doggedly (late 14c.),”cruelly, maliciously;” later “with a dog’s persistence” (1773). Related:Doggedness.

Basically, what is implied when people accuse a dog of being stubborn is ‘doggedly and persistently refusing to do something for no other reason than it wants to to be awkward.’

Sadly, a person believing in dominance may try to break the ‘stubborn’ dog by using force and punishment. He or she must ‘win’. In this case the dog complies in order to avoid something, so again the dog has a reason for compliance.

‘Stubborn’ implies refusal for no reason other than a premeditated desire to be awkward for its own sake.

Being awkward for it’s own sake – a human thing maybe.  We have brains capable of being a lot more calculating.

If we feel our dog is being stubborn (and I have met a lot of dogs that look like this to their owners – refusing to walk, refusing to come when called, toileting indoors and so on), then the humans’ communication skills are lacking. Possibly ‘refusing’ brings more reward than ‘obeying’ in terms of attention and fun!

This brings us on to another whole thing – whether a dog should be allowed choices.

Old-school punishment based approach would say no. Modern, positive and motivation-based approach would say, resoundingly, YES.

Calling a dog stubborn seems to me more of a reflection on the person, not the dog. The person is a dictator believing dogs are minions that should give blind obedience.

It makes me think of words from a poem I remember learning all those years ago as a child, about young men riding blindly to their death – The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson:

…Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

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Working Wage for Dogs?


Some people are reluctant to give their dogs rewards whilst feeding them all sort of rubbish for doing nothing.

Some believe dogs should have nothing besides their meals – and always in bowls.

Some lavish food on their dogs all the time, just because they love them.

Some leave food down all the day so dogs can help themselves as and when they wish.

Some can only get their dogs to do things by using bribery – luring them with food.

Some have all sorts of reasons for not ‘using’ food in training or counter-conditioning. Often they say that they ‘don’t believe in it’.

Many call any food that’s not in a bowl ‘treats’ (doesn’t ‘treat’ mean getting something for doing nothing)?

Why are some people so resistant to paying their dogs in food?

Why are the same people so happy to give their dogs treats for doing nothing at all?

Money and kids.

Some children may be allowed to go to mum’s purse and help themselves, but no incentive or thanks for doing jobs.

Or, they get no pocket money. No freedom to make any of their own spending decisions.

Or, they are spoilt and handed coins and notes for no reason at all, devaluing money.

Or, they won’t even do a simple task willingly without being bribed.

Or, the parents believe kids should do as they are told and be punished if they don’t.

(Of course, other things the child would like can be used as currency as well, but I’m looking at food).

Food is currency.

If we want a good employee, we train them to the job and we pay them well.

When they have learnt the job, we don’t stop paying them as we may our dogs when they’ve learnt something. In fact, they probably get a rise (raise) for doing it well.

Luring is bribery and has its place – it can be replaced with reward once the dog has learnt.

You call the dog to his bed by throwing in a treat – lure. Next, you call the dog to his bed and give him the reward once he is in – reward. Basically, we need to stop using the food before the task is completed asap.

All this got me thinking. It really can be very hard to change people’s mindset over this, particularly those still dyed in the colours of old-fashioned dog training.

If it were possible, there could be a very simple way to do this.

I would like to be able to design some special ‘treats’ for dogs.

Some would look something like this and and would be made of biscuit:

Others would be made of something tasty like liver cake or cheese and would look more like this:

There is, of course, so much more to using food in training than simply as payment and reinforcement.

Victoria Stilwell has an article which covers the subject beautifully: Using Food in Training.

She says, ‘… food literally changes the dog’s brain chemistry – an important first step in everything from training basic cues to dealing with aggression‘.

I carry food in my pocket all the time (I’m weird I know!). I just love being able to thank my dogs when they do as I ask – or even better, when they do something that I like without being asked.

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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  Training-your-dog-and-you.com), 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.

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Practice? Liszt or Chopsticks

Years ago in another life I was a music teacher. In addition to class music lessons for many years I taught the piano and the flute.

What’s this got do do with dogs, you might ask.

from Wikimedia Commons

My pupils’ results showed I was quite a good music teacher. Being a piano teacher in the exam system was actually more about motivating my pupils to practise than anything else.

I could have been a rubbish piano player myself and created great little performers. I could on the other hand have been a concert pianist unable to teach others to play the piano.

I found that talented but lazy pupils would making less progress than hard-working less talented pupils – with the annoying exception of one or two kids who seemed to excel with no evidence of any practice at all.

My lessons, in a nutshell, consisted of going over what the pupils had practised during the previous week and setting the following week’s practice, with something that they found fun in between.

It’s very easy to get cross with a child who, week after week, is sent home with the same piano practice in his or her little practice notebook. It can be incredibly frustrating to repeat the same thing over and over, week after week.

Frustrating for me, frustrating for the child and frustrating for the parents when they read the report.

I soon realised that for my own sanity during the couple of years when I taught piano lessons back to back in a boy’s school, that if I were to avoid some sort of breakdown I would need to find a way of getting them to enjoy practice. This in turn would give both the boys and myself enjoyable lessons.

I devised all sorts of little goals for them. I broke things down into tiny increments. I used reward systems based on what would motivate that particular child – some being a lot more competitive than others.

Some children of course shouldn’t have been learning the piano at all – they did it because for some reason their parents wanted them to.

With these kids I would concentrate on making the lesson an enjoyable experience, making practice optional, and hope the parents didn’t complain when their now motivated child drove them mad by hammering out Chopsticks over and over on his piano at home.

There is such a big parallel with my days as a music teacher and my rebirth into dog training and behaviour work.

We can be brilliant dog trainers and behaviourists can’t we, but unless we can motivate the human clients to practice we are doing worse than wasting our time – we are turning them off the whole process.

With learning a musical instrument we are teaching humans to do a lot of repetitions in order to perfect a skill for themselves. With dog work we have an added complication – we are trying to motivate the humans themselves to do things ‘over and over’ whilst at the same time motivating their dogs to do things ‘over and over’ and for everyone to enjoy the process.

We motivate the owner who in turn must motivate the dog.

One other thing my days as a music teacher taught me is the importance of a realistic goal. Not every Tommy or Tanya has it in them to make a Ji Liu but will feel thrilled to master the easy version of Fur Elise (for some reason everyone wants to play Fur Elise).

I strive to get dog owners to rejoice in the smallest of achievements. I strive to get them to see the necessity of multiple repetitions of certain things whilst also finding ways to get them to enjoy the process in a way that is appropriate and relevant to that particular person. I don’t say that I’m always successful and it’s an ongoing learning process.

downloadOwners then need to do the same for their dogs. The dogs need motivation to enjoy constant repetition and with most this involves some skill in the delivery of food.

It probably takes the average pupil several years to pay a listenable Fur Elise (and the many steps towards that should also be great milestones).  With dogs, achieving changes in either behaviour modification or trick training isn’t a quick business that happens by itself. It only happens with time, effort – and practice.

Just like those kids who should not be learning piano at all and only do so because their parents so desire, there are owners who are determined to take their dogs to classes to which their dog just isn’t suited.

With certain dogs we just go for the ‘Chopsticks’ option. Find a realistic level and rejoice that you have discovered something the dog loves and can excel at.

(While I have got my teacher’s hat back on, I am having an argument with spellcheck. In English (UK English) the verb is spelt ‘to practise’ and the noun is ‘practice’ !).

My main website: www.dogidog.co.uk

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Silence Really IS Golden

Science says silence is much more important to our brains than we think, according to lifehack.org

(Science also says that dogs’ brains are also a lot more similar to our own than we think).

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’.

As Rebecca Beris in lifehack.org says, ‘Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.’

Continuing to quote: ‘A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice. The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising.


It seems silence can quite literally grow your brain. It is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence.

Beris also says, ‘Silence relieves stress and tension. It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones.

If you live in a consistently noisy environment then you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

Dogs! What about our dogs? Few dogs nowadays are not constantly surrounded by noise including those electronic sounds at high frequencies we can’t ourselves hear.

I would say the great majority of people I go to have their TVs on when I arrive. Many people have TV on all the time they are at home. A good number I have to ask to turn their TV off because it affects my concentration (and theirs also).

Often people tell me that I’m not seeing the ‘real dog’ because he’s so much calmer. Is it too great a leap of the imagination to suggest it’s simply because the TV is turned off?

On a number of occasions my clients have said that their very agitated dogs are more peaceful when they are out (they have filmed them). I had assumed this was something to do with the presence of their humans arousing them, but could it be the noise that comes along with their humans instead?

Beris, writing about humans, continues, ‘Silence seems to have the opposite effect on the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension, silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.

Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.’

How many of dogs’ stress-related problems may be noise-related? I’m not talking about the obvious things like sudden loud bangs like fireworks and storms, but the relentless and continuous background sounds of things like TV, computers, machinery and so on soaking their brains even while they sleep.

Samuel M. Goldwasser, writing about the high pitched whine from TV suggests that the frequency may not be audible to adults but sufficiently loud to younger people to be disturbing.

What about dogs?

Jo Jackson in ‘Cuteness‘ explains:

‘Dogs can hear a greater range of sounds than people can. People hear sounds in the frequency range of 64 to 23,000 hertz while dogs can hear sounds in the frequency range of 67 to 45,000 hertz. ‘

Frequency together with volume can cause pain.

‘Animal hearing can be damaged by prolonged exposure to loud noises just like human hearing. A combination of high frequency and high volume will cause the most pain and discomfort. At high volumes, frequencies above 25,000 hertz are uncomfortable for dogs and will cause the dog to whimper or run away. This is basically how ultrasonic dog repellents work.’

There must be levels of noise that, because they are constant, can be very disturbing and stressful to certain sensitive dogs. In fact, a dog’s world is a lot fuller of sound than our own. When we think it’s quiet, there will still be a wide variety of sounds in our canines’ ears.

A Weimerana I went to a short while ago constantly paced and obsessed over things. Although very stressed when they go to leave, as soon as they have gone he settles down. They have been filming him. He is only ever really peaceful when alone with their other dog.

Oh dear. I now have this song on my brain.


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