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)

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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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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

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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? 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 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, 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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