Enrichment is one of those big things now. And I love it. It’s wonderful to see the average pet owner casually use the term to refer to a stuffed Kong, generic shops putting up a corner sign labelled ‘Enrichment toys’, vets recommending enrichment to stave off boredom for crate rest dogs and pet shops thriving on selling increasingly diverse puzzles, toys and treats to enrich the lives of our companion animals. I do hope most houses have a snuffle mat or use scatter feeding in some way. I love scanning through Facebook posts showing off creative toys ranging from kibble in an old bottle to very expensive thought-provoking contraptions that seem like they are best solved by a second-grader.
But it also makes me uncomfortable. Is the term enrichment predominantly taking the form of just toys and food?
I’ll admit that I don’t own any fancy puzzles. I do own numerous bath mats that turn into snuffle mats every evening. I have lickimats, a ping pong ball and a very long shoestring for the cats. I scatter treats at least once daily. My lurcher and two cats are DIY raw-fed, which means they have chunky, crunchy and chewy pieces of meaty bones to work through on a regular basis.
Their enrichment also takes other forms. I hold out almost every single thing I pick up in my hand for my shadow of a lurcher to sniff and decide how he feels about it. I work from home at least once a week to keep him and the cats company (and to reduce time spent at dog daycare!) in an otherwise busy week that hurries past faster than I can keep track. I go for walks with all three. I sit on a hill with my lurcher, watch him track the world and then snooze. He looks asleep but his nose is doing overtime, taking in and deconstructing every single scent in the air. I consciously abandoned all my old hobbies that were not dog-friendly. I replaced them with trips to cafes and walking holidays. I call ahead and ask for a quiet table. I go elsewhere if it cannot be guaranteed. I work with my lurcher and the cats on at least one structured training session almost every day.
I’m certainly no exemplar because they still nudge me, whine and miaow when they’re bored. They do get bored. It’s not always convenient for me.
Food toys, puzzles and chews have their place. But they shouldn’t take the place of human attention. They shouldn’t be the default means of keeping an animal busy. The goal of enrichment is not about tiring a dog out until they fall asleep and don’t need our company. The purpose of enriching activities is, quite simply, to make the lives of our companion animals richer than it already is. Toys and puzzles are no substitute for inclusion.
Now the last thing I would want to encourage is for dogs to be thrown into environments that do not bring out the best in them in the name of inclusion. I’d hate for a noise-sensitive dog to be anxiously sat at a busy cafe, a dog-reactive dog mingling at a dog daycare or a frustrated greeter to be thrown into a house party. It doesn’t have to be a walk if that’s not your dog’s thing. There is an undoubted place for those food toys and puzzles.
But enrichment is doing things together as much as possible, however mundane, however isolating. Enrichment is exciting, like a chase game or a boat ride. It’s slow, like a walk from lamppost to lamppost at 5 metres a minute with rain looming on the horizon. It’s a roll in fox poo or a soak in a puddle (hopefully in that order). It’s shredding cardboard boxes in a game of tug. It’s a “hello!” when rising from the sofa to a surprised cat followed by a few ear scritchies. It’s an over-exuberant game that involves making an idiot of yourself and you hate to admit to anybody else that it encourages your dog’s ‘bad habits’ for fear of their judgement. Enrichment is learning a useless trick, getting a belly rub or having a snooze on the sofa.
It’s about making the time. Enrichment is inclusion. Inclusion is enriching.
I am very fortunate to have the privilege of working with very eager learners at home who love their training time and spring to life when I invite them to work with me.
So yesterday I walked over to my lurcher who was on his bed, keeping a lazy eye on the goings-on in the kitchen, and I cued a sustained nose target to my hand. I was holding a piece of frozen meat behind my back, ready to give it to him the minute he plasters his muzzle into my cupped hand. It’s a behaviour he loves and it has always paid out for him.
But he didn’t do it. He stared at my outstretched hand and, in no uncertain terms, put his head back down and took his eyes away. It reminded me of that awkward scene they use in films where one person offers an enthusiastic high-five and the other just leaves the first hanging with their arm in the air, just to show the viewer who is and isn’t the cool kid in the movie.
At that instant, rest was worth more than a potential treat to my dog. It wasn’t a sign of disrespect. It wasn’t a sign of him taking over leadership in the house. It wasn’t because he didn’t know what that cue meant. It wasn’t because I was a lousy trainer (which I am but that’s a different topic!). I had simply asked for more than he was willing to offer right then and there.
It doesn’t matter if I think meat is the most important thing he should be interested in. It only matters what he thinks and that can change from one instant to the next, depending on what else is happening. It’s easy to forget that the perceived value of a reward depends on the receiver and not the giver.
Then I started thinking about instances in my own life when I wished I’d said no as clearly as he did. How about when I agreed to take on some extra work despite everything else on my plate, resulting in immense stress and sleepless nights for me? Or when I had nervously laughed at a joke about me because I didn’t know how to say it wasn’t funny? Or when I had agreed to a social evening out even though all I wanted to do was stay at home in jammies?
All those moments in retrospect were not worth my while either but I was too afraid or didn’t know how to say no. That is not a position I would ever wish for those in my power if I can help it.
I want to be more like my animals. Brutally honest. Clear on what is worth their while and what isn’t. And able to communicate that in a nonviolent manner to whoever is asking.
I would not want to change that about them. I want my lurcher to tell me I’m asking too much of him. I want my cat to look away when I try to pet her to tell me to stop. I want to create as much opportunity for a genuine two-way communication in that partnership. No false promises. Just a good deal of offers and opt-ins peppered with the odd no-thank-you in both directions.
So I laughed at my lurcher’s desire for rest and walked away last evening. He gave me that sustained nose touch without thinking twice today when I didn’t even carry a treat on me. I went and got him one anyway because who wants to do something for someone else without it being worth their while?
Life with dogs is a constantly evolving blend of management and training. As trainers, we have a profound assessment of our dog’s view on everything in their life. We mould our dog’s life around everything they love and minimise everything they do not. If we cannot eliminate the things they can’t cope with, we work on changing how they feel towards those things, step by step, day by day. It takes weeks, months or years. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We sometimes think about giving up.
I’ve always thought I had a profound understanding of what makes my dog tick and what will tip him overboard. Dogs running 10 metres away? Beanie goes back on a lead or he’d run over to torment the other dog to play with him. Evening out with work friends at a non-dog-friendly restaurant? Beanie stays with a dog sitter or neither of us have a good time. My boy cat storms into the lounge, fixated on giving Beanie all the rubs and rather-painful-but-playful nibbles? I call my cat away within seconds to give Beanie space before he loses it at Moo. Moving something that looks like a stick from one room to another? Show Beanie where to wait before walking past him at a distance. Every dog is different. I have a database of knowledge of specific procedures for specific circumstances for every single dog or cat I work with from the RSPCA to my own home. Our lives work like clockwork because we know exactly how the other behaves.
But I lose sight of the changes over time.
“Train the dog in front of you.”
This is such a profound statement that has taken new meaning for me lately. It has always meant that I must meet the dog where they are at their skill and emotional level in that context. In reality, it has typically meant lowering or letting go of my expectations and starting afresh. Recently it has meant recalibration and letting go of a dog that I used to expect in order to create a richer world for the dog I now have.
I forget that there was a time when Beanie had to go back on a lead about 100 metres away from a running dog before he’d teleport to that dog. When I couldn’t leave him alone for 3 minutes, no matter who stayed with him, to run a supermarket errand. When the mere sight of one of my cats walking towards him metres away was enough to make him growl and stand up. When he would freeze in the middle of the corridor in an impasse because I was carrying the vacuum cleaner from one room to another.
I used to focus so much on management and slow, structured training at his pace that outside of minute attention paid to criteria and very technical deconstructions of antecedents, I lost sight of the big picture. I spent all my effort in keeping him in the spectrum of “normal” and not over-threshold that I have no clue when he actually became increasingly normal in increasingly challenging situations. Maybe he’s ageing. Maybe it was the training. Maybe he’s just settling down. Maybe it’s just sheer luck. It’s probably a combination of all four.
Life has been very different lately with lots of travel, change, long working hours, unexpected vet visits, planned workshops and new environments. Lots of things intentional or otherwise that would not have been OK for the dog I adopted three years ago. I have prepared for the worst in all those situations but my dog has been stellar in every single situation, much to my surprise and that of those who see him through my eyes. I realise there is less need for management now, less cocooning, less stress for me. I can move the goalposts and let go of the dog whose life was so carefully structured. I am learning to live with the dog I now have and redefine our boundaries.
It has opened up whole new experiences – enjoyable, memorable and filled with learning for both of us. His world is now bigger, as is mine. It’s still not the world of the most sociable, well-adjusted, confident dog. He is still changing his views about many things, some for the better and some not.
I suppose this is why we put days, weeks and months into changing behaviour. Why we keep logs in notebooks and in our heads. Why we don’t just avoid all triggers and cocoon ourselves, as tempting as it might be. It is to grow the world for our dogs and for ourselves. It is to make more of the world more enjoyable. I am never going to stop being that hovering, over-worried, over-planning guardian but I can finally change my opinion of what is normal for Beanie and expand our bubble wider. I can sign up to more workshops, volunteer at my vets and my local rescue, walk through a sudden herd of sheep and not worry about whether Beanie will cope. I have enabled him to learn and he has done the same for me.
Beanie’s separation anxiety is a cornerstone of my relationship with him. Everything we do now from training to travelling, from day to night, the courses I teach, the people I know, the entire dog world I now inhabit, all of that was born out of Beanie’s inability to be without my company. I made a pact with him that I would never leave him alone for a moment more than he can handle. In return, he could… relax.
So we just started doing everything together. Motorbike holidays became walking holidays. Cocktail bars became dog-friendly pubs. Dresses became waterproof trousers.
Beanie’s separation anxiety at home is almost non-existent now. I don’t actively work on it anymore. We have resolved it through a mixture of management and desensitisation. It took six months to teach him to be able to sleep for 4 hours alone in the evening through carefully constructed circumstances that are very clearly defined and well-rehearsed over thousands of successful increments. He continues to go to daycare during the day and, even though it is no longer necessary, he is pretty much always kept company by someone he trusts during the evening.
But his worry rears its head when we go on holiday or to just a new place, triggered by the new context, new smells and new routines. It so happens that we have had a lot of travel together lately on holiday and for various workshops, which made me think about articulating my methods of ensuring a smooth transition from home to hotel. I don’t do all these steps now, nearly three years and numerous holidays later. So I’ll compare his needs on our first trip away from home to where he is today to reflect on how far he has come.
Advisory: None of what I am about to write takes the place of a structured desensitisation and counterconditioning protocol to resolve separation anxiety in the long term. This article is simply about what might work for you if you have the dog I have when travelling together for a short period away from home or moving to a new place until settling in. My tips are all predominantly about effective management with antecedent arrangement and a little bit desensitisation. Please note this is not the cure for separation anxiety but can form part of the treatment plan. Get in touch with a force-free behaviourist to address the condition as a whole – Emma Judson and Malena DeMartini are both experts I recommend. This article best applies to dogs who become anxious about separation from their owner(s) when out and about.
Just like home
I want Beanie to feel exactly at home the minute he rests his head on his bed and closes his eyes. I want it to smell the same and feel the same. So I carry his bedding with me. This ranges from a folded cotton towel to settle in a cafe that has been conditioned for a default settle behaviour to two giant double duvets for a longer stay.
There was a time when we had to travel with Beanie’s 42” crate because that is the only way in which he could happily sleep overnight, just as he did at home. He can now sleep anywhere without confinement, evolved slowly by introducing variability to that overnight routine to the extent that remained comfortable. All he needs now is very, very comfortable bedding. It does not even have to be from home anymore.
Plug in an Adaptil diffuser
Adaptil diffusers mimic the effect of the Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) given out by a nursing mother to calm her litter and make the pups feel secure. Whilst it is not a standalone solution to cure anxious behaviour, some dogs like mine do respond well to it and it forms a component of the whole package alongside other changes.
There are a number of products such as Pet Remedy, Rescue Remedy, Zylkene and other over-the-counter calming supplements which all work in different ways but so far, Adaptil has the most scientific evidence. My key recommendation is that you test the product in advance and monitor your dog’s behaviour to inform whether or not it is effective for him before relying on it for a longer trip. In my experience, Adaptil has been the only effective over-the-counter supplement for Beanie.
Bearing in mind that the diffuser takes many hours to permeate the floor with the synthetic pheromone, I plug it in as soon as we arrive in the new place and I position it in the lounge where we are likely to spend most of our time.
I don’t use Adaptil in this context anymore as Beanie is now sufficiently confident about changes in the environment that he doesn’t need it but there was a time when it certainly made a difference between a pacing dog and a snoozing dog.
Unrestricted night access
Beanie sleeps in another room at home unless there is reason to have him in the bedroom to keep a closer eye on him. For a long time, worried about creating unintentional habits and mixed messages, I used to set up his crate straight away in a room that appeared most similar to his room at home. This did not work well overnight and in retrospect, I realise I would have been simply asking too much of any dog, let alone a dog who suffered separation anxiety. It is unethical to leave a dog to cry alone in another room in a brand new environment and forcing him to not be able to seek out human company for reassurance if he needed it. Dogs are excellent discriminators. I haven’t had any issues with Beanie’s sleeping arrangement at home even though he now always sleeps somewhere in the same room as me on holiday.
For the first few trips away from home, I had to sleep on the floor right next to Beanie for the first couple of days or he would whine in the middle of the night despite being in the same room. That is not necessary anymore as Beanie happily settles in his bed wherever it is placed in the room. But I do occasionally wake up in the middle of the first night in a new place with a Gothic long face staring inches away from mine, easily resolved by a quiet request to return to bed. He has to check if I’m still there, hours after the last substantial movement. There I am. Time to sleep again.
Forced separation is a terrible idea. It doesn’t teach the dog that all will be OK. It only teaches the dog that what they want does not matter and is physically impossible to achieve. That’s not a realisation that I would wish upon anybody.
I don’t close fully any door behind me in a new place, so Beanie can push a door open if he wants to check if I’m still there. I actively give him a heads up if I’m leaving one room to go to another because I want to avoid the situation of Beanie falling asleep in one room, feeling secure that I am right there, then waking up and not finding me in the room anymore. That would result in panic within seconds for him and affect his ability to fall asleep the next time. The fact that he knows where I am is instrumental to him not worrying about where I might be.
We recently stayed in a three bed bungalow on a farm where I disappeared out of sight for the smallest errand in such a big place. Even though Beanie always had the option, he certainly followed me far less often, sometimes choosing to sit in the lounge with a pricked ear even if I flitted to another room. Invariably he follows me less and less over the first few days to not really caring anymore by the end of the holiday unless I am physically away for more than a few minutes.
Beds with benefits
Sighthounds seek comfort. You can pretty much point a sighthound into a room full of furniture and guarantee that they will find the softest, plushiest bed in the vicinity in no time. I make use of this, especially in cottages where one bed does not give full view of the entire property. I position multiple comfortable beds in key locations around the house where there is good visibility of a portion of the house and I give Beanie full choice of where he wants to hang out. Some beds are naturally more comfortable than others. Some beds get direct sunlight. Some beds have a great view out into the garden. Some are cosy and tucked into a corner. Each of those beds is going to be closer or further away from me as I flit around the house through the day.
During the first few holidays, bedding didn’t matter to Beanie as much as company. He could be physically exhausted from a whole day’s hike and yet he would pick himself up and wander to another room just to make sure I didn’t vanish. That isn’t true anymore. Invariably I find Beanie picking the more comfortable spots despite me walking around, choosing to remain in one room as I go to another.
An active cue to wait
The simple act of going to the toilet becomes an issue when you have a Velcro dog, even if your dog can stay with someone you trust for those two outrageously-long minutes it’s going to take for you to return. Teaching the dog to actively wait for your return in one place is not the cure for separation anxiety but it does help for when you need to step into a shop to buy a bottle of water or ask for directions or use the toilet.
Teach this at home, then in your garden and then take it on the road. Remember that if your dog is unable to wait for you to come back, no matter how near you still think you are, and he chooses to follow you or shows other behaviours like whining even if staying in position, chances are you’ve asked for too much and his anxiety has gotten the better of him in that environment or he just didn’t understand the behaviour well enough in the first place.
Two years ago, I could not have gone to the toilet even in a familiar cafe without some level of panic on Beanie’s face. Two weeks ago I left him in a brand new hotel with the receptionist he has never met before to rush to a shop to buy some emergency late night dinner. He didn’t bat an eyelid. I regularly ask him to wait for me as I go to the vet’s back office to wash my hands after our training and I have filmed his behaviour in my absence. He simply sits down and watches the direction I went until I return, exactly as I had taught him. Every single successful repetition where I return before he worries is one more in the trust bank before the next one.
Finding your way
Living with a dog who experiences any degree of separation anxiety is hard work and simply life changing when done right. Human guardians absolutely need a break and dog-friendly holidays are an excellent way to achieve that with your dog. The most important goal for me with my dog is to ensure I am not drawing from the trust account into which I have spent years making deposits. A crucial step to curing separation anxiety is to ensure that the dog has no reason to be anxious in the first place, never left alone for any more than the dog can cope with. Achieving that goal has taken trial and error through minute variations made from one night to the next to figure out what works best for my individual dog based on both of our past experiences.
I go on many trips with Beanie now and he is a seasoned traveller. With every passing trip, I can see him settle quicker and quicker into a brand new environment. I don’t need a dog who doesn’t care about whether or not I am in the room. I am happy with a dog who can let me out of his sight and fully trusts that I will come back without any doubt that I might not.
Beanie and I are just home after attending a wonderful sighthound workshop organised by my friend and behaviourist Claire Martin of Chrysalis K9. Some dogs who attended were shy, some bold, some barky, some bouncy. As much as there were pervasive traits across the breed, there were just as many behaviours that were as diverse as possible. Food for thought.
Anyway, both of us had a whale of a time and I’m writing this today as Beanie is fast asleep, catching up on all the naps he missed out on yesterday.
The weekend was filled with novelty for Beanie. An unusually long drive, a new hotel room with loud corridors, a brand new outdoor workshop environment filled with new dogs, new people, caravans, lakes and toys that he had never encountered before.
So Beanie air scented anyone walking past, dragging me to the different equipment in the field to sniff and mark, gathering as much information as possible about all this novelty whilst still making sure I was always at the other end of the lead.
Now I have a shy, glass-half-empty dog. If we were to label his behaviour in environments like this, we’d reach for “lacking resilience”, “sensitive” or “fragile”. Beanie lets the world whirl around him as long as he can find a predictable little corner with me in all that chaos.
Very few people expect the dog who emerges the moment my training pouch comes out.
Every single structured activity we did at the workshop was novel in some way. Beanie ran through three hoops in a row at hoopers. He went into an agility tunnel and came out the other end in the first attempt. He stood on planks, tires, platforms, peanuts with back legs on and off and pivoting around. He tripped on a platform stepping back, looked at it, turned back to me and kept going. He learnt to freeze on a coin during scent work. He learnt a bow and it was so reliable in minutes that I could already add a cue, working amidst all those sighthounds, clickers, people, dogs and equipment. I was genuinely so blown away by how well he took to the day that it got me pondering on the drive back. Due credit here to Sarah Owings for inspiring this train of thought many months ago.
The Beanie who worked with me all day was an optimistic dog. One who has had roughly one hundred thousand moments marked and rewarded over two years and eight months of his much longer life. One who understands that if I ask him to do something, it was probably doable and he couldn’t really go wrong. Every moment of success is right around the corner for that Beanie.
Optimism is built from a matrix of successes and failures. If every action pays out in some way, that builds optimism that the next action is also likely to pay out. If actions are met with punishment, that builds pessimism that the next action might also result in punishment.
The sheer power of positive reinforcement training is what we saw when my glass-half-full Beanie ran through those hoops or stood on a wobbly board, having never done either of those things before in his life. He trusts the framework. He believes it will work out because it has in the past. As long as I keep structuring those experiences to remain achievable, I am building a juggernaut of confidence, one click at a time. The longer the history of success, the lower the fallout from a single failure.
A dog is optimistic about a human’s presence, a vet clinic, a bath, being alone, being crated, meeting another dog, going to a cafe, being outdoors or walking on the street if that context has continously brought about desirable consequences for that dog. A confidence-building exercise is really just a moment where the dog was right.
So let us not label a dog as “pessimistic” or “shuts down easily” and write him off. That dog needs a high rate of success through hundreds and thousands of moments of being correct over and over again. Every time a dog is being told that he made a mistake is chipping away at the reservoir that we spend years building up.
Then let us watch that dog come out of his shell and do something he has never done before like it was nothing new at all.
Yesterday I called my lurcher to me when he was about ten metres away. He looked at me. He shifted his eyebrows in a dance. Then he went to sniff a blade of grass. If that isn’t the definition of “stubbornness”, I wouldn’t know what is.
But it actually made me smile. And here’s why.
When I went to adopt Beanie, I had glorious visions in my head of a dog whose tail would casually wag when the wind blew, when people walked past us on a walk, when we made eye contact on a lazy Sunday, when we visited the dog park for glorious frolics with other dogs whose tail also wagged for nothing at all. He’d just be a dog with joie de vivre.
But I got a dog whose tail remained droopy, wagging only when he saw himself in the mirror and, three years on, still only wagging tentatively and selectively through the day.
For a very long time, Beanie had no opinions about the world except “I cannot live without you” and “I love dogs”. So much so that when I started clicker training him, rewarding absolutely anything that he would offer me, he would still only do something that he was sure I wanted him to do. Beanie was off lead far quicker than I might have envisaged letting loose a sighthound — he simply walked right in my footsteps, not one step left or right.
So the fact that he actually had an opinion yesterday to go sniff a blade of grass over returning to me is a glorious sign of his independence. He wasn’t scared to tell me that he had a mind of his own and I couldn’t be happier.
The stubborn dog
I spend a lot of my time with “stubborn” dogs. Dogs who walk the other way when you call them. Dogs who refuse to come back in after a night time pootle in the garden. Dogs who leap and tug at their lead despite “knowing” that they have to calm down if they want to go for a walk. Dogs who scream and bite when you just want to lift their paw.
I love those dogs because it tells me that they feel comfortable enough to voice their opinion. I am not intimidating them into submission. They are taking the control I offer them and telling me that something else is more worthwhile.
I would rather have a dog who tells me what he thinks than a dog who doesn’t dare voice an opinion. I would rather give the dog the choice and find that he takes me up on my offer because doing what I would like adds value to his already rich life.
I don’t want a well-behaved dog. I want a dog who loves having me around and has plenty of opinions he would like to share with me. I don’t want a dog who hears an “or else” in my voice with a threat of violence, sexily wrapped in a little electronic button that I can use to remind him of my power over him. I want a dog who tells me that I’m not worth his attention because when I am, it’s that much more special to me.
A “stubborn” dog is really just one of two things:
A dog who doesn’t understand what I want — did I actually teach what I thought I taught? Does my dog even remember what I taught?
A dog who has something better to do than listen to me — am I being scary? Why should he give up eating that rabbit poo and come to me instead?
So every time a dog says no, be happy because he feels confident enough to tell you what he thinks and that you now have the choice to listen to him. Then think about why he is saying no. Think about what’s in it for him if he does what you’re asking him to do and think about how you can make it worth his while. Every dog who refuses to listen to you is making you a better teacher. How boring would it be to live with someone you can never disagree with?
Your dog has a voice. Giving him the ability to use it makes you a better person.
My dinky 25 kilogram lurcher, Beanie, isn’t the kind of dog you can physically maneuvre. If you’re lucky, the least you’d get is that distinctive Lurcher Scream of Death. The worst you’d get is bitten.
Now imagine standing on a field, amidst at least twenty dogs and their owners happily enjoying their evening walk, with Beanie’s blood-curling screams piercing the air every time he tried to put his hind paw down on the ground after an otherwise routine romp in the woods. Imagine my panic and embarrassment as a new dog owner for not having any way of getting close to my dog’s paw to even figure out what’s wrong. The car was at least 200 metres away. We weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Lucky for us, a dog walker came to our rescue and swiftly pulled out the pine needle in his paw after strategically muzzling him using his lead.
That is the moment I realised the importance of husbandry training.
What is husbandry training?
Husbandry is an umbrella term that covers all manner of care and maintenance that our animals need from us to lead a happy and healthy life. It covers everything from clipping a house collar around their neck to performing a blood draw at the vets.
Brushing, grooming, dental and nail care, removing thorns and ticks, administering bitter tablets and painful ear drops, bathing after an extravagant roll in fox poo and cleaning a wound after a hairy mud slide are all examples of husbandry procedures that we do almost every day as guardians of our companion animals who live wonderfully rich lives in the real world.
Husbandry also includes procedures specific to a veterinary clinic such tactile physical examinations, rectal temperature measurements, heart and lung measurements, capillary refill tests, nasal vaccinations, ear exams using an otoscope, injections and blood draws. Some of these procedures must be done by a veterinarian. Some might also need a veterinary nurse to assist.
It has been commonly accepted that vet visits are scary for our animals. There is no doubt that unpleasant things happen in a clinic. Confusion, loss of control, unfamiliarity with the environment and staff, proximity to other patients, odours or sounds characteristic of fear and memories of pain from previous experience are some of the biggest reasons why our animals find vets downright petrifying.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A dog doesn’t have to “put up” with the groomer or hide at the sight of ear drops. A vet isn’t necessarily a scary human. A previously biting, snarling dog can absolutely learn to run into a clinic with a tail wagging fast and high, looking forward to his next procedure with the vet.
The way to achieve that tremendous mind-blowing transformation is through husbandry training.
Teaching our animals to be willing participants in their care through thoughtful changes and structured, ethical training methods is one of the biggest gifts we can give to the animals in our life.
What’s wrong with quick and painless?
Many years ago, I was advised by my vet to apply a dot of sunscreen on both of my white-coated cats’ ears during the summer as they spend a lot of time in direct sunshine to reduce the risk of skin cancer on the ears. I followed this advice dutifully for many months. At first, it only took a second. I was done before my girl cat, Oonsipie, even took notice. Or so I thought. Over the following days, she started backing away when I brought out the sunscreen bottle every morning. So I lured her with her kryptonite — food. Then she stopped eating in the mornings. Within a month, she began avoiding me entirely around breakfast. We found ourselves in this war of increasing escalation of force and avoidance, with me insisting that she tolerate sticky, smelly ears for the greater good and her insisting that there was no way in hell that she would let me.
I was glad when that summer was over because I could finally stop this ordeal. It had taken a toll on our relationship. When the next summer came around, I simply stopped applying sunscreen altogether. Her behaviour and mistrust of me were sufficiently high barriers for me to stop following veterinary advice. I found myself balancing her emotional wellbeing against her physical wellbeing.
I know for a fact that I am not the only owner who has been in this position. Something that was once mildly annoying to the dog but quickly over and done with eventually becomes such a big deal all around that we hesitate to give due veterinary care for fear of the fallout or escalation. We land one ear drop but the dosage on the bottle says three. We dread the second and third drops. We tell ourselves it’s enough if they land on the outside of the ear or give up on them entirely.
Quick and painless comes at the cost of a relationship and future healthcare. But we can turn that around and build a relationship that indeed enablesbetter healthcare instead of hampering it.
Choice, communication and predictability
The three cornerstones of husbandry training are as follows:
Giving the animal the ability to consent and control the pace of the procedure
Embedding predictability by teaching the animal a spectrum of husbandry procedures
Having a framework for communication of choice and predictability
Let’s now look at each of these pillars in turn.
1. Giving the animal the ability to consent and control the pace of the procedure
Having never had an MRI before, the simple act of the radiologist giving me a button to press in advance if I wanted the procedure to stop made me feel infinitely better about being confined in a coffin-like tube listening to the most disconcerting concert in my life for half an hour. I said yes because I could also say no. I knew that the radiologist would listen either way.
As unintuitive as it may seem, allowing an animal to walk away is more likely to encourage them to return in the future. Your dog can choose to pause a procedure, take in and evaluate a new stimulus, opt back in and control the pace at which the procedure continues. In conjunction with husbandry training, a meaningful opt out is a crucial component to building their trust in the procedure itself.
Control over the procedure can take many forms. My lurcher would scream if his paws are forcibly lifted off the ground but having now taught him to lift his paws by himself when I touch the corresponding leg, I can now examine or clean his paws whilst he holds it in position for me. He is free to put the paw down on the ground again when he wants, which stops the procedure, and resume when he is ready.
There is a rich discussion to be had around the ethics of if and how we structure the environment to incentivise an opt in, perhaps for another article. Irrespective of how likely a ‘yes’ might be, choice is only really meaningful if a ‘no’ is just as valid an option that we equally accept. In fact, accepting a ‘no’ is far more important to husbandry training than rejoicing over a ‘yes’. Opt ins are precious. Do not offer your dog a choice if there isn’t one because ignoring an opt out devalues any future choices on offer.
2. Embedding predictability by teaching the animal a spectrum of husbandry procedures
Husbandry training is really like trick training. If I have taught my dog to stand between my legs and look up at me to be fed in position, I can extend this to hold the position for a jugular blood draw. A dog who knows how to play dead already has the basic skill required to build into a lateral recumbency for his limbs or belly to be examined by a vet or at home for ticks. As much as there is overlap between trick training and husbandry work, both of those types of training are just the same to the animal!
A key pillar of husbandry training is teaching the dog a set of repertoires that enable a variety of husbandry procedures to be performed with ease. We start really small and we build to the goal for one procedure. Then another. Then another. Until there are a huge spectrum of procedures where the dog knows exactly what is about to happen and has been very comfortable with all of those steps.
For example, I have taught my lurcher that when I say “eyes”, I am about to hold his eyes open and potentially give him an eye drop. Similarly, “teeth” is a cue we use to make it clear to him that I am about to cover his muzzle and lift his lips to examine or touch his teeth or gums. Over multiple sessions, I have taught him to accept his rectal temperature being measured whilst lying down without restraint through a series of smaller steps that approximated towards that goal behaviour over time.
Predictability applies to instruments as well as procedures. Husbandry care often involves tools like a nail file or Dremel, alcohol swabs, stethoscopes, thermometers, gauze and wraps, syringes and otoscopes. Many of these instruments and materials can be ordered cheaply on Amazon, purely for training purposes towards procedures that involve their use. Be careful, though, that some of the instruments are indeed invasive, uncomfortable or even dangerous for frequent use in training. It is best to work with a vet or a vet behaviourist to discuss the procedures you wish to train, agree the exact method that your practitioner will typically use with your animal and have their sign off.
3. Having a framework for communication of choice and predictability
A clear start button behaviour is invaluable in husbandry training and indeed the first step towards establishing very subtle communication between the handler and the animal. You may have already come across the Bucket Game by Chirag Patel (see The Generic Structure to Husbandry Training and Resources sections at the end), chin rests on a towel or a lateral recumbency on a mat, all of which are great examples of typical start buttons used in husbandry work.
The dog offers and maintains a known start button with a huge reinforcement history to cue the handler to start the repetition. If the dog withdraws the start button, the repetition aborts instantly. However, if we have structured the increments at the dog’s pace, the end of the approximation marks the completion of that repetition. We reward at that point and wait for the dog to offer the start button for the next repetition. This framework allows us to incorporate counterconditioning and desensitisation components into essentially an operant protocol, approximating towards the goal husbandry procedure through numerous small increments over multiple sessions.
Bear in mind that start buttons are diverse and can also be stacked. For example, my dog lifting his paw is his start button to cue me to examine the paw pads. On nail care days, I show him the Dremel and he then chooses to sit down on his husbandry towel that is already laid out as his first start button. I might then sit in front of him as usual, turn on the Dremel, place his bowl of dinner to set us up for the bucket game and wait for him to offer a second start button by directly focusing on the bowl, cueing me to proceed to hold and file his nails.
The beauty of the husbandry start button is really evident when the animal wants to opt out. Most dogs have learnt that subtle body language does not stop what we’re doing to them but that escalating to growling, barking or air snapping is a more reliable behaviour to get us to go away. As much as husbandry training is about teaching our animals that handling isn’t to be feared and made to go away, it is also about giving them the ability to communicate their discomfort with substantially lower key behaviours. When the whispers are listened to, there is no need to shout. This puts us in a far safer position including preventing bites and lowers stress levels overall.
Similarly, this framework of communication also enables us as the handler to establish predictable patterns of behaviour for a spectrum of husbandry procedures that we perform in the animal’s personal space without any surprise for them.
Rectal temperature measurements and injections have in the past resulted in my lurcher attempting to bite the veterinary staff out of sheer panic, fearing and fighting for his life. Having worked on husbandry procedures with him at home and at the veterinary clinic, I can now take his temperature at home and the same vet has recently given him an injection in the same clinic for the first time, keeping Beanie entirely comfortable throughout and without so much as a blink from him. He has indeed wanted to opt out during training of both procedures on occasion and instead of automatically resorting to a snap to convince us to stop, all he now has to do is simply look away from his bucket of food for us to listen to him. We are giving him control over the procedure by teaching him that a far more subtle behaviour will indeed achieve the same outcome he wants. In return, we have now taught him through very small steps over a long time that some procedures are really predictable and entirely alright.
Scales of change
The purpose of this section is to demonstrate that husbandry training is not all about executing training plans and implementing protocols. Small changes can already provide a better husbandry experience for our animals. Start as small as you wish by incorporating the following simple ideas whilst those of you who already have these in place can go on even further to create even more incredible transformations from a fearful animal to a willing participant.
At the vet’s:
Drop in at the vets every so often with your dog’s dinner. Feed him in the parking area, the reception or an exam room… and leave! He does not need to interact with the staff at all.
Wait with your dog in the car before an appointment and nicely request the reception staff to call you in when the vet is ready.
When you enter the exam room, give your dog the time to wander off lead (if safe), sniff and take everything in whilst you discuss why you’re there. Giving him the time to make sense of the room at his own pace is important towards him feeling more comfortable in the new environment.
Split multiple exams over multiple appointments. If a physical exam involves the eyes, ears, teeth/gums and abdomen, break that up into two appointments.
Book yourself a double appointment to give your dog time to settle in the room first and to take the pressure of time off your and your vet’s shoulders.
Ask the vet if there is an entrance/exit into the clinic that might avoid other dogs and people, if these are stressful for your dog.
Less is more — use minimal restraint if there appears to be no need for it.
Request your vet to examine your dog on the floor if he dislikes being on an exam table at a height. If there is no choice, take a grippy non-slip mat to give your animal stability under their feet.
If your dog or cat is undergoing ongoing treatment and it is stressful overall, plug in an Adaptil or Feliway diffuser at home in advance and leave on continuously. Test and make sure it has the intended effect before the procedure. Have plenty of enrichment opportunities together to create as much opportunity for decompression as possible and strengthen your relationship as you make it through (check out the Canine Enrichment Facebook group for ideas).
Split your goals. Not all nails need trimming in one session!
Teach your dog that wearing a muzzle is awesome. Watch this from Michael Shikashio or this from Chirag Patel on muzzle training.
Teach your dog that wearing a cone is awesome. See this video from Liam Landywood on teaching a dog to happily wear a cone.
If your dog needs to wear a cone, use a Comfy Cone instead of a plastic one. Ask your vet if a buster collar would be sufficient for the specific wound as this is generally less stressful for animals to wear.
Teach your dog to be happy in a crate. This is not the same as scattering some treats in a crate with a bed and closing the door behind the dog so that she cannot leave. Follow this guide to crate training written by Emma Judson (The Canine Consultants) for the Dog Training Advice and Support Facebook group.
The generic structure to husbandry training
Now let’s get into the meaty part of how we would actually teach husbandry routines and how to give our dogs the means to opt in and out from those procedures.
Desensitisation and counterconditioning
If we are lucky, a dog already feels neutral or even excited about a particular procedure. But in most cases, we might only discover husbandry training when we really need it the most — our dog is already showing fearful behaviour and we find ourselves unable to give due physical care. This is especially true for the veterinary environment.
The short summary of the process is as follows. If a dog is afraid of clippers and shows fearful behaviour at the sound of the clippers, we turn the clippers on at the distance when the dog is aware of the sound but not fearful of it (alert but not afraid!) and we reward heavily and continuously. When we turn the clippers off, still staying at the same distance, we also stop feeding. We might take a break and do something else. Then we repeat the same sequence. The scary stimulus, held at the distance where the dog is alert but not afraid, is always followed by food without fail and the termination of the stimulus also terminates the flow of food. The reward can also be toys and play. When the dog looks expectantly for the good stuff at the instant we turn on the clippers, we can bring the clippers a few steps closer. And repeat the whole process again, slowly closing the distance over many sessions until the dog is right in front of us and we are holding the clippers that are switched on.
Operant conditioning is the process of changing an animal’s response to a stimulus by changing the consequences that follow that response. In the context of husbandry training, we first teach the dog that a husbandry mat is a really good place to hang out because it rains food when they step and lie down on it. Then we teach the dog that any stillness will be followed by a reward of something they really value. We then add that resting their chin on a towel will be heavily rewarded. We then add that the dog continuing to rest their chin on the towel as we touch their shoulder will be followed by their reward. This process teaches the dog that doing a certain behaviour in the presence of other changes results in a huge payoff that is worth their while.
Husbandry start button behaviours like the bucket game or the chin rest are examples of operant behaviours through which we can perform careful desensitisation. If a dog ‘breaks’ their stationing behaviour by looking up, it gives us information that the dog might be uncomfortable with whatever has just preceded their behaviour. We abort our repetition and review why the dog may have decided to opt out at that point and how we can make it easier in the next repetition to address that possible reason. We reward the dog for maintaining the stationing behaviour until the end of the repetition. Within a strict operant protocol, we do not reward for the repetition when the dog looks up (there are many other considerations to that but I won’t go into them in this article for the purpose of clarity).
The goal is therefore a dog who maintains a stationing position throughout a repetition. The level of difficulty in that repetition (i.e. the closeness of the clippers to the dog) is carefully designed in a way that desensitisation can take place for that intensity and the dog is just within their comfort level at that repetition. Over time, we step backwards and forwards in difficulty to arrive at the goal of the dog offering and maintaining their stationing position as we clip their fur in short bursts followed by rewards.
The first step to teaching a dog to volunteer for any husbandry procedure is therefore a clean stationing behaviour with duration until a click/marker. This is an excellent tutorial for teaching a calm chin rest, which also applies to a chin rest on a towel. This series (part 1, part 2, part 3) covers the steps to teach the bucket game as well as my video tutorial of the whole process with my lurcher. Beyond the simple yes/no consent that the animal offers, there is a lot of information in the speed with which the dog offers their start button as well as all other body language to show potential conflict the dog is facing but this is for another article!
Describing the goal and breaking it down
So here is how I think about teaching any husbandry behaviour. I picture it in my mind or even write down the steps involved in the goal behaviour, as precisely as possible, for both the dog and the handler. Then I break down that goal into components for dog and handler, some of which can be clearly isolated and worked on independently of others and some which build upon a previous step. The pace at which we progress through those components depends entirely on the dog. I don’t prescribe myself rules about number of repetitions. I keep reminding myself often that it really does take as long as it takes. Rushing the steps is building a house of cards.
I explicitly condition any noises like the click of a muzzle or harness or the beep of an instrument as this can be clearly isolated. Then I build every component one by one, turning a continuous stream of actions into very small and discrete training units with a clearly defined start and end for each unit.
I use a start button behaviour for my dog to be able to give and withdraw consent. I teach the body position required. I work through each of those training units one by one over time and slowly assemble the components together over time to reach the goal behaviour. I plan ahead if the environment in which that procedure will be required and also if it will involve another person. If so, I work on ensuring my dog is excited about those environments as well. This is usually achieved by taking the dog to the environment with their dinner, feeding them their dinner using an activity they really enjoy and just leaving. Over time the dog will rush into that environment to get the party started. This very much applies to changing how our dogs feel about the vets, especially if they have a painful past experience.
Once we have trained the specific procedure at home in a very comfortable environment with a huge positive reinforcement history and lots of successful repetitions, we move to the different locations where the procedure will be required (this is often a vet clinic or sometimes out on walks). If the procedure were to require a second person, I introduce a second person at a distance where the dog is alert but not fearful and slowly close that distance over time, all the while paying close attention to the dog offering their start button behaviour. With the person near but not touching the dog, I then perform the procedure to begin with, bearing in mind that my dog now has a huge reinforcement history of success and lots of predictability with this procedure. Then I transfer that procedure via small approximations to that second person over time as and when my dog is ready to willingly consent to those approximations.
Detail on the best ways that I have found to work with another person on training is also for a future article!
What do I do if I really, really need to do something my dog is not going to like whilst we are still training for it?
Most husbandry procedures we train for are not immediately required and can wait until the dog is ready. This includes nail care, where you could also teach your dog to use a scratchboard to carry you over until you can actually file/clip/Dremel the nails. However, other emergencies absolutely do happen or we might need a veterinary procedure for which the dog is not explicitly trained and we might find ourselves in that icky situation of having to draw more from the trust bank than we have put in so far.
No training goes to waste. So hopefully something novel can still be within the spectrum of repertoires of what your dog can reasonably offer and you do make it through the procedure you need to do by drawing from all those repertoires, even if it’s not entirely comfortable but the dog still offers consent. But in other cases, we might find ourselves really out of our depths, knowing that none of our training has prepared us for that particular emergency.
Here is what I do in those cases.
I perform the procedure in a place that has absolutely no association with the training environment or use another person who will not be involved in our regular husbandry training for that occurrence. I also use objects that look nothing like the item I use in training, e.g. if a dog is petrified of their harness, I might use an entirely different harness to walk them, attach a lead to the collar if that is safe or drive them to areas where they can immediately be off lead. In the case of one-off procedures, I also give the dog a trigger warning that indicates there is no choice in the matter.
Bear in mind, however, that this is likely to set back your training, hence the advice to put off all non-essential husbandry care until the dog is ready for it if at all possible.
Two lies and a truth — the do’s and don’ts of husbandry care
Here are some of the common sense beliefs in handling and why they may seem like they are true but actually they are not.
A quieter dog is not a happier dog. Chances are that your dog is not only just as scared, if not more, at having lost your support but is now also nervous about even expressing an opinion. Think about the last time you felt that way.
Taking the fire alarm out of the house does not mean the house is not on fire.
Your dog almost bit the vet but then took a treat afterwards, so all is forgotten
That is not husbandry training. If I am absolutely petrified of flying and I endure a half an hour flight, I might get off that plane and accept a free lollipop outside the landing gate. That doesn’t make me one bit happier about the flight that I have endured, convince me it was going to be OK anyway or make me look forward to the flight back home. Break the steps down as small as possible and work at the dog’s pace through those steps over time. Please do not go through the whole thing and then offer a treat to ‘fix’ it.
Your dog happily goes to the vet clinic for cuddles and fuss but panics when the handling starts
Dogs are fantastic discriminators and context change is very meaningful. It is wonderful to have a dog who runs into a veterinary clinic for a cuddle but doing husbandry training on top, first at home and then at the clinic, will keep that pleasantness throughout!
You give your vet treats to offer your dog to convince your dog to come closer
A far better solution is for you to feed the dog and for the vet to simply stand at the distance where your dog is aware of the vet present but not backing away. It’s like being promised a bonus if you work late every day for the rest of the year. You might do it because you really, really want the extra money but it doesn’t make you like working late. In fact, it puts you in conflict to choose between getting what you like and avoiding what you don’t like. The only thing that is guaranteed is the feeling of relief at backing away from the vet right after every treat and the learning that you fell for a parlour trick.
You don’t want to opt for medication because you don’t want to dope your dog
Medication is not just about sedation. Medication and training can go very much hand in hand and complement each other. A dog who is on the correct medication for his needs can still give and withdraw consent, learn from carefully structured training plans and retain those positive experiences for the next time, therefore growing the investment into their trust bank. This is an excellent topic to bring up with a veterinary behaviourist. Also, listen to Dr. Jennifer Summerfield on FDSA and Debbie Jacobs on Dog Talk with Nick Benger for discussions on this subject.
There are some absolutely fantastic material, resources, Facebook groups and experts on husbandry training out there. There are people making a wave of a difference to their animals’ lives and their own by taking one step at a time over a long period of time.
Make yourself a cup of tea (if you haven’t already!) and work your way through these. Some are specific to cat care, which is a rare topic in itself. Some apply to canine care. Some are places to go to discuss and learn about the methods. Some are pages to follow experts in this field teach and apply husbandry training with their learners. Some are fantastic resources on the importance of choice and how we can incorporate even more choice in our training and daily routines with the wonderful animals with whom we are lucky to share our lives.
Before I list all those places to go from here to continue your journey on husbandry training, I want to thank you for making the time to read this. Do check out and follow my page The Unlikely Tricksters to see videos and discussions around our husbandry work as well as a whole variety of training that I do with Beanie, my two cats and a number of other dogs at my local RSPCA.
This is a copy of the original article I wrote in Jun 2018.
Beanie, my lurcher, has serious reservations around being handled. He’s invariably “well-behaved” when I’m not there. If it’s not clear to you why this is not necessarily a good thing as it wasn’t to me back then, read up on the safe haven effect owners have on dogs, shut down dogs and learned helplessness. However, being the novice but benevolent owner that I was, I didn’t want to hurt him by not knowing what I was doing. So I trusted the pros. I used to believe it when people who gave him a bath, cut his nails, peered at his teeth, checked his temperature, gave him an injection… *insert any handling procedure here* said that he “was absolutely fine”.
But just once I heard him yelp when someone I trusted picked up his paw, at which point this person didn’t let go because it would supposedly teach him that he could “just get out of stuff by screaming”, that “he was pulling a fast one because I was there” and that “he’d eventually get used to it… they all do”. It didn’t seem as benevolent anymore as I had believed it to be.
When I eventually gave Beanie the choice of whether or not he’d like his paws handled and examined using the bucket game, it took us months for him to fully consent. See here and here to learn what the bucket game is and how to use it to empower an animal to opt in for husbandry procedures. Now one might argue I brought out the worst in my dog but I’d rather believe that I gave him the confidence that his opinion matters too. I realised that I am my dog’s best advocate. I am now very particular that nobody (man)handles him unless either he is in serious danger or is about to endanger another party, setting aside the point that he shouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place.
Now if I had a penny for every time someone advised me to regularly touch his paws, grab his collar, take him to the scary backroom at the vets, lure him into the water for a swim, let men pet him to show him that it’s all no big deal, I doubt I’d need to work anymore. Given the choice between staying at the reception alone or walking with me to the scary back room, Beanie will walk to the back room. Given the choice between watching me wander off deep into open water and following me, Beanie will follow me. But will he choose to do either of those things if, say, a cloned version of me could stay in the reception or on shore?
Can this ‘common sense’ advice guarantee that he will be cured of his fear of men if 1000 strange men touched him on the head between now and next year?
Here’s a story from my childhood to answer that question.
Socialisation gone wrong
I grew up in India. In my old school, us kids learnt to swim when we were six. The school had a spectacular open pool that started out 3 feet deep on one side and the floor gradually slipped away until it was 7 feet deep on the other side. You could smell the Chlorine and hear lapping water metres away from the entire outdoor building. I cannot forget that smell or that sound, and I can still feel the clammy floor under my feet. Now why do I remember that?
I liked getting in the pool, especially since we walked barefeet from my class on scorching sand in 40 degrees heat. I liked holding those yellow floating pads as I waddled from one end to the other with my best friend and the water reaching my shoulders. I liked holding onto the edge of the pool and throwing every ounce of power I had in my little legs to paddle like a lunatic and create the biggest splash around me. I hated water in my ears but I liked dipping my head into the water and following those dancing lights and shadows on the pool floor as the equatorial sun filtered through on those sweltering hot days.
But I had to have an ear operation when I was six and a half. It meant that I couldn’t get into chlorinated water for almost a year. I sat in the bleachers and watched my friends learn to swim. By the time I was able to rejoin the classes, all my friends were swimming from one short side to the other at a pool depth of 5 feet without the floating board. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how.
There was no difference between me and that dog we all know who didn’t get to meet other dogs in her socialisation period and was now standing at the edge of the dog park with a well-meaning parent.
Treatment strategies: flooding or counterconditioning?
Now my teachers had two choices. The first was to spend some time catching me up from where I’d left off and showing me that it was no big deal… at my pace. The second was to, in very real terms, throw me in the deep end where the other kids already were and were having a whale of a time. They chose the latter. I’d get used to it. They all did.
Except I didn’t.
All the kids loved running and jumping into the pool as far as they could from the shore. This was the highlight of every swimming lesson. They’d screech with delight, leap like a gazelle, land with an almighty splash, disappear for a second under the current, reappear at the other side, clamber out and sneakily run back to get another leap before it was time to change back into uniform.
I hated it. I was petrified. I’d join the line with the kids — all my friends too— but I’d slither back and let every kid go before me. I showed every possible sign of avoidance at my disposal, except I wasn’t allowed to leave. Eventually there was nobody left in the queue. All the kids would be watching. I’d run to the edge. And stop. At this point, my teacher would push me in. He did this every single time. Surely it was a matter of time before I learnt that it wasn’t a big deal! Why wouldn’t I when I could see that it was so much fun for everyone else?
A phobia for life
I skived. I’d write fictitious notes about imaginary colds from my mother excusing me from swimming class. I’d casually forget my swimwear at home. My parents tried to help. They bought me the most expensive swimwear a kid could possibly get. I had two Speedo caps to make sure not one drop of water could enter my ears. I had custom-fitted airtight goggles. My friends envied my swimming gear.
Retrospectively, it was not unlike sending a petrified dog to the backroom of the vets for a cuddle to show him that nothing would happen and giving him the best possible diamond-studded collar on the market to make the point.
I’d wake up on Wednesday mornings with a pit in my stomach, dreading my swimming classes later that afternoon. I learnt nothing in school during the day. My snazzy swimwear made me feel worse. How could I possibly be such a wimp when my parents went the extra mile to help me?
But did this method work for other kids? Yeah. Were there kids who figured out how to swim when the teacher pushed them into the 5 foot pool? Yes! Did it work for me? No.
I am now thirty years old. I have 25 patents and patent applications in my name. I have won nationwide awards for my contributions to industry. I am coherent and more or less socially well-adjusted. But I am petrified of swimming. The smell of chlorinated water makes my stomach churn and I am six again. That is the definition of a negative conditioned emotional response, or a -CER for short. That’s what Beanie had every day he sat up excitedly in the car only to realise that he was looking at the doors of the vet clinic.
I have taken myself to swimming classes since but it never happened. I start swimming because I physically now know how to but my legs sink behind me and the water rises above my eyes. It’s not an environment where I feel good anymore.
Why does this matter?
It isn’t anthropomorphisation to see the parallels here between my fears and my dog’s fears. I’m hoping that by sharing my relatable story, someone reading this will see the flaw in the way we sometimes treat our scared dogs. What could have been three to six months of one-to-one coaching and a lifelong passion to enjoy a holiday in the Bahamas has been turned into a lifelong phobia of the swimming pool by misled teachers who genuinely believed I’d “get used to it”.
I’m not saying flooding and blind courage never works. It’s easy and it does work. But it’s a dangerous gamble to take. And a completely unjustified one when there is a much more guaranteed way using proper desensitisation and counter-conditioning at or under threshold.
Let’s respect our dogs’ feelings much like that six year old girl at the swimming pool would have liked her feelings respected too.
This is a copy of the original article I wrote in June 2018.
I am a big fan of concepts work and discrimination games. These are games where I teach my lurcher, Beanie, how to tell apart colours, match visual and audio patterns, use word cards to indicate whether or not patterns are identical, tell apart quantities by size and to count items, as examples.
There are some cornerstone concepts to begin with that can then be combined to create endless games for dogs to think through, decide and indicate effortlessly. Currently I’m working on teaching Beanie to indicate how many items of a sample item are contained in a larger set of mixed items. I’m teaching him to express preference for how he wants to spend his training time using word cards and verbal cues. I’m also broadening his audio matching skills to be able to indicate whether or not multiple notes played on a piano are identical to each other.
These games are excellent for active dogs with limited mobility, whether that’s due to an injury, puppyhood or old age. They build confidence for shy dogs, but also work very well for independent thinkers and draw upon our dogs’ natural abilities. I constantly scout for inspiration for new games I could teach Beanie. I read up on our dogs’ perceptual and cognitive abilities. Most importantly, I love watching Beanie’s cogs spin when we work together.
Discrimination games have a set pattern. I teach Beanie how to understand my question, draw upon his strengths (sight and smell), make up his mind and show his decision with a very easy paw or nose target. These games are my window into Beanie’s perception and cognition. The decisions he makes, especially the mistakes, show me how he sees and reasons with the world. And Beanie loves it too. Anyone who has seen our videos on The Unlikely Tricksterswon’t fail to notice how engaged he is in every game!
Recognising and working with Clever Hans
Almost every video I post brings up the Clever Hans question. Could Beanie “just” be reading any subtle cues in my body language to make the right choice? The short answer is yes but I do my best to minimise this to the extent that the game is still fun for both of us. Read on for the long answer.
Most of us know the story of Clever Hans, a horse who purportedly answered arithmetic questions. Examined further, it was discovered that he instead read subtle body language cues from his trainer. These findings have had profound consequences on experimental design in animal cognition studies. (One might argue that freestyle dancing or agility routines are just as much a symbol of dog cognition and are visibly cued by the handler on the ring without undermining the dog’s ability to impress but that is a topic for another day!)
Now I want to fess up about Beanie’s Clever Hans clues to demonstrate how simple they can be. Beanie will favour:
the choice that is closer to him, both on the floor or held in my hand
the choice that is closer to me, i.e. if I sit more to his left or right side
the choice that is shown first out of multiple options
the choice that moves
the choice in the direction of my gaze or my face
the choice I touch last when placing down his options
I know these because I have fastidiously recorded videos of every single training session for the past 7 months and re-watched them in slow motion, frame by frame, using software like iMovie.
This list is of great interest to me because it shows how beautifully Beanie observes me. Isn’t the fact that he can pick up on such subtle cues a testament to the strength of our relationship? If he can pick up a cue that nobody watching the video can spot, that in itself blows my mind. Beanie and I are almost psychic in daily life because that’s how much work we’ve both put into building our communication. I am very proud of that. I cannot be his voice if he didn’t know how to communicate with me and I cannot teach him if I didn’t know how to influence him.
But I am a scientist by profession. I understand how double-blind studies are designed. The ideal set-up for our games to truly eliminate confirmation bias would be for two handlers I understand that the most truthworthy cognition studies are ones where the handler is not present at all (unless bias is the topic of the study!).
So I find myself often torn about where to draw the line between my inner dog owner/enthusiast and the scientist. Simply placing the cards on the floor instead of holding them in my hand isn’t enough to eliminate handler bias. Neither is having the choices against a wall nor having him wait at a distance as I set up and leaving the room to video his choice. From a peer-reviewed cognition perspective, there is no game that we could play where I could guarantee that my mere presence in the same room as Beanie will not influence his choice.
Where does that leave us?
I’m not sure. I do my best to minimise my tells. Here’s what I do:
I show my videos on mute to others to look for tells I can’t spot. I publish our videos on our Facebook page for everyone to do the same.
I proof my tells, teaching him that the body language cues I am aware of are not necessarily indicative of the right answer.
There are games we play where I can show opaque cards and ask for visual matches or size discrimination. I first teach Beanie the game by knowing and showing him the right answers. Eventually I move to blind versions where I don’t see the card I hold up until Beanie has made his choice. But that is not feasible for all the games we play.
Extending this line of thought, I also cannot imagine that either of us will enjoy our training time as much as we do if we had to spend it mostly apart! So I draw the line where I am happy with the trade off between strengthening our bond by working together every day and scientifically proving Beanie’s cognitive capabilities, both of which are incredibly valuable to me as his guardian and a scientist. But that means accepting that I will never know where Clever Hans ends and Cognitive Canine begins. I am fine with that.
Anyone venturing into cognition games will have to find their own balance. I believe that Beanie’s abilities are nothing short of remarkable, irrespective of where he is on the Clever Hans vs. Cognitive Canine spectrum. I value us as a team. I value my ability to teach him. I value his powers of observation. I also value his intelligence.
This is a copy of the original article I wrote in June 2018.
I started volunteering at my local RSPCA in January 2018 specifically to train dogs and cats, all force free. The team at the shelter are absolutely wonderful, have welcomed me with open arms and I love my time there.
The biggest thing I have learnt is that a shelter is very different to a home in ways that have profound consequences on training, and I want to describe how I work with the dogs I see. I hope this inspires those involved in rescue in kennels to broaden the spectrum of activities they might do with the animals in their care.
How is a shelter environment different?
Spending time outside the kennel is the highlight of the day for most shelter dogs I know. The world outside is immensely fascinating. They know their morning routine very well, they know exactly what the clang of the gate or the jingle of the harness means. This has a huge impact on their arousal level when they come out and their ability to focus on me at the other end of the lead. It means that I do specific activities at the start of our training session to calm them down first to the point where they’re able to learn and retain something new. It also means dialling down my expectations as their trainer at the start of every session to set them up to succeed straight away.
My own lurcher, Beanie, was a kennel dog for three months whilst waiting for a home. The day I met him was unforgettable — he came bounding out of his kennel, dashed a door, leapt up like a kangaroo to say hello, walked right at the end of his lead and couldn’t contain his excitement at going out for a walk with us. Six months later, he was a very different dog. Sure, he loves his walks but he is much calmer about going out that he will happily wait at the door to be released to walk through. One would find it hard to believe that the dog I met at the kennels that day is the same dog sleeping on the couch next to me as I write today.
2. Training schedule:
Shelter dogs are walked, trained and cared for by different people with different expectations. I try to visit twice weekly. I keep a record of which dog is working on what with me. I have a set of regulars — a subset of whom I’d work with every visit. Sometimes it could be a couple of weeks before I see the same dog again. My time with them is precious.
Unlike with Beanie where I can quickly grab some treats and countercondition the loud thud of the postbox every time I hear the postie nearby, my training time with the shelter dogs as a volunteer is very structured. This means planning the session a little ahead of picking up the dog and recognising that there will be setbacks through the week since not every opportunity can be used for training as with pet dogs at home. It means recognising that different people might have reinforced different behaviours throughout the week and, most importantly, never blaming the dog for doing something unexpected.
3. Training environment:
As a volunteer alongside other volunteers, I work within the existing routines at the shelter. Corridors must be kept clear since some dogs need space from other dogs. Training treats and portions are carefully monitored and agreed with staff. I wait at the doors of the dog kennel area for a member of staff to bring me a dog who is available for some training on a harness and lead. I then walk this dog to our training area and depending on which area is available, I may be able to have the dog off-lead for our training session. I then bring the dog back after training to the staff member and usually describe what we did and how it went.
Now I am a huge believer in proper antecedent arrangement. I set the dog up to do the right thing, he does exactly what I’d like, I throw him a party, everybody is happy. I dial up the difficulty a little for the next round, he aces that, I throw another party. Rinse and repeat. Typically I work on something new with Beanie first indoors where there’s little distraction, then in my garden, then on the street outside and finally in the highly-distracting park behind our house. But it is less feasible to do the same at the shelter. I minimise distraction as much as possible but I am very aware of all the activities around us — other dogs turning the corner out of sight, the washing machine running nearby, the smell of shelter cats that wafts past with a strong breeze. I try my absolute best to never put the dog in a situation where he simply cannot behave as I would like. Sometimes that does mean moving the dog away from a situation, quickly redirecting to something else or lowering my expectations in that instant.
4. Training goals:
I have very high and very low expectations of Beanie simultaneously. He can tell whether or not two notes on a piano are the same. He can chill at a busy restaurant. He is a sighthound who walks off lead with my cats. But he neither knows how to sit nor how to heel. He doesn’t do a sit pretty. He follows me around the house and I don’t really mind it. I don’t expect him to be able to live with children. And I’ll happily wait a minute for him to finish sniffing a single blade of grass on a busy path.
But I try to prepare the dogs at the shelter for a very wide set of environments. I work on manners. I work on cute tricks. I teach them cues to heel and sit. I teach them how to contain their excitement and not jump up. I condition them to loud sounds if something suddenly happens outside. The more situations the shelter dog can cope with, the greater her chances of adoption and fitting into most homes. I want the dogs I work with to be a jack of all trades. This means I work on a huge variety of behaviours with them which a dog already settled in a home like Beanie might not necessarily need to know.
So what does a training session look like?
Well, there’s no simple formula. But these are the typical things I might do. I’ll first admit that most of the dogs I see tend to be food-motivated. So I have more experience with food rewards than toy rewards.
Let’s start with the super shy dogs. They are hardly OK with me being in the room with them, forget me asking them to do something for me! I sit in a corner facing away from them and I toss treats towards or past them, which they can pick up if they feel like it. Sometimes, I let them do whatever they want I don’t interact with them at all. If they bark at me, I move myself further away. I toss treats nonetheless because I want to counter-condition them to my presence (which by definition means I don’t expect any operant behaviour from them). The time I spend with the shelter dogs is entirely for their benefit. I need to help them feel confident enough to tell me if they want or do not want to do something.
Now let’s talk about the other end of the spectrum, which is far more common than I had originally expected. If a dog is literally bouncing off the walls when we enter the training area, I usually use some scentwork to calm them down. I toss treats in different directions, they sniff them out and they’re usually calmer after a few rounds. Sometimes they get the zoomies, they run around like a lunatic and then it’s OK. Most dogs automatically sit at this point, probably because everyone who has ever had a dog insists that the dog sits before giving them a treat. That’s fine. I’m happy to reinforce that if they offer it. Eventually I find I have to reward sitting less often because I suspect they would never do anything else if I kept rewarding it every single time.
So let’s say we now have a dog who is paying me attention. I tend to start with nose targeting. Some dogs find it very scary if I hold out an open palm. So I hold a treat in a loosely closed fist and drop the treat to the floor the minute they come to sniff it. I also tend to show these dogs the back of my hand for a nose touch and eventually turn the hand around once they are more comfortable with me.
I invariably work on manners. I teach the dogs to walk right next to me, rewarding for every little step at the start and eventually working up to a straight line, turn and back at heel. Many jump up. I work on four feet on the floor, which is very successful during training time. I work on recall. I work on impulse control around food. I don’t expect their full attention all the time. So it’s absolutely fine if they wander off to investigate a noise. I reward them the minute they turn their attention back to me.
Then I work on tricks. The charm about trick training is that, although manners and tricks are exactly the same thing to the dog, us humans tend to take manners more seriously than tricks. It’s easier to just move on if a dog doesn’t seem to take to a particular trick. It’s light-hearted all around. Tricks are also a great way to help bridge the gap between a dog and a potential adopter. I play shaping games like 101 things to do with a tennis ball or a sticky note, especially with dogs who are shy to show behaviours unless prompted. Sometimes I suddenly run away for a chase and jackpot when they come to me, which invariably works with a sighthound! I mix tricks and manners together. I tend to work on similar things in the same week with the dogs I see. I take videos of our sessions if I can. This helps me keep track of how every dog is doing and also learn from my own mistakes (which I’m sure I make). I edit some clips for the staff to see what we’ve been up to and maybe use the videos to showcase how wonderful the dogs really are on social media!
I lower all my expectations the minute we step out of the training area because suddenly the environment has changed and I recognise that I’m suddenly far less interesting than I was a minute ago. Having said that, I practice a few nose touches or a little heel on our walk back to the kennels if I can. Sometimes I have to wait for a staff member to take the dog back in. I do a little recall on lead, a nose touch or a sit in that time.
Sometimes I just give them a cuddle as we wait and call it a day. I watch if their tails wag away. I still can’t make up my mind whether or not I want to see them again the next time.