What to look for, and what to avoid, in sourcing a dog trainer…


IMG_1558Every second week I have the pleasure of teaching final year veterinary students about canine behaviour and canine mental health disorders. They are eager and enthusiastic students, but just like the regular dog owning population they too have bought into dog training myths and need direction about what to look for when recommending a dog trainer.

Here is my advice:

  • read between the lines – what does “years of experience, love of dogs, owning dogs” – as a prerequisite for being a good trainer mean – I have “had children, been around children and love children” – does that make me a teacher of children? No – I need a degree for that.
  • ask the trainer about their methods – if they do not name the methods they use but write things like –“you’ll learn to speak dog”, “become a good pack leader” etc then AVOID. A science-based trainer knows to use positive reinforcement and knows what that looks like. A science based trainer does not talk about your dog’s behaviour issues as a problem of dominance.
  • ask the trainer what equipment will be used to train your dog – avoid anyone who uses equipment such as prong, choke, electronic and shock – there is NEVER a reason for this, and it will invariably worsen your dog and the trust they have in you. Train without PAIN.
  • avoid trainers who use the word BALANCED – this sounds good, but it really means they are prepared to use negative reinforcement (taking away something aversive to the dog to increase the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the future) and positive punishment (adding something aversive to the dog to decrease the likelihood of the behaviour accusing again in the future). Does your trainer really understand the Quadrant of learning?
  • avoid trainers who don’t use food – food is a valuable reinforcer and a way to condition a new emotional response – its effects are powerful and a useful tool in positive reinforcement training. Do you expect to still get paid no matter how long you’ve been in the job?  Well dogs expect be to be paid too, and taking away a working wage will reduce their enthusiasm to work with you. There are other reinforcers for dogs and these can include play and toys – whatever the dog likes. Most dogs are not as interested in pats and verbal praise as we would like to think.
  • avoid trainers who say some dogs need a different kind of training – this is not the case – at Animal Sense all dogs are modified with positive reinforcement – no matter how they present. It is ethical and compassionate.
  • avoid trainers who have had no formal training in dog behaviour – as an unregulated industry anybody  can set themselves up as a dog trainer or even call themselves an animal behaviourist. Therefore look for some one who has studied this subject through reputable organisations and who has become a member of groups that advance animal behaviour through science and compassion. Some recommended groups would be IMTD, Karen Pryor accredited, TAFE certificated in animal care/science, CASI accredited, is a member of PPG, APDT, Delta. If a dog trainer has undertaken education they are likely to have written about this education on their web site and if they fail to write what their qualifications are, then it is likely that they don’t have them.
  • choose those that work alongside veterinary behaviourists and know when to refer a case. Good dog trainers realise that dog behaviour issues are often as a result of fear and anxiety and these issues are not training ones but ones of mental health disorder and therefore they require the input of a veterinary behaviourist.
  • avoid those whose websites are adorned with men in bite suits. Dogs involved in dog sport (shutzhund) might engage with a person in a bite suit – but this is not the equipment a trainer should be using for working with someone’s pet dog with fear issues.
  • avoid those who offer life time guarantees – dogs are not automobiles and there are no guarantees with behaviour treatment.
  • avoid those who suggest you leave your dog with them for a training or boot camp. Training and modification needs more than ten days and works best when caregivers are taught how to work and condition their dogs. There are no short cuts.
  • avoid those who advise clients that medications are not suitable or needed – trainers are not veterinarians and  do not have the knowledge base to advise on medications. Psychiatric medications are often useful for animals in mental distress, just as they are for people, and when they are indicated they should be used early in the disease state to achieve the best outcome. They are not the treatment of last resort.
  • avoid those that shake or throw noisy chains at your dog, teach you to say BAH, and poke your dog in the side of the neck – all these methods have been shown to worsen a dog’s behaviour and emotional responses over time.
  • take a look at my website for those trainers who work closely with me, and when you are recommended a trainer endorsed by Animal Sense you can be assured that I know they are force free.

So now you know what to look for in a behaviour trainer!

Anxious dogs – what’s really going on…


Anxiety and anxiousness are words that are thrown around a lot. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what it looks like in humans (fidgety, heart racing, nail biting, worrying thoughts) and we can extrapolate that to dogs. But when is anxiousness a disease state? When should you be seeking help for your pet for suspected anxiety?

It might be somewhat normal to express some worry in a new environment or an environment that previously has been associated with some unpleasantness – eg the vet clinic and hence I think many dogs that show anxiety in their vet clinic may be dismissed as experiencing a normal level of anxiety for the event. For some this is probably reasonable. On questioning they cope well everywhere else and show no behaviours of concern to their caregivers. Make sure to tell your vet if this is not the case.

For others, the vet clinic is just one of many scenarios they display anxiety and it is these dogs that I am talking about. When a dog displays a concerning behaviour think about the frequency, intensity and duration of it to see if it qualifies as pathological. Does it serve a purpose? Or is it beyond what the environmental conditions would reasonably expect?

It is good survivability to feel fear in the face of danger. In a home invasion I hope you get out your baseball bat and swing it (or hide successfully in a cupboard), rather than offer the intruder a cup of tea. I can hear some of you arguing this point right now – but you know what I mean – there is a time to feel threatened, but hopefully it comes a long rarely, and when it does you act appropriately in order to survive. But if every time the door bell rings you act as if your life is in peril then this is a sign that you are living in a state that is unreasonably fearful.

It is bad for your brain and your general health to be living like the sky is falling. Poor little Chicken Little.

So, what do pathologically anxious dogs look like?

  • they show excessive arousal in unfamiliar environments – sometimes this is interpreted as “excited” but really look (at the emotional state) and see what you are witnessing – is this excitement a form of worry? Is there lots of lip licking, yawning, shake offs, whining?
  • they may be “frantic friend makers” – dogs who need to make contact with human faces, groins and lick a lot – all ways to gain and give information – just like the overly talkative person who is covering up their anxiety by talking at a million miles a minute, and laughing at the wrong moments. I see these dogs as the constant apologisers – not comfortable in their own skins and needing to appease everyone they meet.
  • there are physiological signs of over arousal – piloerection (hackles), pupil dilation, stressed vocalisations, panting, dandruff, needing to pee or poop, not being able to eat.
  • they don’t stop moving – they don’t lie after a short while in a new environment but instead remain hyper vigilant and often they are poor sleepers in general. Did you know a normal hound sleeps for 16-18 hours out of 24.
  • they startle and appear skittish to relatively benign sounds, changes in their environment, eg spook at a bin or something out of place in the home. They glimpse something from the corner of the eye and cower or scamper.
  • they might use aggression to keep whatever they are worried about at a safe distance from themselves and they might become better at this over time – becoming more and more offensive looking. They could be labelled “dominant” incorrectly. This is why it is important to ask what they were like when they were young and what did they look like when they first experienced the trigger. Often you will uncover signs of early fearfulness.
  • they make poor judgements about the intentions of others – both dogs and people and can be worried about benign interactions such as collar hold, or misinterpret another dog and warn another dog off, despite the appropriateness of the other dog.
  • they could be overly worried about access to their resources, including human attention, and therefore be poor companions with other canines, always needing to be the one to be next to the human they are bonded to.
  • they could be showing compulsive repetitive behaviours which can take various forms depending on the breed – they could be tail chasing, fly snapping, pacing, light chasing or any combination of these behaviours. As these behaviours become somewhat soothing to the brain they become harder and harder to stop and less and less interruptible. Then they begin to interfere with normal activity.


What do we uncover in the histories?

There are often some commonalities for these animals:

  • they showed early red flags – eg timid, shy,  and made poor progress in puppy class
  • they came from breeding situations where not a lot of care was taken to select parents and give puppies the highest levels of nurturing care eg mother was in rescue, from a depauperate environment where genes for survivability have been selected for. Remember when selecting a puppy it is advised to know both parents – this is not to seeing them on Facebook – this means spending time with them and their breeder and really getting a sense of the dog’s temperament.
  • they have had some punishment in their past – maybe punishment that a “normal” dog would be resilient to, but in the case of the anxious dog it has been a stressor too severe and has caused further sensitisation towards any trigger – so often there is punishment in the history of anxious dogs.
  • they don’t cope well with change – be it in routine or smaller day to day things – anxious brains require predictability and control and whenever this cannot be achieved the animal’s ability to cope falters.
  • they have a “bubble” and outside of that “bubble” they find it very difficult to maintain executive thought and function – they then enter a reactive state where they are just trying to survive as best they can – they might develop strange coping mechanisms.
  • they often have other health issues – including skin and gut conditions and chronic pain.

So how should we treat these animals to make a positive difference in their lives and that of their caregivers? Make no mistake it isn’t easy living with a dog (or a person) who suffers mental health issues.

I suggest:

  • manage the signs – this may mean avoiding the triggers of the cause of anxieties whilst using short acting and intermittent use medications to alleviate the very horrible feelings associated with anxiousness. This is the humane thing to do. These animals are suffering. This might require some careful tailoring of medications that work to reduce arousal and anxiety and act rapidly.
  • modify the behaviour – this can be like watching paint dry if it’s done correctly and hence why you never see TV shows with positive reinforcement trainers desensitising a dog to his/her trigger. It should look boring because the aim is to keep the dog below his/her threshold for reactivity – using distance and intensity of the trigger – whilst creating a new positive/neutral association around the trigger. This is why you will always be paired with a recommended trainer as you will need someone to guide this process and stop you from flooding your dog.
  • change the brain long term – this is the role of the serotonin medications that are taken on a daily and ongoing basis. The aim of these medications are to enhance connectivity between the reactive (primitive) brain and the prefrontal cortex so that the animal becomes less impulsive, more clear thinking and his/her brain is protected from becoming more and more reactive. These medications require the caregiver to have faith in the long term goal and to stick with medications for sometimes a few years.


So how successful are we at changing the anxious state? Well it depends. It can depend on many things – how severe the dog’s current state is, how long the dog has coped with his/her current state, what else is going on in the dog’s health picture and how able are the caregivers to change their lives and adjust their expectations for their dog. We do not give these dogs new brains and there are many things we are still learning about the emotional issues dogs face, just as mental health research for humans changes constantly too. But we can make a difference.

And dogs and people do show improvements with the right ethical, humane and scientific care plan.

What I do know, after seeing hundreds and hundreds of dogs who have behaviour issues, is that the caregivers who love them have an incredible bond to these sometimes broken animals and are willing to help them and support them with extraordinary sacrifices. I take my hat off to all my wonderful clients and I say thank you for all the work you do and all the love you give.

You can take the dog out of the outback but you can’t take the outback out of the dog…


When humans take on the role of rescuer they can feel they are giving a dog a better life. I get it. We all think our life is the one to be aspired to.

If you are an outback dog chances are you have developed some pretty good survival strategies. You are probably pretty good at holding on to your resources and keeping others away from them – maybe you have had to, to get enough to survive. But survive you have, and survived so well that you have passed these genes on to your offspring. You may have had to use aggression to get what you want, as resources are scarce.

Your mother might have been stressed because she suffered malnutrition and fearfulness, but she still went on to conceive and carry the pups to full term.

Along come some rescuers and they want you to have a better life. They would like you to have the benefit of health care and a comfy bed. They take you away from your mother, who they sterilise and leave in the community, and they take you and your siblings on a stressful journey to Perth to start a new life. Worse still they take the mother too, and expect her to adapt to a widely different life from the one she has successfully navigated till now.

Unsuspecting dog adopters are thrilled at the honey coloured fur and the street dog look of puppies that seem shy, but not aggressive, and who will surely grow out of that. Dog adopters are not thinking about the fact that maternal stress changes the way the future brain of these dogs responds to stress. They are not thinking that shyness tends towards fearfulness and later aggressive responses, as the dog matures.

Future adopters do not have a clue that they are adopting a dog with inherited traits that make it good for surviving a life in the bush camp, and not so good at negotiating the cafe strip.

Instincts for survival are not the necessary requirement of dogs whose biggest threat is missing out on sofa time.

We now know that the mother’s genes and the mother’s mother’s genes are all playing a role in the future temperament of the dog. This is why it is important to know what the mother felt, and how stressed she was. This is why it is important to not buy from puppy mills or adopt from bitches who have been distressed and in a state of emotional and physical hardship. This is why it is important to select pups from breeders who are selecting for temperament, NOT colour.

It is happening all over the world – In England rescuers bring dogs from the continent to live in England and in Australia dogs are “rescued” from the North of Australia or from Asia. The problem is that the potential adopters are not after an animal with severe anxiety related illness who is a square peg in a round hole – adopters are after a family pet and many of these dogs are never going to be able to fit this bill. They live with ongoing anxiety and aggression with the aim of keeping themselves safe, and their strategies, that would be quite successful in the world they came from, are not acceptable, or safe, in the urban environments into which they have been parachuted.

What would be better would be to give the dogs the health care they need, in the environments they live in, and to neuter all animals so they cannot continue to breed. The communities they come from would benefit from education into the care of the animals that surround them, and those animals, to my mind, would be better to live out their days in the environment they have evolved to be successful in.







Socialisation – what it’s NOT and how important is it…


Socialisation is not taking a small puppy to Bunnings and have it bombarded with attention and pats.

Socialisation is not taking an adolescent rescue dog down to dog beach to “play” with all and sundry.

Socialisation is not taking a fearful pup to a cafe and asking people to greet your pup while is cowers in your arms.

In a natural setting socialisation takes place when the pup, with mother near by, meets and interacts with new things. It happens in a safe way. It happens when the dog is neurodevelopmentally ready for the interaction. It happens because the mother dog is feeling safe and knows the interaction is safe too. She is not about to introduce her precious pup to something she deems is unsafe. Everything she is introducing the puppy to is something that later the puppy may experience as a “safe” object/state/place to be around. After a certain period of time, about 12-14 weeks of age, the pup becomes fully weaned from the mother and separates from her, and after this time anything newly introduced may be greeted with mistrust and a fearful response. It makes sense not to stay open, infinitely. Otherwise you might just bound up to the first tiger you meet. It is a good survival mechanism and has evolved over tens of thousands of years.

In normal development the mother is also able to move away from the puppy – to source food for herself, to toilet and to exercise, and so a pup learns that time away from mother is normal. Independence is gradually grown, not abruptly enforced. Bitches who are not allowed to move away from their puppies – as in a puppy farm scenario – may not be tolerant and nurturing in the same way that a mother who has time away can be. Then puppies are drastically separated, whilst at the same time forced into frighteningly new scenarios with all new sensations and with no nurturer to safely retreat to.

When we take on the job of socialising a young animal because the pup is no longer with its mother it is important to remember that socialisation experiences will only be good and beneficial to the pup if the feeling at the time is one of relaxation and associated with positive emotions. The pup must not be forced to interact, but rather make the choice to.

If the experience is frightening and causes the puppy to want to avoid and repel the new person/thing/place then the experience may be creating a very different outcome from want we aimed for. Fearful early experiences can create later phobias.

Ideal socialisation in a breeding setting would be a breeder who is able to expose puppies to all the future possibilities of its destined home. Some proactive breeders take part in programs such as Puppy Culture – where they follow a timetable of introductions ensuring a wide range of future possibilities. But a good rule of thumb is to consider all the senses and making sure puppies are experiencing a wide range of surfaces and obstacles, unusual sounds, smells, food textures, background noises, sights.  Puppies should be faced with some challenges and some mild frustrations that help to build impulse control. They should be being exposed to a wide range of people, other animals and environments consistent with their future homes.

CAN Socialisation FIX everything?

Recently I had a internet conversation with a person involved in dog rescue who had been worried by my labelling of a post of a dog as “another reactive rescue” and then we discussed how there is indeed a prevalence of behavioural problems in dogs whose mothers had experienced stress and distress in pregnancy, whether they be purebred dogs or dogs from rescue.

Sadly even pedigree dogs may be being bred in environments where mothers are stressed and distressed. Paying a lot of money for a dog does not preclude future behavioural problems. There is evidence that stress during pregnancy and during the neonatal period creates permanent effects on the ability of the offspring to deal with stressful experiences later in life. These animals may be permanently effected by their poor start and this may be reflected in later behavioural abnormalities.

Purchasers of puppies need to have reliable information about the source of their dog  and know that the mother was well-fed, well cared-for, emotionally stable and responsive to her puppies.

People adopting dogs sometimes assume that purchasing a puppy at 8 weeks of age is like buying a blank drive – ready to have information uploaded and stored, but the truth is that so much is already downloaded and installed, and sometimes, continuing the computer analogy, corrupted from the get-go by the early history and the genes inherited.




Why I don’t suggest Boot camp…


Have you heard it said that when your car needs fixing you send it to a qualified mechanic and therefore when your dog has problems it makes sense to send him/her away too…

The problem with this analogy is that a dog is not as simple as a car. A canine is a biological organism and an emotional one at that. A better analogy would be to consider your relationship with a dependent and ask yourself if you will improve your relationship with a child by sending him/her to boarding school?

To build a relationship with a dog you need to spend quality time. I suggest this time be spent building a strong relationship based on mutual respect and trust. So how do you get a dog to trust you?

Firstly, and most importantly, you give a dog predictability and control.

You make yourself understandable by being a benevolent leader who rewards the dog for following cues and teaches cues that are understood. A good leader of a dog does not lose his/her temper or teach through the use of punishment.

When you send a dog away you create stress – new place, new people, other dogs. Dogs and people do not learn well when they are stressed. In fact stress damages the learning and memory areas of the brain. Dogs can feel so overwhelmed by the process that they may appear obedient (learnt helplessness) during camp but this is seldom a long lasting change. Dogs attending camp are taught through aversive means and sometimes even have shock collars placed upon them whilst under such “care”.

Ending up with a well trained and happy dog does not happen in a few days, or even in a few weeks, at boot camp, but rather comes about by the slow, kind and consistent work of a caregiver who has their dog in their front of mind. Look at the dog in front of you and design a plan under the guidance your behaviour veterinarian and their recommended trainer if you want to achieve a life time of happy dog memories. The work may not be instantaneous but the change will come and it will be long-lasting, ethically-created and be mutually beneficial to you and the dog.


Let’s walk the dog

What do I think a dog walking with their human should look like?

Not like what I so often see – that for sure!

My house looks over a dog park and the beauty of this means that I can view from my kitchen window a large array of dogs and their caregivers. What I often see however frustrates me.

What I see is:

  • humans looking at their screens, or with their ears plugged into their headphones – oblivious to their dog’s movements and interactions, so often with their back to their dog.
  • humans who let their dogs off their lead BEFORE they reach the dog off leash area and then madly chastise them for running after a cat or a child on the street.
  • humans who stand around in groups chatting while their dogs build in arousal and frustration and then who have altercations with each other.
  • humans who let their exuberant dogs run full bore at other less exuberant dogs and who thereby ruin the shy dog’s experience of the park.
  • humans who run and leave their dog behind and never seem to look back to check what their pooch is up to.
  • humans who talk on their phone, again leaving their dog to greet without anyone watching to see how the interaction is going.
  • humans who only call their dogs when it’s time to leave or if they are doing something wrong.
  • humans who use retractable leads.
  • humans who believe over aroused running, barking and chasing after birds, balls or sticks is actually good for their dog.
  • humans who let an unleashed dog approach a leashed dog, saying loudly that their dog is friendly when the person with the leashed dog is asking for distance.
  • humans who let their children approach unknown canines.

What I wish to see more of when I observe people out with their dogs is caregivers engaging with their dogs in ways that bring joy to both parties.

I suggest:

  • allowing your dog to sniff his world – for as long as he likes.
  • only letting your dog greet other dogs who are also off lead, but whilst greeting WATCH your dog for the body language he shows so you can see when he or the other pooch is uncomfortable and you can help disconnect the encounter by calling your dog to you.

  • this means your dog should be good at coming – perhaps practice this a lot in low distraction environments before imagining your dog might be able to do this when arousal is high and there are many competing interests to deal with.
  • take time during the walk to bond and work with your dog to build trust and reliability – call back to you often, for no reason, other than to reward (carry food) and then release again.
  • leashing your dog when you see another person coming towards you with their dog  on a leash and giving them distance so the dogs are not forced to greet on lead.
  • teach your dog not to overwhelm other dogs or people but how to be calm and polite when greeting.
  • keep moving so dogs do not become bored and frustrated.

Happy dog walking…

Canine Body Language


The caregiver should look at the WHOLE dog, in context, but sometimes an observer can break the dog into body parts and over a few minutes take note of the following.

This list can help caregivers recognise stress, and I suggest caregivers get familiar with these signs in their own dogs and note the triggers that cause these reactions:

 Mouth/Expression – look for

  • Tight brow, furrowed – ear position can signal this
  • Pulled back commissures of lips, grimace – anxiety, stress
  • Closed mouth
  • Panting – commonly a short dry pant, some dogs however can hypersalivate
  • Baring teeth – distance increasing signal – threat – the more teeth shown the more defensive the dog
  • Turn head – polite withdrawal, social withdrawal, asking for space
  • Lip lick
  • Stress yawn – often repetitive
  • Licking persons – anxiety, seeking information, can be a reinforced behaviour


  • Dilated pupils – fear
  • Whale eye (white showing) – fear, asking for increased distance by turning head NB breed differences, eg Cavalier King Charles, exophthalmic breeds
  • Darting looks – hyper-vigilance, anxiety
  • Not comfortable with eye contact, therefore looking away, averting gaze
  • Hard eye – stare, usually accompanied with freeze (you feel this!)
  • Squinting/blinking/closing eyes – can sometimes indicate stress, anxiety


  • Ears back against head – appeasement, fear
  • Ears forward – arousal, interest, alertness
  • Ears – position dependent on breed, not all dogs move ears as much
  • Ears twitching – hypervigilance
Fearful GSD – Ears back, whale eye, dilated pupils, weight back, hackles, woo woo bark
Fearful GSD – barking, whale eye, paw lift, uneven weight – mainly back, curved approach – asking for peace, hackles raised, woo woo bark – distance increasing signal


  • Tuck – fear, sometimes extreme so tip of tail touches belly
  • Held high – alertness – dependent on breed
  • Fast wagging, held high – can signal alertness, bite can be about to occur
  • Wagging – willing to engage – not necessarily indicative of happiness
  • Hackles near rump – fear, alertness
  • (the only true tail wag I trust is a whole body tail wag eg “helicopter tail”)


  • Slow movement or fast movement – both can signal anxiety
  • Failure to rest, lie down after 20 minutes in a room is suggestive of hypervigilance
  • Jumping on, pushing on people – seeking information, provoking response, anxiety
  • Curving body on approach shows appeasement, breaking off of conflict
  • Forward approach – offensive, also breed differences in greeting style
  • Avoidance, or hiding, slinking – anxiety, asking for distance
  • Seeking owner attention – fear, anxiety
  • Fiddle behaviours – eg scratching, sniffing the ground, genital check
  • Sweaty paws – stress
Fearful Bull Terrier: Dry panting, paw lift, whale eye, ears back, look away, weight back


  • Hackles – physiological arousal – adrenalin release – flight or fight response
  • Paw lift – appeasement, unsure
  • Look at body weight – forward or back? forward – interest, back – withdrawal, fearful. Can be both – sign of conflicted response
  • Muscle trembling/shivering – fear response
  • Startle response – an involuntary response to fear – seen to benign objects is a sign of over reactive fear response
  • Roll over – expose belly – can be a signal to ask for space, cut off engagement
  • Loss of hair, coat dander – anxiety
  • Shake off – seen after something stressful, usually social engagement people or dogs, look at what happened just prior to shake off


  • Barking – usually a distance increasing signal or designed to alert caregivers although caregivers can distinguish between attention seeking and play barks in known dogs
  • Low bark with growl undertone – WooWooWoo – fearful bark, designed as distance increasing signal – give me space
  • Barking – separation distress – generally monotonal – bark…wait…bark, repetitive.
  • Growling – distance increasing signal, take note
  • Whining, crying – distance decreasing signal – seeking caregivers
  • Howling – distance decreasing signal – seeking caregivers, sometimes stimulated by sirens etc in some dogs, some breeds more inclined
Worried Mixed breed – lip lick, furrowed brow, averting gaze


Dr Nicole Lobry de Bruyn

Preparing Anxious Dogs for Christmas


The upcoming holiday season can pose many problems for caregivers of anxious dogs.

At this time of the year anxious pets may have deal with an increased exposure to their triggers, without being probably prepared to handle them.

Their caregivers may have changed focus to creating special moments for family and friends and have forgotten the difficulties that having an anxious pet adds to this equation. Know your dog’s triggers and take these into account when arranging your holiday celebrations.

Some of the things that may add to the stress quota for an anxious pet include:

  • Christmas tree with flashing lights
  • A new object sitting in the room – yes something as simple as the appearance of a Christmas trees can be worrying for some pets
  • Change in daily routine – more/less contact
  • Being the object of increased attention
  • Being the object of decreased attention
  • Being dressed in silly hats/costumes
  • Christmas crackers
  • Visitors
  • House guests
  • Excited squealing, running children
  • Relatives visiting with their pets
  • Intoxicated adults
  • Party hats and whistles
  • Loud music
  • Laughter
  • Children’s toys that make noise
  • Not getting enough rest/sleep
  • Exposed to rich/new foods

Anxious animals may need to be given extra space and quiet time away from some of the new people and events that surround a holiday period.

If an animal is known to be anxious and worried by the arrival of visitors to the home the animal should be well prepared ahead of time, in a safe place, behind a solid and locked door where the caregiver is able to enter and check on the dog, but unknown persons cannot accidentally wander in there and disturb and startle the dog.

A startled dog is apt to react with aggression.

Some less worried dogs may handle the visits if guests follow the instructions of the caregivers.

Instructions should be made clear well ahead of the visitors arriving and agreed upon. Instructions may include – Do not TOUCH, do not STARE at, do not LEAN over. If guests are not trusted to follow the caregiver’s instructions then it may be better to sequester the dog away.

If a caregiver cannot relax while the dog is free amongst guests then the dog is better placed away. Sometimes a dog is better to spend time at an alternative house if the house is too unstructured to follow the dog rules.

Anxious dogs are helped by learning to enter and remain happily in a crate. This is a space not used for entrapment or confinement but an area that a dog seeks out to feel safe and no-one should bother the dog that seeks out time in his/her crate.

There are many good links to teaching a dog to use a crate. Here are two:

Once happily in a crate a dog can have good things to do in this spices, eg stuffed Kong, antler to chew.

Some dogs who are currently under the care of a veterinary behaviourist may be able to have intermittent use medication to provide anxiety relief over a stressful period.

Remember Christmas is not a time to expose your anxious dog to his/her triggers. Work to desensitise to triggers must take place at an intensity and at distance that sees the anxious dog remain calm. Christmas is not this time. If your dog is not ready for what lies ahead it is time to start preparing an alternative NOW.



Understanding Aggression

The first thing to remember is that aggression can be normal. If a threat is real then it might be an appropriate response – just imagine an armed intruder in your home, threatening your life – you may very well act aggressively in return. If you are in pain and someone attempts to move you, you might shout at the person, or push them forcibly away to protect yourself – again a normal response.

So aggression, in and of itself, is not a diagnosis.

Aggression is also often labelled by the target or the context – also not very helpful. If your dog has aggression to familiar persons it may still stem from a variety of causes. Perhaps it feels threatened by past punishment (fear and conflict) or perhaps it values resources such as bones highly ( learnt behaviour, anxiety).  If your dog has territorial aggression again the underlying motivation can be varied and complex.

So what to do?

When we talk about aggression and the threat it poses it is helpful to look at a number of criteria to assess the level of risk. One such criteria is understanding that dogs should normally follow a set behaviour sequence. For instance they should try to communicate discomfort before escalating their threat. They should move away, turn their head, lift a lip or even growl to signal they wish an encounter to stop – be this with another a dog or human. There should be a PAUSE whereby the receiver of the signal can then respond appropriately by moving away, withdrawing, allowing space. A normal dog would then see that his/her communication had been successful and the threat would STOP. In an abnormal dog this sequence can either happen very, very fast, so the receiver has no time to respond or the sequence may be so abnormal that it feels as if a “switch” has gone off in the dog’s head. For the high risk dogs there is an abnormal ability to read and respond to signals. This makes their behaviour sequencing abnormal and therefore they fall into the category of high risk.

If the behaviour sequence follows a predatory pattern, which appears very different from a bite that follows failed communication, then this would also suggest a HIGH risk case.

A dog who shows predation does so silently, with the aim to bite and inflict injury – and, in essence, this drive arises from a different part of the brain than does the drive to keep a dog safe from something he/she fears.

The dog predating someone/thing is not feeling threatened. It is alert and poses a serious risk.

Another criteria for assessing the degree of risk when dealing with aggressive dogs is the ability of the caregivers to manage and understand the risk their animal poses. If, for instance, the dog has shown aggression around children and lives in a home full of them then this makes this a high risk scenario. If the same dog lives with an elderly couple with no grandchildren and who can ensure the dog does not meet children then the risk is reduced. If a dog has shown aggressive responses to other dogs and caregivers want to  routinely let the dog off lead then this equates with a high risk and caregivers who have a poor understanding of the risks involved. As you can see the same dog can be classed as carrying a low or high risk dependent on who is the caregiver.

It makes sense that the larger the dog the more serious the risk. Yes, any dog can bite, and even small dogs have caused fatalities, but clearly the larger the dog the more serious the injury to both human and other animal.

Knowing the predictability can be useful. If you know your dog is likely to become aggressive in veterinary visits this can mean you can prepare yourself and your dog ahead of time. There is so much that can be done to reduce both the risks and, over time, improve your dog’s emotional association with the vet visit. Most dogs who are aggressive in veterinary clinic scenarios are mostly acting out of fear. They may have had a previous poor experience and therefore very strong memory of the past event. They are desperate to keep the vet away and they are a very real bite risk if the vet must examine them physically. Understanding this can allow for interventions such as training ahead of time, e.g. muzzle desensitisation, chin rest exercises and simple training that can at least allow a vet to give a dog a sedation injection.

Having a dog that has displayed aggression can be very frightening and upsetting but it is imperative to remember that aggression is a very broad label and really tells you very little. A lot more detective work needs to be done to understand the emotion behind the aggression and then decide what is the most appropriate treatment.

Focus on the emotion not the behaviour. This is the way forward.

Many times aggressive responses will be based in fear and anxiety and hence it is imperative to never punish the behaviours being shown – you are just confirming to the dog that it has every reason to want to protect him/herself.

Acknowledgement – this blog was inspired by attending an Aggressive Dog Workshop run by Dr Martin Godbout DACVB. Thanks Martin!


Understanding Canine Play


Canines are a social species that do like to play, sometimes even into old age. As a species becomes domesticated there is a tendency for neotony. This means there is retention of juvenile characteristics into adult hood. Dogs can engage in play throughout their lives with their people and known associates. Some play more than others.

Young dogs, up until the age of about 2 years old, can be very intent on canine play. At around two to three years old dogs become socially mature and some changes in brain structure are occurring. This is a time when most behaviour-related disease manifests itself.

All dogs are individuals and some dogs may not like to play as much as others. Some breeds are less social. Some dogs have lacked socialisation or had poor experience. Knowing your dog’s play style can be useful in picking the appropriate dog playmates for your canine.

Just because dogs are social animals does not mean that your dog will like and want to socialise with every dog he meets. Accepting that an older dog is less social than he used to be can sometimes be the best way of avoiding conflict.

It can be especially hard for dogs to communicate in dog-savvy ways when on lead and approaching another dog face-to-face. Many dogs will find this encounter confronting. Older dogs may find the energetic nature of puppies annoying and snap at them to indicate they don’t want to play. This can be normal canine communication.

It is not normal however for dogs to inflict serious injury on one another. If your dog develops dog reactivity at the sight of other dogs – eg lunging, barking and snapping behaviour it can be a sign of anxiety-related illness. Normal dogs do not feel the need to behave in such extreme ways. You need to seek help to modify this behaviour.

Normal dog greeting involves respectful sniffing of each other’s rears for a short three-second period. Bodies should be soft, perhaps with a low tail wag. Signs of stiffness, tension in ears, face or even a freeze may be an indicator of a dog being uncomfortable. An invitation to play with a play bow may be a signal to another dog to continue the interaction.

A play bow is the well-recognised signal between dogs that invites play. It tells others that what comes next is fun and, even though the dog may be barking, putting his teeth on the other dog’s skin or rough – this is still play.

Some dogs may chase, others may tumble. Play styles can differ depending on what the breed has been developed to do. Herding breeds like to chase, and can be ball-focused. Some dogs can be so ball-focused they no longer are interested in other canine play mates. Bully breeds like to play tug and rough and tumble. Some dogs may be frightened by this style. Signs of good play are the swapping of roles, small stops and breaks in play and shake-offs (when the dog shakes as if wet). Dogs may stop playing and sniff the ground to diffuse tension or offer displacement signs like a “look away” (averting gaze) if they are feeling overwhelmed. Normal dogs may back off and let the play halt for a few seconds before offering another invitation. Signs of play going wrong are when dogs become over-excited and engage in chasing that seems to be scaring the other dog, no stopping and swapping, an escalation of force and the tail may tuck  and ears go flat against the head in one of the players. Some dogs are poor readers of other dog’s signals and some breed types can be hard for others to read. Through breeding, humans have hampered dogs’ ability to communicate effectively to each other and may have unintentionally bred animals that are more prone to miscommunication.

Owners should be able to interrupt play and should do so often so dogs learn to control themselves and their impulses. Dogs can become over aroused, frightened and then defensive if left to play with dogs unmatched to them.

Good social etiquette requires that owners should not let their unleashed dog approach a dog on a leash.

The dog may be on leash because he does not socialise well. It is not good enough to insist that the off-leash dog is friendly. It may be adding to an already reactive dog’s stress levels.

When using dog parks it is best to keep moving. Rather than using it as a social encounter for people, caregivers should be observing and watching their dogs. Use this as a time to connect with your dog. Caregivers should take this opportunity to read the body language of their dog and of other dogs around him so they can be a proactive. If they see their dog is being bullied by other dogs, chased with out stopping, or becoming scared they need to stop the play and move on. Owners should not let their dog be the bully either. This teaches the dog poor manners, no impulse control and eventually can led to dog reactivity and aggression.

Not every dog is suitable for off leash dog play and off leash socialisation. If you are unsure you need to talk to us. Some dogs can be assisted and others require management life long. If your dog has poor social skills it does not mean he cannot be walked. Different routes need to be found. Semi industrial areas are good choices. Different ways of enriching his world and canine/human play can make up for a dog without canine play partners.

Some of the most suitable play can be between two dogs that know each other well. If you have socialised your dog well from the beginning you may have a few friends with dogs that your dog can spend time with. He does not have to attend busy parks, or doggy day care to fulfil his social needs.

Helpful resources include;

Off Leash dog play – Robin Bennett

Play with your dog – Pat Miller