Topsham & Exeter Dog Training Tips

Welcome to our group and this website. Topsham & Exeter Dog Training Tips is for those in the area seeking tips and advice on all matters of dog training. This is a not-for-profit group and advocates totally force free training. This post is written at the height of ‘Lockdown III’ and, as such, face-to-face meetings and consultations are suspended. Please feel free to ask any questions and get involved in the discussions. The various blogs below are on general aspects of dog training rather than dealing with specific issues or training problems.

The group does not advocate the use of punishment or dominance as training methods – nor of dressing dogs up in COVID masks or fancy dress!

The group’s link is here:

My personal Facebook business page may also be viewed here:

Temperament, Personality and Behaviour: It’s a Fine Dividing Line!

A conundrum faced by the lay-psychologist is the difference between temperament, personality and behaviour. In the dog training world behaviour is much discussed, temperament sometimes, and personality rarely. Temperament is inherited – it is something we HAVE and can do little to change. For example a person – or dog – may be described as a socialite or a loner. Personality we acquire with age and is a combination of one’s experiences, education, socialisation, culture, and to an extent, temperament. Behaviour, on the other hand, is something we DO – we CAN change this in most cases, though animals (including humans) may find this challenging due to, for example, heritable traits, poor role modelling, poor training, lack of mental stimulation, bad experiences including abuse or received aggression, poor health, stress and anxiety, poor diet, mindset/lack of motivation and/or encouragement/incentive, surroundings and the environment, change of routine, lack of exercise, poor housing/kenneling, the weather; the list is almost endless!

Possibly the most important trait in the family dog, but potentially the most difficult to breed for, is temperament. The adjectives ‘character’ or ‘personality’ (as discussed) also come to mind but these are perhaps more subjective. They may imply a level of consciousness more appropriate to humans, primates, elephants, dolphins and others! Dogs are, however, sentient beings with a range of emotions and sensitivity. Breeding for temperament is paramount when later training for assistance dogs, be these dogs for the blind, hearing assistance dogs, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, explosive and drug detection dogs, herding dogs and so forth. Companionship however – if that’s what we are looking for – is not as clearly defined! Due to the intermingling and coupling of genes of different content from both parents, not all dogs, even from the same litter, will attain the required standard. They are all individuals. Breeding for temperament or behaviour is far more complex genetically than breeding for looks as there are many more genes involved and do not code readily for temperament. Because of this, there is no chance that the same combination will occur twice. Selecting the top pedigree, therefore, is essential in this scenario. Notwithstanding, the way we train and treat our dogs will also have a profound and lasting effect on their temperament and behaviour.

The American cynologist Clarence Pfaffenberger, a respected figure in the mid 1940s in the training of assistance dogs for the blind, confirmed that temperament traits, including the willingness to work with humans, are carried genetically (The Intelligence of Dogs – Coren, 1994). He further concluded that temperament was not enough and that this, combined with ‘intelligence’, was paramount. Measuring intelligence in dogs and the ability to problem solve is another subjective and moot point. To measure this, we need to compare against something else. Do we compare with humans, a primate or another dog? IQ tests have been designed for dogs but what exactly does this prove? According to Pfaffenberger a more appropriate term would be ‘ability’, but let’s not forget also ‘aptitude’ or ‘inclination’!

Dogs live in the moment, with no concept of the future (McGrath, 1998). Their short term memory is thought to be a matter of minutes – though they do appear to remember a bad experience from long ago. They do not possess the cognitive ability to acknowledge the threat of a bad outcome for unwanted behaviour although MAY learn – or more importantly may NOT learn – from the repeated experience of bad (and good) outcomes. This could be, for example, single or multiple punishers including verbal/physical threats or actual abuse, frustration due to the withholding of a treat or other reward, negative reinforcement, for example, the removal of pain (as with a chock chain), release from confinement etc. However, all the dog learns potentially is how to cope with and manage the threat and avoid the perpetrator rather than learn the desired behaviour, resulting possibly in an unhappy and unbalanced dog able to ‘snap’ at any time. ‘Leash pulling’ is an example. Some handlers, and alas trainers, advocate ‘correction’ by jerking the leash. If this punishment method worked, why do we see the behaviour being repeated over and over? Teach the dog what IS required rather than what is NOT required!

This related blog may be of interest:

The sweet tempered Canaan dog but an
independent thinker with a strong
survival instinct.

Bears now behaving like dogs!

Young black bears in California have now been showing uncharacteristic signs of friendliness towards humans, and wildlife experts fear that a brain disorder may be the cause of this ‘dog-like’ behaviour. The phenomenon has been noticed since around 2014; videos have appeared on social media showing strange encounters in the state and neighbouring Nevada. In one clip, a black bear cub approaches a snowboarder at the Northstar ski resort and steps onto the board; in another, a dazed-looking bear wanders into a residential back yard and sits in the porch munching apples fed to it by curios onlookers. In still another, a bear walks into a classroom and sits down at the back.

Other symptoms include tremors and a tilted head (an endearing behaviour any dog lover appreciates!). Unlike grizzlies, which have a fierce reputation, black bears tend to be timid and avoid people. Scientists who conducted a post-mortem on one euthanised cub say it was suffering from encephalitis, a brain inflammation usually caused by a viral infection. Vets have identified five new viruses while examining the affected bears, but have yet to identify a direct link to the erratic behaviour.

This type of synurbic behaviour is now common amongst polar bears which are increasingly forced, due to loss of habitat, to live alongside humans in urban environments in order to get food by scavenging. In the UK this behaviour is evidenced amongst foxes and the common pigeon as examples. Indeed, it is thought that this is how dogs became domesticated originally, with estimates varying from between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago or more.

Channel 5 are urged to drop ‘Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly’ with immediate effect!

This blog relates to the seventh episode in the third series of ‘Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly’ shown on Channel 5 on 16.02.21. It is a version of an official complaint to Channel 5, Ofcom, the RSPCA and the Guild of Dog Trainers. I should point out that the three cases discussed below are just examples and that, almost without exception, cases of animal abuse are evidenced in EVERY episode.

The program goes downhill within the first two minutes when the narrator, Joanna Scanlan, announces, “He (Graeme Hall) has helped many owners…………….with his no nonsense techniques”. This implies domination over the dogs. We know from research that dogs to not form an inter-species linear hierarchy – that is within their human family – and do not respond well to dominance training (as with children). Dogs will communicate with us using body language and posturing, facial expressions, barking and other vocalizations, and rely on COOPERATION between the species. The techniques advocated, including a case of ‘flooding’, have the potential to be extremely dangerous (to the human) with the consequential repercussion of a worsening of the unwanted behaviour and psychological withdrawal of the dog. These I discuss below. Punishment techniques are self rewarding for the trainer in the sense that it appears to have quick results, (ideal for a 15 minute TV slot) encouraging even more punishment. If the punishment does NOT work, equally the temptation is to escalate this until a battle of wills ensues, the dog/human relationship potentially breaks down, and the dog learns nothing other than helplessness. In any event the dog cannot learn if he/she is frightened.

The first dog was a Border collie called Frank. Frank becomes highly aroused with much barking when his owners get up to answer the phone, make a cup of tea or get ready to leave the house. After an initial assessment Mr Hall says, “I can tell you what it ISN’T, separation anxiety”. Not only IS the dog suffering acute separation anxiety the dog has, I would suggest, multiple behavioural problems subject to further questioning, including canine obsessive disorder (COD) – chasing his tail, which Hall either misses or chooses to ignore. The protocol for dealing with this would be a program of systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning (SDCC) over an extended period of days, weeks, even months. Hall does not mention this. Instead of this, Hall proclaims, “He (Frank) needs someone to look up to”, whilst the narrator proudly announces, “Frank needs to be shown who’s boss”. In other words a training program based on intimidation, punishment and negative reinforcement, the LAST thing Frank needs. Hall then goes on to give a firm “No” – a negative interrupter (NI) (why not a positive interrupter – (PI)?) and proclaim, “How long did that take?” I would suggest a nanosecond but what has the dog actually learnt? To do nothing, as Hall admits. Doing nothing is a ‘non-behaviour’ – he should actually be teaching the dog an alternative or incompatible behaviour using differential reinforcement (DRA/I) as part of the desensitisation protocol. This could be something as simple as going to bed – if the dog is in bed he cannot be chasing his tail! Hall is encouraging the owners to shout “No” and “Quiet” at the barking dog, adding to the dog’s excitement and anxiety, who presumably thinks they are joining in (with the barking). Furthermore, he encourages the lady of the house to “Puff your chest out a bit”. The dog, which is already in a hyper aroused state, may perceive this as threat with the potential for a counter attack. And, we haven’t even started on the underlying problem of separation anxiety!

The second dog is a Labrador called Lulu. Lulu is showing ‘food aggression’, one facet of the broader behaviour of resource guarding. Unless this is dealt with in early puppyhood it can become an exasperating problem for the owners, as was clearly the case. At one point Hall suggested that euthanasia may be the solution. The owner, in his innocence, believes he has to adopt the ‘alpha’ roll in order to take the dog’s food away although it is not made clear why he wants to take the food away in the first place and is egged on by Hall. As with Frank, the unwanted behaviour may take many weeks of caring and patient desensitisation and counter conditioning rather than the confrontational methods Hall advocates. After a period of such confrontation, Lulu freezes as if resigned, her erect hackles can clearly be seen along the length of her back (piloerection) and, what looks like saliva, can be seen drooling from her mouth. This part is particularly difficult to watch and is reminiscent of a torture scene. Her torment is palpable! Hall fails to mention, or point out to the owners, her body language. What are Hall, the director and the camera crew thinking here? The dog is obviously suffering EXTREME distress all in the name of entertainment. Please, please remove the dog from the situation followed by a period of calming and reassurance rather than the onslaught of the bullying techniques and torment on show! Towards the end, Hall declares, “I want to ramp this up” and encourages the owner to leave his fingers in the bowl. REALLY!

The third dog is a Husky called Nico who has a fear of stairs. Hall’s answer to this is to force the dog up the stairs by pulling on his lead. This appeared to work at the first attempt, but I wonder how many ‘takes’ were actually needed and what ‘training’ occurred whilst the cameras were switched off? He even admits, “There has to be an element of you HAVE to do it”. The dog does not HAVE to do anything against his will. Patient encouragement with one of the the owners calling from the top of the stairs, with the other one freely leading with a food lure, as happened eventually, would be the most obvious solution. The use of food rewards (or any primary rewards) are conspicuous by their absence throughout the whole episode. Food is know to be a major motivator for dogs. Here, Hall is employing the controversial method of ‘flooding’. If not carried out with sensitivity it can go BADLY wrong with the potential for an attack and the dog’s fear being reinforced – the stairs being associated with the punishment (Pavlovian conditioning) – followed by the inevitable fallout – learned helplessness.

Notwithstanding any of the above, common sense, humanity and compassion tells me this cannot be right. The dog owning public are led to believe archaic methods of cruelty and punishment are correct and acceptable. Not only is this in contravention of the Animal Welfare Act (2006) but has also set reward based training (R+) back by many decades. Before any training program is drawn up, a health questionnaire, possibly even a vet check, would be helpful. I must seek a second opinion from the Guild of Dog Trainers, of which Hall is a member, to establish if they condone these methods.

I would suggest the program comes with a warning – ‘DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME’. There is a real potential for someone to get seriously hurt!

NB: As of 7th May, Channel 5 plans to continue with the program with a new, 4th series. Ofcom are taking no action. The Guild of Dog Trainers is silent on the matter. The RSPCA and Dogs Trust, however, have launched a joint investigation. I and my colleagues are also in discussion with Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and Blue Cross.

The related blog here discusses this further:

The Siberian Husky

Passive Training vs. Active Training

Training, whether it be a dog, cat, child or sports person must be consistent, ongoing and continual. An obvious statement perhaps, but how many people (I’m thinking specifically about dog trainers here) practise the ‘continual’ element. Positive reinforcement is an EXTREMELY powerful MOTIVATOR. For example we can reward our dog for lying quietly in bed; appearing to the outsider, for no apparent reason! We can reinforce the wanted behaviour of lying quietly with a few kind words of ENCOURAGEMENT and a chin rub. Here we reinforced the behaviour passively – we are not actually encouraging a behaviour, rather, waiting for it to happen and capturing the moment. This is continual training; we offer rewards at random for a wanted behaviour – not only in ‘formal’ training sessions.

Conversely, we can employ ‘active’ training, in a more formal setting, whereby we set the dog up to succeed, cue the wanted behaviour, followed by the behaviour itself, then the reward (known as the ABC of training ‘Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence’). However, in the early stages of training it will be necessary to reverse the ABC to BAC – the behaviour BEFORE the antecedent as the dog has not learnt the word/s yet. The idea of setting the dog up to SUCCEED cannot be overstated. Failure will not do and we must always end any formal training session on a high note. I also believe that many trainers overly rely on food and mechanical aids, ‘clickers’ for example (I’m not suggesting that clickers do not serve a purpose – they have their place in the correct situation). Better to rely on communication with our dog using EMOTIONS and body language. Dogs are able to pick up on the slightest nuances, ones which humans would not notice in a thousand years!

Instruments of torture on sale in Britain’s High Streets! NIs vs. PIs.

The UK’s pet industry is worth £6.5billion including food, accessories, grooming and veterinary. Accessories alone amounted to £1billion of this total in 2020!

Pet stores, so it appears, will happily sell you a negative (aversive) interrupter (NI). These are in the form of water pistols, compressed air horns, choke chains, ultrasonic zappers, citronella sprays, shock collars etc. What they won’t sell you is a positive interrupter (PI) – there must be an opportunity there!

NIs are based on the principle of positive punishment (P+). It interrupts an unwanted behaviour, for example barking, jumping up or ‘humping’. The problem with punishment is it does not teach the dog (cat, horse, chicken etc) what to do instead. There is also the potential for fallout in the form of learned helplessness and/or a relationship breakdown – not to mention the ethical question.

Positive interrupters (PIs) work on the principle of classical (reflexive) conditioning. The interrupter here could be a click, whistle, shaking of a kibble box, the theme from ‘Colonel Bogey’, or “Yippee”! The PI is previously paired with something the dog finds pleasurable. This could, for example, be a piece of kibble, piece of liver cake or a game of tug. He/she will learn this within about thirty seconds but will need proofing in different environments and with varying distractions. Once the unwanted behaviour is interrupted, the pleasure ensues followed by “look at me – sit – stay – good dog”, followed by – another piece of liver cake! In the words of John Rogerson, one of my favourite trainers, “communicate”.

I should point out that interrupters are used as an exception rather than the rule. Correct training in the first place will negate their use.

This Collarless Ultrasonic Pet Trainer (instrument of torture by another name), sold by Pets At Home, claims to have both a
PI and an NI. The question is can the dog tell the difference?

The Channel 5 debacle: the abuse of dogs in the name of ‘entertainment’!

This blog relates to the appalling treatment of dogs meted out by Graeme Hall in Channel 5’s series ‘Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly’.

Nothing gets a debate going like talking about dog training. Suffice to say that Hall’s methods are based on punishment and dominance. I have only watched Episode 1 of the current Series 3. In the ‘case’ of the unfortunate Great Dane, Trip, for example, look at Hall’s body language, towering over the subject with chest puffed out and hands on hips, yelling ‘no, no, no’! If I were a dog I’d be terrified! How often do I hear ‘yes, yes, yes,’ followed by praise and reward? He demonstrates no understanding of the science of learning – dog training in particular. Not once, in the episode was food involved (or any other primary reinforcer) – known to be a great motivator for dogs. Maybe the odd half hearted ‘good boy’, with inappropriate timing! The viewer is presented with a false picture; that punishment works. Of course it works in the short term but don’t forget we only have (what appears to be) 15 minutes to resolves the dogs’ ‘issues’. In reality they may be resolved in a couple of hours at best, but more usually days, weeks, even months.

In C5’s own words the program is classified as entertainment, not education. Entertainment? The abuse of animals in the 21st century?

The problem is that using punishment to train a dog is not actually training him/her. It is only teaching him/her to avoid punishment and the perpetrator, not what to do instead. When punishment is used in training, there is always fallout later and the dog will end up with a different behavioural issue to that which was first presented, not to mention an unhappy, withdrawn dog. For punishment to be effective the timing has to be exquisite with the timing of a computer (or indeed the dam) which most trainers do not have. Reinforcement, on the other hand, can be hit and miss, sometimes intentionally so, which is one reason why it works so well; it keeps the dog guessing! In any case how is a dog expected to learn when he/she is frightened? – they tend to run away given the opportunity – or, for example, exaggerate / escalate any pulling and lunging as happened in the episode!

Hall is presented with such; a pulling and lunging Great Dane. His so called ‘flick and release’, along with ‘blocking’ the dog, is advocated. He makes no attempt to remove the dog from the flashpoint causing much distress for the animal. What about systematic desensitisation and counter conditioning (SDCC)? The Great Dane, at one point, is eyeing the trigger, but below threshold. Rather than praising and reinforcing the wanted behaviour (NOT pulling and lunging), Hall is ignoring the dog whilst chatting to the owner. Typically, the reward here would be to induce self calming by placing treats on the ground and allowing the dog to sniff. This acts threefold; putting the dog in charge, calming the dog, establishing and reinforcing an alternative behaviour whilst being aware of the trigger – not simply distracting him. Even a simple neck massage. A missed opportunity indeed!

Training involves use of ‘The Training Quadrant’ but for brevity, suffice to say that we use ‘positive reinforcement’ (R+), and very occasionally ‘negative punishment’ (P-), that is the withholding of a treat or reward. Often I hear: “dogs are pack animals and need to be told who is in charge”. This falls into two categories; the pack theory and the dominance theory. And that’s just what they are; THEORIES!

1. The OED has some 13 definitions of the word ‘pack’. But for our purposes, ‘a group of wolves living and hunting together’ or ‘a group of wild animals hunting to bring down prey’. We can see that neither of these is true of the domesticated dog and observations will confirm this. For example ‘street dogs’ may hang around in groups but will scavenge or hunt for small prey as loners. (NB: The African wild dog, whilst being of the Canidae family, is of a different species – Lycaon pictus).

2. Dogs may or may not form a linear hierarchy amongst themselves (intra-species), depending on their individual personalities, but there is no evidence (in fact the reverse is true) that they form an inter-species ‘pecking order’. They have no desire or interest in dominating their human, nor should we want to dominate them. All dogs want is a quiet life and for their basic needs to be met. Sure, we need to show them the way by using R+, encouragement, communication, empathy, kindness………the same as we would a three year old child. Dogs’ and humans’ brains have a remarkably similar physiology. In both species the release of, for example, oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone, and dopamine, responsible for ‘feeling good’ and addiction, occurs. Yes, dogs can actually fall in love with their human/s!

The general public are presented with the false notion that punitive methods of training work. It makes good TV. It does not show the potential fallout for the dog and the potential danger to the dog owning public by creating an unhappy, unbalanced and potentially dangerous dog.

Sections 4, 9(c) and 9(e) of the Animal Welfare Act (2006) place a duty of care upon a keeper or those in charge of animals. These state that an animal must not be caused unnecessary suffering and be allowed to display normal behaviour for the species. This episode is not exclusive and video evidence is shown in Series 1 and 2 that suffering occurs in many, if not most, instances.

This topic is discussed further in a related blog:

It would be prudent to become familiar with The Training

Has dog training become overly complicated?

“Over the years, dog training has become overly complicated, time consuming, technical, mechanical and impersonal – lacking in communication, interaction and relationship. I feel that dog training has lost its way, its voice and its soul. We simply have to get things back on track before dog training……(dare I say it?)……..goes to the dogs” (Dunbar, 2015). So wrote the renowned dog trainer and clinical behaviourist Dr Ian Dunbar some six years ago. Does he have a point?

“Throw away any preconceived ideas you may have about how to train a dog using words of command, mechanical clickers, whistles and hand signals, and understand the universal language of emotions. It is your emotions, when coupled with the giving or withholding of rewards, that will enable you to communicate with your dog better than most academically trained behaviourists ever could. Welcome to the real world of dogs” (Rogerson, 2010). Emotive words indeed from the renowned dog trainer, behaviourist and author John Rogerson.

A mere twenty years ago the idea that dogs are capable of feelings and emotions would have been laughed at by the academics. In 2012, Dr Gregory Berns trained dogs to enter an MRI scanner. The scans confirmed what owners already knew, that dogs are able to recognise faces and emotions thereof. Activity in the caudate nucleus region of the brain causes the release of hormones, as with humans, responsible for certain emotions. These include vasopressin linked to aggression, oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and dopamine known to enhance the experience of pleasure. It appears then, that your dog IS capable of falling in love with you, and not simply because you are the provider of basic needs!

Until about the early 1970s, dog training was the preserve of police forces and the military. Pet dogs were left to get on with it; any apparent ‘misbehaviour’ or aggression being dealt with, by ill-informed owners, in the form of beating into submission, chaining up or euthanasia. As I recall the first ‘celebrity’ dog trainer, with her own TV series, was Barbara Woodhouse in the early ’80s. Training was in the form of dominance with ‘yanks’, reprimanding, bullying………..the lot! Some of her Youtube videos are difficult to watch! To this day, Cesar Millan espouses similar techniques with pinning down, kicking and all. This is also evidenced on his Youtube channel.

The point is that, even now, some dog guardians may treat their pets as objects of desire rather than sentient beings. For example, one of the most common ‘problem’ behaviours guardians encounter, and one which I am often asked to help resolve, is pulling on lead. Ironically this is also one of the easiest problems to deal with. Every day I witness handlers yanking and pulling back in resistance. Punishment does NOT work, period. (Link re: punishment, pending). If it did, why do we see this behaviour over and over? The temptation is to escalate the punishment, potentially with dire consequences; an unhappy, withdrawn dog and a relationship breakdown, not to mention long term damage to the neck and throat area – thyroid glands (dogs have two), muscle and blood vessels. This abuse has to end somewhere!

The other side of the same coin is to COMMUNICATE with our dog, explaining exactly what we want him/her to do using plain English. Yes, plain English; dogs are capable of understanding up to 1,000 words. Of course this is over simplistic as three or four words strung together may be their limit, even then failing to comprehend the literal meaning – but you get my drift! As far back as the ’40s, William Campbell devised the ‘jolly routine’ of singing and dancing to ENGAGE the dog. He was way ahead of his time! The dog should WANT to walk alongside rather than in front. How about a game of tug on the go until the dog gets the message. Why simply ‘manage’ the behaviour when we can actively train for an alternative behaviour? – that of walking WITHOUT pulling. In the trade we call it ‘differential reinforcement of an alternative behaviour’. It is far easier to teach a positive (R+) than it is to teach a negative (R-)! My mentor, Steve Mann, shows this eloquently on his Youtube channel.

So, to answer my own question – training a dog may APPEAR complicated but science has truly shown us the way forward. This all started in the late 1800s when J B Watson, the father of modern behaviourism, was of the opinion that we (mankind) needed to take an objective view of behaviour by observing rather than relying on emotions. The ‘science’ of behaviour was thus founded. But don’t be disheartened, the best form of training is COMMUNICATION, ENCOURAGEMENT, and LOADS of REINFORCEMENT for the wanted behaviour!

Engagement and relationship building!

Some thoughts on the current crisis in dog training.

As a kid in the ‘50s I lived in the Camden Town area of London. Now it has been regenerated and gentrified. Children and dogs would take themselves off for the day and play on the bomb sites. They would return in the evening for their tea. The dogs were invariably mongrels and today we would call them ‘street dogs’ (except they don’t exist in the so called ‘developed’ world). Behavioural problems were non existent so something has happened in the intervening years to change this. I suspect it is to do with the population explosion, overcrowding, poverty (or peoples’ expectations) and, in general, peoples’ lack of respect for each other. Of course this has impacted on dogs’ behaviour – you can only put so many rats in a cage before they start to fight!

Today’s boom in ‘breeds’ has led to a reduced gene pool and consequent health issues and, dare I say, behavioural issues. Yes, people today lead busy lives and may underestimate the time and work needed to bring up a dog successfully. Choosing the right breed plays a big part. A client of mine acquired a Welsh sheepdog from a working line and was surprised when the dog was anxious and restless during the day unable to settle in his crate. The dog was eventually returned to the farm. (NB the Welsh Sheepdog Society does not allow the sale of its registered dogs to non-working homes – this one slipped through the net).

For a lesson in dog training, observe the behaviour of a dog with a homeless owner. They are as close to the wild as ever, will follow their guardian everywhere quite happily, off lead and with no ‘misbehaviour’. They rely on their guardian for everything and he/she has assumed the role of family leader, all without any formal training. Lesson learned!

A typical London scene in the early ’50s

Your dog will appreciate analogue feedback!

As responsible dog parents it behoves us to ensure that our pet behaves according to acceptable standards both indoors and when out meeting other dogs, people, cats, etc. How we deal with a ‘situation’, for example lunging on lead and barking, will depend on our understanding of the dog’s emotions and of the steps necessary to resolve the situation and ensure it does not happen again – or at least take baby steps in the right direction. A dog acting in an aggressive way does not mean the dog is aggressive per se – something else may have caused the display. Very often this is fear-aggression. Why, and what is the dog fearful of will need to be addressed to placate this. The lead itself may exacerbate the dog’s anxiety! Behaviours have consequences, a pleasant one will likely mean repeat of the behaviour, whilst an unpleasant one will likely mean the behaviour will NOT be repeated. Of course this is the fundamental theory of training and of the subject’s learning.

This then raises the question: to punish or not to punish. “Of course not, I would never punish my dog”, I hear you say. According to behavioural psychology something as apparently insignificant as the word ‘no’ constitutes punishment – perhaps not so in every-day usage. Degrees of punishment will fall on a continuum with extremes at both ends. The withholding of a treat/reward is technically punishment, albeit negative punishment (P- something is withheld or withdrawn to help decrease a behaviour, for example, jumping up at a visitor [time to get back to basics]).

There is a school of thought that we simply ignore an unwanted behaviour. Well fine, as a rule of thumb. This may work if the dog, for example, ‘lays’ instead of ‘sits’ – it’s fairly benign! It’s a question of context and if there is any imminent danger. If your dog is jumping up in excitement at a visitor whilst mouthing (but why is your dog/puppy doing this in the first place?!) or is about to run into a busy road, would you ignore this? Of course not. The dog must be aware that this is not acceptable and, ideally, offered an alternative behaviour. In other words we teach a positive rather than a negative.

Your dog WILL appreciate feedback rather than being ignored or left in limbo. But, how and what feedback do we give. Punishment would be punitive and, in any event, depends on consistency and precision timing – which of course most people don’t have. If the punishment does not work – which invariably it doesn’t – the temptation will be to increase it. Where would it all end? – with an unhappy dog, a battle of wills and a relationship breakdown. The goal of training is to produce an internally-reinforced and self-motivated dog that is under reliable verbal control when off-lead, at a distance and with distractions. Understanding the science and theory is one thing but let’s not forget feeling and communication – feedback.

Analogue feedback is a term borrowed from electronics. Feedback can be either analogue or digital. As with dog training there is also both negative and positive feedback. Imagine digital as an on/off light switch – there are two poles, there is no in-between except a nanosecond’s time delay between the two. Now imagine a dimmer light switch as analogue – it is continuously variable and instantaneous. With dog training the aim is to give the dog appropriate and instantaneous feedback. Hence we have ‘analogue feedback’. As with voltage (input) and current (output), input from the trainer = output from the dog!

Furthermore, feedback needs to be unambiguous, binary, precise and instructive. The dog needs to know if he got it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – binary feedback. But what about the grey area in-between, the intervening variables of thinking it through, attention, perception, and decision making (known as cognitive psychology)? What happened between the initial stimulus and the response (more broadly known as S-R psychology or cause and effect)? Did he get it ‘almost’ right or ‘completely’ right? He needs to know how well he did. The DEGREE of feedback and praise – differential reinforcement – reflects this. Verbal feedback, therefore, becomes effortlessly analogue. Differential reinforcement allows us to concentrate on the positives rather than the negatives insofar as the dog succeeds whatever the scenario! A previous blog further discusses this concept:

What’s on the dog’s mind? Notice the raised paw, soft eyes,
yet raised and forward pointing tail – will he or won’t he?
The handler is showing empathy, awareness, reassurance and great leadership skills.