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. We do not practise any forms of dominance or punishment based training as promoted by some television programs. 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. Please follow the links in the menu bar for further information or to contact for one-to-one training. I look forward to hearing from you.

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Mentor Dog or Teacher?

Calming signals and more obvious body language are examples of conspecific communication in the animal kingdom. There are far more nuanced and subtle signs that humans will inevitably miss. For example, a dog ‘sees’ the world through sense of smell and can decipher another dog’s intent via pheromone signaling. A mature dog will build up a reservoir of knowledge and experience and learn, often the hard way, how to deal with a situation. An on-looking, less mature dog may, through intuition, pick up on this and mimic the other’s behaviour – allelomimetic behaviour. Thus, our senior dog has unwittingly evolved into a ‘mentor dog’.

Dogs will form readily into a hierarchy in a conspecific ‘pack’, ‘group’ or ‘family’ (different adjectives meaning much the same but used in different contexts). However, in a heterospecific family the hierarchy is more fluid – if it exists at all. Accordingly, one dog ‘reprimanding’ another may be a natural occurrence; on the other hand a human ‘reprimanding’ a dog may be thought of as abuse!  Whilst we may disagree with many of Cesar Millan’s methods, he is an advocate of introducing a newly arrived dog to his ‘Dog Psychology Centre’ via the existing pack and that many problems, actual or potential, are resolved this way (Millan, 2008).

Turid Rugaas is of the opinion that it is not possible to train a dog to become a mentor to other dogs but we can reinforce subtle ‘calming signals’ (Rugaas, 1997). This assumes that we, the human, is capable of recognizing them in the first place. These include head turning, softening the eyes, blinking, paw lifting, turning away, lowering tail, licking the nose, shake off, sneezing, freezing, walking slowly, pacing, scratching, using slow movements, play bow, stretching, sitting down, down, yawning, sniffing, curving on approach, ‘mirror, matching and balancing’, splitting up (two or more dogs), and tail wagging…….. These signals fit into a complex self-organizing system and are used to achieve stability within a group rather than dominance. When two or more dogs meet they quickly arrive at a point where they are able to interact yet maintain their own integrity. They are also capable of doing this with other species. Interestingly, Turid does not mention the ‘head tilt’. Perhaps this is not considered a calming signal, rather an appeasement gesture (to OUR eyes) fine tuned after millennia of domestication! This is also known as ‘triangulation’ or ‘orientation reflex’ – in an attempt to accurately pin-point a sound. A primeval reflex when out hunting. The converse, of course, is threatening signals, perhaps not so subtle and more obvious to the human eye!

A mentor dog can be any size or breed; more importantly they will display calm assertiveness, authority and, the all elusive ‘energy’. They will invariably possess ‘A’ type personality (see previous blog) and will instinctively aid another dog which is showing difficulties in a given social situation (Duno – Modern Dog, 2010). Some mentor dogs will work with aggressive dogs, simply through having no choice and are ‘used’ to it; but many will not.

Mentor personality types may be described thus: 1. Monitor: Quietly confident and assertive.  2. Constant: Confident and calm but showing little interaction. 3. Nanny: Gentle, confident, relaxed and playful. 4. Clown: Confident, exuberant, highly interactive. Four very different personalities but note the recurring word: CONFIDENT – one emotion over which we, as the dog parent, can exert much influence!  

Millan, Cesar (2008) – Cesar’s Way, Hodder & Stoughton (UK).
Rugaas, Turid (1997) – On Talking Terms with Dogs, Dogwise Publishing (Wenatchee, WA).

Mentor or teacher?

Type A Personality Behaviour (TAPB) vs. The alpha dominance theory – Alpha, Beta, Omega (ABO)

TAPB is taken from human psychology, whilst ABO is from Ethology. They may, however, be considered as similar, and in many ways, parallel continuums.

TAPB – Type A Personality Behaviour

TAPB continuum

Type A<———————————>Type B<———————————–>Type C

Type A personality is highly competitive, dominant, unaccepting of any faults though often self-critical, and characterized by a constant feeling of working against the clock. Individuals generally experience a high stress level, hate failure and find it difficult to stop working, even when they have achieved their goals, oftentimes resulting in sleep disruption and insomnia. They strive toward goals without feeling a sense of joy in their efforts or accomplishments.

Interrelated with this is the presence of a significant life imbalance. This is characterized by a high work involvement. They are easily ‘wound up’ and tend to overreact. They also tend to suffer from hypertension.

Type A individuals tend to be easily aroused to anger or hostility, which they may or may not express overtly. Such individuals tend to see the worst in others, are highly critical, displaying anger, lack of compassion and sometimes show envy. When this behaviour is expressed overtly it may involve bullying, even aggression.

Individuals in this group tend to be naturally dominant and display high levels of energy and charisma – nature over nurture has intervened here. History shows this. Think of the Blair / Brown relationship. Brown may have been the ‘power behind the throne’, with the necessary qualifications, but was he a natural leader, or did he display the aforesaid qualities to be so? More recently, think of Trump / Pence. Trump’s mindset led to him achieving the highest post in US politics (possibly the world), rather than academic qualifications or intellect. He was a natural ‘No. 1’. Pence, on the other hand, a natural ‘No.2’, or Type B personality – though he may not agree with this definition!

Type B personality is characterized by a relaxed, patient, and easy-going nature. Individuals with a Type B personality work steadily, enjoying achievements, but do not tend to become stressed when goals are not achieved.

People with Type B personality tend to be more tolerant of others, are more relaxed than Type A individuals, more reflective, experience lower levels of anxiety and display a higher level of imagination and creativity.

Type C personality has difficulty expressing emotions and tends to suppress them, particularly negative ones such as anger.  This means such individual also display ‘pathological niceness,’ conflict avoidance, high social desirability, over compliance and patience.

Interestingly, Lewis Goldberg, in 1993, developed the Big Five Personality Traits theory. These are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism – (OCEAN). Of course, we all lie at varying points on the continuum; it’s never unequivocal! Various surveys may be found online and a useful link is here:

ABO – Alpha, Beta, Omega
This generally refers to a hierarchical structure in the animal kingdom. This is illustrated in the continuum:

ABO Continuum


‘Ranking’ may be considered a fluid state with different species achieving rank in different ways. For example, gorillas achieve high status using force and aggression, chimpanzees by using a combination of aggression and intelligence – forming alliances, and some species of birds often working in unison with a male ‘beta’ helping the male ‘alpha’ in finding a mate. Here we are concerned with canids and in particular the grey wolf (Canis lupus).

Classification of wolves into dominance hierarchies of alpha, beta and omega, were based on studies, in the late 60s/70s, of unrelated wolves in captivity. Dr David Mech et al, author of the studies, later rescinded the findings as incomplete, indeed, irrelevant. Alas, this terminology still endures today for the sake of convenience and disambiguety! Furthermore, due to the negative connotations of certain words, today the ‘alpha pair’ is often referred to as the ‘breeding pair’ and the ‘pack’ as the ‘family’. Common usage, however, means the terms are often used interchangeably. It rather depends on the context: for example we talk about wolves ‘hunting as a pack’ but ‘living as a family’. Of course, in modern day dog training, the word ‘pack’ is rarely used, except in certain genres and by certain people!

This blog is not intended as an explanation of wolf and family life, but as a brief summary of the notation ‘ABO’. There is a fluid hierarchy with the alpha at the top; usually, but not necessarily, male. At the behest of anthropomorphising, think of a chain of command. There may be an alpha pair or breeding pair – the only family members allowed to breed. The alpha will have attained his/her position through cheer force of character and energy, not necessarily through strength. Second in command (the sergeant) is the beta – also a diplomat and collaborator, ensuring deference in the lower ranks. The beta may, but not necessarily, assume the alpha role in the event of abdication or death of the current incumbent. All other family members are the omegas who show complete deference and submission to the alfa/s. The family lives as a cohesive entity, relying on cooperation rather than dominance. Unlike dogs, the male is fully involved with care of pups as well as heading hunting expeditions. In lean times, pups will be given preference to food. Second generation siblings, aunts and uncles will also share in caring of the young. First generation siblings by now will almost certainly have left the pack in search of a mate or another pack.

An omega personality is not necessarily the smallest or weakest animal. A study of the Sawtooth Pack in Idaho, identified Lakota as being the largest and strongest wolf. This proto-omega type personality – the ‘lone wolf’ – is more self-reliant, less collaborative than a beta, and less focused on leading a family. They will hunt smaller prey independently but may rejoin the family in lean times as larger packs tend to bring down larger prey. The ‘Allee Effect’ – safety in numbers.

As the result of the 70s wolf studies, the mid 70s/80s saw dog training at its worst, using dominance and punishment based theories. Think of Woodhouse, Fennell and, to this day, Millan and Daniel Abdelnoor aka ‘Doggy Dan’. Comparative psychology and zoology can help up to a point. However, a dog is not a wolf; even if the theory were correct, why would we, humans, use these methods? It’s akin to studying bonobo behaviour to understand that of humans!

There may be some truth in the theory that a person’s personality and appearance is in sync with that of their dog’s (or their wolf’s for that matter!)

Shaun Ellis the Wolfman in his Cornish hideaway!

Continuums are good for the brain!

Continuum = 1. A set of things on a scale which have a particular characteristic to varying degrees. For example, ‘these various complaints are part of a continuum of ill-health’. 2. A continuous series of closely related events. For example, ‘responses to stress from mild to severe on the continuum’.

A continuum may show, in diagrammatic form, an otherwise complex series of events and, ultimately, aid understanding. Two examples, as applied to dog training, are shown below. Others could include shyness, aggression, intelligence, personality/traits.

Pavlovian conditioning may variously be known as ‘reflexive conditioning’, ‘respondent conditioning’ or, more usually, ‘classical conditioning’.

What exactly do we mean by the ‘science’ of dog training? (Part 3)

Dog training: a science or an art? Surely it’s a mixture of both. We may be a scientist or at least be scientific in our approach, but if we have little rapport or empathy with dogs (or animals generally), lack the personality or temperament of a trainer, then it’s a non-starter. On the other hand, I wonder how many shepherds have read ‘How Dogs Learn’? You don’t need to be a mechanic to drive a car. Just do it! As with any profession, there is an element of jargon and sometimes a tendency to make things more complicated than they actually are – ‘reinventing the wheel’ – even over analyzing; but isn’t that what scientists do?

In Part 2 of this series I spoke about the International Dog Trainers Winter Summit 2020. Yesterday Bob Bailey gave an engaging presentation. He spoke about “science, or the scientific method as being a systematic way of asking questions and making it difficult to lie about the answers…………… is a process of studying the complex world around us……………….scientists usually break apart, or simplify, complex phenomena into its component parts. Science APPLIED to solving specific problems is one definition of TECHNOLOGY. The technology of animal training involves the sub-sets: psychology (and ethics), biology, biochemistry and mechanics.”

This will be the last blog in the current series. What follows is a random selection of theories that have, hitherto, been a source of bemusement to me. A THEORY is just that; it is said to be scientific until it has been falsified or becomes an enshrined FACT.


This takes the science of dog training to a new level! I mentioned the danger of OVER analyzing and here I think we may have ‘lost the plot’ (see next item). Trainers will understand the concept of ‘The Quadrant of Training’. However, how many understand, or have even heard of, ‘The Quadrant of Punishment’? Cesar Millan, in his book ‘Cesar’s Rules’, discusses this, though I should point out he does not take credit for it! The four quadrants of punishment are:- 1. ‘aversive punishment’, 2. ‘non-aversive punishment’, 3. ‘aversive non-punishment’, 4. ‘non-aversive, non-punishment’. 1 and 2 are self explanatory. However, non-punishment implies INACTION or the opposite – REINFORCEMENT!


It is possible to over analyze an action rather than let it occur naturally. The over analysis of an action or string of actions, for example in sports, could lead to paralysation and non-action or incorrect action. A goal keeper about to defend a penalty shoot will have to decide whether to dive to his left or to his right. As the ball leaves the foot of the striker he must make an analysis resulting in a nanosecond of inaction or freezing (then he dives the wrong way!)


Differential = 1. the relationship between two points on a sliding scale, 2. graduated.

Also in Part 2 I mentioned Ian Dunbar‘s presentation at the Summit and gave examples of Ian’s theories. However, the thought processes firing in a dog’s mind are, of course, complex and we can only guess as to what a dog is thinking (an educated guess nonetheless). Going back some years to his ‘Growl Class’, Ian spoke about ‘Differential Classical Conditioning’ (DCC). This was in relation to a dog-reactive dog lunging and the following string of events to avoid a potentially dangerous situation arising. (However, there is little reference to DCC in dog training books or the internet other than the defensive withdrawal reflex of a sea hare (slug) from a noxious event – an electric shock!) Ian went on and concluded the class by stressing the importance of giving the dog feedback for ALL behaviours – i.e. lunging, then withdrawing, followed by the WANTED behaviour – not simply ignoring the unwanted behaviour! Think of our sliding scale analogy.

Grisha Stewart discusses in her book, ‘Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0’ (BAT), a procedure referred to as ‘Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative Behaviour’ (DRA). She describes this as extinguishing an unwanted behaviour by withholding reinforcement for it whilst reinforcing an alternative behaviour. I quote, “the handler is NOT applying ‘differential reinforcement’, rather ‘differential reinforcement of an alternative behaviour’. With BAT, we don’t apply operant extinction, because it’s not ethical………………to force a dog to stay in a stressful situation just because he is not offering the ‘right’ behaviour to get out of it. If the dog [lunges], for example, we move him away from the trigger…………….it may however reinforce the [lunging]. That’s risky but not as bad as it sounds. We can just arrange our set-ups so that [lunging] or other such behaviours are unlikely. That way the dog gets lots of reinforcement for behaviour we want, and not much reinforcement for the behaviour we are trying to eliminate. This has a similar effect to differential reinforcement, without the added stress and disempowerment of extinction.” (Stewart, 2016).

Of course, as responsible handlers, we will be looking ahead for potential areas of conflict with a view to avoidance as Grisha espouses. In the Summit, Jamie Pound later spoke about the importance of ‘scent work’ and the positive affect this has on a reactive dog. For example the laying of a food reward as a means of desensitisation (in this case, to another dog) and counter conditioning – here the two are NOT mutually exclusive. Dogs were born to sniff (and run)! Sniffing is self rewarding and signals sent to the brain induce a self calming effect. We could argue that the reactive dog has simply been distracted, but nevertheless, he is aware of the trigger in the distance. The dog, in effect, is handed control of the situation – a fundamental philosophy of BAT!

An easier concept to understand may the the scenario of our pet dog sitting under the meal table whining. We can do one of two things. 1. Apply ‘differential reinforcement’ by offering ‘not much‘ reinforcement or, indeed ignoring the behaviour, praising for NOT whining and relying on extinction – though Grisha describes this as disempowering (for the dog)! 2. Apply ‘differential reinforcement of an alternative behaviour’ by luring the dog away with, for example, a toy (preferably NOT food) to his anchor mat. The danger here is that the dog may perceive this as reward for whining! Only WE can judge.


Sometimes referred to as ‘Premack’s Principle’ named after the researcher David Premack in 1959. The idea here is that a high-probability behaviour reinforces a low-probability behaviour. For example, Grandma explains to her Grandchild that he can have his sweet providing he eats his greens! So, if he eats his greens (low probability) he gets to eat his sweet (high probability). The child has been bribed! This principle is more commonly applied in a classroom setting with children (or adults) and would not necessarily apply to dogs because it requires self management and understanding of what is in one’s best interest.

However, in dog training it has the potential to increase impulse control and/or recall probability. The disadvantage here is that three handlers are required – one to hold the dog, one to call the dog and one to apply the high-probability behaviour. In the scenario our dog is aware that handler 3 has a high value reward (a piece of smelly frankfuter) – but handler 2 (preferably his guardian) is calling him. This gives him a predicament. Does he control his impulse to run to handler 3 or run to his guardian (handler 2) in order to reach his ultimate goal – the frankfurter? To help the dog, handler 1 may ‘point’ the dog in the right direction! Unfortunately we will be applying negative punishment (P-) by not allowing the dog access to the reward for the ‘wrong’ behaviour, thus adding the element of frustration and the dog potentially walking away in disinterest.

The following related blogs may be of interest:-

Two very different emotions on display. We need to apply the principle of DRA to the dog on the left, whilst possibly showing
some sympathy for the dog on the right

What exactly do we mean by the ‘science’ of dog training? (Part 2)

Beginning in the 1800’s, behavioural scientists were in their labs discovering the principles that laid the groundwork for the 1938 arrival of operant conditioning. At the same time, without using the technical terminology or being aware of the scientific theories, dog trainers were using many operant conditioning methods. But first, let’s consider the theory of classical conditioning.  

Ivan Pavlov (1849 -1936)

Today’s theories of behaviour began with the work of Ivan Pavlov. A Nobel Prize winner, Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who studied digestion in dogs. In the course of his research, Pavlov observed that the dogs he was studying would salivate before food was placed in their mouths. He thought the dogs were associating the lab assistants, or the sound of the door opening, with food. He tested this theory by ringing a bell just before feeding the dogs. After a number of trials, ringing the bell would cause the dogs to salivate even if food was not forthcoming. This became known as a conditioned reflex. The development of such reflexes has come to be known as Pavlovian conditioning or, more commonly, classical conditioning. This is all to do with reflexes – learning by association; the pairing of two stimuli. Pet owners will be fully aware that shaking the biscuit box will bring their pet running in anticipation.

Edward Lee Thorndike (1874 – 1949)

While Pavlov was busy in Russia studying the kind of learning that involves reflexive responses, in the United States, Edward Lee Thorndike began studying what different consequences have on new behaviours. This was important groundwork for the development of, what is now known as, operant conditioning. Thorndike is known for the Law of Effect, which basically state that behaviours that produce rewards will increase in frequency. If you do something that brings a reward, you are more likely to do it again. For example if you get up and go to work then get paid at the end of the week, you will likely do it again next week. Thorndike’s work provided the foundation of all the treat training we use with dogs today.

John Broadus Watson (1878 – 1958)

J B Watson was a psychologist who worked at John Hopkins University and the University of Chicago. In spite of the studies of his counterparts, he is credited as the father of modern behaviourism. His view was that thoughts and feelings were unscientific and that a more objective and observable view was needed. Watson’s ‘Little Albert’ is enshrined in the history of psychology. Albert was an 11 month old boy. Watson and his colleague, R Raynor, conditioned a fear reaction in Albert. Initially, Albert was allowed to play freely with a rat. Then a loud bang was presented whenever Albert reached out to touch the rat. Within days, whenever the rat was presented, Albert would withdraw and cry, even without the bang. He also generalised his fear to other things, including a rabbit, a dog and a Santa Clause mask. Watson was using classical conditioning – in this case a startle reflex – to modify Albert’s behaviour. A Youtude video showing the experiment proves difficult to watch. Of course, today it would be considered unethical, indeed illegal. Watson is responsible for today’s branch of psychology known as behaviourism.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904 – 1990)

For obvious reasons he was known as B F Skinner; an American psychologist, behaviourist, author, inventor and social philosopher. He was a professor of psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974. He considered free will to be an illusion, Skinner saw human action as dependent on consequences of previous actions, a theory he would articulate as the principle of reinforcement. If the consequences of an action are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger.

He was influenced both by Pavlov and Watson. He expanded Watson’s work on behaviourism when he described the science of operant conditioning. When he was a doctoral student at Harvard University, he discovered that he could systematically change the behaviour of rats by giving them food rewards for pressing a lever in his (infamous) Skinner box. He was the first to talk about conditioned reinforcers and conditioned punishers.

Ian Dunbar

I am writing this blog during the International Dog Trainers Winter Summit 2020. This was opened with an engaging presentation by Ian Dunbar. Ian will, I’m sure, go down in history as one of the GREAT dog trainers. At the summit he spoke about, amongst other things, putting an unwanted behaviour on cue, schedules of reinforcement, making an unwanted behaviour the reward, the importance of games in training, luring vs. bribing, ‘response reliability ratio’ and ‘analogue feedback’.


We may have a dog who loves to bark at the sound of the front door bell. This may be desirable to alert household members, but is it out of control? We could put the behaviour on cue, for example ‘bark’ or ‘talk’ along with an appropriate visual cue. A reward may not be necessary as the unwanted behaviour of barking becomes the reward! Once the dog has mastered the new ‘trick’ we can then teach for the opposite – ‘shush’, again with an appropriate visual cue. Practice this regularly when the dog is sitting quietly. The reward then becomes ‘bark’!


See above. Another example may be a dog who loves to run away and chase. Assume we have trained our dog to ‘sit, down, stay’, we then cue the dog ‘go play’ as the reward. This negates the need for a food reward and may have the effect of being more reliable as the dog places much value on running away. Also we have put the unwanted behaviour – running away – on cue. Next recall him again to the ‘sit, down, stay’ position – he will come running ready for the next ‘go play’ – and the cycle is repeated. It forms part of the dogs repertoire of tricks and adds the element of fun and games.


See above. Tug, chase, ‘hide and seek’ amongst others, helps build a dog’s confidence and sociability. Search and rescue dogs, drug detection dogs and others are trained using the element of fun and games. The ‘real thing’ then becomes a game – the dog does not differentiate. Sounds like nirvana to me!


Here I will discuss reinforcement as opposed to punishment (think of the two as reverse mirror images). Reinforcers can be either positive (something is added to increase behaviour) or negative (something is withheld or withdrawn to increase behaviour). They can also be secondary (such as a mechanical ‘click’ or verbal praise), a predictor of a primary reinforcer (something pertaining to biology, such as food or certain physical contact). Depending on the character, and even the breed of the individual, a secondary reinforcer may cross over and become a primary reinforcer – for example enthusiastic words of praise, chin rubs, visual or olfactory stimuli.

A reinforcement schedule is a rule stating which instances of behavior, if any, will be reinforced. This is a component of operant conditioning for which we can thank Skinner. Schedules can be divided into two broad categories: continuous schedule and intermittent schedules.

  1. Continuous Reinforcement Schedule
    The desired behaviour is reinforced (rewarded) every single time. Because of this the association is easy to make and learning occurs quickly. However, this also means that extinction occurs quickly after reinforcement is no longer provided. Furthermore the value of the reinforcement, for example food, is lessened and the dog potentially looses interest.
  2. Intermittent Reinforcement Schedules
    Unlike a continuous schedule, intermittent schedules only reinforce the desired behavior occasionally rather than all the time. This leads to slower learning since it is initially more difficult to make the association between behavior and reinforcement. However, intermittent schedules also produce behavior that is more reliable over time and resistant to extinction. In reality, a trainer may start with continuous reinforcement and phase out in favour of intermittent reinforcement. Here it can get complex for the novice trainer and is beyond the scope of this blog. However, the six intermittent schedules are listed:-

    (1) Fixed ratio
    (2) Variable ratio
    (3) Fixed interval
    (4) Variable interval
    (5) Fixed duration
    (6) Variable duration

    2, 4 and 6 are random reinforcers and may cause the younger dog to become frustrated. Conversely, they may improve reliability insofar as it keeps the dog guessing.


RRR is described as the number of responses ÷ number of cues x 100. For example if we cue the the dog ‘sit’ 10 times and he responds correctly 5 times then: 5 ÷ 10 = ½ x 100 = 50%. Ian showed the results collated as bar charts over two time periods for comparison. This is what science is all about – collecting and collating data then presenting it in a clear and understandable way. The results are unambiguous and prompts us (and our clients) to move to the next stage of training.

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!


This causes much debate amongst dog trainers. We can, for example, lure a dog over a fixed series of agility hurdles (fixed ratio) using a small piece of frankfurter. If the dog is willing it’s a lure; if he is unwilling it becomes a bribe.

The following related blog may be of interest:

Modern day working breeds are often put to the
test in the exciting and challenging world of canine agility

What exactly do we mean by the ‘science’ of dog training? (Part 1)

A science or an art? The dog training industry in the UK is unregulated – though most would agree it is actually ‘self regulated’. There are many successful dog trainers who, through their own dedication and experience, have achieved success and high regard without necessarily understanding the ‘science’ behind it all. For example, they may not be aware of the psychology involved in how dogs learn. Conversely, a canine behaviourist will be concerned with the dog’s mind (as opposed to the physical brain) and why the dog behaves in a certain way. Historically, the industry has been bifurcated though, thankfully, with greater awareness by professionals, this is changing.

“The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it” (Neil DeGrasse). Science is not an answer it’s a process. Furthermore, a theory is considered scientific if the research is empirical and it can be falsified or disproved. We could argue, therefore, that ALL theories are scientific until they become fact! For example we have known, since Magellan, that Earth is a sphere, period; it is now beyond doubt a fact, therefore unscientific. However theories about ‘black holes’ abound. Almost weekly a theory is offered; the next week it is disproved and another one offered. To this day, comparatively little is known about the workings of the BRAIN, let alone what is fermenting in the MIND and associated behaviour. Therefore, it must be scientific!

In a blog of this length it will be impossible to go into depth, rather to highlight, what I consider to be the three main criteria of dog training. These are the ‘intangible debate’, the ‘tangible debate’ and the ‘philosophical debate’. I use the word ‘debate’ as I’m sure we will be discussing these long into the future!

The intangible debate concerns things that we cannot actually see, for example, how a dog learns, the psychology of training, intelligence, his mind and his soul. So, how does a dog learn? Actually it’s no different to bringing up a human toddler up to about the age of three years. Psychology plays a big part here – there are a number of names that, historically, have played a big part in the study of animal psychology and behaviour. These include Ivan Pavlov, B F Skinner, Edward Lee Thorndike, Konrad Lorenz, J B Watson and many others. Dogs and other animals (including humans) will learn by association (classical conditioning) and consequence (operant conditioning). This is described in ‘How Dogs Learn’ (Burch & Bailey, 1999).

Whole books have been written on the subject of dogs’ intelligence. This is where science truly comes in – measuring an intangible! In ‘The Intelligence of Dogs’, Stanley Coren describes adaptive intelligence (learning and problem solving), working or inherent intelligence (breed specific) and instinctive intelligence (individual specific). (Coren, 2006). Basically, adaptive intelligence is the ability to learn from experience and adapt to the environment. For a human this could mean learning how to drive a car down the road, how to be a better salesman and so on. For an animal this could mean learning to be a better hunter from previous bad or good experiences. For example wolves may form into larger packs when times are hard and there are fewer prey animals. They learn that the sum becomes greater than the parts and are able to bring down large ungulates. On the other hand a lone wolf may decide, from experience, he would be better off hunting smaller prey on his own. It depends on the personality of that particular individual; loner or socialite! Either way, they have adapted to the environment and have learned after one or two gained or missed opportunities.

Anyway, I digress – back to dogs. Coren, in his blog posted online on July 15th 2009, describes how he compiled his list of canine intelligence criteria comprised of 133 breeds. He contacted all the registered dog obedience judges in the US and Canada. 199 responded which was roughly half of those contacted. One criterion was that at least 100 judges provided assessments of the various 133 breeds. Breeds not recognised by the American Kennel Club or Canadian Kennel Club were not included in the list. The results were amazingly consistent with 190 of the 199 judges ranking the Border collie (BC) in the Top 10 with Afghan hounds consistently marked in the bottom 10. It was further discovered that, of adaptive intelligence, a dog may perform well in learning and ability, but only average in problem solving and vice versa. The Border collie – of the pastoral group – is good at learning and memory aspects, responding well to rote learning but slow at problem solving – in spite of appearing in the top 10 – as are many others of the this group. The reverse appears to be true of terriers and working breeds. My own observations confirm this when a BC, at a recent event, was stranded on the wrong side of a river. He waited for instructions from his handler. A Border terrier alongside, however, dived straight in and fearlessly swam to the other side (some may say foolhardy!).

The tangible debate centres on things we can observe, for example the conformation and physiology of a dog, behaviour, emotions (assuming these are shown), temperament, personality, how he responds to training, what he likes to eat and how often, what his favourite toys are – the list is almost infinite. Alas, kennel clubs around the world put much emphasis on the conformation and appearance of dogs – oftentimes to the detriment of their health. In spite of the Kennel Club’s Breed Watch initiative there appears little evidence of any improvement in dogs’ health overall (if any vets are reading this I am open to discussion on this point).

The importance of a basic understanding of a dog’s biology, in particular the digestive system and the limbic system is, I believe often underestimated by owners (and trainers alike). Likewise, the importance of a balanced diet. An imbalance of protein and the production of serotonin plays a huge part in a dog’s behaviour, ability to concentrate and learn, aggression, hyperactivity and general physical health. For more detailed information, this was discussed in a previous blog.

The smell, texture and taste of food, in that order, are important to dogs. There is no evidence that dogs prefer a variety – though feeding tidbits under the table may well produce a fussy, overweight dog.  The feeding of our pet is almost a science in itself as much so as training. Learning to read and interpret dog food labels is essential as these can be misleading, though perhaps not intentionally so. The ratio of moisture will vary between dry and wet food and also between brands giving a false perspective of the nutrient content. For example, a label of dry food may state 30% protein which may actually be lower than a canned food label stating 10% as the latter has a higher proportion of moisture which should be deducted from the calculation. That said, which represents better value as we do not want to pay for moisture which has no protein?

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association discovered that dogs prefer canned meat to fresh meat, cooked meat to raw meat, and meat over cereal. There are two schools of thought regarding the feeding of raw food with little tolerance on either side. It is a decision for the owner knowing what the dog prefers; raw food may well require additional nutrient balancing for a healthy diet. The modern dog, being a scavenger at heart, has a high tolerance to a variety of foods including a degree of vegetable matter, though certain foods, such as chocolate and some fruits, are strictly off the menu!

I touched on canine personality. Any pet owner knows that there are as many personalities as there are dogs, cats etc. But what about emotions? Do our pets have emotions and if so to what extent and are they comparable to humans’ emotions? Much research by eminent scientists such as Jaak Panskepp, Gregory Berns, Becky Trisco and Evan MacLean – to name but a few – have discovered that dogs’ brains release hormones, as with humans, that are 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. Berns, the first neuroscientist to use MRI scans on dogs, showed that they do recognise humans’ facial expressions and will react accordingly. The ‘cow like’ eyes we all recognise are a result of selective breeding, but the cocked head, cute expression may be utilised, after many thousands of years of domestication, to gain our attention! (NB – the dogs underwent months of training to stay still whilst in the scanner. The dog was free to walk away from the experiment at any time). So, yes, our dog is capable of falling in love and does not necessarily bond with you simply because you are the source of food and shelter! Furthermore, we have a responsibility towards our pet dogs as they were specifically bred with socialisation in mind; they are capable of feeling acute separation anxiety unless trained from an early age how to cope with this.

The philosophical debate centres on the ethical treatment of animals. For example, is it OK to kill and eat an animal by virtue of our superior intelligence? We just happen to be top of the food chain and animals below us eat each other so, it must therefore, be OK. Or is it? This is discussed fully in ‘Animals in Translation’ by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Written in an authoritative way, without jargon, and aimed at the layperson. Grandin was the designer of many farming aids consulting with farmers and abattoir operators alike. To our knowledge, animals are incapable of anticipating death so, therefore, I would suggest a good life and a good death! Industrial farming is, alas, becoming the norm and is an ethical problem as well as a wider environmental problem.

On a more positive note, man has come a long way in the last couple of thousand years, and even further in the last four hundred years, with regard to the treatment of animals. In the early 17th century, the philosopher and scientist René Descartes philosophised that human beings were fundamentally different to other animals. He believed that humans have a soul that interacts with the physical body. Both act in the same mechanical way but as animals don’t have souls they are incapable of feeling pain. If we step on a dog’s toe he will yelp as a mechanical response, not because he was in pain. He therefore, had no qualms about performing vivisection on live animals!

Some would argue that it is morally and ethically wrong to be showing dogs, tied round the neck, in dog shows. My blog ‘Crufts: The Greatest Show on Earth or Animal Exploitation?’ discusses this. Given another four hundred years, will we be looking back on this with our anti Descartian hat on? That said, my recent poll showed that 78% of respondents were NOT in favour of outlawing Crufts and other dog shows!

Perhaps of greater immediate relevance, for example, are the questions, ‘what is the difference between a fear and a phobia?’ or ‘how does de/sensitisation versus socialisation differ to habituation’? Theo Stewart discusses the latter in her excellent blog here. Are these actually philosophical questions? Well actually no; thinking about it, it all becomes apparent. But isn’t that what philosophers do; think?

René Descartes: manic depressive or a genius?


On a happier note, Dr Berns shown here training a dog to feel comfortable inside the MRI scanner.


Pulling on lead and lunging could just be the tip of the iceberg!

One of the most common problems I witness, and indeed encounter as a dog trainer, is pulling on lead. Ironic that this is probably one of the easiest issues to deal with. However, combine this with lunging and aggression, it’s a very different story! The usual reaction of the owner/handler is to punish the dog with a lead jerk in an attempt to pull the dog back. Let’s ‘think dog’ here. The dog finds it self rewarding to pull and has taught himself that if he pulls he gets to his destination (sooner or later). It’s a self fulfilling prophesy. He does not have the cognitive ability to think it through; ‘if I stop pulling, I avoid the lead jerk’. The jerk becomes secondary, a mere inconvenience and he learns to deal with it. In a worst case scenario, he looks upon the handler as a challenge and/or someone to be avoided, leading ultimately to a deterioration in the dog/human relationship!

Firstly: simple pulling. Suffice to say there are as many solutions as there are dogs – there is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that we should teach what IS required rather than what IS NOT required. It’s easier to teach a positive rather than a negative! There may be one of many underlying causes, for example, poor or no training, poor leadership, lack of communication (encourage the dog to ‘check in’ with eye contact and a reward every few yards, all the time talking to him), lack of empathy, relationship breakdown; a plethora of reasons. The point here is that often we aim to treat the symptom rather than the cause. Whilst not wanting to dampen the dog’s enthusiasm, we can, without harshness, teach the dog that pulling achieves the opposite – a walk home! Ironically, the worst time to train for walking correctly is not when on an exercise walk, but on a shorter, training walk within range of home.

There are many Youtube videos showing this. Alas, there are also many awful videos. I would suggest Zak George, Victoria Stilwell, Chirag Patel, Steve Mann, Nando Brown and Ian Dunbar. Some of Ian’s videos, however, go way back and may be somewhat dated – draw your own conclusions. If it looks or feels wrong then it IS wrong!

Secondly: all this becomes serious when pulling culminates in lunging and aggression. Here we must ABSOLUTELY understand the cause so we may treat this rather than the symptom – lunging. We must train for and encourage an alternative and correct behaviour. The aggression may be fear based, stress/anxiety related, territorial or dominance. Each must be addressed accordingly through desensitisation and counter conditioning ideally by a professional, impartial behaviourist.

Here is a video with Victoria Stilwell addressing the problem of dog-on-dog aggression:

Pulling on lead and conditioned punishers is further discussed 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 potentially 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!

These related blog may be of interest:

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

Reasons To Be Cheerful 1, 2, 3.

Have you noticed that daily and whole life events tend to happen in groups of three. For example we get up, go to work and go to bed. To aid homeostasis and bodily rhythm, a twenty four hour period is divided into three groups of 8 hours rather than two groups of 12 hours. A clock face is divided into 12 segments, 12 being divisible by 3 and not by 10 as our EU counterparts may have us believe! Our lives are divided into childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Space is three dimensional. There are three point on a plane. Buses come along in threes as trailing buses tend to catch up with the leader which is doing all the work picking up customers!

We talk about dog trainers, school teachers and driving instructors. Are the three descriptions interchangeable? Well in theory, yes, but conventionally, no. Now let’s get serious and on with dog training! Is the dog a pack animal? It all depends on our definition of the word ‘pack’ – of which there are (you’ve guessed it) three. These vary depending on the context. For example, ‘an unruly group’, ‘a family’ or ‘a pack of cards’. Of course our pet dog belongs to the family, or should that be pack?

The ABC of dog training.
ABC = Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence. For example cue ‘sit’, the dog offers the desired behaviour, in turn we offer a marker, reward or both depending on the level of training. In the early stages A and B are invariably reversed – BAC – as the dog has no comprehension of the word ‘sit’. We wait for the behaviour to occur naturally or we lure the dog into position BEFORE cueing and rewarding. Victoria Stilwell shows this eloquently in this Youtube video………

The Three ‘Ds’.
The three Ds = Duration, Distance, Distractions. Once we have our dog in the sit position we then ask for ‘down/stay’. It’s important to set the dog up to succeed so initially this may only be for a couple of seconds before releasing. Duration is built up incrementally to maybe a couple of minutes. We then increase distance by walking away from and around the dog. When this is reliable we can then increase the level of distractions from the living room to the garden, working up to the great outdoors. Zak George demonstrates this in his various Youtube videos.

The Three ‘Es’.
The three Es = Encouragement, Enthusiasm, Empathy. An area of great importance. Mammals, birds and other animals learn best in a positive environment with plenty of encouragement from their trainer/mentor. For example, if we are told often enough that we are useless or stupid, eventually we will believe it. This is known as ‘learned helplessness’ and can have a profound effect on a vulnerable individual. Imagine the harm done if we add physical abuse! A rule of thumb is to ignore the bad stuff (unless unsafe to do so) and praise/reward the good stuff. Also to keep formal training sessions short, relevant and enthusiastic. Empathy helps if we can place ourselves in the position of our trainee.

The Three ‘Ps’.
The three Ps = Practise, Patience, Persistence. Practise for both trainer and dog is paramount. No two dogs are the same and there are as many scenarios as their are dogs! No two (or three) outcomes will be the same – at least in the early stages. It goes without saying that we must at all times exercise patience and persistence.

Whatever the circumstances we always set our dog up for success. In the early stages of training for example, we do not recall our puppy when he is running away from us. What he will actually learn is that ‘come here’ means ‘run away’. We should, and must, (I almost forgot to mention The Three Cs) communicate, be consistent and:- be cheerful 1, 2, 3!

Reasons to be cheerful 1, 2, 3 – Ian Dury 1942-2000