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Off-leash puppy play…yay or nay

Off-leash play in puppy classes is considered the norm by some and abhorrent to others. This is likely because it can go well or horribly, horribly wrong.


First thing to understand is what socialisation is really all about. Socialisation doesn’t equal playing with everything or greeting everyone. Socialisation should produce social neutrality; your dog should be able to see another dog and think “there’s another dog…so what?!”, “there’s a new person…whatever!”.
Being so comfortable with other dogs or humans (or other goings on), that they are not cause to go bonkers, is the goal. They can be friendly and appropriate, but they don’t NEED to watch, interact with, pull toward, run up to, sniff or bark at dogs as they pass. 

Dogs who have lots of uncontrolled, high-octane play with other dogs, especially as puppies or adolescents, may have difficulty with this. They learn to associate other dogs with HIGH levels of arousal (stress), frustration and even distress; the effects of which can be addictive which is why they can appear to enjoy such contact.


Yes, learning appropriate social skills is important for young dogs, especially as we have only a short period during which we can do this really effectively, but we don’t want to magnetise our puppies to other dogs…the key here is learning APPROPRIATE social skills.

Emphasis needs to be on teaching puppies and dogs that focusing on their owners is super-rewarding, even in the presence of other dogs. Other dogs are part of the background, and that’s cool…but their owner is AMAZING!

As usual, this isn’t a YES/NO answer. Off leash play can be done well and provide benefits to puppies and young dogs, but unfortunately, it very easily leads to damage to social development and behaviour.

For it to benefit, puppies must be chosen and matched carefully and play supervised directly. All puppies should have some basic skills so they are not learning that the presence of other dogs means immediate crazy arousal levels, with lots of interruptions, opportunities to escape and plenty of breaks for relaxation. And throughout, owner education and participation should be emphasised.

We don’t always do off-leash play in class, it is not the sole focus of our puppy classes. Developing comfort, promoting owner engagement, and helping puppy-people build skills is far more important.

This is from our Puppy1 class a couple of weeks ago. Puppies, learning to chill on their mats with other puppies and activity all around. Their owners are learning how to use a high rate of reinforcement so that their puppies learn about owner focus. Everybody engaged with one another in a cool and calm manner, despite being in an exciting environment.

But, puppy class is just one hour per week. Organising little play dates with puppies and appropriate friends, in a more controlled environment with direct supervision is important too.

We can help with our PlayDates service, which is designed to provide young dogs with appropriate social outlets so that owners can work on focus, engagement and training exercises from class.


When we do off-leash play, this clips shows how we do it. But, it’s not the be-all and end-all – it forms part of an educational process, not just in the curriculum to entertain or tire puppies.

Crazy2Calm class – STARTING SOON!

Crazy dogs are often misjudged, much maligned and blamed for their crazy ways but that very crazy behaviour is more than likely associated with high arousal (emotional excitement), difficulty to cope with frustration and poor stress-control skills.


How might you identify a crazy dog?

The crazy dog comes in many forms, but in general these dogs have trouble with bringing themselves down after getting wound up; they might :

  • show reactive behaviour on lead or in confinement – barking, lunging, growling toward triggers such as other dogs, cyclists, other people
  • show attention seeking behaviour and/or bark excessively
  • have difficulty settling
  • have difficulty focusing
  • jump up
  • pull on lead
  • be excitable
  • be destructive
  • show frustration related behaviour such as pulling on lead, grabbing, vocalising when they want something
  • dislike confinement or being left alone

The crazy behaviour itself isn’t really the full issue, it’s more that the dog has trouble bringing themselves down from this high and often this manifests in over the top behaviour.

These are my favourite dogs to work with (and live with…ahem…Decker…) because they offer lots of behaviour (lots of crazy behaviour) and  are just begging to be shown which ones are more appropriate.


Crazy to Calm Training Class

This training course is perfect for those crazy dogs, and their humans but also for dogs:

  • who are expected to cope with pretty exciting environments such as dogs who attend shows and competitions, dogs who assist their humans or dogs who attend work with their humans
  • who have spent time in a kennel environment such as a shelter
  • who are working through a training or behaviour modification program to help with reactive or stress-related behaviour

Crazy to Calm class will help you to:

  • prevent crazy behaviour by giving the humans a better understanding of their dog’s behaviour
  • manage crazy behaviour by helping your dog develop better focus skills and improved on-leash behaviour
  • tackle the underlying causes of crazy behaviour by working on self-calming skills

We will do this through lots of games, using a high rate of reward with food rewards, interaction with their human,  toys & play.
We will not be suppressing crazy behaviour, as is so often the approach, but instead building more appropriate behaviour, while helping your dog learn to cope with excitement better – giving you both tools to harness that crazy into focus, fun and engagement.


  • 10 class course starting soon, Thursday evenings 7-8.30pm
  • 4 dog/handler teams
  • each class is 90 minutes
  • costs €250

You will have access to course online area where videos and homework exercises, along with comprehensive course manual, will be available so that you and your dog can practice at home and where you really need these developing skills.

You will need:

  • your dog!
  • your dog’s flat collar and regular lead
  • a range of food rewards of different values to your dog
  • tug toys – a longer one and a shorter hand-held one
  • specific mat or blanket (just for classwork)
  • a jacket or top with pockets to hold rewards (rather than a treat pouch)
  • optional: flirt pole
  • optional: a crate, at home

Course content includes:

  • human training
  • tools for managing your dog in class and crazy situations
  • settling & self-calming
  • mindfulness
  • focus & engagement
  • release cues
  • patience & frustration control
  • targeting and applications
  • handling comfort & restraint
  • on-leash responsiveness & behaviour
  • focus points
  • body awareness
  • confinement training & Crate Games
  • escape & emergency cues
  • play & rollercoaster games
  • appropriate application of enrichment
  • counterconditioning & trigger work

Register for class here, or email, comment here or on our Facebook page!

To know more about our training, check out our YouTube channel for lots of clips or our Facebook page for more information.

To the extreme

Reading my social media feeds this week, you would think that the only way to train a dog is NEVER with this tool or ONLY with this tool, to ONLY feed this diet because this diet KILLS dogs, to NEVER allow your dog carry out this behaviour, ONLY get dogs from this source…and so on and on.

I understand that social media, as a communication tool, facilitates this polarisation, but as professionals, surely we have responsibilities in recognising and understanding the nuances in human-dog interactions.

We espouse “science” and “evidence” bases but yet commit science- sins of absolutism and declarations of ‘fact’ and ‘proof’ based in anecdote and bias.

The bottom line is that dogs and humans have been together, in one way or another, for many tens of thousands of years (if not longer). Both humans and dogs are complex social creatures, who bring lots of variability and flexibility to the table. Dogs are super-dooper adaptable, which is a feature that has probably allowed them to develop such close and intense relationships with us.

My clients are, for the most part, regular pet owners. They have busy lives, to which their dog is an addition, and their pet must slot in. My job is to help them help their dog to do that.
In essence, what I am doing is helping them meet their pet dog’s needs, improving its welfare, so that their relationship blossoms.

Sharing extremes is likely not helpful. My responses to queries about trying or avoiding such recommendations tend to range from “maybe that’ll work” to “that might not work in this situation”.

Behaviour is such a loose and flexible phenomenon that binding it in absolutes is not helpful. Many, many factors contribute, some within our control and some without.
What works for this person, this dog, this context, on this day, may be very different for another person or dog, or another context or day.

I am not at all suggesting that rules and laws don’t apply to behaviour, but rather the application of same, in every day life, may be a greyer area altogether.

My clients need help fitting their dog and its needs into their lives. That requires compromise and discussion, rather than dictating and self-righteousness.
Social media is powerful, but can be a dangerous place for novices, who may be impressionable or naive.

Yes, lots of training-cultural norms need to be challenged and re-challenged, and I enjoy that and the accompanying learning curve, but not at the expense of discussion, preference and appreciation for variation in approach.

By opening up, rather than shutting down arguments for or against, we can debate and discuss, and learn and adapt. Absolutes and definites shut that down, scare away newbies and make dog training a dictatorship, rather than an applied science that can be molded and shaped to help pet owners and their pets.

Engagement…what is it good for?

Like all things that are the talk of training-town, engagement is difficult to define. We know it when we see it, and we certainly know when we don’t have it.

‘To engage’ is defined as participating, to attract someone’s attention, and the one I particularly like, to establish meaningful contact or connection.


Engagement, for me and the dogs I work with, including my own, is about the dog choosing to engage, wanting to engage, finding me the most rewarding, over all the other things.
And that’s the key; the dog wants to be involved and to participate.

You can easily see the value of engagement…it gets you great recall, it gets you nice loose leash walking, it gets you working around distractions.

Attention and focus and engagement…oh my!

Is engagement the same as attention and focus?
Well, yes and no. Great engagement will get you attention and focus, that’s for sure.

Attention probably means eye contact or something close to that. While focus may not necessarily require that the dog focus on you, perhaps on something specific in the environment.
We might teach these skills as part of working on engagement.


How ever you define it, engagement is chosen by the dog, rather than cued; engagement is not contingent on you having food rewards or toys.
The key to engagement is that you are not trying to get it, you are worthy of engagement and your dog fights to engage!

You can see that engagement is the foundation to teaching all the other behaviours; it’s what we build our relationship, with our dog, on and with.

Engagement is a two-way street

Making engagement happen starts with the human. If we want our dog to choose us, regardless of what else is going on and regardless of whether you have treats or toys, we have to work to prove that engaging with us is the best!

When the dog is engaged, choosing you regardless, he pushes into the learning and interacting process; he is more than meeting you halfway.

Here’s a clip of Decker and I, in a play-group situation with dogs of mixed age, sex, and neuter status. Decker is an entire male AmStaff (a type of “pit bull”). I have no treats, food or toys – he fights to engage regardless of the distraction level.


Spot the fighting to engage?!

Disclaimer: this was not intended to stress out any dog, but more so to demonstrate the ability to develop such owner-focus and engagement without the use of aversives. 

It’s never too late to start and it’s always worth it. But, it doesn’t happen over night – engagement is a journey, rather than a destination.

Join us for our trainer’s workshop on engagement, “Engagement – what is it good for?” during which we will work on a range of engagement exercises to build focus and attention, to proof distractions, and install on and off switches – all through fun and games.


Where: AniEd Training & Education Centre in Glasnevin, Dublin 11 (just off J5 M50)
When: Saturday 7th and Sunday 8th April, 2018
What time: starting at 12pm, finishing about 5pm
Format: workshop; all dog/handler team places are gone and there are just a couple of spectator places left
How much: €50 for one day, €90 for both days
Who’s it for? This workshop is designed for those who are working or training as trainers, or for experienced handlers training in dog sports
Booking: you must book for this workshop to ensure your place. Please email if you would like to join us.

Our Courses: Animal Welfare, with critical evaluation

At a glance:

When?: Course seminar on 10th and 11th March, 2018. Four months to complete optional assessment work from there – ends 31st July 2018

Where?: at the AniEd centre, Glasnevin, Dublin 11 (M50, J5)

How much?: Course fees: €120 includes weekend seminar, comprehensive course materials and supplementary resources
Assessment fee: €40 payable at submission

Who should do it?: anyone working with animals, for example, trainers, kennel and petshop staff, groomers, rescue staff and volunteers, and pet owners with a keen interest in animal care and welfare.

Booking: register here and we will respond to you as quickly as possible.
We will ask you how you would like to pay, and raise an invoice for you by which you can pay.
Upon receipt of payment we will send you your Learner Handbook and ask that you sign and return the declaration at the back.
A couple of days before your course starts, we will send you details, directions and so on, for your seminar and then you’ll be good to go!


Why do this course?

An understanding of animal welfare is at the core of what we do, and at the heart of every interaction. But, unfortunately, an understanding of animal welfare is poor across professionals and pet owners alike.
This is often down to a poor understanding of the approaches taken to studying and measuring welfare, and an even poorer understanding of the behavioural needs of animals, particularly companion animals.

This course aims to  help you with all that!

We will look at how you feel about animal welfare related topics, how to develop a good understanding based on reliable data and animal welfare science. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be scared of science – this thought provoking course will keep you busy that you won’t even realise we are applying science approaches to animal welfare!


What will you learn?

This course comprises seven parts:

Part 1: Critical Evaluation
Part 2: What is Animal Welfare?
Part 3: Animal Welfare Science
Part 4: Animal Welfare Ethics
Part 5: Animal Welfare Legislation
Part 6: Assessing Animal Welfare
Part 7: Improving Animal Welfare

Part 1 Critical Evaluation:

It’s truly wonderful that we live in an age where reliable information (and lots of not-so-reliable information) about animals is available at the touch of a button.
But, with so much information bombarding us, it can be difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Critical evaluation skills are essential in the information age, and especially when we are looking at such emotive topics.

It helps us directly with our studies of animal welfare, given the very definition and our approach to studying welfare; looking at the animals’ quality of life, from its point of view. Learning to look beyond our personal opinions, beyond our considerations to the bigger picture, to the wider implications.

Part 2 What is animal welfare?

Animal welfare is define and described in literature, and learning to apply this to real life is challenging. We will look at these definitions, how they apply, and how we approach our studies.

Part 3 Animal Welfare Science

This approach to studying animal welfare allows us to measure the effects of what we do to animals, and learn to evaluate how they feel about that.

We look at what animal welfare scientists do and why we need a science of animal welfare.

Part 4 Animal Welfare Ethics

While science measures animal welfare, ethics poses questions about what we do with that information.
Is it ok if animals experience poor standards of welfare? These are individual, cultural, and often biased topics, making it less clear and more difficult – thought provoking and challenging is only the half of it! You will be helped to unravel these puzzles for yourself.

Part 5 Animal Welfare Legislation

We will look at the acts of legislation protecting animals and the organisations charged with safe-guarding animal welfare, and their practices and efficacy.

Part 6 Assessing Animal Welfare

Learn to develop animal centered outcomes so that you can evaluate animal welfare from many different angles, providing you with a full picture.

Part 7 Improving Animal Welfare

Assessing an animal’s welfare is only the beginning…we will look at developing skills that allow you to assess and improve an animal’s conditions, measuring the effects as we go.


All assessment work is optional, unless you are completing a Specialisation.
But don’t worry, there are no tests or exams! All assessment will be conducted over a number of months, and as part of your course materials, you are provided with a study planner to help you organise your studies.
Even if you don’t plan to submit, you are encouraged to complete assessment work.

For this course, there are a number of assesssment pieces:

  • Q&A workbook relating to coursework, lots of which we will work on during the seminar weekend
  • a log documenting your journey to critical understanding of topics that you find particularly interesting
  • practical health and welfare demonstrations
  • constructing a welfare audit for specific animals

You have four months of complete this assessment work.

Register here.