Category Archives: Trainer Talk

Barking (driving you) Mad

Dogs bark for all sorts of reasons, and not one of those is to drive you mad, although that’s often the result. Barking, like all behaviour, functions for the behaver.

Your dog is barking for a reason and lots of barking (often considered “excessive”) or changes to barking behaviour (increases or decreases, for example) may indicate an underlying medical cause so a vet visit is a good idea.

When modifying behaviour, we need to know what the behaviour is, when the behaviour happens and why the dog does it. Here, we are talking specifically about barking that’s considered “attention-seeking” or “demanding”:

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“Demand” or “Attention Seeking” Barking

We commonly refer to barking as ‘problem’ behaviour, but just who’s problem is it? Usually, it’s a human problem.

Of course, increased or out of context barking may indicate or lead to problems for the dog, but generally, help is sought when behaviour causes human problems.

Let’s consider the terms we use to describe this type of behaviour; we use terms like “demanding” and “attention seeking“, terms with connotations about how we view the dog’s behaviour and their motivations.

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It’s odd because all behaviour is demanding, it’s functional, the behaver uses behaviour to gets things. And of course sometimes, behaviour is used to get attention. Attention being a reinforcer of many behaviours for many dogs.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this; this is what you and I use behaviour for too.

Your dog is using his or her behaviour all the time, to change the outcome of interactions. To get things he or she needs and wants.
Indeed, we actively teach dogs to perform behaviours to get stuff all the time and we teach them, often unintentionally, to bark for stuff too.

What is your dog doing?

This type of barking is usually directed at you or the thing the dog wants e.g. the ball that’s rolled under the sofa; sometimes, they don’t appear to be directing their behaviour toward anything in particular and are just shouting!

The dog may make direct eye contact with you, may bounce toward you, may throw their head back and may even follow you to get their point across.

Balto shows how it’s done:

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This clip shows a not very nice demonstration (on my part); we were coming to the end of our session and he had been working hard, doing his best to calm himself.
We had just started to work on some handling work, which has caused some conflicted responding.
All this, on top of everything else, and then a break in opportunities to earn food rewards, is all too much leading to frustration related behaviour.

When does your dog do it?

Consider the context in which Balto is barking, above.
The picture we set up, tells the dog how they might expect to feel and to anticipate what behaviour they will need.
How do you think Balto will anticipate feeling and behaving in a similar picture again?

Look carefully at what’s happening just before and while your dog barks at you.

Whens often include:

  • you have food, whether you are eating or it’s food for the dog
  • you have a dog toy
  • there is a toy available or the dog knows where it is
  • you are preparing food, for you or your dog
  • you are on the phone or having a conversation
  • you are busy and otherwise engaged
  • you are relaxing

What do these pictures cause your dog to anticipate? How can they expect to feel and behave when they see this picture?

The clues are in what your dog is doing.
For example, you beginning to prepare food becomes a cue telling your dog that food will become available. If you have made that food available contingent on their barking, well, they’re going to bark!

It’s also valuable to make a list of whens for quiet too.

  • when is your dog not barking?
  • what are they doing when not barking?
  • what are you doing when they are not barking?
  • when can your dog just be?
  • what does that picture look like?

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Why does your dog do it?

Dogs do what works – they are very efficient at learning how to get things they like, and avoid things they don’t like.

When we call this barking ‘demand barking’ or ‘attention-seeking barking’, we are describing the function of this behaviour, the whys.

Your dog has trained you – they bark and you give them what they want. Don’t take it personally – dogs do what works and there’s no more significance than that.

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For lots of dogs, good or bad attention will quickly establish and strengthen behaviour.

Whys might include:

  • eye contact
  • smiling
  • talking to the dog, even telling them off
  • giving the dog the food or toy they want
  • allowing the dog gain access to the thing they want

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Why does your dog still do it?

Even though you might have tried ignoring your barking dog, they continue to shout.

When there has been inconsistent reinforcing and ignoring, off and on over time, barking behaviour will often appear very resistant to efforts at withdrawing the reward. This is likely because this behaviour works best in extinction burst.

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Extinction is not just for dinosaurs

Extinction happens when we break the associations between the when and why and barking behaviour.
When extinguishing barking the dog learns that there is no point barking at the when, because the why is no longer available.

So this sounds easy, right? Just ignore the barking, don’t give in, extinguish that behaviour…

But, and this is what’s driving you crazy, before we get extinction we get extinction bursts.

Extinction bursts are not just for dogs; this clip shows some examples of behaviours you might recognise:

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Problems with extinction: extinction bursts

If you have been rewarding barking behaviour and one day decide, no more, your dog may bark a little more persistently to gain your attention (hey, what’s wrong?! this usually works!) and when this doesn’t work, he barks a little more, maybe louder, maybe he jumps a little bit more too.
All in all, the behaviour gets bigger, just in case you missed it…

The problem is, that you are only human and this burst of activity may push you to the edge, and you give in. Now your dog has a whole new bigger and better barking behaviour to get those whys.

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Problems with extinction: intermittent reinforcement

If you have been rewarding barking now and then your dog may not notice at first that you have decided that today is the day for ending this behaviour.

This dog will try even harder and be a more persistent extinction burst-er.

Problems with extinction: spontaneous recovery 

Extinction bursts may lead to eventual reduction of barking behaviour but before that the behaviour will go through cycles of bursts and recovery…yep, the behaviour comes back before going through another burst and another recovery, over and over.

This is really difficult to maintain and live with, so we give in and we get even bigger bursts of demand barking.

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Problems with extinction bursts: frustration

Not getting the reward he expects may cause your dog to experience high levels of frustration. This can be especially relevant when we are talking about behaviour that is often arousing (exciting) so your dog may be too wound up and lose some control.

Frustration is experienced as an aversive, so may cause the dog distress. This can be associated with other things happening in that picture too, like the people or animals present, further damaging relationships.

And frustration can drive aggressive responding, causing the dog to redirect his frustration onto you, other people or animals present or even other things around him.

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Extinction doesn’t sound so hot anymore, huh..? 

Just ignoring unwanted behaviour (as is often recommended) is not good enough, easy, safe or effective.
Just ignoring unwanted behaviour isn’t very kind for dogs either, particularly as we are often not terribly consistent or clear with signals to our dogs.

For peace and quiet we need to develop a better program.

Achieving Peace & Quiet

Once we know the whens and the whys, we can begin to build a program to reduce barking behaviour and bring back some peace and quiet.

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1. An ounce of prevention…

List the whens in which barking is likely. What are the pictures in which barking happens?

Prevent your dog practicing barking; practice makes perfect and your dog is already pretty good at barking!

Before this picture even starts, give your dog something else to do; something that might make barking at you difficult, something that changes the way they can feel about that picture (instead of frustration, calming, for example).

Ideas might include:

  • move to another room
  • set the dog up with a yummy stuffed, frozen food dispensing toy
  • park your dog with a yummy Kong toy
  • throw the ball before they bark
  • use two balls so he almost always has one ball in his mouth
  • set up some sniffing challenges in another room or in the garden
  • move toys to areas that dogs don’t have access e.g. the bathroom
  • don’t give the dog toys at source, where you store them

What else works for the whens you have listed?

2. Remove rewards

List the whys that drives your dog’s demand barking behaviour.

Prevention might not work every time, especially early on when you are trying to establish the program.

No more eye contact, no more talking to him, no more giving him the ball…turn your back, step away, sing a little song to yourself, put the ball away.

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A little bit of extinction can be applied, only where we are working hard on all the other areas too.

3. Redirection

Barking is still going to happen. You are human. Your dog is a dog. Even when you have been doing your best with numbers 1. and 2., barking will still happen.

Don’t get disheartened. You can decide whether this is one you want to go for, or sit out and just let the dog bark. Get back on track the next time.

Redirect just functions to redirect your dog’s focus away from barking or whatever triggered the barking. It’s a bit of a quick fix to get some peace in the moment.

Redirection might include:

  • when your dog barks, move away from them and pretend to engage in some very interesting activity, with lots of ooohs and aaaahs. Continue this silly charade until your dog follows you to see what you’re up to.
    When they join you, interact with your dog, ask them for some behaviours or provide them with a sniffing activity, for example.
    Snuffling is my favourite point of redirection: it’s hard to bark when sniffing, and sniffing and snuffling can be calming and all-engrossing for dogs. Also, your dog already knows how to do this alternate behaviour – you don’t need to teach a new behaviour, just stick this established behaviour into existing situations.
    Lots of snuffling ideas below:

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  • when your dog barks, stop the interaction, go still and don’t reward. Step or turn away if you need to. Wait for the silence -this might be momentary. When they stop, verbally praise and make eye contact, smiling. Count to three before asking them to perform some behaviours or before engaging in some activity with them.

A delay is important so the dog is less likely to form further associations between barking and your interaction and cueing.

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4. MORE reinforcement

When people think barking, or ‘problem’ behaviour, their first go-to is usually, stopping it. But, that’s really the least efficient approach, and can even bring about some worrying side-effects.

Instead think reinforcement!
To reinforce behaviour means to strengthen it and when modifying behaviour, we set the environment up so that alternative or incompatible desired behaviours are more likely to be chosen as they provide the same outlets as barking.

Because we are working through the entire program, barking behaviour becomes irrelevant, inefficient and ineffective (Susan Friedman).

First, make a training mix using your dog’s regular food plus some yummies.

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Using the dog’s regular food as much as possible helps to reduce the addition of extra calories when working with food reinforcers.

Have small bowls or containers of your dog’s training mix or food rewards in suitable places; in situations that barking occurs and in situations that quiet occurs.
This will make sure you are ready to reward and catch your dog being quiet.

Food is not the only reinforcer suitable for this work, it’s just fast and is great for snuffling.
We have to remember the whys of your dog’s barking behaviour too. The new behaviours we put in place should function for the animal, in the same way as barking did in those contexts.

4.1 Non-Contingent Reinforcement (NCR)

NCR means that reinforcement happens, regardless of what behaviour the dog is doing.

This can be an effective approach for dogs who bark when you come into the house or room, for example. Step inside the door and immediately scatter food rewards.

What we really want to do here is to do the thing that triggers the barking, and immediately make food rewards, snuffling, the toy or a fuss and attention available immediately.

You are changing the meaning of that when; instead of it cueing barking, it means that you make the good stuff available, which cues other behaviours such as eating, sniffing, playing or interacting.

Protopopova & Wynne, 2015, found that this approach was effective in reducing unwanted kennel behaviour in a group of shelter dogs.

And Zurlinden & Spanos presented their work applying their quiet kennel exercise to hospitalised dogs at VBS 2020. I love this work; when a person showed up in the kennel area/ward are, they gave treats to the dogs regardless of their behaviour. Rather than concentrating on what the dogs were doing, the aim was to improve how the dogs were feeling, to reduce their motivation to bark.

4.2 Respondent Conditioning: barking interrupted 

Respondent conditioning is a way of learning about associations allowing animals to predict when something relevant is about to happen.

Adding a signal that tells your dog that something good is about to happen can be used to interrupt barking behaviour so that the dog engages in some other more desirable and incompatible activity.

We don’t really want to stop our dogs barking altogether but do want to be able to redirect their behaviour to stop barking if needed.

This signal, a kissy noise, is paired with a treat. The dog orients to you when they hear this signal, because it makes yummies happen, so that you can bring your dog away from barking.

Once your dog can orient to you, you can redirect them to another activity.

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Or we can teach a Shush! cue that means, search the floor for yummies.

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Payen & Assemi, 2017, applied a respondent approach to reducing barking in groups of shelter dogs.

4.3 Differential Reinforcement (DR)

DR means to reinforce another behaviour, that isn’t barking. The more we reinforce (strengthen) quiet behaviour, the less barking there will be.

There are several types of differential reinforcement. Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behaviour (DRI) is probably the most useful. Pick a behaviour during which your dog is quiet and reinforce that.

That’s why I like snuffling so much; it’s incompatible with barking, your dog is really good at it, and snuffling is reinforced by more snuffling.

Look at your list of whens, now turn those into snuffle parties instead of bark-fests!

This works well for door-bell-barkers:

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Some really intense barkers might require a more gradual approach to reducing barking behaviour. Instead of aiming for quiet, we might reinforce fewer barks, quieter barks, smaller barking behaviour (barking without jumping, for example).

Quiet or quieter behaviour make treat chases and snuffle parties happen.  Aim for at least ten reward-parties each day in relation to quiet behaviour.

Protopopova & Wynne, 2015, found that DR schedules may help to reduce unwanted kennel behaviour in a group of shelter dogs. And Protopopova, Kisten & Wynne, 2016, found that the use of an automated feeder may be effective in reducing barking by differentially reinforcing quiet behaviour in home-alone dogs.

5. Change the picture

Go back to your list of whens:

  • when does your dog bark?
  • when is your dog quiet?

5.1 When does your dog bark? 

Keep a log.

Record when your dog barks and what is happening just before and in the barking picture.

The things that make up the barking picture, or context, tell the dog how they are about to feel (perhaps frustrated at losing access to your attention, interaction reinforcers…all the whys) and what behaviours they will need (barking).

Let’s start changing that picture. Change your dog’s anticipation. Change how they expect to feel and behave.

The first clue to this picture is now going to predict some other, quieter activity.

For example, you just starting to prepare dinner or a snack, makes a fun sniffing game happen in the garden. Set up a sniffing course, find it with toys, or simple scatter feeding.

For example, you setting up to work on your computer, makes a delicious stuffed toy happen in their bed.

For example, you about to engage in some activity that does not involve your dog, makes a snuffle-party happen.

Make the trigger for so-called ‘demand’ or ‘attention-seeking’ barking a cue for something else that’s much quieter.

5.2 When is your dog quiet? 

Keep a log.

Being quiet is just like barking behaviour in that it happens in particular contexts; what do quiet pictures look like for your dog?

There are two things to do here; first, reinforce the hell out of quiet behaviour. Quietness is the most reinforcing behaviour there is.

Second, set up a settle context.

Make sure all your dog’s needs are met; they’ve been fed, had a drink, toileted, mental and physical exercise provided, they have had social interaction and company with you.

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Practice lots. Maybe you only get a few seconds of settling the first time, but keep practicing. The more you do it, in a similar context to how your dog would settle themselves any way, the more successful you will be.

6. Change the motivation

The clue is in the name; this barking dog is seeking attention, interaction, connection. Even when the dog’s barking behaviour appears to function to get other things like food or toys, that they are applying such big behaviour, often suggests to me that they want more than just that.

Despite how annoying their chosen method of communicating that need is, the dog’s behaviour is information and they need you!

Throughout our training program, as we have been working to establish quieter responses and extinguish barking, we have been applying lots of food and other reinforcers. That’s fine, especially for teaching.

Go back to your list of whys; the functions of “attention seeking” barking behaviour (again, the clue is in the name).
The new behaviours, instead of barking, must eventually fulfill the same functions as barking behaviour did.

Examine those whys. Now, begin to add them to the reinforcement strategies you have in place during training.
We are not removing the other reinforcers (e.g. food); we are adding in those other functions, i.e. your attention, interaction, connection. New behaviour must be at least as, if not more, worth your dog’s while. If we are replacing well established behaviour, we have a BIG reinforcement history to match.

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Teach your dog other behaviours, that are quieter, that get them your attention, interaction, connection.

Most likely, those quiet behaviours exist, or certainly did. We humans tend not to observe the subtleties of canine behaviour, and when we do, we often don’t think them relevant or misinterpret them.
Your dog was asking for you, before the barking escalated.

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Film your dog. Set up the camera and leave it running, rather than you holding it, in barking contexts. Review your footage and watch your dog closely. What were they doing before the barking started?

Because this behaviour wasn’t reinforced and barking was required, it might not happen any more. That behaviour didn’t work, and dogs do what works, disregarding the rest.

Film your dog regularly. Become more attuned with their movements, subtleties and nuances. Just watch them. Their behaviour is information.

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Teach your dog that simple, soft eye contact works. No words from you, don’t add a cue. No words are needed.

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Come do our engagement course, with your dog, and open up a whole new way of communicating and interacting with one another. More here. 

Reinforce eye contact by capturing it – this means to just catch your dog gazing at you. Make goods things happen when you catch them quietly finding your face!

7. Provide appropriate enrichment & entertainment

This type of barking may be telling you that your dog needs more appropriate stuff to do.

Unfortunately, enrichment, in the dog world, has become associated with elaborate puzzles and dramatic challenge that appropriate entertainment has been lost.

Before developing an enrichment program for your dog, or introducing entertainment, make sure you have a good understanding of what they need. Is it really more high octane activities? Is it really another tricky brain-game?

You’re in luck. We’ve done the work for you with #100daysofenrichment. All the background info you need to understand what your dog might really need, and hundreds of challenges for you to adjust for your individual dog. Start today!

Appropriate challenge helps provide dogs outlets for good stress, helps them build frustration tolerance and let them be a dog. Your dog would choose this for you both, if he or she could!

In summary

This has become much longer than intended, and certainly more in-depth. But you made it this far.

There are lots of categories of barking behaviour, that may be defined differently, but, barking, like all behaviour, functions for your dog. The program outlined here is specific to “attention-seeking” type barking, but this approach can be applied to lots of types of barking and other behaviours too.

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Not all barking is “attention seeking”, a lot of barking functions as distance increasing behaviour too.

Consider the function of barking (the whys) and examine the pictures/contexts in which barking happens (the whens).

  • collect the data: the whens, the whats and the whys
  • don’t just ignore unwanted behaviour
  • prevent
  • remove access to reinforcers
  • redirect
  • add more reinforcement: non-contingent reinforcement, respondent conditioning, differential reinforcement
  • change the picture (and consider the quiet pictures too)
  • change the motivation (your dog wants you)
  • add appropriate enrichment

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Transparency

This piece is a re-write from one I posted about four and a half years ago. I pulled it about a year ago, maybe a little more. I came across it, quite by accident, and decided that the tone no longer sat comfortably with me. It was a really popular piece, well-shared but there’s nothing like time to give you perspective. We are all learning and growing, me included.

If you want to read it, you can access it here. Use this password: transparency2020

It’s password protected so it’s not available generally, that’s all. I would prefer this be the Barking Mad piece I stand behind. You might be able to spot the tone and content that I don’t really like, or certainly, have moved on from.

Today’s piece sort of got away from me and is really a full dog-nerds program, but was inspired by some pretty funky “demand barking” advice being shared so I thought an update was needed. If I am calling out others’ advice, I may as well highlight that I too am not always happy looking back at what I may have done in times gone by (*cringe*). Fair is fair.

 

He’s not really barking…he’s catching kibble. 

Foundation Mechanical Skills

Online, self-paced, mechanics course for trainers, training enthusiasts and those working toward becoming a trainer!

Mechanical Skills

Do you remember learning to drive? It seemed daunting, and even impossible, that you would eventually be able to work all the controls, moving feet and hands independently and in tandem, while also concentrating on the road, changing the radio station and adjusting the AC.

Maybe you have taken dancing lessons. Learning where exactly to place your feet while marking out each step, movement and posture. After some practice, you are able to do these moves seemingly unconsciously, without too much thinking required.

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We attribute the term “muscle memory” to such skill building often experienced with learning to drive, dance, play an instrument or in sports.

These are mechanical skills and animal training is founded in mechanical skill. Not magic, or “instinct” or mystical powers as so many trainers and TV trainers attest. It just requires skill, knowledge and observation…oh, and tons and tons of practice.

We are sorely lacking good teachers with many believing that just getting behaviour, in animal training to be sufficient. Just getting behaviour is just not good enough.

Good teaching is particularly important for our animals learners, who cannot truly consent to training and who are vulnerable to the whims of humans. Good teaching is part of providing the animals in our care with good standards of welfare.

If you want to teach behaviour, get results and keep you learner happy and engaged, no matter the species, mechanical skills are the keys.

This program, made up of three component courses, will introduce the foundation concepts in teaching from setting up learning environments to monitoring your learner’s comfort, to applying learning theories and drilling mechanical skills.

Foundation Mechanical Skills Program

At a glance: 

When? You can start any time!
Apply here and let us know about your teaching and training experience.

Where? From the comfort of your own home, anywhere, any time!

Who? This course is for professional and student animal trainers, and enthusiasts.
This is a beginners course suitable for those who wish to build on this start, working toward becoming a professional trainer.
This is also a great revision and refinement opportunity for established trainers, who will benefit from structured work, with feedback.

How long? This is a self-paced course, usually taking 3 months to complete. You will have access to the online course area, materials and supplementary resources for four months from your enrollment.
There are three component courses taken concurrently as part of this program:

  • L1 Set-up for Success
  • L2 Fundamentals
  • L2 Clicker Mechanics

How much? Program fees are €80 payable via PayPal or bank transfer, for the entire program. Assessment submission is optional and costs a further €20, payable at submission.

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To participate, you will need:

  • access to suitable learner/s of any species
  • teaching equipment such as clickers, reinforcers and so on
  • appropriate places to work with animal learners, with a chair, table, bowls and so on
  • dice
  • a device and internet access
  • you need to be able to use the internet, blogs, Facebook groups and if you wish to participate to the fullest, be able to record and upload your short training clips
  • means to film your work for guidance and feedback when it’s posted to our Facebook group; it’s best that you can set up the camera or have someone else hold it so that we can see you and your dog.

You get: 

  • 24/7 access to the course online areas, from anywhere, for four months
  • optional assessment submission and self-paced learning
  • multiple media learning resources for viewing or downloading
  • course manuals and assessment portfolios
  • three courses with over 20 instructional and demo clips
  • comment facility at the online course areas for participation, enquiries, interactions
  • access to a Facebook group to post videos for feedback and to interact with participants

Topics covered include:

  • behaviour and environmental interactions
  • training session set-up and planning
  • enrichment and learner welfare
  • reinforcers
  • precision and competency
  • ABCs of behaviour
  • mechanics of reinforcement
  • markers, clickers
  • seven clicker mechanics games including positioning, reinforcer handling, observation and capturing

Your mechanical skills are the foundation for your teaching success and something that AniEd prioritises in all our trainers. Join us on this journey to building mechanical skill,  and lots of skills, ideas and knowledge applicable to all areas of animal teaching.

Corona Virus Policy & Pets

We have added some updates in relation to business and self-employment supports at the end. At this time, our policies in relation to client contact and sessions remain the same – we have not been exposed and will notify all appointments if that happens with alternatives or rescheduling arrangements.

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Our priority is, of course, the health and safety of our staff and clients. The COVID-19 pandemic is pretty scary, and we certainly don’t want to alarm anyone or appear to over-react. We have qualifications and training in animal healthcare, including biology and biochemistry, and are doing our best to take an evidence-based approach.

We also have staff and colleagues who are in regular contact with vulnerable persons so it’s important we bear that in mind too, in terms of transmission.

Straight forward information here:

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First, there is no evidence, at this time, that dogs or other pets can become infected and spread this Coronavirus.

You might have heard of a dog in Hong Kong that has been quarantined after testing a ‘weak positive’. It is likely that this is a result of environmental transmission, given that the dog’s owner is infected. The dog is not infected or showing signs of illness.

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But, pets and their belongings may be a source of transmission, if they have come into contact with an infected person, e.g. spread via touching their coat or bedding.

Lots of in-depth information here:

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For Human Courses

To avoid disappointment and disruption, we have moved all our (human) courses (for March and April) to online delivery and given our students a break from deadlines and course starts so as not to add to the pressure. This may be extended as required.
All students have been informed well in advance; last month, as we foresaw this development.

We have also suspended all assessment deadlines and course starts to further relieve learners’ pressure. Students can choose how they wish to proceed and we will revise again at the end of April.

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For training and behaviour clients

  • we ask that if you are ill, have been in contact with an infected person and/or have been in a relevant country or area within the last month, that you let us know before our session
    We will, of course, do the same and arrange alternatives for you.
  • you can let us know right up to the time of your session and we will discuss this with you – we are relaxing our cancellation policy during this time
  • if you must postpone your session, are ill and/or under self-isolation, that doesn’t mean we can’t train! There are so many things that we can do remotely via Skype or other tech and we use it regularly. Your session can still go ahead and we will still be able to provide you with top-notch service, instruction and support.
  • we recognise that lots of people may have to give up work (and salary) to care for children off school or due to restrictions in their business/place of work, for example, and/or invest in child care or pet care outside their normal budget, for example, and as such welcome you to discuss payment plans for any services
  • we tend not to handle your dog a whole lot during training and don’t often take your dog’s lead or equipment, for example, and from now on, we won’t do that at all during sessions unless absolutely necessary (for safety).
    Disinfectant wipes can be used on equipment after handling, for example. We will be using disinfectant wipes on any equipment we share with you too.
  • we will wash our hands regularly throughout the day, whenever possible, and will apply appropriate hand sanitiser before entering your home.
    Hand sanitiser can pose a health risk (alcohol poisoning) to pets so we will not apply it during our work with you and your pet.
    We will not be booking consecutive sessions at this time, so will not be moving from one house to another. This allows us to change and clean up before attending a session.
  • We won’t shake hands when meeting with you, as we so often do, and will follow social distancing guidelines during sessions too.
    To aid this, we request that only a small number of family members participate, ideally just the primary care giver/s. Don’t worry, we will send you your report/handbook with lots of videos and resources so everyone can practice.

Our Corona Virus Policy can be downloaded here.

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#100daysofenrichment

Given this ongoing shut down affecting normal life, we also want to make sure you feel that you have continued support for you and your pet. Isolation, and indeed panic, can affect mental health too. Advice here for dealing with concerns, anxiety and maintaining your mental health; from the NY Times, A Brain Hack to Break the Coronoavirus Anxiety Cycle, and I think this from AFSP is particularly helpful and practical: Taking Care of your Mental Health in the Face of Uncertainty.

We are, as dog trainers, limited in what we can do but certainly want to do what we can!

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To help, we will be running another REBOOT of #100daysofenrichment again next week. Subscribe to this blog and each day’s challenges will be sent to your email inbox every morning.

Join our Facebook group to share your experiences, interact with other participating pet owners, have some fun and bask in the loveliness of this group of devoted enrichers. More on this to come!

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General Guidelines

The keys to limiting spread (and ‘flattening the curve’) include:

  • wash your hands properly and regularly (sing “Happy Birthday!” twice while hand washing)
    We are particularly interested in behavioural science; here is more on this new hand washing trend from a behavioural sciences point of view.

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  • use hand sanitiser (at least 60% alcohol) when you can’t wash your hands and keep it away from pets; let it dry into your hands before touching your pet or their belongings
  • maintain social distancing (at least 2m)

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  • avoid hand-to-face actions
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Download a printable PDF of this comic from The Oatmeal here.

Check out this instruction on teaching yourself, using behaviour science, to reduce face touching:

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  • comply with guidelines in relation to social gatherings, self-isolation and so on
  • there is no need to wear a mask unless you are concerned you might spread disease
  • look out for and help vulnerable individuals while maintaining caution
  • use appropriate cleaners to clean and disinfect surfaces you touch and handle regularly

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Caring for your pets:

  • make sure you have enough of any specific food or medications for your pet for two weeks, in case you can’t get to a shop, the vet, or order online
  • construct an emergency plan for your pets, just in case you are taken ill or must go to hospital, e.g. who will care for them, how will they be exercised. Discuss their care with a trusted person and make sure your pet has some time to become familiar with them, especially them entering your home
  • if you become ill, you are advised to reduce contact with pets, as with other family members. If you must care for your pet while ill, wear a mask during contact and close-up interaction, and wash your hands before and after contact.
    Clean pet equipment carefully and regularly.

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This is an evolving policy as things are changing fast, but we will keep you all updated with changes as we go.

Business procedures and concerns

Aside from illness, economical concerns are also running high and it’s likely that small businesses and the self-employed will be hardest hit.

First, play safe!

You are welcome to pull from our policy and resources for your own needs. Different pet businesses will require different procedures, however, that aren’t relevant to our policy.

For example, you might need to add some variation of the following:

  • organise electronic payments so that you don’t have to handle cash
  • go to the client’s car to take the dog in or drop off
  • use your own lead on the dog
  • ask pet owners not to leave belongings with their pets, but if it’s required, e.g. bedding, wash it in a 60C wash before use and advise they do the same when taking it back

What other procedures work for your set-up and safety?

Consult the HSE, WHO, CDC, ECDC and Department of Health for updates and information.

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Business supports

Ireland, just today, has been shut down, to some extent, until 29th March. Small businesses, like ours, struggle in the face of even slight down-turns in trade, so this is likely to be very impactful.

We won’t know how much our businesses are affected by these closures, but it’s clear that we will have plenty of catching up to do out the other side of this. This means it may be important to examine your business planning and perhaps not invest in anything too hefty at the moment.

The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has announced all sorts of packages that may be made available to businesses affected – Minister’s announcement here. Summary here.

The Department is providing resources for businesses in responding to this pandemic here.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection also provides supports (summary here) and Corona Virus specific advice here.

How available these will be to individual businesses is going to be the responsibility of each business owner to investigate their eligibility.

More on Jobseeker’s Benefit for the self-employed here from Citizens Information and a summary of how to apply, in these extraordinary circumstances here.

In order to access information about eligibility and payments, I recommend that you apply for a PSC, if you haven’t done so yet. This will allow you to access everything you need online so may be important as this rolls on.
There is a bit of rigmarole in the application, with an in-person interview required in low-risk circumstances, but once that’s done, it’s all much easier.
More on this here: Public Services Card.

There’s detail and links with the Minister’s announcement including lower cost loans, expanded loaning, increased loan brackets; see SCBI and MFI. Discuss allowances your personal and business banking may afford you, should you and your business be affected.

I highly recommend you seek advice and help via your Local Enterprise Office; I have always found them enormously helpful. Enterprise Ireland also offer excellent supports and advice.

As scary as all this seems, it’s important to channel your concern into proactively looking into what might be available to your business, what you might need and the extent to which you may be affected.

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Take care of yourself. 

Being self-employed and working for yourself, can be very lonely. This is compounded even further when social isolation is recommended, on top of extra stresses surrounding work and fincances.

Having to take all this on, while also interacting less, travelling less, just having less freedom and being concerned about our health and that of our loved ones, is very likely to add to your normal level of day-to-day stress.

You are certainly not alone in all that.

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We have written about self care for dog trainers and related fields before here, and the unique challenges we often face in our chosen profession here.
Please take some time to consider how you are going to care for yourself during these testing times.
Reach out and create a community, or nurture the one in which you already participate – we will all need help and support through out…just via remote means rather than face to face contact!

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Collaborate & Listen

There’s probably not one among us who thought, with a lightening flash, that “I want to work with people…I’m going to become a dog trainer..
The term dog trainer is a misnomer; our most important role is that of people trainer. And for those humans, we are a teacher, mentor, coach and counselor. All because we wanted to become a dog trainer.

But, working with pets means that human behaviour is often a source of great stress and upset. We are drawn to this profession because of our love of animals (the non-human kind) and in our bubble, the culture is that humans are the ones doing harm, being non-compliant, not living up to our expectations and pet owners are easy targets for blame.

Wait a second. Isn’t that the blame we accuse pet owners of laying on their pets? Isn’t that the source of frustration and annoyance for us?

(Yes!)

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Them & Us

While there are certainly high expectations thrust upon dogs, we professionals often have unrealistic expectations of our human clients too.

It’s not just that humans pay the bills. Our human clients are the ones that will make or break any program we implement. They are the key to ensuring their pet’s welfare.

When you are in the trenches, it’s hard to see humanity in humans, sometimes. Our judgement will be affected by negative bias and confirmation bias, making it even more difficult to see the good in the world and that most people are trying to do their best.

This is a nice summary from Brene Brown: Top Tip: Assume others are doing the best they can.

It’s easy to become cynical. It’s easy to succumb to bias. And it’s all too easy to get sucked into the outrage generated so efficiently via social media.

But, this is infectious and malignant. This attitude spreads and is so often cultural in our industry. What’s more, it’s exhausting. And damaging.

We talked about self-care for pet pros last week (Take Care of Yourself.) and if you have read that piece, I am sure you will note that a lot of what’s discussed is in relation to managing our own behaviour relative to human behaviour.

I understand how easy it is to develop a less than positive attitude to humans. To do what we need to do, we have to collaborate; that’s what motivates us to help, that’s what keeps us in the game, and that’s what prevents the damage taking over.

Humans have a tendency toward tribalism (the trainer wars are real!) and we certainly don’t want this to impact our work with clients. Humans, with whom we must collaborate.

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Relationship builders

Our job exists to improve, repair, build and nurture the human-canine relationship. We build relationships with both ends of the leash – our job is unique in our position as multi-species teacher.

We spend a lot of time studying this odd pet-person relationship from early, mutualistic interactions to the modern-day complicated human-canine relationship.

It’s our job to understand how this relationship, this unique relationship before you, works for both species. That’s how we help. We tap into that and build and repair, improve and nurture.

Pet owners are going to have all sorts of expectations of hiring a dog trainer. Probably, most of which will be based on their experiences with TV trainers; these guys make their money by ridiculing pet owners, generating outrage regarding pet owner behaviour and doing it all for the camera.
Our prospective clients will be expecting that quick-TV-fix so it can be hard enough for us to sell our wares.
A new client is not necessarily anticipating a supportive learning experience; that’s on us. Our behaviour teaches them to expect that they will be judged and blamed, and that we will make things harder. Have you have uttered the line, “there are no bad dogs, just bad owners”; wonder why pet owners are slow to call in proper help?

We have lots of relationship repairing to do, before we even start and that’s just between the humans.

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It’s just behaviour

Human behaviour, while a source of frustration for some, is just behaviour. We find the notion of blaming the dog abhorrent because we recognise that they are doing the best they can in the environmental conditions we have created for them.

That’s how human behaviour works too. I’m sure you will argue that humans are capable of more cognitive abilities, more complex process, have access to information, and ultimately hold personal responsibility. I don’t disagree with you.

But, if I want to modify their behaviour (to modify their pet’s behaviour), that doesn’t matter. It’s just behaviour and I am going to approach it that way.

This helps me compartmentalise, it helps me analyse and de-brief. It helps me recognise when I have done my best and when I could do better. And it helps me walk away without bitterness.

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Preaching to the choir & stroking egos

The real inspiration for this piece is the proliferation of posts, blogs and memes shared among professionals, many of whom I admire greatly, that make fun of pet owners, take jabs at their expense, apportion blame and ultimately cause more separation than collaboration.

Who are these posts aimed at? Are we just preaching to the choir and generating cliques?
It’s easy to generate a band wagon, online, for all to jump on to. Maybe, we are stroking our own egos?

Our industry, for the most part, is barely professional, without professional standards and best practice. The way we speak about our clients hurts that even further.

I think a lot of this stuff is shared in joviality and with good spirits, and I bet lots of pet owners seeing them have a chuckle and move on.
I think many are shared without too much awareness; a professional probably wouldn’t dream of saying this to a client in real life, but there is some expectation of protection and feeling of anonymity online (and that can get us into all sorts of trouble).

But, it has an effect. It has an effect on pet owners, for sure, but most worryingly, it has an effect on pet pros. The words we speak (or type) inform our emotional responses which motivates our behaviour.

This thinking sucks us in, makes those biases even more effective, causes us to feel even more disheartened, and makes our job harder.

You need a safe place to vent and debrief. I would not deny that for anyone. And do it, but do it where it isn’t damaging and don’t live there.

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Collaboration

I have all sorts of goals for the pet-person team when I work with them, but my ultimate role is to improve the welfare of that pet. I really like people too (and I especially love human-animal relationships), and I want them to experience good standards of welfare too. If their welfare is good, their pet’s is likely to improve also. It’s a real win-win.

I need that person onside. I need them to feel motivated and empowered. I need them to feel supported. And I need to create a safe learning environment. I need all this to achieve my ultimate goals.

Regardless of how I feel about that person, or how much they are to blame, or how unrealistic their expectations are of their pets, or how they should have known better.
I must be able to empathise with them, understand their position, recognise their limitations and realign their expectations with reality.

How can I get their behaviour from where they are now, to where we need them to be? Certainly not by ridiculing them or targeting them, even lightheartedly.

My relationships with clients are collaborations. We exchange information and with that, it’s my job to work out how best to advise, support and coach. It must be reinforcing, it must be do-able, it must be empowering and it must be motivating.

But, that’s not the whole story. We have to ask the dog too and that means we need to put things in place, run the dog through them, and use their behaviour as valuable feedback on how we adjust and refine our collaboration.

Our client isn’t ‘them’. They are a valuable and vital part of our collaboration. It’s all us; the pro, the pet owner, the pet. No one part is more important than the other, and we can’t lose any part of the three.

Williams & Blackwell, 2019, discusses the importance of empowering our human clients to boost efficacy, just as it’s become on-trend to discuss empowering dogs in all our talk about choice and control.

Compliance in our industry is notoriously low. This accounts for the biggest complaint that pros tend to have about clients so it’s easy to see why this will have such a negative outlook on the human end of the leash. (Ballintyne & Buller, 2015)

This is recognised in other industries too where the client is required to make lifestyle changes like in human medicine, for example. Lamb et al, 2018, also outlines factors that affect compliance and at the heart of it, is us, the professional.

The same responsibilities we expect our clients to have regarding their pets, we have to them. If we are pissed because they blame their dogs, well, us blaming them is just as damaging to our relationship, to our collaboration.

And when that collaboration breaks down, it’s the dog that suffers. They are always the vulnerable party.

Push aside our personal feelings, our presumptions about the client’s intentions, and suck it up. We are professionals and our job is to collaborate to help the dog. And that’s well worth it.

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This is the focus of our Client Relations course, which is all online, is self-paced and allows you to develop knowledge and skills to best support your clients and improve compliance and efficacy. For more information, email info@anied.ie and I will help you.

Take care of yourself.

Recently, I saw a meme saying something along the lines of, if you died, your job would replace you by the end of the week but your family will never replace you so spend your time wisely. Something like these:

These feel good memes make us feel warm and fuzzy for a split second as we scroll by. But rarely do they offer any actual usable and applicable advice or guidance.

This one got me thinking, though; I’m often thinking about time and how little I have and how poorly I prioritise and look after my time.

I know that, while my clients and students might miss me, they will be able to source suitable resources or another professional to help them achieve their goals. I am under no illusions!

I love my job and I really do aim for 100% commitment to bringing my clients and students the best support.
And in doing that, my nearest and dearest are definitely the ones I eek time from to give to my job. An unwilling compromise, perhaps.

I am sure many many self employed people will find this familiar and as so many in our industry tend to run their own businesses, this is likely something that is experienced by my colleagues, my students and other members of my community.

Professional Boundaries & Self-Care

There is a lot of talk about burnout and compassion fatigue in our industry, and, I am sure, many others. And rightly so; in animal care, we are notoriously bad at setting boundaries and prioritising our own care.

Self-care is presented and often thought of inaccurately and this piece does a great job of clarifying what it should be: Self-Care is not an Indulgence. It’s a Discipline.

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This in-depth piece from HBR shows that Burnout is about your workplace, not your people.
This piece reports on a Gallup survey of 7,500 employees, finding the top reasons for burnout are unfair treatment at work, an unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from management, and unreasonable time pressure. These are organisational issues, rather than being under the control of the individual.

But this becomes more difficult when you are both your workplace and your people!

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Boundaries.

What are your boundaries and how do you set them? Be clear about both personal and professional boundaries and commit to them.

Things will pop up causing you to feel like you must compromise. Knowing your boundaries is one thing but it’s quite another to have the where-with-all to stick to them. Write company policies that help support you in committing to the boundaries you have set.

In the modern office-anywhere-and-everywhere, it’s important that you clarify and communicate boundaries in relation to hours of business, availability and responsibilities.

Use features on phones and messaging apps, such as setting to “do not disturb”, using automatic replies and redirecting communication to a more convenient medium, for example, instead of calling, please email.

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Setting boundaries can seem daunting; be clear in what you can realistically do. Decide what your priorities are for a time period – what are the no-go areas? This might mean your phone is turned off or put out of sight during family time, for example.

Have a plan for when you feel your boundaries are being pushed. Take a step back and consider your course of action, rather than just reacting. Maybe you need some time to consider how you will respond.

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Last minute appointments are not vital. Don’t squeeze them in if it doesn’t work for you. Remember, commit to what you can realistically do.

Giving free advice can be risky. First, know your worth and know that free advice is often not valued. But, offering advice without appropriate information gathering may be dangerous and ultimately damaging at a number of levels. We have responsibilities in our profession and gathering information appropriately before advising is important for safety and efficacy.

Make sure to communicate boundaries with your behaviour, and not just words. If something is not possible, it’s not possible. If you’re not available, you’re not available.

No is a complete sentence.

You can say no. Be polite about it and don’t hurt someone’s feelings or cause them to feel bad for asking. Redirect their behaviour and their request.

At the same time, you don’t need to be overly apologetic. Reframe problems into solutions; this helps your approach and that of your clients.

You can take time to think about how you say no, or whether you want to say no. Consider scheduling and define priorities.
Let the person know that you are considering their request and that you will revert as soon as possible. Don’t leave ’em hanging!

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Define your role and responsibilities.

What is your job description? Define your role.

List out your responsibilities to your clients. To their pets.

That’s what you can do and that’s all you can do.

In our world, we are all about the animal and its safety and comfort. We can find it hard to compromise on this, but if we are not caring for ourselves, we won’t be much good in caring for others.

But, we must also be all about the humans, and the human-pet relationship. Sometimes, we find it difficult to put the same emphasis on applying our skills to the human end of the leash. It takes practice, for sure, and unfortunately many trainer education programs don’t emphasise this understanding, but we do. And we are. Here and right now.

You can’t control other people. You can only do your best and you must commit to that. Be honest about your skill set and knowledge. And be your best.
You can’t take personal responsibility for others’ behaviour. Your roles are based in supporting, teaching, educating, mentoring, coaching, counselling. Be your best at those; that’s where your energy needs to go.

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Expectations.

How do you communicate the expectations that clients can realistically have of you?

They can’t understand your expectations unless you tell them!

What do they need to do to prepare for your session, how will you contact them, what are the sales T&Cs, what are your policies about cancelling, rescheduling, refunding?

What can they expect from you?

Be clear and communicate your expectations early on, before everything is booked and paid for. Before there will be confusion or disappointment. Before there is drama and distress.

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Policies policies policies

A big part of business planning must be defining policies, and related procedures, for your business, your company and the day-to-day running.

Define boundary-breaking behaviours that stress you out, or could potentially stress you out. Have clear policies within your business for these to avoid them becoming a problem.

Update your policies based on feedback from your business performance. Record data and adjust and refine regularly.

The biggest challenge for new business owners, is that you are afraid to let anyone down or turn away business. I get it. But, before you even start, you need to erect those boundaries and have your business policies reflect them. And stick to them.

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Stop celebrating exhaustion and over-work.

Compared to self-employed people, employees have a lot of provisions and protections in place to make sure they get appropriate breaks and have time off.

Do you know the legislated breaks and holidays for employees?
You are an employee in your business and it’s time you looked at making sure you have adequate breaks and holidays. Establish boundaries and policies and stick to your guns.

What do you need to do during down-time?
Sleeping, eating well, relaxing, taking time for other activities, hanging out with your nearest and dearest, having fun, resting. These are important for self-care so schedule time for them and don’t compromise.

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Take time. At work.

We can harp on about self-care, but as we spend most of our time at work, that’s where we need to start. If you don’t take that time at work, doing lots of self-care at home just might not cut it.

Work will become a lot more enjoyable, doable and successful when you define, communicate and stick to your boundaries.
Having a breather between sessions will not only allow you to reflect on your last interactions and plans, but also put your best foot forward for your next session.

Taking breaks is not a reflection or your commitment and nor is working yourself to the bone.

Don’t be a hero; take your break.

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Schedule smarter.

We can’t change the sleepless nights, the pressure, the buck always stopping with you, but we can schedule smarter.

Schedule time during which you do all the business essentials, including breaks and self-care.
Give these vital activities enough time and don’t just squeeze them in.

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What are the barriers to taking breaks or time off?
Collect data to investigate when is the best time, business wise. This helps you to best enjoy that time without too much worrying about what you might be missing out on.

Have specific time set aside to do admin and especially remote communications like emails and social media. It’s very easy to allow remote online communication and activity to encroach on all parts of your day.
That phone we carry around all the time allows us instant access to work and instant availability; even though it’s just one email here and one message there, it soon adds up, eating in to time needed for other work or self-care activities. This puts you under pressure, adding to feeling overwhelmed.

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Market smarter.

Market for the clients that you want and that your business needs. Charge appropriately to cover your costs and make sure pricing is reflective of the service you offer and expertise you provide.

Market for the clients that you can help best. Market your special skills and set yourself and prospective clients up for success.

Say yes to work that will enhance your skills, boost your confidence and provide a healthy level of challenge.

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Take time to debrief.

Schedule time.

Reflect on the challenges of the case, the humans, the dogs. Your performance.

Review one challenging aspect of the day, of the session, of the interaction. Learn from it and let it go. Acknowledge the things that went right, that you can build on.

Audio-record while you drive to save time.
What three priorities are you emphasising for that client? What challenges are you experiencing or foreseeing?

Talk to colleagues who will understand the challenges you face and who may be able to see the wood for the trees, when you can’t. This can be a tough business as we spend so much time alone, with our thoughts.

Make time to chat with colleagues who share your experience and can support you. If you must, vent, but don’t live there. Get it out of your system and move on – learn from it if required, but leave it behind.

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Take time to respond to things that wind you up. Don’t respond when you are upset. Let it sit for twelve, or even better, 24 hours.

Acknowledge when you feel overwhelmed before you approach the point of no return. Stop and consider why it’s happening, and how you can move forward.

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Understand cognitive distortions

Recognise the potentially damaging tricks your mind might play on you. When you feel yourself engaged in all or nothing thinking, catastrophising, succumbing to negative bias and impostor syndrome, stop and reflect.

You need a break to consider why you are feeling this way. Seek support from a colleague to help you analyse how you feel and decide on the best way to proceed.

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More on compassion fatigue, for animal trainers and behaviour consultants, from Dr Vanessa Rohlf here.

Although compassion fatigue is most certainly something that many in our field will experience, if you are feeling overwhelmed or down, there can be other things that might be happening.
This is important to address and this piece does a nice job of outlining alternatives: The Myth of Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Medicine.

These emotional challenges facing us in our work are, thankfully, becoming more and more recognised, which is excellent. Check out excellent resources and support:

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Challenges in animal care

Although veterinary workplaces are discussed frequently, lots of other pros in other areas within animal care may experience burnout, feeling overwhelmed and exhaustion. These industries tend to have less structure and fewer professional programs in place.

As animal lovers and carers, we are drawn to professions that challenge our abilities to cope, making us more susceptible to taking on too much.

We have spoken about dealing with these challenges as dog trainers before: Somewhere In-between.
And this is a great piece, from Comfort At Home Pet Services, on considerations for walkers and sitters: Are you emotionally ready to be a pet sitter?

Build your skill, concentrate on foundations and be the best dog trainer you can be: What the world needs now…

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The awesome thing for dog trainers is that we already have skills in modifying behaviour. Human behaviour is just that, it’s just behaviour. Don’t take it personally.
Call upon your skills: use management, redirection, differential reinforcement, make feedback available and meaningful, shape behaviour, and collaborate with the people you deal with. It’s just people training!

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Behaviour serves a purpose…that’s why we do it!

Behaviour functions for the behaver. This means that the animal is doing the behaviour to get things that they like or to avoid things they don’t like – dogs do behaviour that works for them!

Culturally, we are pretty obsessed with stopping behaviour we view as bad but to modify behaviour, stopping unwanted behaviour might be short sighted but often appeals to the quick-fix addicts.

Attempting to stop behaviour after the fact by, for example, administering punishers is so often too little too late. The dog has already got his jollies.

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Instead we prevent the dog practicing behaviour we don’t like (practice makes perfect, after all!) so that we can clean the slate and establish new, alternative, more desired and ideally, incompatible behaviour.

To modify unwanted behaviour, we need to know the whens, whats and whys.

How does behaviour happen?

Dog training is generally thought to be about telling the dog to do something, using commands and making sure they’re followed through on.
While that satisfies a traditional attitude to our dogs, that’s not really what’s happening at all.

Dogs do behaviours that work. These behaviours work because things around the dog, in the environment, tell them to do a behaviour to access something or avoid something.

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The things in the environment that tell the dog it’s the right time to do that behaviour are called antecedents (A) and the things they access as a result of doing the behaviour are called consequences (C).

When the A’s happen, the dog is getting prepared to do the behaviour and expecting a specific outcome. The A’s tell the dog to anticipate the availability of something the dog likes or to anticipate a way to avoid something they don’t like.

A little mention of management here, before we go on

The conditions in which behaviour happens, the A and the C, have nothing to do with the dog – they are in the environment. That’s why we say that behaviour is in the environment and not in the dog!

To stop behaviour, we must prevent the dog’s exposure to A’s and their access to C’s. That’s what management is – we stop the dog rehearsing behaviour by rearranging their environment.

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Management clears the way for teaching and learning new and more desirable behaviour, providing a foundation upon which to build.

Consider the function of behaviour when teaching new behaviour

This is Ollie and one of his awesome humans. He’s a puppy and has been taught that tugging the mop is the BEST game ever. This commonly happens with puppy behaviours – they are cute and funny, providing endless entertainment for both species.

But the reality is that, in just a couple of short months, Ollie will be able to quickly destroy the mop as soon as it’s produced and that doesn’t make it so fun after all.

Over time, his mop-tugging behaviour has become very intense, more so than with toys.

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Have a think about the A’s and C’s for this behaviour.

The C’s are pretty clear – there is a big pay off in getting to tug the mop; it moves and it’s soft and squishy, which are textures dogs often like to bite; this behaviour causes a surge in arousal with all the component neurochemicals causing him to feel good about it all.

Don’t forget the A’s! In dog training there is an inordinate amount of time devoted to discussion of C’s and not nearly enough about A’s and related factors.
As soon as Ollie’s human walks toward the mop, he is following and watching. You can see his excitement building with jumping up, trying to grab it, even vocalising.
He responds this way when in another room and can only hear the mop too! Ollie might just be a proper mop-addict!

He anticipates a whole lot of excitement when the mop comes out (you’re on your own there, Ollie!). This arousal means it’s really tricky to redirect his attention on to something else and to get him to let go of the mop.

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Modifying mop chasing/tugging

As soon as the mop comes out, Ollie is geared up for some tugging – that behaviour functions for him, providing an outlet for his excitement. If we just take that away, in that context (ABC), where does that excitement go?

Our goal in modifying behaviour is to teach a suitable alternative behaviour – what would we prefer the dog to do?
But that behaviour needs to also plug the gap of the unwanted behaviour so that the dog still gets his jollies, just in a more appropriate manner. The new behaviour functions for the old, unwanted one.

Often times, in reward based training (or what ever label you care to use), we get hooked on throwing food rewards at new behaviour without considering that there was a real need there, on the part of our learner, and a real function being satisfied.

When we remove that outlet for that animal, we may be effectively suppressing behaviour but because we are reinforcing a more desired behaviour, often with food, we think that’s ok. And it might be.
But, our training plans must include consideration for the function of unwanted behaviour, ensuring that those functions are satisfied.

(Want to learn more about this? Check out this introduction to the A-B-Cs of Behaviour webinar for the tools to design training plans. )

For Ollie, we will tick lots of these boxes, with the help of his awesome family:

  • no mopping when Ollie is around – management
  • short one to two minute training sessions of ‘leave the mop’ exercise in the clip above – he learns that he gets his tugging jollies when he hears “leave it” and that the mop coming out makes his toy available for tugging…we are switching up those A’s and C’s
  • continued practice on play and tugging in other contexts too to really get some control and responsiveness built in
  • plenty of outlets for normal puppy behaviour in lots of different ways throughout the day (#100daysofenrichment is great for puppies too!)

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As we move forward, we can start to build other alternative behaviours into this context; for example, the mop coming out means crate time or garden time with a yummy stuffable or sniffing game.
And we might use some strategies that have been successful with less intense mop chasers too.
Ultimately, the presentation of the mop will mean chill out over there but first we gotta make sure he’s getting what he needs out of this mop business. Training is a journey, not a destination, and we’re in it for the long haul!

Not the be all and end all

It might be strange for a dog trainer to say this, but I’m just not that impressed by obedience, by trainers barking out “commands”, with compliance and with expectations that their dog should obey.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching a trainer with slick mechanics work (and I especially LOVE the joy in their learner) or watching some really cool antecedent arrangement (management or setting the learner up for success); that definitely floats my boat.

Relationship and engagement produced through that is awesome, but superficial obedience and blind compliance; nope, not for me.

But, it’s easy to see why many will be enamoured by it.
I get it, pet owners want an easy life; we want dogs to slot into our busy lives and we certainly don’t want our dogs’ behaviour to embarrass us…after all, there are no such things as “bad” dogs, just “bad” owners, right?!

Maybe it’s the shame or dread of shaming.
Maybe we are still stuck in our cultural attitude toward our relationship with dogs; us in control and them being subservient.
Maybe we get our jollies by being in control, or certainly perceiving that we are in control.

Whatever’s behind it, understanding the time and place for obedience is important. Obedience isn’t the be all and end all, and sometimes it’s not what we have and it’s not what is needed.

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Is it really obedience? Or is it just suppression?

In general, pet owners want to be able to stop their dog doing unwanted behaviour. When we think of obedience, this is often what we are thinking of…how do I stop my dog jumping, lunging, pulling barking… or whatever.

If that’s how you’re approaching this, you might already be off on the wrong foot. Behaviour doesn’t really go away; learning means that neural pathways are established in the brain and that’s not really undone. Instead, we develop new neural pathways that produce alternative behaviours and we strengthen those, with repetition, so that new, alternative, and hopefully more desirable behaviour, is established.

Punishers suppress behaviours but teaching alternative behaviour is the real key to success. That means that stopping the dog practicing unwanted behaviour (to prevent further establishment) while reinforcing desired behaviour is the solution to training problems.

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Despite that, a whole range of products, equipment and ‘miracle cures’ are available designed to suppress behaviour. Indeed, that’s what most training tools do. Suppress rather than teach.

Those tools or techniques that cause the learner stress through fear, discomfort, pain, act to not just stop behaviour but to suppress it, convincing the dog that the world isn’t safe and that they better not step out of line. This looks like an animal who is quiet and tolerant, even calm. They stop offering behaviour. They effectively shut-down the weight of the stress being so great.

This clip, from Eileen And Dogs, shows some examples of dogs who appear biddable, well-behaved and even calm. But, look closely.
These dogs are still and frozen, moving or behaving very little. That’s what’s not right here – these dogs are not behaving as they would normally. Their normal responses are inhibited by the stress they are experiencing.

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I can see why this might appeal. Look how little these dogs are doing. Look how quick we got compliance.

But this isn’t real life. This is TV-training. And dogs are not robots. They are responsive, sentient, learning beings for whom it’s normal to react and interact. And when that’s not happening, something not’s right.

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Is it really obedience? How do we really get obedience?

What most people think of as training, or at least, as trained behaviours is probably not what they have at all. That’s because achieving a truly trained behaviour is not an easy thing. Simple, yes. Easy, no.

In dog training, we use the term ‘under stimulus control’ to describe a behaviour that is well established in response to a cue in a range of contexts (might be a word, body position or movement and so on).

A behaviour is under stimulus control when the learner responds to the cue quickly and efficiently, every time, the learner doesn’t offer that behaviour when not cued, the behaviour isn’t offering that behaviour when a different cue is presented, and other behaviours are not offered in response to that cue.

It’s also commonly presumed that the dog is responding to the verbal cue you use (“sit” or “down”), and even that’s in doubt with dogs being more likely to learn about contexts and your body movements than the words we use. (D’Aniello et al, 2016) (D’Aniello et al, 2017)

You might like to check out Dr Dunbar’s SIT TEST which asks, “does your dog really know sit?”.

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Of course, we probably don’t want or need rigid stimulus control in a lot of pet-dog contexts; we want to be able to say certain words in certain contexts and not have to contest with a responsive dog throwing behaviours at us.

Truth is, it’s vastly underestimated just how much repetition and consistent practice is required for dogs (and humans) to establish behaviour reliably. And then you add distractions into that and we need MORE work. The magic number of 10,000 reps is often used to help illustrate this challenge and while that can vary, to help your dog perform behaviour on cue in a range of circumstances is a big ask.

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Sometimes, obedience is just not the answer

Obedience can actually get in the way of what we want to achieve with our dogs, in some situations. And this is especially true if obedience is being held above all else.

Feelings first

Your dog is using his behaviour in an attempt to cope with the goings on and it’s a very honest account. It’s telling you how well your dog is coping, or not. Your dog’s behaviour is information.

If your dog is feeling distressed or worried in a particular context, his behaviour will let you know. When stressed, the brain is generally looking for a way out – how to get the body out of that stressful situation.

That means that behaviour will be related to getting away, escaping or delaying social interaction or to scare something away.

Attempts to distract, redirect or correct the dog’s behaviour will often rely on obedience – the dog is told to sit, the dog is verbally intimidated or is restrained in place.

For the most part, if the dog is trying to get distance, give it to him. Not being able to get away from something scary or overwhelming makes it more scary.
We are concerned with feelings right now – if the dog is stressed, not allowing him escape will increase that stress.

Better feelings bring better behaviour.

But the opposite can happen too – better behaviour will bring about better feelings. In this context, we might get the dog that distance they crave when they are showing only mildly concerned behaviour. Calmer, quieter, more polite social behaviour gets you distance – crazy dog behaviour not required.

The problem with sit

It’s good to review, to critique and we are doing that quite a bit in dog training right now.  One question we might ask is, why do we teach dogs to sit?

Sitting isn’t really a favoured position by dogs, in natural situations. They tend to sit mostly when they aren’t sure about something (we often call this information gathering) and they might tuck their bums in a sitting motion should they be uncomfortable with something around their back end, such as another dog sniffing them.

Associating sit with amazing rewards and being careful when we ask for sits will go a long way to keeping it positive and happy. But, when we don’t establish this, sitting, when asked, may not be a pleasant situation for your dog at all.

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Obedience classes in the face of fear

A training class will be full of people and other dogs, in a confined space, around lots of high value resources, with everyone on lead and a little tense.

Such is the understanding of the application of obedience, on a pretty regular basis, I will discuss this with a client who wants to bring their dog to an obedience class to help with behaviour related to fear, shyness, aggression, “reactivity”.

Putting those dogs in such an environment means that they will have difficulty moving away, achieving distance and gaining relief. And while their behaviour may be suppressed in this situation, so they appear tolerant, it’s probably not helping them feel better about being in close proximity with triggers.

What’s that dog really learning about triggers? How does that experience make that dog feel?

Obedience is not a priority for puppies

This by far one of my biggest bug bears – we have tons of time to teach puppies to come when called and walk nicely on lead, but such limited time to help them develop comfort and confidence.

Before puppy learns the rules of obedience, they need to learn the workings of their world. Obedience and even food rewards can mask puppy’s experience of their world around them at the most important time for them to experience that world.

Puppies must develop life skills, rather than obedience behaviours. Life skills build on behavioural tendencies partly inherited and affected by their first weeks of life, and by the time they go to their new homes we are rushing to make sure we make much progress as adolescence looms.

I wish puppy owners would spend time bringing their puppies every where, going for car trips, people and dog watching, helping puppy develop comfort with handling, grooming and husbandry, learning to play and engage with their humans, and being able to settle in confinement. If that was the priority, I would see far fewer dogs later on for behaviour work, that’s for sure.

Getting puppies out into the world and guiding their pet owners is the central focus of AniEd puppy programs.
Puppies learn to choose their humans, when they’re ready and they have finished taking in all the information they need to be comfortable; SNIFF, EXPLORE, OBSERVE.
Engaging with their people becomes a cue or signal from puppy that they are comfortable and confident with the situation.

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The beauty of this comfort-first-obedience-later approach is that you get really cool engagement and even obedience as a side effect, without much extra effort.

Think comfort first – if the dog is comfortable, their behaviour will follow and we can build obedience behaviours into that, if you like.

Make dog walks more dog

A simple way to reduce the pressure and add a little more dog to your dog’s life is to re-think your dog’s walks.

When it’s safe, let your dog be a dog. Let him sniff (and sniff and sniff and sniff and sniff…), let him wander and roam (safely), let them roll and dig.

Take the pressure off, loosen the lead, prioritise quality over quantity, don’t get hung up on walking in front. Obedience doesn’t need to be front and centre when you take your dog out.

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You’re dog’s not broken. You don’t need to fix him.

All behaviour functions for the animal. Generally, dogs are doing behaviour that gets them things they like and allows them to avoid things they don’t like.

Your dog’s behaviour isn’t and can’t be “bad”. It’s just behaviour.

Most of the unwanted behaviours that dogs do, are normal dog behaviours. Behaviours that dogs need to do. That are inbuilt and part of the package.

We have made arbitrary rules about the sorts of dog behaviours we like and don’t like. Dogs don’t know about that until we try to reshape their experience with human-imposed-obedience.

Dogs must get to be dogs. Meeting their needs will provide a better more solid foundation for appropriate behaviour than obedience alone.

Dogs are not robots. Sometimes they can’t obey.

Obedience is a human made construct based on our arbitrary rules for how dogs should behave in the human world. The dog is often the last to find out about it.

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When a dog can’t or doesn’t comply, the first thing I look at is the environment. Remember, behaviour is in the environment, not in the dog.
The environment is causing the dog discomfort and for obedience, there first must be comfort.

Maybe the goings on are causing the dog to feel over excited, worried, cold or too hot,  maybe they are conflicted or distracted.

Maybe our training isn’t so hot, maybe we just are not close to sufficient stimulus control so your dog doesn’t know how to respond in these new or overwhelming conditions.

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Sometimes stress looks a lot like disobedience.

None of it is deliberate or willful. Behaviour is information. Listen.

If you want to really train, look at your dog’s environment and change it up so that the behaviour you like is going to happen.

What do we do instead?

I’m not suggesting that there is no place for obedience training, teaching behaviours and improving your dog’s manners. Training is happening all the time, regardless of what you call it or how much you consciously participate. Your dog is learning how to get the good things and avoid the bad things all day, every day.
Training just aims to make sure that the behaviours produced are ones we like.

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While it might seem like semantics, I suggest a mind shift might be considered. Instead of aiming for compliance and obedience, think about willing engagement, think about providing your dog with guidance in experiencing their world, think about letting your dog be a dog.

Sure, training is still happening but instead of it being obedience led, we can let it be a little more dog-led.

This doesn’t get you off the hook. I do think that most pet dogs need better guidance from their human partners. They need better and more outlets for their behaviour. They need more help learning to just be with their humans.

Your job is still to set your dog up for success, to arrange their environment so that they are safe, and to make sure they have outlets for their behaviour, constructing that foundation.

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We can provide all that, while getting joyful and willing engagement from our dogs, without ever mentioning the O-word.

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Moving to this mindset is what’s behind #100daysofenrichment – an entire ‘training’ manual without mentioning or prioritising obedience once.

Check it out here!

 

Setting ’em up for success

We often talk about it, setting the learner up for success…but what does it mean?

Traditionally, we think of ‘training’ as being about barking out “commands” and showing ’em who’s boss but now that we have a better understanding of animal behaviour and learning, that approach is redundant.

Behaviour is in the environment

That’s another one we say a lot: behaviour is in the environment, not in the dog. Behaviour doesn’t happen in isolation; your dog does behaviour in certain conditions. These are the Whens and Whys of behaviour.

When does your dog do a behaviour (any behaviour)?
Who’s present? What’s just happened? Where are you? What have you just done? Any and all of those things might cause or trigger behaviour.

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Why does your dog do a behaviour (any behaviour)?
What does your dog get after a behaviour? What does your dog get away from after a behaviour? Any and all of those things might be the reason he does it.

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Behaviour happens in certain conditions for certain outcomes. Dogs do behaviours that work!

Teaching our dogs involves us setting up the whens and whys so they are less likely to do unwanted behaviour and to make it easier for them to behaviours we like. That’s setting them up for success!

Your dog’s behaviour is information

Unwanted behaviour, for the most part, is normal dog behaviour. We’ve generally put our dog in a situation that makes inappropriate behaviour happen.
We haven’t set them up for success.

That means our dog’s behaviour, whether appropriate or not, is information about how well they are able for that situation. Training gives your dogs the coping skills (behaviours) needed to deal with the environmental situations we put them in.

Your dog’s behaviour in a situation, gives you information about how well you have prepared them, or not.

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Puppy Party

Follow the progress of Bonnie’s babies on our Facebook page. We have been working with these six puppies who were born while their mum was in the care of A Dog’s Life. Bonnie’s babies, and Bonnie their mum, have been in a wonderful foster home, learning about life in the human world and getting ready for going to their new families.

At about 6.5 weeks of age, they came for a puppy party with a community petcare course I was delivering. This was their first big outing, away from their home and away from their mum. A BIG challenge for such young puppies that meant a longer car journey, crate confinement, a new place, lots of new people and all new sensory overload.

No such thing as “bad” behaviour

Living with humans, for dogs, is tough. We have made arbitrary rules about what behaviour is acceptable or not. Dogs are born with a ton of in-built behaviours that humans, for the most part, don’t like. We humans have come up with all sorts of inventive and aversive means to suppress this unwanted dog behaviour under the guise of asserting that we are in charge and attempting to mould them to conform to our preferences.

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You would expect that bringing six young puppies to a school environment would cause all sorts of chaos and put them in situations that allow for lots of mischief that people find inappropriate, and we might not want them to practice.

This is where setting them up for success comes in…

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Knowing all this means it’s my responsibility to help them cope. At just over six weeks, we can’t really expect these puppies to have many skills, but we have been preparing them by bringing them on short car trips, spending some time in crate confinement, meeting lots of new people and spending time away from their mum.

Training and appropriate exposure helps to set the scene and set them up for success by adjusting the picture so each puppy is better able to choose appropriate behaviour.

Behaviours of concern: distress related behaviour while confined in their crate during the journey there such as vocalisation, attempts to escape, squabbling with siblings

Whens: in the car, longer duration of confinement, intermittent stopping and starting in rush-hour traffic

Whys: frustration at being confined, wanting to move about, wanting to move away from siblings, wanting comfort or contact with human, needing to toilet, hunger

Setting them up for success: 

  • puppies were brought to an area where they toilet before travelling
  • puppies were brought to an area where they play before travelling so they were just getting ready to sleep as we left
  • puppies were given their breakfast shortly before the opportunity to toilet
  • I set the crate up in the car before bringing them out – the crate was lined with puppy pads so it wasn’t too slippy and was absorbent
  • one of may favourite puppy hacks is to smear the walls of the inside of the crate with something really yummy and irresistible
  • then I turn on the heat in the car, play classical music and we all bask in the calm!

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Behaviours of concern: toileting every where, hiding or escaping, chewing stuff, getting in the way, being distressed in a new place and without mum

Whens: in a new place, without their mum, access to lots of space, after a period of confinement

Whys: exploration, having fun, reunite with mum, to toilet

Setting them up for success:

  • get set up before they come in
  • cordon off an area of the room securely and safely, away from the door, so people can come in and out easily without disturbing the puppies
  • set up a blanket and toys from home that will smell like mum and familiarity
  • have newspaper and puppy pads on the floor
  • lots of places to hide
  • plenty of novel objects too
  • high value chews and loaded snuffle mat to engage with as soon as they arrive, that will keep them busy while they take it all in and will help with calming
  • having more chews, food and toys available than there are puppies – this reduces competition

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Behaviours of concern: behaviour associated with feeling overwhelmed at the new place and new people

Whens: once they arrive and are brought in

Whys: it’s all new and lots of new experiences lumped one on top of another can be pretty stressful

Setting them up for success: 

  • getting everything ready before bringing the puppies in
  • allowing them plenty of time to settle and find their feet before all the new people arrive
  • giving them time to choose how and when they interact with the environment and the people
  • no luring or looming from the class attendees
  • allowing the puppies to choose

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By the time puppies had explored and chewed, toileted and played, they were ready for another nap so were pretty sleepy when everyone began to arrive, and soon nodded off.

Behaviours of concern: vocalising, biting, chewing, jumping up, making strange and hiding

Whens: all the people are present, new place and new people, just woken up

Whys: experiencing distress or startle, to escape social interaction, hungry and wanting food, to toilet or to sleep

Setting them up for success: 

  • allowing them to wake naturally
  • having food and space to toilet available immediately upon waking
  • more stuffed Kongs than puppies
  • having attendees sit back and allow puppies to choose to interact
  • no picking up the puppies
  • giving clear instruction
  • teaching attendees how to interact (rather than emphasising how not to) and providing them with new skills and awareness
  • allowing puppies to choose how and when they engage and interact

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The puppies had a great time with minimal stress for everyone. We had peaceful car journeys, they coped amazingly well with being in a new and weird environment, they were friendly and outgoing with everyone and then slept all the way home!

Bonnie’s babies are ten weeks next Thursday and will be getting their second vaccination. By the weekend they will be ready to go to their homes. If you would like to add a fantastic companion to your family, get in touch with A Dog’s Life.

 

How can you set your dog up for success?
What the behaviours you might be concerned about? What are the relevant whens and whys?
How can you prepare your dog with behaviours for coping and how can you adjust the picture so it’s easy for them to choose appropriate behaviour?