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To drive or not to drive?

December 18, 2014


Drive is one of those words with multiple meanings, different understanding and one thousands uses and misuses. I may be perceived as getting a little too fussy over the words we use. I do not desire to be a grammar queen but will suck teeth when told “I do clicking”, or that I am a “clickerer”. Misuse that affects what we are doing or what we believe we are doing does not move our training forward. Misunderstanding of a word or protocol can shut out many beneficial options and misuse can lead to a confused learner and a disappointed trainer.

Drive flips between its use in respect of people and in respect of dogs and they can have similar or quite different meanings. We may be driven to work excessively hard, by our own ambitions or by others, or be driven to a state of despair. We can use it in sport: golf-balls can be hit by a driver, birds can be driven from cover. We can drive a hard bargain, drive home a key point.

Add our activities with transport and I count no less than 21 different definitions in a standard dictionary.

The ones of relevance in this case are the nouns: “energy, ambition or initiative”, and “a motive or interest, such as sex or ambition”. These have morphed to our field of training into a descriptive blend of the two for dogs that are “high drive” in their behaviours such as running in agility, heelwork or playing with toys. It also leaps into the field of aggression associated with high prey drive, neither of which should be assumed to have any connection.

On several occasions I have been asked to assist with increasing a dog’s “drive” for a particular behaviour or in general relation to training. This is similar as being asked to teaching a dog to “be nice”, or “be friendly”. The unspecific nature of such terms cannot provide us with a clear intention of what to train, what to mark, or click, and what to reinforce.

We may reduce our language necessities by using this short hand term when considering the dog or the behaviour globally but it serves us poorly as trainers when precision is essential to find successful solutions.

In the anatomical sense a dog with “good drive” is a motion that is powered from the action of the rear end. The dog appears to be moving with ease and lightness at the front and can carry themselves in balance because of the highly desired “good drive”. A dog lacking this structure will appear to pull itself forward from the front end, particularly in the faster gaits, often dropping their head to do so. It can indicate poor structure or a discomfort in using the power from the rear assembly. To describe this action in detail may be tedious by measuring the length of bone, angulation of specific joints, alignment of the hips and pelvis. But if we were attempting to resolve why drive is lacking we need to know exactly what angle is lacking, or why a dog is struggling to use the apparent structure with strength.

To explore drive and lack of it in training we need to find precision in our terms and description to allow us to focus on the necessary training.

I would prefer the use of several terms:

 1. Confidence

The dog has confidence in:

a) The Cue. When they hear this cue they are confident that they can remember it and respond without hesitation. This comes from extensive practice of comparison to allow ease of discrimination and keep the memory of the cue association fresh.

b) Knowing what to do. How to carry out the behaviour(s). This is based on careful construction of the learning and the components of the behaviour. When given the cue is should act as a release to begin the behaviour and the dog will set about the task with confidence knowing exactly what is required with no uncertainty. Teaching this confidence is based on a programme that suits this specific learner and the way they can learn without any stress.

c) Always being right. Knowing that when they respond there will no stress, uncertainty, anxiety or confusion. No punishment for getting it wrong, or being too slow, or going slightly off track by adding a bark, or paw lift or other behaviour.

d) Their effort will be appreciated. It will always receive reinforcement in one form or another. There is no fear that punishment plays any part of the effort. No “Yes you are right but …”

e) The environment. That if they respond to the cue the environment will not contradict the behaviour. If the dog is heeling with their eyes on the trainer they can trust they will not be walked into an obstacle. If the dog walks with you pass another dog they will not receive hostile advances or unwanted petting from people.

We are also part of the environmental support and cannot become a rule changer because of where we are, who is watching, our own nerves or inattention. We should be trusted not to become another person because of perceived embarrassment.

2. Preparation

a) They have had the physical preparation. They are on top form for the tasks and behaviours. Muscle development is thoughtfully constructed, fluent and easily achieved behaviours, stamina is achieved and there are no underlying injuries.

b) They have been mentally prepared. Training has included focus, mental stamina to reject unwanted stimuli, control of arousal and energy channelled at the right time towards the right goal. Excess energy is not wasted. The dog can discriminate between intense focus and relaxed focus.

c) Training above and beyond. The training plan has given the dog experience to a level well beyond that expected in performance or successful completion of the tasks. The training has included sufficient mental stimulation to keep the dog engaged and mentally active.

3. Foundations

These are the underpinning physical and mental skills necessary for the final tasks.

For a dog expected to perform they need experience of multi-environments that give stability in cues, reinforcement and chance of performance success. Reliable equipment that will not fail the dog when engaging, surfaces that do not present a hazard. The dog will build a trust in the environment and have generalised their skills.

A layered learning pathway that has built up component behaviours on a clear understanding. When expecting performance in the final behaviours which may be short and intense or maintaining a lower intensity for longer periods, any gaps in the underpinning learning will be exposed.

Experience that gives the dog many, many different and varied memories of success to call upon when challenged. Flexibility in training building strength, not uncertainty.


I have been told on more than one occasion that I am lucky to have such drivey dogs. [Teeth sucked, nostrils flared]. These dogs did not just land on my door step or drop from the sky in a drivey state.

Yes, they are easy to arouse to specific stimuli. This can be either and advantage or a disadvantage. I spend most of my training time channelling their arousal to a mutually beneficial output. Which means arousal can explode once they have run into the field but not before they have been released.

Yes, they are intensely driven to succeed at what they are learning. This is the blessing of training in the World of Always Reinforcing. Always. They cannot be wrong. In one way or another all learning, all effort, all discoveries are reinforced. This gives them lots of personal confidence to strive, explore, remember and listen to their learning.

Yes, they are always eager to train. This is partly the benefit of being naturally competitive with their house mates and because they enjoy their individual time with me that is the special sauce when training. Learning to be training mates has been part of our every day getting to know each other, becoming friends, finding what they like and what they don’t like.

I do not over train, 2-3 formal sessions a week with spontaneous moments of play and actions. Sessions are short and very sweet and at the pace of the individual. I do not compare the dogs or expect them to train to a specific time frame or agenda. I may be motivated by a point in the calendar but the dogs are only motivated by the immediate moment.

Yes, they trust their environment. I would not ask them to carry out a behaviour that had risk of discomfort or without being fully prepared. If I inverted my brain and took them to a school for a petting fest then they would be given plenty of preparation.

Yes, they look fit, fluent and balanced. I will invest my time and experience in building their fitness, no short cuts or rushed expectations. No unnatural movements and they are deliberately developed in what they are good at, not what they would struggle to achieve.

Given these ingredients and a good dollop to time drive will emerge naturally.

The dogs that I train now are lucky to ride on the shoulders of all my dogs that I have trained in the past. The dogs that I expected too much of in conditions for which I lacked giving the proper preparation. The dogs that carried me over my shortcomings of which I am now aware of and appreciative. The dogs that needed me to be consistent in all environments and trained me to manage my own emotional responses.

There is no short cut to building amazing dogs that can share a performance, a task or every day jobs with us. Confidence in each other is a two-way channel and a direct result of the time invested in training and learning with each other. There is a unique feeling of partnership with a dog, whether it is on a mountain side with snow looming over your shoulder, in front of an audience of 300 or making a video locked forever in time.

Forced, or pseudo, training for “drive” may result in paper-thin arousal combined with stress which is not comfortable to watch or ask in performance.

Train for supreme confidence, with comprehensive preparation based on good foundations.

Let confidence, time and experience rise the dog’s natural skills and abilities to the surface. They will not fail you in this.



The Age of Objection

August 14, 2014

We are now rising 6 months and there are signs that all the carefully, thoughtfully taught behaviours are falling apart. Despite maintaining and increasing the reinforcement “mass”, the behaviours such as:

speed control: “Merrick” = run towards me and plan to stop
responding to cues: “off to bed”= in your crate
separation: “you stay there” = as I walkout through the gate

are deteriorating.

As to be expected. We are growing up. This is the onset of becoming aware of “cost” to responding.

Cues are opportunities for reinforcement. Recognition and compliance is desired, but she is now able to make a choice between compliance: which may result in a loss or a cost to her, and non-compliance. Decision making is an essential part of growing up. It is a skill that needs regular practice, lots of extensive opportunities to explore the results of her decisions.

She can run towards me and stop, she has done this 500 times. Now she runs towards me with building enthusiasm and skills for a powerful launch. The disruption and response that follows is, to her, greater than the previously established controlled affection. Yesterday when I returned from a morning in the Barn I waited 12 minutes for her greeting enthusiasm to reduce to a level that allowed me to walk towards the house I was were effectively “pinned-by-enthusiasm” to the gate. Fortunately it wasn’t raining.

Me ... digging?

Me … digging?

I notice this launch mostly happens when I am not fully prepared. I am sending out different cues to the “I am prepared for launch” when I look rather like a goalie in a hockey game. I absolutely have to have both hands free and full concentration.

When I work at the kitchen table I make habit of “sitting up” to clearly give the cues that I am busy and this is a time for you to do your own stuff. For the last 3 months when I am preparing to be busy I empty her toy box to the floor to facilitate “doing you own stuff”. The opportunity to play with Toy Box B (we have 3, each containing about 15-18 toys & Items of Interest, aka rubbish) is usually sufficient to divert her away from seeking interaction. What I now get is punch with toy “Hey …Play?”

My left thigh is covered in bruises as this is the only point of access. I have upped the do-stuff opportunities with more interactive toys.

There are several times a day where she cannot accompany me. I may be taking the collies out for a run, which is too fast and furious for young Gordon legs. I may be taking the very elderly Gordon, Tessie for an orchard potter and she does not appreciate the fly pasts from Merrick. I may be cutting grass. I may even be leaving home. In anticipation of these occasions she has been accustomed to good bones to chew, scattered food on the floor to search for or a food ball to roll around. In addition I have worked carefully on the process of going through a door-gate without doing battle around my legs. All quite successful.

The change is occurring as her needs change. As a 12 week old pup the food occasions were Seriously Important. As her priorities change, coming out with the group is rising up her list of importance. What was once an acceptable substitute is no longer sufficient. Food is gobbled in preparation of Serious Objection.

There is a fine line in the process where serious objection converts to serious distress. My plan is to shorten the periods she is left, but increase the frequency. With Flink timing her season as well, she is able to have company rather than isolation as they are both left behind. I would like to think Flink is modelling good behaviour. (Hopeful thinking?)

The strategy of diversion from the process of abandonment is running out. Abandon will have more impact on her as her need to be included in group activities increases – more than a need, her pleasure. Exclusion is as difficult for a dog as it is for a child.

The reality is that life has to continue at times without her. I would be seriously upset if separation did not bother her at all. We choose to bring dogs into our lives, not cats, because they enjoy our company and resist separation. This separation needs to be handled extremely carefully and empathically. The fallout is a lifetime of distress for the dog.

I would suggest the stronger the connection the harder the separation. When I travel I have “distractions” to bypass the feelings of separation. I would hate to be left in my home and have all the dogs go away for several hours without knowing when they would return.

Trust is part of being left – the pups must trust you to return. Even if they cannot understand it. She has learned there are different types of separation. If I go upstairs I tend to return quite quickly, there is no escape from an upstairs window. If I go out the front gate, it may sometime before I return. She is learning to discriminate between the two “left behinds”.

Separation can also be received as punitive, a rejection from the group. Second hand dogs may carry trauma from separation for the rest of their lives.

The strategies include:

  • As much as possible I arrange for alternative entertainment that is of value to her. This may be a special large bone to enjoy that I have saved for the worst occasions, when the other dogs go out for a run.
  • I try to vary the other dogs that stay with her. She finds different companionship in different dogs. But I appreciate that these adult Merrick-sitters are subject to some fairly tough treatment when they are the sole target of her “affection”. This is normally a shared activity.
  • Good stuff will happen in a moment. This is the group learning where a treat or dinner will be delivered to each dog one at a time. I use the Your Name protocol for the recipient. This teaches the other dogs, for whom it is not their name, to wait for their turn. This happens at least 5 times a day for dinner, treats, bedtime biscuits, coming through a gate, coming out of the van. It is an understanding that she is part of a group that is not centric to her. A key element to transitioning to an adult.
  • Many more short absences from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. I may need to pop upstairs to collect a pair of glasses. Carry a plant pot to the other room. Previously I would have included these activities as part of her learning curriculum to follow me, learning climbing stairs and engage in novel outings. I would have taken the time to see this as an investment in training, associating many words with the behaviours. Now her learning is about waiting quietly, I will be back shortly and learning to trust that exclusion is not personal, not a punishment, not time out, but simply a “you-will-be-OK-here” moment. I did consider beginning with this separation protocol, but I viewed the exclusion, as a 8-18 week old puppy, would have been considerably more stressful than as the adolescent puppy. As an adolescent she is very obviously choosing to spend time away from me – hanging out in the garden with the other dogs. This choice and confidence was not present until about 16 weeks.
  • Super training. This is an increase in her activity level within her developing physique. No heavy tugging, bouncing, fast running or excessive repetition. Walking along planks and having to turn around or sit, searching for treats on the staircase and in the garden, running towards a target mat and stopping with both feet on it. Outings to busy high streets negotiating many novel stimulus. Learning is very physically based, not focussed on remembering cues or puzzle solving. Her body is changing fast and activities that she handled 8 weeks ago are now not the same. Legs are longer and take more folding. Bodies take more turning around. Running through doorways has got more complicated.

I am building a relationship, not a piece of furniture. At the same time these stresses are being loaded by the kilo I increase the connection opportunities exponentially. This is often the missing component. “You are still loved, but your enthusiasm for life has to undergo changes, but you are still loved”.

No, that cannot happen: running into the house, leaping onto the sofa with a shovel full of wet mud and grass. But I still love you.

No, that cannot happen: running around hanging on the washing flapping on the rotary line. Why don’t you play with this instead.

No, that cannot happen: herding the collie that she loves so much he can hardly move with her hanging off his neck, tail, coat, ears. Being such a gentle lad with no effective way of communicating “give me a break” he needs protection. But we can play together in this game.

“When she is 3 years old you will love her again”.

I remember this advice when reading our Gordoner newsletter. I understand the changing physique and maturing brain will impact on her behaviour, her capacities and motivations.

This is the age, 6-16 months, that most people will begin to despair. The age when dogs are relinquished to shelters. The age that most people have serious doubts about their training competence, their decision to have a puppy in the first place and how they are going to survive. Despite investing 3-4 months of positive reinforcement into their puppy it can all evaporate in one teenage week.

This is the age when people need support groups, carefully structured physical activities (that do not include letting an adolescent dog run free across the landscape), determination to see puberty as “normal” and not a failure, bad dog, or loss of respect. If you work with the growing youngster during this period you will both survive with a strong relationship and the sort of connection that will last a lifetime.

Parenting this adolescent is a learning process to be regarded as a gift. It is the time you will learn more than you could imagine about rearing dogs. It is the hardest time, the testing time but a privilege to share the journey of an emerging personality.


We now have a workshop for adolescents:

Support and tea in great quantities.

What’s in a name?

June 12, 2014
tags: ,
Sunshine first

Sunshine first

Puppies study their environment with high level scrutiny, they are like mini-video cameras – they see everything. When I pick up the kettle I will walk to the sink. When the alarm goes off I will begin to stir. When the garden door opens birds will lift from the feeders.

Along with their observation skills I add “labels” to all activities, as if I was teaching a child our language. John Pilley in “Chaser: Unlocking the genius of the dog who knows a thousand words” carefully explains teaching Chaser from 8 weeks old the names of her toys and the activity she was doing, as she does it. Outstanding results. Although half my heart belongs to collies, I have no doubt many other types of dogs also learn our language – given the opportunity to do so.

Chaser’s proven results means we need to be thoughtful about how many words we use, and when we use them.

  • Food on the floor

This took 7 meals to learn.As with any associative sounds it needs to be regularly topped up to elicit the response. I reserve this only for the conditions “food on the floor – hurry, hurry, it’s going fast”.

As a gang racing to the front gate to greet the deliveries I can “cuckoo-whistle” several times and drop food on the kitchen floor. It is not dependant on behaviour, but the last one there gets the least amount of food.

For many people this is the start of their recall cue. It should elicit a run towards you. Because I begin this with my own pups at about 4 weeks, there is a very strong response to find what is on offer. This is respondent conditioning. It is not dependant on the behaviour of the pup for food to be put to the floor. As I scatter raw mince on the floor, the pups begin to search around. I make my “cuckoo” whistle, over and over again. At 6 weeks my pups can go into the garden and roam around to explore because I have a secure “collect the litter” call. Merrick arrived without this response, hence a necessity for a Flexi to go in the garden. But with four meals a day, often split into 6, I had many opportunities to introduce the sound as food was put to the floor. She recognised my routine of food preparation within 2 meals, and I could begin the sound whenever she was aware that food was about to go to the floor. With a multi dog household, food was always fed in her pen/crate to prevent the other dogs having a taste. The “cuckoo-whistle” would then send her off to the crate in anticipation of the food.

Heaven - sunshine AND turf

Heaven – sunshine AND turf

  • Upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside


Every route we take has a name. To begin with this occurs because the pup wants to follow you, or avoid being left behind. As you demonstrate your intent, you will see the pup anticipate your route and go ahead of you. If you approach your garden door you are most likely to open it and go out, not just dust the back of the door. As the pup goes ahead you can associate the name of the route. Useful when you need to pup to go downstairs ahead of you to avoid congestion. Useful because the pup can begin to learn words and sounds.

  • What you are doing

If we program our thinking to understanding the meaning of what we want, not what we don’t want, this begins our path to co-operative living, rather than restrictive living. I have a particular dislike of the term “leave” in a positive training environment. We may just as well teach “stop pulling”. It may be what we want, but it leaves the dog in a vacuum as to what to do. Are we walking towards B or going away from A? If we label it “go away from A” the dog may never arrive at B.Control your thinking into clear action – walk towards B – not open ended vacuums.I now can associate a cue “I’m busy”, when the toys are attractive and engaging for self-employment, and not me. This is not “settle down”. That would be a very specific way of lying down, or a specific location – in the crate. The only recommendation is that when you are “busy” you keep one ear open for ominous silence …. it usually means something undesirable is being extracted from the kitchen cupboard!


Most pups need a top up of “are we OK?” every 10 minutes, when they ask this question, respond, give them 10 seconds of Okay-ness and then turn away back to “I’m busy”. (I think a great cue for this would be “go do stuff”)

At the other end of the spectrum, I want to be able to work, eat, watch TV, and have the pup nearby but not interactive. I am busy. This is definitely a “go away from A” and you can please yourself what you do. I begin this when she is engaged with her toys, or playing with Nanny-dog, and I will be in the same room, but engaged in a non-pup activity. I differentiate between: sitting up at the table (eating, typing) and sitting back from the table (open to a pup conversation).

Not “leave” but “walk on by”, “look at me”, “walk this way” ……

This is labelled at every opportunity, what you should not be doing is never labelled. As I leave the kitchen and wish the pup to stay there, with the help of the puppy gate, I give the label “you wait there”. The same for the front gate when I go to feed the chickens. Going into her crate as I close the door, in the van crate. This will develop to a wait on the grooming table, as I turn to collect a different brush. It directly translates as “short term separation, you do not need to follow”.

At 15 weeks she has a building vocabulary:

Hurry-ups          go pee, I am following you with the umbrella and in my slippers, so HURRY ……This is the classic association-by-doing cue, and is useful over the dog’s life 1000 times.

That’ll do            end of game time, toys are going to bed.

Chase!                Run after the thrown toy.

Ready?                I’m about the throw the toy.

Tug-tug               Let’s skin this rabbit, pull, share, tug.

Go find               look for treats on the floor

Each toy is being named: dong-dong, chicken, bunny, rat, mouse, tom-tom, cucumber, banana, etc etc (I shop at IKEA children’s section). Make a note of the toy’s names – or as John Pilley recommends write the name of the toy on the toy in an indelible marker.

Destinations: off to bed (upstairs to her bedtime crate), in the car, kitchen, inside, outside.

My older dogs watching the kettle protocol: she make hot stuff, pick up and turn right, we’re staying in the kitchen, turn left and she’s going through to the lounge. As soon as I make the left turn they will have headed off to the lounge.

Actions: settle down (she is very readable when tired that she is looking for a place to flop, this will be: first choice: patch of sunshine, second choice: by my feet, third choice: her own bed.)

Walk on: when we are out and about and she is trotting along focussed on where we are going. This takes familiarity as at the moment “walk on” is about 2 metres before we respond to wildlife marketing.

Positions can be labelled: sitting, drop, standing

Am I teaching her a heel position or how to stand in a bowl? Absolutely not. Our most important learning is communication, language, relationship.

Labels to emotional states

Absolutely. I can see her getting tired, being full of joy, affectionate, alert, excited. I look for opportunities to associate my future reinforcers. When she charges towards me with her toy for a play time I clap. Feeding her treats I add a “yummy”, I use a whistle sound for celebration.

Love Person!!

Love Person!!

Long before any scientist studied learning theory, the traditional naming of behaviours was by telling the animal what it was doing as it was being done. I have eighteenth and nineteenth century books on “dogge breaking”, and “sheepe dogs of the north” and this was the successful protocol. All writers understood that a stimulus must be effective to trigger the behaviour before a label could be associated. Move the sheep in such a way that the collie needs to move to their left to prevent escape = “come bye”, walk up onto the scent of a bird hidden in the grass = “steady-up”

For any action that continues over and over again you can repeat the label/cue, as the action is repeating. It takes an impressive short amount of time before the label can be used to begin the action.

Probably the one label that deserves the most thought is her name. The choosing of a name is worthy of several hours of consideration. It needs testing before the pup has any idea of its significance, it needs to be shouted in public. You think it to yourself as you are with this new soul and feel the “click” when you know this is who they are.

Child was “Merrell” for a couple of weeks, and one evening when she was sitting on my lap I discovered it was Merrick. A quick trundle around Google found “The Merrick”

“The Merrick is the highest summit in Southern Scotland and lies at the heart of the Galloway ranges. …..Please note that hillwalking when there is snow lying requires an ice-axe, crampons and the knowledge, experience and skill to use them correctly”

Yep, that sounds about right! Scottish breed, knowledge, experience and skill to use correctly.

I have seen the recommended protocol of “say the pup’s name and give it a piece of food” become no more than association of food. Pup hears the name, stands passively and licks their lips. Huh?

I have no ambitions on becoming a food dispenser in my pup’s eyes.

I associate her name when: she is running towards me with all the joy and love a pup can have for “Person!!! Love ya!!”

When she is sitting on my lap having an affectionate cuddle.

When we re-unite after separation – our greeting sessions where we exchange promises of all good things.

When she hears me call her name I want an emotional response that encompasses connection and joy, not “got chicken huh”?

Merrick: Learning Happens Every Second

June 10, 2014

15 weeksNature has designed young animals to learn at an astonishing rate. They are sifting through all the information presented to them every second and filing away what is relevant, what may be relevant and what proves to be most definitely not. On top of this process relevancy changes from one week to the next.

The information is coming into their filing system through:

What they see and watch ~ many hours of studying people’s patterns, room layouts, garden birds

What they feel ~ through contact of their feet, their fur, how the air moves, sunshine and rain on their fur

What they hear ~ from kettles switching off, TVs, dogs barking, helicopters

What they scent ~ every item has a smell to assess, explore and memorise

What they put in their mouth ~ from toys to turds, it’s all about reading new experiences

At 12 weeks Merrick enjoys sitting in the garden observe life passing by. She used to only do this when I was in the garden, but her confidence and security has developed sufficiently to be able choose to leave me in the kitchen and take up her observation post. The luxury of a British June – doors open all day long. This is the same as every Gordon that has lived in this garden – the highest point with the best view, rich, passing air and sunshine of course. She regularly comes back to check where I am, usually bringing me trophies.

From her observation post she has learned where the Blackbirds are nesting, pigeons have sex at every opportunity (it is Spring) and the dining habits of all wildlife.

She potters around exploring the output from all the fine dining at my feeders, every turd is “smelled”. She has graduated from reading her own output, I can only surmise that there is relevant information stored there. Turds are no longer part of the trophy hoard, but we have yet to venture into the woods and sheep grazed orchard.

Trophies were acquired within a couple of hours of hitting the ground. This began with the bark mulch off the flower beds. Although fenced off for their own protection a small head was able to shop. Not a suitable source of nutrition for a 7 week old child. On the first occasion I swopped this for a tastier item – cooked chicken. On the 43rd occasion she had learned to bring me bark and on the question “swop?” she would go straight to the fridge for her chicken piece. Learning happens every second. That routine took 3 days.

We have matured from bark, to toying with gravel that tosses around the kitchen with great aerodynamics, doesn’t float in water (I even found a piece of gravel in the toilet bowl) and this week’s trophy is turf. Freshly lifted turf.

My available choices varied from punishing the behavior to reinforcing the behaviour and the rainbow in between. There are risks and advantages across the spectrum.

My developing relationship with is my greatest priority – far greater than any trophy, unless the trophy presented a serious health hazard. Punishment was not an option; I really could not care about a kitchen covered in bark mulch, a sofa littered in pebbles and shoes filled with turf. Punishment may also develop secretive trophy hunting where I would not know what she was testing.

Swopping the trophies for chicken increased the behaviour of her bringing me the trophies, but possibly not the behaviour of trophy hunting in the first place. I suspect that is reinforcing by itself, a part of learning. Novel items need to be explored for future usefulness and functionality. This is a developing creativity. Could punishing that inquisitiveness have long reaching effect on her desire to learn? Does the child that continually asks “Why?” questions become disinterested with “just because” non-answers.

By building up this aspect of her naturally curiosity and making sure I become an integral part of that behaviour can be developed in so many different ways in the future. We have an excellent carry back to me, with anything, her thought when she acquires q “new book” is to share it with me. Not her playmate/nanny, me.

I am pushing myself to consider that every action, experience, event, response has a purpose that can be of future use. I may not see it on first occurrence but I am learning to open my mind to the belief that every lesson is there for a reason.

Trophy hunting is about exploration in her environment. In later life we may put this under the label of “environmental enrichment”. At the moment I call it developmental enrichment. Along with her innate curiosity I supply at least 10 new “books” every day.

What does she learning from the activity:

Look at every object for possibilities: can it be eaten? Does it feel good on these sore gums (teeth start changing next week), can I build a nest with it? Does it fly? Does it squeak?

Strawberries are today's new story.

Strawberries are today’s new story.

Pouncing on it with her feet is a future kill-skill. Tossing it into the air is also a kill-skill – for particularly prey that can bite back – rodents. Biting it with different part of her teeth, at different angles are all part of the eating process. Bones just don’t slide down the throat unless rolled around the mouth in a particular way. Exploring new smells and recognising familiar smells. Bark mulch is no longer of much interest, gravel stones seem to be fading. I add to the smell-taste experience with foods. Strawberries and tomatoes are definitely pounce and fling items. Celery is a roll upside down and play with your feet. Crunchy plastic boxes and water bottles. Empty cardboard cartons. Rolls of paper towels, 6 new rolls of paper towels. (Shut the pantry door, was the human-learning here). Orange peel. Cutlery in the dishwasher. (Put the knives in top-down)

These activities are laying down a learning system that begins with observe, explore, scent, taste, carry, chew. Memories and reference points are a key part of life – so we do not keep making the same mistakes and we can learn what is successful. What is fun and what is boring?

At the same time I am part of this learning process, either as a consequence effect or as the originator. Do I have to teach her how to sit? Absolutely not. Am I facilitating her learning? Absolutely.

This IS nature’s classroom. A protected trial and error process that expands all her neural pathways for future learning. Protected from danger and trauma by supervision and safety processes.

Perfect childhood.

But as usual with perfect childhood, lots of cleaning for the grown-ups!


Exciting times – you have new puppy!

January 10, 2014


Better than all your birthdays put together. A complete package of such cuteness that your insides turn to warm caramel. A huggable, wriggly, kissing snuggler. Gaze affectionately at your deep sleeping pal and watch them dream of adventures in grassy fields, snuffling under leaves and sighing contentedly at your feet.

In anticipation of this living pleasure you blew your credit card to the enthusiastic pet store. A crate for safe sleeping lined with soft, cosy bedding. Expensive puppy toys scientifically manufactured to provide the perfect psychological enrichment. Food that would shame Harrod’s Food Hall with exclusive ingredients. Designer bowls that are just the right shade of colour and pattern to match the bedding, crate, cover and coat. A full wardrobe of miniature lead and collar, harnesses, jackets, brushes, combs and shampoos. Puppy pads for  accidents, extra fencing for the garden, a picker-up of poo and a lifetime supply of bags.
To follow the enthusiasm of your pet store you will be welcomed with professional enthusiasm by your local veterinary practice as they introduce you to the reality of private medicine. The gloom of future bills will be brightened by an insurance policy that will equal the equivalent of a small people carrier.

Three weeks of sleeping on the sofa should be anticipated to ensure you do not enter the nightmare of hostile neighbours. Puppies can scream for several hours, break your heart and kill any chance of your enjoyment of the following day companionship as they sleep soundly.


Six weeks of uninvited strangers fondling the cute package craddled in your arms. Your diligence at providing the perfect socialisation will introduce you to canine versions of paedophiles. Entire, large, mature male dogs seeking hormonal relief, with equally passionate owners full of absurdly mythical advice.

Nine weeks of boisterous playtime that you embark upon in the hopes of some quiet time when you may wish to go out for dinner.

Twelve weeks of life-by-chewing. Every surface that can be contained within the expanding mouth will be tested for taste, resistance to needle sharp pressure, nibbled for relief of boredom. That which is not fixed to the house will be researched for mobility and digestibility in both small and large chunks which may or may not arrive out the other end. Experienced friends will boast that lack of appropriate production will result in a four figure private medicine bill for the extraction surgery and after-care.

At this point in time the object of your emotional investment, increasing debt and loss of  social life will be planning their career path to Be More Dog than you would care to share your life with.

The illusion of pleasant walks will turn into a contest of wills, wrestling with ridiculous pieces of equipment designed to keep your arm joints in working order and a dog that embarrasses you at every opportunity. People that were previously gravitated to your package of cuteness now cross the road to avoid the pavement swimming, hoarse breathing, rasping, lunging, swearing alien.

A beautiful day at the park represents a frequent view of their anus and the finger-up tail as they disappear to spend three hours of cruising the local gangs and wildlife. A walk together is dismissed in seconds as their rising instincts sends them on a mission to seek sex, kill critters and eat rubbish in any order, or even all at the same time.

pups1Visitors find excuses not to come to your house. Dinner invitations have dried up. Weekends away have completely evaporated. Sales reps, delivery guys and your local postie have warning graffiti on your gatepost.

This bag of hormones will hump anything that can serve the function and respond to urinary messaging at every opportunity.

Playtime has matured to serious combat sport that requires dedicated clothing.

You are now ready to consider swapping this mistake for a loaf of bread. All the ungratefulness and lack of appreciation will dispel the fondest memories. You begin to take detours pass the local rescue centres. Can you stand the embarrassment of seeking help?


Taking on any young animal is a long term responsibility which will demand more time than you imagine, more expense that you could consider and a serious change in your lifestyle. That is the reality. Impulse buying the wrong sofa can be rectified if you swallow the expense. Impulse buying a puppy can result in personal grief for you and your family and quite possibly result in a very unhappy future or end the life of that puppy.

But, if a puppy is your life-goal then plan it well, consider the 15 year costs and benefits. Do the research. Visit dog training classes, talk to their clients, talk to the teachers. Feel the sharp end and volunteer at the local rescue centre. See the type of gambling you are toying with. This type of gambling is not just losing what you can afford, but destroying the well-being of another animal.

Research the inherited functionality of a breed, do not choose on kerb appeal or to compliment your ego. Reality is that collies can chase moving objects: every single car, bike, bus, lorry, bird, child, low flying jet. Reality is that gundogs want to hunt 12 hours a day though mud, pond, bramble and forest. Reality is that terriers can chase for England and kill ten Guinea Pigs in sixty seconds.

If you want a double-coated breed that is designed for living outdoors then seek a career with a vacuum cleaning company. You will learn more about the inner workings of all types of cleaning equipment and develop a seriously good tool kit for extracting the coat-wedges deep in the pipes. The insulating hair will coat every part of your house and have a particular fondness for all fabric parts inside your car.

Go to a breed show and talk to the specialists that have met the reality of their passion head on and still maintain that passion. These are the people whose love of their dogs is strong enough and big enough to see them through the tough times. The tough times are unavoidable, but with support, the inexperienced can survive. When they are three years old you will find you love them again.

Having done your research take a hard and realistic look at your life style and ask the brutal questions. Are you going to give up luxury furnishings, a pretty garden and change your social life? Have you neighbours that will ignore day-long howling whilst you work on your career? Will you be able to maintain the self-discipline to be up and out at 6am on a dark, wet, winter morning? Will you be able to give up the holidays, spontaneous weekends away and evenings out?

Will your love and responsibility be up to the high demands of parenting a young animal?

It takes an hour to acquire a puppy.

It may take many, many months before you realise that this was a really serious mistake. You may be able to walk away from your error, but will the pup?

Heaven is happiness in mud

Heaven is happiness in mud

A thousand shades of grey

November 11, 2013

The internet has proven to be as much of a blessing as a liability. My view leans towards the blessing but with an endorsement of: take care. Increasing knowledge must be viewed as a Good Thing. I have no doubt that clicker training would never have flourished so widely or so speedily without the internet. But as much as this is a good thing, the impact of YouTube has flourished some really bad techniques alongside some really good training. Telling the difference is the skill we need to share. That is nothing new, when presented with so much material enthusiastically wrapped in words of “expert” and “experienced”, be it on TV, books or the internet we have no idea if this expertise is just marketing, genuine expertise, or expert in their own opinion.

Skill sharing

The one skill I would like to focus our minds towards is the terminology or language we use to describe our dogs, their personalities, behaviour and training solutions.

I hope the days of describing a dog as “a bit nasty” are disappearing. Usage of that term tells you more about the user than the dog – their whitewashing view of a dog based on one situation. It is not that long ago that I had a client who commanded their dog to “be nice”. What in hell is THAT behaviour?

It tells me more about the user: “Do not embarrass me. Again”. It also tells me that they may be expecting some “not nice” response from their little bitch who has just tolerated an extremely rude and invasive snort by an adolescent young male. “Be nice” may well be the request to their over-whelmed little bitch to tolerate this offensive behaviour, but in fact the bitch may well interpret it as “I am not going to support you as my loss of face in the presence of my own species is more important than you”.

And we wonder why “trust” evaporates when in the company of people??

Consideration and thoughtfulness do not arrive overnight and it may take 20 years to make a significant difference to the view of every day folk towards their dogs. But we must make a start since the viral spread of certain terms are beginning to cause more troubles, not alleviate them. When knowledge travels down the social avenues it can be easily tainted and distorted with ignorant nonsense that relieves potential embarrassment.

The avoidance of blame for a dog’s behaviour is very often the lack of “socialisation”. Because of course the person did everything right, socialised the poor puppy over and beyond its skill level and now has a reactive dog.

Sigh. The modern label for a Bit Nasty.

Another laborious task for the overloaded dog professionals to fight against.

Reactivity can never be black and white

Or exclusive to Border Collies!


Reactivity lives is a world of shades, from:

White. Non reactive: severely depressed, mentally exhausted or clinically categorised as dead.

Very light Grey. Under reactive: showing signs of mental fatigue, tired of trying to react, on the verge of no longer able to respond.

Mid Grey. Averagely reactive: able to respond to changes in the environment, assess, and maintain an alert and watchful state

Dark Grey. Over reactive: scanning for all changes in the environment, orientation to the changes, increasing arousal, some time needed before returning to a watchful, alert state

Black. Hyper reactive: fast scanning and rapid orientation, high state of arousal, over stimulated by novel environments, extreme stress responses.

I think you may begin to sense my reactivity to the use of this term. If you exchange the term “react” to “respond”. It goes from a negative description to a normal, desired descriptive term.

All dogs should be responsive to their environment. It is their normal state of being, it has kept them alive for thousands of years. It is what makes them useful as alert guard dogs, patrol dogs – always scanning the environment with sight and scent for threats. Hunting dogs – constantly alert to the opportunity of (specific) prey. Dogs generally will be seekers of thrills and excitement; threats and events to avoid.

It is the State of Being Dog.


Anything other than a heightened degree of environmental alertness should be regarded as possible illness, mental fatigue, or as a result of aversive punishment.

This state of alertness is what makes the trainable dogs, super-learners. They become sensitive to our cues and develop the desired lightning responses that result in enviable “top dogs”. The skill we are using to our advantage is the same coin that makes them sensitive to their environment – all of it. If we want to pick and choose what they respond to then we need to invest time in teaching them that skill.

Today’s society is beginning to develop a non-reactivity as a defensive response. “Bovvered?” The youth response to being informed that their behaviour is not acceptable. We also have to shut down our response, or reactivity, to the behaviour of others. It is part of sharing the same environment or neighbourhood. The fireworks enjoyed by the few, but causing stress to the many. Noise, pollution, and all the other invasive events that we need to “not react” to. We are sliding towards a non-reactive society, or could we use the term non-caring instead? It that what we want our dogs to be as well … non-caring.

I wonder if living in that degree of stress actually causes more mental fatigue than we are aware of. Certainly when I experience the enforced proximity to the noise, pollution and behaviour of fellow travellers for long hours I can become tired. Perhaps that is my continual need to discipline non-reactivity? As we say when despatching a traveller – “may the seat next to you be empty”. That space around can make a very significant difference to your state of arrival. Why are the aisle and window seats always booked first?

Time and Space are your best friends

Whenever we disregard either Time or Space, we are in danger of compromising the dogs’ response and pushing them towards extreme, and stress-filled reactions.

An event happens, car door slams, and the dog is not given sufficient time to analyse before a response is required. The oncoming Person With Dog that arrives in the dog’s space when a suitable dog-response is inhibited by attachment to non-responsive person.

I am always in awe of dogs’ ability to seek the suitable response when given the time and space to do so. The dog that has been labelled as “reactive”, but when allowed to view the  stimulus at a suitable distance (when an alerting response is observed, but the dog remains able to respond to learned cues from us, such as a name prompt), can maintain alert, but not escalate to overreaction. If the stimulus remains at that distance for long enough the dog will have “filed” away the information, views the threat, and managed their response …. “whatever”.

We have thousands of such events to teach the dogs. Can they generalise? Absolutely. Given the valuable Space and Time strategies, which require patience and planning from the other end of the lead, the dogs can teach themselves when extreme reaction is required and when you can just graduate to “Bovvered? Whatever.”

I am sure most of you have experienced that drama trained skill in your dog. My adults are very skilled at playing “bovvered?” when a youngster tries different tactics to distract their engagement in the much envied bone, sofa, piece of sunshine.

I remember an occasion when information was withheld from me because the holder of that knowledge knew I would “over react”. Absolutely right. I cared very deeply about the consequences and impact of that information. Are we making “reactivity” aligned with caring?

Descriptive terms so often depend on “it depends”. It depends on the environment, the threat, the level of arousal, the previous 60 minutes of stress It depends on the experience, view and knowledge of the describer. If we are relying on terminology to label behaviour, mis-use can direct us to a solution of no potential value. That also presume that the diagnosis was correct in the first instance.

Sadly too many dogs are arriving at the Barn mis-diagnosed, with an owner travelling the length of the country and breadth of expertise seeking a solution that was never going to be of any use. Often this is a breed specific trait, an innate, selectively bred response that is dumped into a category that the behaviour analyst is familiar with.

Border Collies are reactive by nature. If they were non-reactive they could not function in their job. When a ewe ponders the green grass on far yonder hill, the collie has to read her aspirations and make a minute adjustment in balance to persuade her to change her mind. The collie will react to a yearning look that possibly covers a cunning plan. Not wait until she sets off with determination. Superb trait in collies …. reactivity. No shepherd would want a dog without reactivity.

NO dog should be labelled as reactive. Just as we should avoid the terms of “stupid”, “thick”, “crazy”, “freaky”. Laziness can cause us to be mean with words, choosing one word instead of an accurate sentence. This single word is inevitably inaccurate and it also colours our response, thinking and reaction.

How many shades of “friendly” or “unfriendly” should be we consider?

  • Friendly when proven to be safe to do so
  • Friendly when approached with respect and courtesy
  • Unfriendly when smoke-smelly hands wish to fondle our face
  • Unfriendly when open arms are intent on capture

… and all the shades between.

Remind yourself to always think in Shades of Grey, and being reactive, or caring, is more than a good thing.

Dental Treatment By Tug

May 14, 2013

I have just spent a happy weekend enjoying my chosen sport – heelwork to music. Quite a luxury weekend off but no time away from dogs or training.

Most of my business is spent in a wide variety of aspect of behaviour analysis, adjustment, modification and plain repetition – training. This has taken much of my free time since I was 19 years old to secure a good understanding of the underlying science. In them days there was not a lot of accessible science that I could understand, but exposure to trainers in many other fields, such as my colleagues joining me for a quick Caribbean cruise: Ken, Alex and Jesus have broaden my horizons considerably.

Ken Ramirez is from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He trains about 120 staff as trainers of a variety of over 30 different species, including dogs, and enjoys an extensive conference and consulting circuit all over the world. Alex Kurland is a clicker trainer of horses and pioneers the way forward in a environment fairly hostile towards positive training. Jesus is our academic inspiration, Associate Professor of Behaviour Analysis at North Texas University. He takes a great delight in sharing our philosophy and can provide the scientific answers that (most of the time) I can get a grasp on. This understanding, sharing and generalisation of our knowledge and techniques grows our education – and subsequently well being of the animals we love.

We share many of the common problems that arise from training with all species: communication & reinforcement. Neither Ken or Alex use punishment on animals that are  somewhere over the other side of the pool or field, or animals that can punish trainers in an impressive way. Their animals are never subjected to the protocols we often take for granted in sports-dog training. You cannot “wind up” a sea-lion to get a “more drivey” performance. Much of their training time is spent developing a relationship of trust and respect that evolves from a truly positive experience for their animals. The type of trust that means you can perform a scan on a pregnant Beluga without capture, box-load a fearful horse without force. They are masters are getting results that inspire through their elegance, understanding, and thoughtfulness.

And, yes, they need to get performance quality behaviours, often several times a day. Ever been to Sea World? Ken has worked with a team of divers and dolphins that performed a 22 minute routine with no food reinforcers. Neither did they require their teeth being wrenched out of their head by tugging.

Dogs are not helicopters

If we look at how they kill their prey it would vary from a quick shake to break the neck in the case of rats and small critters. A sharp side-to-side shake. Natural for terriers. If no more rats are presenting themselves, then the dog would move on to skinning techniques. For larger prey there is the grip to hold whilst the pack drag down the larger animal. For collies in particular they are designed to nip and nag, not maintain a continuous hold or shake. Our gundogs are extremely poor at grip. The jaw that is functional to carry will have a strong neck, but not a strong bite.

Much of the tug training protocols evolved from the bite work training for GSDs and their cousins to build arousal and strengthen the bite action. There is often an accompanying slapping or pinching to the body. This is a reflex designed for increased grip when hoofed prey to use their legs to strike against the body of their predator.

Building tug training with eye rattling aggressive techniques serves very little purpose for a performance dog. The dog is not designed to take this level of structural abuse, neither are your arms, hands, shoulders or neck. Continual wrenching of the dog’s head up and down will cause serious damage to their neck, tear ligaments and certainly not provide a good muscle structure that enables a balanced carriage in a dressage type of performance. Ever noticed your arms ache? Think what may be happening to your dog’s neck, back, jaw muscles, shoulders.

Ever seen your dogs playing together with this type of action? They may make short shakes but they certainly would not bounce their opponent up and down again and again.

Secondly our dogs are not designed to function in this high level of arousal. You may certainly function well with a level of arousal but if this goes too high, your ability to make decisions will be impaired, your ability to remember simple functions will reduce and you will become fatigued very quickly. Sound familiar? Just being around people preparing to enter a competition in a state of arousal and you will hear their voices go up a pitch, getting flustered is common, forgetting the routine seems normal and not remembering where the exit of the ring is seen repeatedly. You can smell the arousal anxiety in the people! Small wonder the dogs cannot recognise our behaviour under these conditions.

If we want to give our dogs an emotional association with the performance venue it needs to be one of security and comfort. Then they will be able to perform as they “do at home”.

Musicians, dancers, acrobats, athletes perform when relaxed, properly conditioned and comfortable. Sure they are motivated, but that is not the same as aroused. It is easy to mistake arousal for “he’s enjoying it”. When the muscles are tight or tense the performance will not flow. It is about conditioning good physical and mental technique.

Arousal does not equate with reinforcement. In fact over-arousal can put the dog in such a state they make more errors, particularly of the vocal type. It can drive levels of anxiety higher, if you saw this in a person you would call it “getting flustered”. Stamping your foot and telling them “for goodness sake calm down”. How does that work for you then?

Arousal does not equate with motivated. Being motivated is not the same as being excited. It is often about really tight focus, clear understanding of what needs to be done to achieve an end goal.

What we are seeking is a reinforcer that we can use in the competition environment where food is not allowed. Anticipation of a strong reinforcer is reinforcing in itself. It needs a long history of practice so that when a particular series of events happen the dog can recognise the forthcoming reinforcer. This is your mental conditioning.

Pool-side at the Shedd Aquarium you will see the trainers using many, many different reinforcers. It is not just fish, fish and more fish. See the Belugas laugh when a bottled water is sprayed over their faces, they think a tongue scratch is worth jumping hoops for. Neither of these events are naturally occurring reinforcers but the trainers spend a lot of time building them to be additional reinforcers. They are paired with reinforcers that are natural over and over again until they become reinforcers in themselves, and importantly the association with the natural reinforcer is regularly refreshed.

We like to touch our dogs. For many of us this is a primary reason for living with dogs. There is a pleasant sensation felt on the palms of our hands when stroking fur. But can we presume this is equally pleasurable for our dogs? Maybe not, we need to learn how to share the enjoyment so that we equally get pleasure from it, not one at the discomfort of the other. Touch comes in many forms and the dog will try to tell you what they like and do not like. Do they seek more when your pause? Do they “shake off” your touch to realign their coat?

The definition of a reinforcer is something that makes the likelihood of the behaviour repeating or getting stronger. Even food can stop being reinforcing when you are full, or feeling sick with anxiety. What is reinforcing is decided by the recipient, not the deliverer. We can never say “oh but he enjoys it”. A dog may “enjoy” wearing an uncomfortable head collar, but if it predicts an opportunity to go out and about they will get excited when they see it – for the outing, not the wearing of the equipment.

In the days before play and food were introduced as our rewards we used our voices to let the dogs know we were happy – which is not necessarily a reinforcer (OK, good for you, you’re happy, I’m not) and physical touch to incentivise the dog to continue the behaviour. Hmm. I don’t remember it being a particularly inspiring protocol. Quite bland often and not clear communication.

The usual protocol was to scold what you don’t like and praise what you do. But this made a enormous error is assuming that the dog knew what we did not like, was motivated to avoid it and perform what we did like. Hah! That gap in understanding is wide enough for four London double deck buses

That protocol may work for some motorists – punishment for speeding, but does it incentivise careful driving?

We can use many, many different types of games with our dogs that are based on a positive, interesting, stimulating and reinforcing experience. This neither needs food or jaw wrenching. Watch the disc dogs – for them it’s about chase, watch the gundogs – for them it is about carry, watch the collies – for them it is about control of movement. By using their natural reinforcers we open up a whole Games R Us store of fun and reinforcement. Watch your dogs play with each other – what do they like to do? What do they repeat again and again? Sharing a toy and running side by side? Flirting and teasing with a toy?

Play with your dog, enjoy your dog, make sure it is safe for your dog and they are comfortable. Build your performer both physically and mentally. This is a sport for our ego and enjoyment, we need to ensure it is not at a cost to our dogs. A “fried” or confused dog is not a happy dog.

As for wrapping a yucky tug around your neck … doesn’t it stink?