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Blog - Sonya Bevan, Behaviour Consultant and Trainer

"Learning shouldn't hurt" sums it up nicely.  One of Sonya's favourite catch phrases is, "if it 'aint fun, you just 'aint doin' it right!"  Sonya does not use physical force (with hands, leads or other devices), psychological intimidation, painful methods or those that create fear to gain results in dogs.....or their guardians.

Find out more about Sonya on her Dog Charming web page.

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  • Friday, September 22, 2017 6:34 PM | Anonymous

    Mojo is a sensitive Boston terrier who is timid and easily scared. Zen is her vivacious, outgoing sister. It’s easy to tell them apart; not by their physical appearance but by their different behaviour. I visited for a training session expecting to the teach the Boston sisters to stay. During the week, however, Mojo had an experience that left her fearful of her collar and harness.

    It was the usual routine: the girls were called into the office, each sat in front of the chair to have her chest harness put on followed by the collar. On this occasion, Mojo’s ears flattened to her head at the same time as the buckle was clipped together, pinching her ear. She yelped in pain and despite the ear being released immediately and lots of reassurance and cuddles, she was visibly affected. For the next week Mojo would run away at the sight of the harness which wasn’t even the ear-pinching culprit. During the assessment her caregiver reported that Mojo usually flattened her ears when the collar was put on, and that’s how the ear got caught. This is a significant piece of information. Ears back are often a sign of stress; a signal that a dog is worried about something. Mojo may have had concerns about the collar being applied in the past but tolerated the procedure because she likes treats and enjoys the walks that the collar predicts. The painful incident may have tipped her over the edge so that something she didn’t particularly enjoy now became something she earnestly wanted to avoid.

    She had to be physically lifted into the office where she would roll over onto her back in a desperate appeasement gesture to prevent the impending harness ritual. The harness had always been the precursor to the offending collar being applied, so it had now become part of the signal that the collar was coming next. This is very common whenever a painful or unpleasant event occurs. Dogs remember many of the aspects of the environment that were present during the traumatic event and these then become salient signals of impending doom in the future.

    The harness and collar could be put on if Mojo was gently restrained but given the choice, she would rather flee. Once the collar was on she seemed uncomfortable or distressed, trying to remove the collar. On the walk she finally appeared back to normal. But each day it was the same escape response at the sight of the harness. Adding treats didn’t improve her behaviour; she simply ate and ran. This is because treats were given before the harness was produced. Treats had become one of the signals that the scary apparatus was next to appear, so get out of Dallas now! When using food in training it’s not all about the food that gets results. It’s the way food is used. This knowledge was used as part of the plan to help Mojo overcome her fear. Food must not come before the harness or collar.

    I observed Mojo’s reaction in order to assess the different parts of the procedure and to devise a behaviour change plan for her. It was obvious that she was an unwillingly participant whose modus operandi was to avoid the office, harness and collar. But avoidance wasn’t working for her and instead of getting used to the process she was scared every day.

    Her caregiver had used food to make it more pleasant, but for the reason I’ve already mentioned, this wasn’t working. She’d also tried to help Mojo get used to the clicking sound of the buckle by sitting on the couch with Mojo and repeatedly making the clicking noise. Mojo would startle each time and it didn’t change her avoidance behaviour at the sight of the harness. This is a common approach adopted for helping dogs overcome fears: present them with what they are trying to avoid (or part of it) over and over and they should get used to it. It doesn’t always help dogs. It can backfire and can intensify a dog’s fear. It’s also an unpleasant process for the dog to go through whether it works or not. There are effective alternatives that avoid the distress this process may cause to the learner.

    I aborted my observations at the point where Mojo was restrained and rolled over in a tense appeasement gesture. It was clear that the harness could be put on despite her attempts to communicate her stress and I didn’t want to risk slowing down the training that was coming next by ignoring her body language.

    I created a new plan to introduce the harness and collar in a carefully choreographed way.

    1. I left the office behind and started in the living room. Remember those salient environmental factors that dogs associate with a fearful event? The office may well be part of this because every time the harness and collar are put on it is in the office. The painful event occurred in the office. The office is not a safe place as far as Mojo is concerned – a biting collar could pop up at any time. The living area is large, open and she can see what’s going on. No surprises will pop around the corner.
    2. Mojo was not restrained. I did not run after her or pick her up. She came when she felt comfortable and she could increase distance when she needed. If she pulled back or rolled over, I stopped what I was doing. (In the accompanying video you will notice that I didn’t totally respect this part of the plan and clipped up the harness while she was lying down. Ideally I should have continued to touch and move the harness in small increments until she showed no signs of escape or avoidance. I recognized this and spent a minute or so reinforcing her for simply remaining with me, no pressure or touching, before continuing with the plan. I was trying to demonstrate as much as I could in a short amount of time for the caregiver to continue with. But, that’s really no excuse, is it Mojo?)
    3. The harness was presented in stages and she received food each time it was shown. The harness disappeared behind my back and no treats came. It is only when the harness appeared that food magically arrived. This order is very important. Harness first signals food is coming rather than the food predicting the scary harness is coming. Reversing this order can make the whole process ineffective.
    4. The harness was shown to her first from a small distance. If there was little or no sign of avoidance like tensing, flinching, ears back, leaning away or moving away, the next step was taken.
    5. The harness was shown to her at a closer distance.
    6. The harness was placed beside her.
    7. The harness was slipped over her head, followed by a treat and her behaviour was observed to see if she would escape. I took my time at this point rather than immediately putting her front leg through the harness or doing it up. She needed to be comfortable and show no signs of running away. I wasn’t physically restraining her and I didn’t want her to go running off with a harness half-on, half-off.  I was ready to slip it off if she looked like running away. I kept giving food since the harness was still present.
    8. The harness was touched and wiggled while it was on, followed by food.
    9. The harness was clipped up followed by food. (This is where I went too fast.) Despite my haste, Mojo stayed with me and accepted food. This was a good sign because later in the procedure, when a step was too much for her, she would run away without taking food.
    10. The collar was introduced in a similar way to the harness; shown first from a distance followed by a treat, then the collar disappeared and treats stopped.
    11. The collar was shown to her at a closer distance.
    It was at this point that I started to introduce another process. So far I had been using respondent conditioning where a simple association is being made that one thing predicts another. So the collar predicts treat and treats are good. This good feeling bleeds back to infect the collar, so now the collar is good! I like to introduce operant conditioning as soon as I can so that I get the benefit of two types of conditioning (or learning processes). Operant conditioning simply means than now I am going to make treat delivery contingent on her performing a certain behaviour. The collar will still appear but now she also needs to do something to get the treat. She will be making a positive association with the collar and a behaviour will be reinforced at the same time. I made sure the behaviour was so darn easy that she couldn’t fail because she was already doing it. All she had to do was stay when the collar was presented instead of running away or rolling over. If she had not been staying already and still overly concerned with the collar, I would have waited longer to introduce this part of the training. I now used a clicker to mark the behaviour of staying still whenever I presented the collar.
    1. The collar was placed beside her and the tags jiggled. She stayed, I clicked and reinforced with a treat.
    2. The collar was placed under her chin and jiggled. She stayed and the behaviour was reinforced.
    3. The collar was held with two hands and placed under her chin. (It had been held in one had prior to this.) This is where she backed away and then ran away without taking a treat. Holding a collar in one hand is very different to the collar being held outstretched in two hands that are reaching for her neck.  This is valuable information and lets me know I have progressed too quickly.
    When Mojo showed signs of stress, I stopped what I was doing and went back to the previous step until she was ready for the next level.

    I then added her caregiver to the plan. I’ll remind you again of how dogs will be making associations with many things that are in the environment when they experience something unpleasant. Mojo was able to come up to me despite me holding the harness and collar whereas she ran away when her caregiver held them. One of the reasons for this difference may be that Mojo and I have no negative history, or any history, relating to the harness and collar. I spent the time proving to her that she had nothing to fear from the harness and collar before moving on to the scenario more similar to real life: her caregiver sitting in a chair. Remember that the collar is usually put on from a chair, so this is an important environmental aspect to add. We ran through the steps above with the collar that I had demonstrated. Then we progressed to touching the collar under her chin for a second.

    That was enough for one session. I left instructions for future steps:
    1. Wrap the collar around her neck for a second. Reinforce for staying.
    2. Wrap the collar around her neck for 2 seconds, then 3 seconds, then 4 seconds etc and reinforce for staying.
    3. Wrap the collar around her neck and make a clicking sound with the buckle without doing it up and immediately reinforce Mojo for staying. I predicted this would be a hard step because the buckle sound came immediately before the pain. It was important to make sure she showed no signs of stress with many fake clip-ups before moving on to the next step. This is so the collar can be removed quickly if she startles in the early stages. If it’s done up and she runs off, she takes the offending collar with her!
    4. Wrap the collar around her neck and do it up. Reinforce her for staying.
    5. Have a party with her now the collar is on. The collar is fun. Ask her to do her favourite tricks or the easiest tasks she knows and reinforce.
    6. Then take the collar off and the party is over. This makes her look forward to the collar going on again.

    This training was to be done about two to three times a day for up to 20 minutes at times when there was no need to go for a walk so that it was not rushed and there was no stress for the trainer or trainee. If Mojo had to be walked during this time it would be best to take her to another part of the house or into the car and place the harness and collar on in there, to protect the training where it needed to occur. It would be best not to put the collar on but it is a legal requirement when out in public for the identity and registration tags. I predicted it may take a few days or maybe a week to get the collar on without escape behaviours. Whether it transferred to the office easily would need to be assessed at the time she was ready.

    I was elated when I got a message the next day from Mojo’s mum which blew my conservative estimation out of the water:  “Just got the collar on and she is happy - thank you SO MUCH. Did it a bit this morning and let it go and then 20 mins this afternoon and she was right.  I will continue doing it for a bit yet until she is absolutely comfortable but she was fine when I clipped it on and is running around playing.”

    The challenge now is not to go too fast and ignore the ears back. Ideally this game should continue until Mojo comes running expectantly, keeping her ears forward as the collar is put on. Then we know we have helped to a point where she is more confident than when she originally started having the collar put on.

    This is not a how-to article, it’s more of a synopsis on how to approach and problem-solve the escape and avoidance behaviour of a particular individual in a particular circumstance. The principles can be transferred to other individuals. I hope it highlights how going slowly in very small steps is not painstaking but is quicker in the long run. Mojo was not improving until she was assessed and a plan was designed specifically for her. What makes a successful behaviour change plan is also its implementation. Her caregiver was committed to helping her overcome her fear and this was key to a successful behaviour change programme and, no doubt, to the breakneck speed of improvement. She wasn’t in a rush and already had a strong, positive relationship with Mojo. Despite the incident, Mojo still trusted her so the damage done by this single painful event was minimal. Mojo will most probably always be a sensitive wee soul but if her fears are approached with care and patience, she will gradually develop more resilience.

    Thanks to her caregiver for allowing me to share her story and video footage.
  • Tuesday, May 23, 2017 9:17 PM | Anonymous

    Have you missed me? I've been decidedly quiet in my blog in the last few months. But I haven't been idle. I've been spending some time training my own dog, Zuri. One of my passions is teaching dogs to cope with routine handling and vet examinations. Things like having ears checked, eyes cleaned, blood taken, injections given, nails clipped, body parts handled and a host of other practical tasks. I espouse the value of such training and try to enthuse others about the benefits of teaching a dog to enjoy these intrusions which will, inevitably, be a part of every dog's life. I like to go one step further and teach the dog to be an active and willing participant in these procedures, without restraint if possible.

    The benefits are numerous. It reduces stress in an anxious dog. It reduces stress in the care-giver. It reduces the probability of aggression resulting from fear due to restraint or unknown procedures. When a dog has been conditioned in a positive way to handling, there is less to fear and therefore less need to aggress. A dog who feels safe is a safer dog.

    On Mother's Day I spent some time with Zuri and a colleague, working on helping Zuri cope with having blood drawn, her temperature taken in two different positions, her heart and lungs checked (auscultation) and her ears checked with an otoscope.

    Zuri has recently spent a lot of time at the vet and she is anxious when strangers try to touch her. All the training we have done has helped reduce her fear incredibly. I did need to restrain her for a catheter insertion but even that went smoothly due to the prior training we had done together; teaching her to stay still while I hugged her gently. Such a difference to the dog who once panicked and needed three people to hold her down.

    In the video below I am introducing a stranger to make some of the techniques closer to what she will encounter at the vet. It won't always be me doing the procedures. I also take her temperature in two different positions because I noted at the vet that they took observations while she was recovering from sedation and it startled her. We hadn't yet practised while she was lying down, so I added this position to my training plan. Notice how she is wagging her tail during the training. This is what I love to see; a sense of expectation and enjoyment at playing a training game. To her it's just another way to gain reinforcement.

    I've used a quote from Chirag Patel, an amazing behaviour consultant in the UK, as the title for this blog. He sees great value in teaching animals to be prepared for the everyday activities needed in order to care for them. I couldn't agree more. ​​
    Here is the video link: ​https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZc0SD96IEM

  • Tuesday, December 27, 2016 12:47 PM | Anonymous

    It wasn’t a conscious decision to tread a heavy path winding up to Christmas Day. A dark cloud drifted menacingly to and fro, intermittently dampening the rays of joyful anticipation as Christmas Day approached. Not constant. Just a dim, persistent recollection of so many Christmases past dimming the light. I didn’t pay it much heed. I understood its genesis in the deep rooted power of emotional memory fuelled by fatigue and stress. It would soon pass.
    I reminded myself of happy Christmas events in an attempt to scatter the impending clouds.
    There’s a ray of sunshine that never dims. A silky, furred angel who warms my heart and widens my smile. Daily. Enough to drive any cloud away.
    And so it was on Christmas Day, my angel and I celebrated Christmas together – chauffeured and welcomed to festivities in a house that delegates dogs to the outdoors. Special dispensation was given for my angel with paws to stay inside.
    That was the first kindness.
    Like all good angels secretly walking among us, mine understood the enormity of the exception made on her behalf and quietly surveyed celebrations from her bed or unobtrusively mingled around guests. Except the turkey! She investigated to within a millimetre but, thankfully, resisted the earthly drive of the body she inhabited to taste or devour it.

    Then my angel revealed her fallibility. The sound of Christmas crackers exploded one after the other like gunshots. She left her bed to seek solace at the dining table between me and the man of the house. I tried to guide her to my side but she stayed firmly wedged between us. He paused from eating, looked down and discouraged my attempts to remove her. She promptly lay her head on his lap. One hand left its task of negotiating a plate of food to rest gently on her neck while his remaining hand now did the job of two.
    “It’s OK. She’s scared of the crackers. I can feel her flinch at the sound.”
    And that’s where she stayed, resting her head on the knees of a man who prefers dogs outdoors.
    That was the second kindness.
    A few minutes later, no more crackers to be heard, she felt comforted and returned to her bed for her own Christmas dinner.
    I doubt if he realized the power of his actions. I wanted to explain to him how soothing it would have felt to Zuri. What it meant to me. How his quiet acceptance of her inside and then intruding on his space at the table was a reassuring hug. A message, “See? Christmas really is OK.” A dark cloud was dissipated completely by a kindness shown to my dog:  Because a kindness to my dog is also a kindness to me.

  • Tuesday, August 30, 2016 9:44 PM | Anonymous

    Part of having a dog is providing food, shelter, safety, exercise, health and medical care, enjoying time together, going on walks, and training sessions to help give the dog guidance with fitting into our world. That is essentially what the dog is doing: fitting into our world. We make all the choices and the dog comes along for the ride.  When people talk about dog training it is usually obedience training, dog sport training or working dog training. Have you ever considered vet visit training?

    Caring for a dog involves routine health care and vet visits. Preparing a dog to cope with visiting the vet clinic and be able to participate calmly with handling procedures is an area of training that often gets overlooked. Yet how beneficial and practical is this training for everyday life?

    Chirag Patel, a UK animal behaviour consultant with a special interest in helping animals fit into our world as stress free as possible, defines this husbandry training as:

    “Giving animals skills by reinforcing behaviours that will enable the animal to participate in its’ own daily activities and vet care.”

    He summarizes many reasons for vets to encourage husbandry training:

    * Increases patient compliance
    * Better animal care
    * Saves time
    * Saves money
    * Positive association with vets
    * Less aggressive behaviour
    * Accurate results e.g. blood tests
    * Efficacy of medication improved e.g. lover pre-med required with calmer animals
    He also highlights reasons we should consider husbandry training:
    We have deliberately bred dogs with certain health consequences which require more handling and intervention such as coat types which require grooming and congenital diseases which require handling.  It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that we prepare the animals in our care to endure the handling and intervention with minimal stress.
    One of my special interests is training dogs to cope with everyday care such as nail trims, ear checks, eye cleans and drops, taking oral medication, accepting topical medication, checking teeth, allowing brushing and grooming, accepting handling and coping with vet visits, waiting rooms and consult rooms in general.

    Some dogs begin on the back foot and are already scared of vet visits and handling. Getting these fearful individuals to cope sometimes starts with simply getting them into the room without force, making it a reinforcing place to be and giving them the ability to exit when they need. Once the room has lost its fear, it’s time to work on accepting handling without panicking. This can be done by teaching behaviours that are fun for the dog and reinforced, such as lying down and looking at their owner or an object. Once the dog finds this easy, it’s time to add a second person to start the touching and handling. It’s important to do this in really small steps. It can be tempting to go straight in and touch a dog, but this can be too much for many fearful animals.

    Break it down into smaller tasks such as:

    1) standing looking away from the dog,
    2) standing looking at the dog,
    3) taking one step towards the dog,
    4) taking two steps towards the dog,
    5) crouching down near the dog,
    6) moving your hand but not touching,
    7) touching an area the dog can handle for a fraction of a second.
    In that example there are 6 steps before even touching the dog. This may seem laborious but I want to stress here one of my favourite catch cries: “Going slowly is quicker in the end.” Taking small steps means you take less time on each step and get to the end goal quicker. If you keep touching a fearful dog and getting a fearful response and escape behaviours, you are going to be there for quite a while. If a dog is forced to endure handling whilst terrified, the risk of intensifying the fear is highly likely. This will make subsequent vet visits even more difficult because dogs have strong memories of things they do not enjoy.
    Here’s an example of helping Bella cope with vet visits. She was scared of entering the consult room and had to be dragged in. Once inside, she panicked when the doors were closed and was very difficult to assess and handle because of her fear. The first step was to change the consult room from a scary place to an enjoyable, stress free zone. At her second vet visit she ran straight into the consult room! Her caregivers took the time to train her foundation behaviours such as a target behaviour (nose to hand) and to lie down and look at them. These were practised in the waiting room and then used in the consult room while helping her get used to the doors being closed and being handled by a second person. Further vet visits to practice these tasks without the pressure of an actual examination will help her continue to improve and accept handling.
    I hope this has stirred some thought into the overlooked worth of vet visit and husbandry training.

    A special thank you to Bella’s care-givers for their commitment and video footage and to Rockingham Vet for allowing us access to the clinic rooms for training.

  • Friday, June 17, 2016 5:11 PM | Anonymous

    A lot of people teach their dog to wait before getting fed. The dog is usually asked to sit and wait as the bowl is put on the ground. Then after a second or two, the dog is released to eat din dins. The guardian is usually standing alongside. This is what the dog may be learning: to sit and wait while the guardian stands alongside and lowers a food bowl, wait four seconds, then eat as the guardian walks away. 

    Change any part of the routine a little and the dog may seem to forget what the guardian  intended wait to mean. The change could be waiting longer before releasing and the dog starts to eat before the verbal release. If one waits the same duration every time before giving a verbal release cue, the dog may be learning wait is specifically for four seconds and then he may eat. The guardian is assuming that it's the release cue the dog is using as the signal to eat. If one varies the time of waiting at each meal, the dog is more inclined to wait for some other cue to release. Another change could be that the dog can wait while someone stands next to him, but not if they walk away. This can occur if the dog is learning the pattern includes that walking away means it's OK to eat. So when one walks away before releasing, the dog is reading the physical signal that it's time to eat. (Who knows, maybe he thinks the trainer simply forgot to release!?) Pretty clever really. After all, he's always happily eating when you walk away. It could be any part of the wait routine that breaks down, even using a bone instead of a bowl; to the dog, wait may mean wait for "bowl" not bone!

    The sad thing is, the reluctance to wait is often misinterpreted as a dog being wilfully disobedient, showing dominance or just plain old stupid. In fact it's usually none of these. It's more often a deficit in training and a misunderstaning between two individuals who don't speak the same language. One is trying to teach the other. Have you ever tried to communicate with someone from another country and they totally misunderstood your gestures? It can take a while to get the message across.

    Teaching wait in every scenario may seem daunting and endless! The great news is that if you teach your dog a few differences (wait for longer, wait while I stand away from you, wait while I go out of sight, wait while another dog eats) they get better and quicker at generalizing what you mean each time. They get better at learning how to learn.

    I enjoy training Zuri to wait before eating, at doors, at gates and before getting out of the car. I train at home and then I like to test if Zuri has understood it in a new, more demanding environment or context. Especially in more life-like set ups. I set up training sessions that replicate (or as close as possible) what might happen unexpectedly in the real world. For example, if she can wait while she is in the middle of eating something at home, I have a better chance of getting her to wait if she is eating something stinky on the beach. If she can resist bolting out of the car to greet and play with her favourite friends at the beach, there is a better chance of her waiting if a car unexpectedly drives past in the carpark as we are disembarking. If she succeeds during the test, brilliant! If not, it's not a failure. It's valuable information of what I need to work on in order to help her understand what I would like her to do in future. 

    Here's a video showing how I test to see what Zuri understands wait to mean: ​https://youtu.be/NYxoO8NhKpI

  • Thursday, April 28, 2016 12:11 PM | Anonymous

    Zuri is scared of noisy appliances. I introduce her to any new, noisy appliance in a carefully planned way and she is getting less fearful with every introduction. The rotary sanding tool is one gadget she doesn't like the sound of. It's not just the noise, it's also that it is associated with nail sanding which she doesn't really enjoy. I have helped her overcome her fear and gone one step further: I've got her to be happily excited at the sound and she comes running from wherever she is, whatever she is doing, when she hears it. Check it out.

  • Monday, April 04, 2016 10:27 PM | Anonymous

    The Dog
    When I volunteered to raise an Assistance Dog puppy I thought I had prepared myself for the job at hand.  It wasn’t a job as such. It was a journey of learning and professional enhancement that I wanted to pursue. I have a special interest in Assistant Dogs. I have shared a home with a fully trained Assistance Dog. My background as a physiotherapist has given me insight into the physical limitations imposed upon so many people with various movement, pain related and physical restrictions to the extent that I wanted to explore first-hand how dogs were trained to assist such people.  It seemed like a natural marriage of two of my passions: restoring mobility/easing pain and animal training.  I was excited to liaise with other training professionals and to experience raising a prospective Assistance Dog first-hand.

    So when Scout, the black Labrador puppy, came to me I had already begun to prepare myself  for the journey: particularly emotionally for the end stage. I was not to get overly attached to this puppy and reminded myself that I was a temporary carer. My role was to give this puppy the best possible start towards a career as a working dog. I was fully prepared to relinquish my charge when the time came. I used techniques to deliberately avoid becoming too smitten like referring to her as “The Crazy Black Dog” or “The Black Dog” – a way of distancing. It would be much harder to give up “My Little Black Girl” or “My Wee Black Beauty”.  I joked about how “nutso” she was. I relayed funny stories of how she relentlessly pestered poor Zuri, my reluctant resident dog who was forced to share her home with a rambunctious puppy! Labrador jokes streamed effortlessly. My plan seemed effective.
    Scout was with me for eight months. I enjoyed her enthusiasm for training and we had so much fun. See the video here.

    Then the day came to send her off to Big Dog School.  The sense of sadness at her impending departure caught me a little by surprise. Then again, when you spend so much time with an individual – because dogs are all unique individuals – they do grow on you, even when you attempt to build an impervious wall. So I wasn’t too perturbed.
    Then she was gone.
    The house was eerily quiet. I kept seeing her in the corner of my eye in every room. I woke up, ready for our morning play and fun time … only to remember her absence as the haze of sleep finally dissipated.  I exhibited a rather morose display of slow walking, head hanging and tear wiping that first week. I wasn’t quite prepared for the intensity of emotion that accompanied her departure. Then I rationalized and gave myself permission to feel sad at the loss of a friend who had been my constant companion for quite a while. So what if my carefully choreographed attempts at nonchalance had failed? I allowed myself to grieve and began to look forward to updates on her progress. I focused on how happier Zuri was now that she was an only dog again. I started to revel in the excess of free time I now seemed to have. Raising a puppy is hard work. Raising an Assistance Puppy has even more responsibilities. I channelled the sadness into expectation and became excited at the prospect of following her journey and receiving updates.
    An expectation is a feeling or belief about how successful or good someone or something will be. Getting a dog can come with many expectations. Take the Border Collie who is chosen to compete in agility. Or the Shih Tzu chosen to be a lap dog companion. Or the bitza chosen as a jogging companion. Or the therapy dog. Or Scent Detector dog. Sometimes expectations are not met. This can be due to many reasons. It could be due to unrealistic expectations to begin with, unexpected factors influencing outcomes, or lack of adequate preparation to achieve desired outcomes.
    The Disappointment
    I received a phone call that Scout was being pulled from the Assistance Dog Programme as she wasn’t suitable. It wasn’t a bombshell. It was confirmation of what I already suspected and had even hinted at in the myriad of Labrador jokes. I had lived with her for months and had given her intensive training to equip her for her calling. She was a dream to teach, such a quick learner, a happy girl. However, she also had a personality devoid of inhibition and exhibited some anxiety.  Her disposition just didn’t fit with the sturdy, reliable, naturally resilient demeanour required for the task of being an Assistance Dog. It was a fair call. It was an expected outcome. Yet despite this, I felt a wave of disappointment roll over me. During our time together I knew that she was probably a square peg being trained for a round hole. However, this didn’t change my enthusiasm to train her and provide the best foundation I could. I enjoyed it. My rationale was that all the time and effort was time well spent preparing her for whatever lay ahead, be it Assistance Dog or companion dog. Training is a joy, not a chore for me. She was a delight to teach. Whilst not surprised, I was still crestfallen. I think I was secretly hoping for a miracle. I wanted to be proven wrong.
    I have shared a video about how unmet expectations can be viewed positively. Often when a guardian laments that their dog can’t do this or that, I point out that their dog is actually outstanding at something else just as valuable, important or endearing. Little did I realize that I would refer back to this video to console myself.
    The Dilemma
    Unexpectedly, I was given the opportunity to adopt Scout as a companion dog. This took me by surprise as it is not the usual practice to return dogs to the puppy raiser. I was appreciative of the offer since it acknowledged the time, effort and love that had been poured into Scout. Now a decision that I hadn’t foreseen or prepared myself for needed to be made. In a stupor of indecision, I couldn’t answer. My tongue refused to utter a word either way. So I slept on it.
    The Decision
    Lists of pros and cons became skewed amidst memories of happy tail wags and inexhaustible exuberance. I had to remind myself that when I signed up for this gig I did it with the expectation that it was temporary and that I didn’t choose a dog to join the home permanently.  It is important to me to get a dog at the right time, the right type of dog, for reasons that I am clear about – not just because the chance has eventuated. I waited 18 years for the right time to get Miss Zuri. Even more importantly, Zuri’s wellbeing needed to be taken into account. The jokes about Zuri enduring a whirlwind of Labrador-lack- of-personal-space were based on an element of truth. Zuri was longsuffering in her tolerance of the newcomer. I reviewed video footage of how Zuri deferred continually to Scout’s demands on her personal space; being pushed into walls, accosted in doorways and hallways, slammed into furniture, disturbed from resting and barred access to moving freely around the house. It was my judicious policing and management strategies that kept the status quo. It worked but it was also demanding on me and, I suspect, a level of constant stress for Zuri in her own home. I had noticed this with another foster dog as well. I had also noticed that with other dogs interactions were more relaxed and none of these incidents occurred. Zuri was getting older and while she enjoyed the company of dogs and playing, she enjoyed space and quiet times as well. Scout was still growing into social maturity and showed no signs of mellowing soon.
    I made the heart wrenching decision not to adopt Scout.
    Second Guessing and Regret
    Days later I began to question my decision. I queried my own ability to read dog body language. I viewed my decision as error, putting it down to being emotionally invested in my own dog and projecting excessively. It wasn’t that bad for Zuri, surely? This feeling was different to observing other dogs, client’s dogs or friend’s dogs; emotion was definitely involved. So I sought advice from two other animal behaviour professionals, asking for their opinion on the relationship between Scout and Zuri. They reviewed the video footage I compiled and spoke to me honestly and with great care. They asked me questions and pointed out pertinent information. They listened to me. They didn’t make my decision but they guided me with their input. It was a humbling and affirming act to seek assistance from peers for a personal issue and to receive confirmation that Zuri and Scout were, indeed, not a match made in heaven. The entire journey with Scout had been an invaluable learning experience in ways I hadn’t predicted.

    See the stressful encounters here.

    My confidence in my resolution was restored. However, there was still a quiet sadness. A sadness at the loss of a little buddy. She will be thoughtfully rehomed with a suitable family. She will be loved. She will give so much love back in return together with many little tricks and quirks to share with her new family. She will find her place and bring joy. They will fall in love with her more and more every day. They will have no choice, she’s a Labrador.
    Yet still.
    A quiet, lingering sadness.
    There will likely be no more updates.
    She is gone.

  • Thursday, January 21, 2016 9:44 PM | Anonymous

    Scout needed betadine solution applied to her muzzle twice a day. I wanted her to feel comfortable with the process so that it wasn't a drama each time. I also didn’t want to physically restrain her in order to apply the medication. I felt this was especially important since it had to happen more than once a day for many days. If I forced her and it became an event she wanted to escape, it may well become harder each time. I may have to use more restraint on subsequent attempts or have to chase and corner her to apply it. This would be unpleasant for both of us and do nothing to improve our relationship. These reasons were worth devising a plan to make it a game where if she stayed still and let me apply it, I would reinforce this with something she liked: Food!

    I started with repeated and small steps rather than applying the betadine all at once.
    Step 1: Scout stayed still while I stretched the skin for a second with my finger.

    I helped her understand that I wanted her to stay still by using the well-known cue of “wait”.
    If she moved away, I stopped immediately. She had some control: an ‘out’ if you like.
    Step 2: She stayed still while I stretched the skin and touched the area with my finger for a second.

    Step 3:  I touched for a little longer with my finger.
    Step 4:  I touched with a dry cotton ball for a couple of seconds.
    Step 5: I presented a cotton ball dipped in betadine for a second  but didn’t touch her.

    ​ When it was wet it smelt of the betadine and dripped a little. Presenting it gets her used to the smell first, rather than coping with the smell and then the feel of a wet cotton ball on her skin. I made sure it wasn't too wet on future applications so it didn't drip. Practice makes perfect.
    Step 6: She stayed still while I touched her with the betadine cotton ball for a second.
    During the game, I touched her for a little too long and she drew back. When this happened I made a fuss and reinforced the behaviour of staying. She could have run away and disengaged. She was subsequently better the next time I touched her.
    Step 7: I touched her for longer with the betadine cotton ball.
    Step 8: Job done!
    It took just over three minutes the first time. Much less on subsequent applications as she knew what was expected. It was quite hard for Scout to keep her head still (or any part of her body for that matter!). She likes to sniff and touch anything coming her way and most things end up in her mouth. In retrospect, I would improve the way I approached this by going even slower: by staying on each step longer to ensure Scout was even more comfortable and was able to keep her head still for a little longer as well. I would also add another step of presenting the dry cotton ball before touching her with it.

    Here’s the video showing how it was done:

  • Sunday, January 17, 2016 11:14 AM | Anonymous

    Animal training is my passion. For me it is not just training. I’m not satisfied with just getting a job done, or training a certain task to a certain level. It’s the journey. It’s how the job is done: how the task is taught. How the animal is responding matters immensely.
    It is really important to me that the animal is showing signs of wanting to engage. Further, I want to engender an attitude of joy in the trainee. I want it to be fun for the learner. There is a wonderful by-product of creating an enjoyable learning experience – the trainer is associated with the positive experience. The trainer is the source of all good things, someone to keep an eye on, to gravitate towards. The trainer is consistent, to be trusted and not feared. The trainer is a good communicator, not confusing or a source of stress. This is a huge factor in relationship building.
    I was challenged when I reviewed video footage of a training session I had with Zuri. I wanted to measure her nose for a muzzle. I hadn’t done this before and Zuri is hesitant with new things (enter the tape measure) and handling.  “This would make a great video topic”, I thought. What a great way to show a functional use of a well taught ‘touch’ and ‘wait’ with a reluctant dog. It would also demonstrate how seamlessly a dog can learn something new if they have a history of learning other tasks and playing training games that are enjoyable.  Off I went and duly measured Zuri’s nose in front of the camera. It got the job done quickly, in less than two minutes. When I watched the footage back, I was disappointed. On the surface it looked pretty good: no physical restraint or enviromental restraint (like backing a dog into a corner), no force, no struggle, no harsh words or physical intimidation, no avoidance by seeking distance or walking away on Zuri’s part. Yet it lacked enthusiasm. It lacked the joyful demeanour of a softly wagging tail. Where was the anticipation and engagement with gusto? I even noted some subtle signs of stress such as repeated blinking, paucity of movement, head turning away from me and the tape measure, drawing the head away from the tape measure and, because I know her body language so well, even the slight tension in her floppy ears as they pulled backwards and close to her head just a few millimetres. She was licking her lips at times. I wasn’t sure if this was due to the food or a sign of stress, but I suspected stress. She wasn't wagging her tail.
    I was simply too focused on getting the job done: the job being showing how ‘touch’ and ‘wait’ were so cool for teaching other tasks. I wasn’t using overt force but I was pushing her into a level of discomfort and I was lucky she was staying despite this.
    What I didn’t like:
    * I was doing it slowly, but not slow enough.  Instead of breaking the process down into small enough steps, I was jumping straight from presenting the tape measure to touching her with it.
    * My hands were moving towards her with the tape, rather than giving her the option of approaching. That’s a big deal for animals: to have options of when to engage and disengage. When an animal feels safe, they will be more compliant. Part of feeling safe for an animal is having the ability to stop the process at any time.
    * When she looked away, I prompted her to touch my hand instead of waiting for her signal that she was ready to continue. (All because I wanted to demonstrate ‘touch’!)
    * I asked her to ‘wait’ and then held the measuring tape on for too long. I should have been quicker to remove it and built up the duration gradually.
    This just wouldn’t do. The functional goal had been met but the journey could have been much better for Zuri. She's my bud and this matters to me. So I did it again the next day with the goal to get footage of Zuri engaged with obvious enjoyment. One of my favourite catch phrases is, “Our behaviour changes a dog’s behaviour”. I changed what I was doing ever so subtly.
    * I broke the process down into even smaller steps. There were quite a few in between showing the tape and wrapping it for a few seconds around her nose to measure.
    * Breaking down the process into smaller steps resulted in being able to give a higher rate of reinforcement which is a sure way to get an enthusiastic learner.
    * I let her approach the tape rather than put it on her nose.
    * If she looked away, I didn’t ask for a ‘touch’. I waited until she was ready.
    * I threw treats away from me and let her return in her own time to look for the measuring tape.
    * I was more relaxed and my body language was more playful, not so darn serious!
    The difference was noticeable. Her tail was wagging, her body soft, she was eager to engage and find the tape even when I hid it from view. Her floppy ears were pivoting forward more. The lip licking that was present in the first video was greatly reduced in the subsequent footage. The blinking reduced.
    I got the behaviour required for taking measurements and then just kept on playing the game because we were both enjoying the moment. It took about one and a half minutes. That said, how long it takes is less of an issue to me than how much fun it is. I make mention because many people believe that it's too time consuming to approach dog handling in this way and therefore resort to physical restraint. I will add that if you do not have a solid trust account with your dog, it will take longer.

    Approaching handling this way is a delightful journey where both participants enjoy the ride.

  • Friday, December 11, 2015 11:24 AM | Anonymous
    It’s a fact. Not all dogs like to be patted. Those that do don’t always like to be patted on the head. Dogs have preferences as to where and how they like to be touched. They also have preferences of who they like to be touched by. Just because they love a chest scratch from their care giver, doesn’t mean they want the same from a stranger. Even in the same household a dog may enjoy a particular interaction from one member of the family, but not from a different member. The good news is that it’s easy to ask a dog if they like the way they are being touched. It simply requires some knowledge about dog communication and body language.
    I’ve made a video to demonstrate a simple way to ask your dog how he/she likes to be patted. It’s as simple as starting to pat your dog and then stopping and noting the response.​ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jU4TKzBOzw4

    Another common theme is that people are sure that their dog likes being hugged. I sometimes ask them to show me - because some dogs don't mind at all. The majority don't actually enjoy the interaction. Once the "no" signals have been discussed, it's amazing how many of these signs are recognized. Before the hug begins, many little dogs are almost chased down and picked up while they are trying to avoid the impending interaction. If you bend down and your little dog moves away, they probably don't like being picked up much, let alone hugged. Many dogs tolerate our hugs but don't actually enjoy them. Some dogs don't mind a hug from their special people, but don't want the same affection from others.

    Here’s a quick summary of how dogs say “yes” or “no”. Sometimes they say “maybe”. I suspect they are conflicted at times because they want our attention but don’t like the type of attention they are getting. It’s the classic walk away and then come back and then walk away routine. I've heard many times, "Well if he didn't like it, why does he keep coming back?" Once we change our approach, a “maybe” can soon become a “yes”. Be aware that all dog body language needs to be observed with consideration of the context within which it occurs, the rest of the dog’s body language (not just one part of the dog)  and the individual dog involved. Just like people, different dogs have little idiosyncrasies and styles of communicating.

    Body language that says “Yes”:

    • Moving into your space, coming to you for physical contact
    • Nudging a head into your hand or lap
    • Pawing your hand, trying to move it closer
    • Leaning into you
    • Lying down near you, touching you or flopping onto you
    • Face, mouth and eyes are relaxed, even droopy
    Body language that says “No”:
    • Moving away from you, especially if they don’t return or leave the area - This is so important to take notice of. If a dog does not come to you, do not go to the dog and invade the dog's space, especially if you do not know the dog. Do not put dogs in situations where they cannot move away or escape from a patting interaction you think is pleasant but they don't appreciate
    • Leaning away from you.
    • Turning the head away
    • Looking away from you with the eyes
    • Shying away or ducking the head away from your hand
    • Rolling the eyes away to show the whites of the eye (whale eye)
    • Yawning
    • Licking the lips
    • Freezing (a tense stillness as opposed to a relaxed stillness)
    If you miss the more subtle "no", communication may escalate to become more obvious and effective. Dogs who really find patting aversive (i.e. hate it and can't wait to escape) may learn to skip the subtle requests if history has shown that no-one ever listens.
    • Growling
    • Snapping
    • Biting

     Body language that could mean “Yes” or “No”:
    • Licking your face or hands. This can be asking for space or for you to stop. It is a common appeasement signal. Appeasement behaviours function to reduce or get rid of some part of the interaction which they do not like without using overt aggression. It can also be a sign of affection from a very mouthy, licky dog.
    • Rolling over. If the dog is tense, lips are drawn back and tense, this means "no". It is another appeasement behaviour. If the dog is floppy and the eyes are soft or closed, this means “rub mah belly”. Refer to the pictures below.


    Appeasement Roll Over:
    *  Ears pinned back (one forward due to pressure of couch)
    *  Tight mouth, pulled back at commissure
    *  Front paws tucked tight, not relaxed
    *  Quick lick lip
    ​*  Back legs rolling partially open but tense

    Rub Mah Belly Roll Over:
    *  Mouth relaxed (floppy gums dropping with gravity, exposing teeth)
    *  ​
    Front legs floppy and relaxed
    Back legs relaxed, flopping wide open with gravity
    Skin around eyes soft, not taut
    Body relaxed, stretched out fully, lying fully on back

    • Paw raised. If the dog is tense and the body is leaning away, it means “no”. If the dog is leaning towards you and body is relaxed, it can be “yes” or "maybe".
    • Walking away. Some dogs will walk away and come back. They may want attention from you, but not the sort you are giving. If you change what you are doing, they may stay.
    • Mouthing the hand. This may mean “no” if it occurs whilst you are petting and stops when you stop. Some dogs show affection by mouthing, so they may gently mouth your hand as you pat them. If it occurs when you stop petting, it could be a mouthy dog requesting for you to continue. In the video, Turbo mouths when the patting stops to get it to start again. He stops mouthing when the person is patting him. When it happens it very important. Does the dog mouth to stop you, or to get you to start again?
    • Being motionless. If the dog is relaxed and motionless they may be enjoying the pat. They may lean ever so slightly into your touch, with all the other signs of enjoyment (soft eyes, ears, mouth). If they have “frozen” and are tense or rigid under your touch, almost resisting relaxation or holding their breath, they are probably not enjoying the patting and are waiting for it to stop. You can often feel a pounding heart under the chest of a dog who is very still but not enjoying the contact.
    • Lots of wiggling. Some dogs are happy, wiggly, bouncy balls of exuberance who can’t stop moving when they are enjoying an activity. Others are nervous, uncomfortable wigglers who are torn between wanting some attention from you but not liking where or how they are being touched.
    I'm encouraged by the comments I’ve read on social media. Many people notice a difference in the way their dog approaches, stays and responds to them when they take the time to observe, ask the dog and accommodate what he/she enjoys.
    Have a try. Ask your dog and let me know the answer.
    Want to practice more observations skills? Read this other great blog and video on the same topic:

    Here are some great resources which Eileenanddogs.com recommends in her blog. She is spot on with her recommendations, so with her permission, I've included them just as she has recommended. You can never get enough of the good stuff.​ Go check out her blog.

    Recommended Resources:

    "Doggonesafe.com: How to Love Your Dog –  Believe it or Not. This little gem describes ways to ask the dog’s consent, encourages getting to know one’s dog’s language, and suggests ways that humans and dogs can be physically close to each other without intimidating or “over-touching” the dog. The whole website has great stuff about learning to read dogs and keeping kids safe around them.

    Dogs Like Kids They Feel Safe With. This is a wonderful movie about teaching dogs with a clicker and teaching children with TAGteach with the goal of comfortable and safe interaction between the two. Children who are fearful and and children who tend to overdo with animals are both included. The children are taught about asking the adult handler’s and the dog’s consent.

    Dr. Sophia Yin has a wealth of information on dog body language, polite greeting behavior (from humans), and low stress handling. Here is a page with a load of information. Free Downloads: Posters, Handouts, and More.

    Family Paws is another great site that focuses on safe interactions between dogs and their human family members, with special emphasis on education for expecting families and families with infants. Here is founder Jennifer Shryock doing a great analysis of a now infamous human/dog petting session gone wrong, with nice explanations of the mismatch between dog and human communication and expectations.

    Observation Skills for Training Dogs. That great FaceBook group I have mentioned before."

    © Sonya Bevan

    Thank you to Eileen Anderson for sharing her blog and resource recommendations, Steph Walker for her pictures of Reggie and Bodel Mitchell for sharing Zoe with me.
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