Healing holistically…

As a professional dog trainer and sports dog coach, I regularly have dogs in for residential training, that have ingrained behavioural issues. 

When I take a dog for residential training it is a way to ‘jump start’ the progression of the dogs training, whether it be for simply domestic training or more complex behavioural problems. A regular ‘type’ of dog that I am often asked to help, are those with aggression or reactivity issues. 

At present, I have one such dog, in my care. 

Tizer is an 18month old Border collie cross. I suspect some sort of setter based on his appearance and behaviour. I have actually known Tizer since he was approximately 16wks, as he was owned by a student. 

He attended one of my competitive groups, intermittently and I saw him less then a handful of times. It was apparent he was a sweet genuine little dog, with a sensitive streak. He showed great promise for Competitive Obedience, where you could see his extravagant movement influenced by the gundog in him. Unfortunately, his owner was unable to attend the group and time surpassed and I didnt see Tizer for well over a year. 

Recently, I got a phone call saying that Tizer’s owner was in need of help. 

His owner rang me, and I could instantly hear the sadness and heartbreak in her voice. She had a change of personal circumstances, and needed to find Tizer a home. 

She said that he had developed some major behaviour issues, including aggression and in-house fighting. She also said that she was concerned over his reaction to children and small dogs, to the extent where she believed that he would kill a small dog. 

There was no way that I could not try and help, given the situation. Here was a dog and person in need, and I was in a position to assist. 

The sadness part of this tale, is that this situation is neither unique or unusual. I count myself fortunate to have had more then my fair share of ‘guardian angels’, always there when I needed them, so this was the least I could do. 

On collection of Tizer, you could clearly see a heart broken owner and a ‘broken’ dog. He was edgy and apprehensive. When I collected him, there were children coming from a local leisure facility, and Tizer’s body language showed apprehension, fear and a tenseness. He was obviously uncomfortable around them, and even tried to lunge forward towards one that was closer to him. His behaviour was concerning to say the least. This wasn’t going to be a simple solution. I assured his owner I would do my best, and said I would contact her the following day, to discuss Tizer. She was clearly too emotional to do so at the time.

Tizer had transformed from the dog that I initially met, who was sensitive and shy, but in no way aggressive. My role was to try and work out what had caused this drastic change in personality. 

When I spoke to Tizer’s owner, she said that he had been absolutely fine until he hit approximately 6months old. She said that his behaviour changed dramatically and declined. She said that he started to act aggressively towards her other dogs, in particular her male Australian shepherd cross. There had been 3 incidents, in which one Tizer caused damage to the other dog. In addition, Tizer received an injury to his eye area. She stated that this behaviour was often unprovoked and ‘random’. 

She explained that Tizer’s reactivity had increased from there, with outbursts towards other dogs on walks and also showing aggression towards smaller animals. 

The change of dynamics in the house, had caused tension and undoubtedly stress for both the owner and Tizer. 

As a a dog trainer and someone who deals with behavioural issues, I have to put on my Detectives hat, to try and work out why and how a problem has evolved. Whilst this is not always possible to fathom, it can help me work through the issue, faster. For example if a dog is lunging out at other dogs, being able to work out if it is fear based because it has been attacked by a certain colour of dog, I know that this is something I need to be aware of and can implement a plan accordingly. This information is helpful, but failing to have this insight, doesnt mean that the dogs behaviour cannot be improved, or even resolved. We just deal with the ‘now’.

There were several ‘clues’ which may indicate why Tizer’s behaviour has become so extreme. 

Firstly, when I first met Tizer, he was definitely a sensitive soul. He was very biddable and receptive to training but would def need building up in confidence. He was very friendly with people, but would be submissive on approach. His behaviour was slightly appeasing, when meeting people. His demeanour was gentle but had an anxiety about his being. Dogs of this type, can often form unhealthy attachments to ‘their people’, and can result in anxiety related issues. My goal for all my dogs, is to create them being confident in their own being, with or without me present. If I have a dog of this ‘type’, I implement tactics to build their confidence up without my influence.

His owner stated that his behaviour changed at approximately 6months, which would also correlate to adolescence when dogs behaviour can change. With male dogs in particular, there is change in testosterone levels, which can incite aggression behaviour, either the dog being the recipient of, or attacker. Often this is superficial, but can result in a level of trauma to the owner or dog. 

She also stated that he was very ‘attached’ to her, which could result in either resource guarding or separation anxiety. Because of Tizer’s sensitive nature, he would be more inclined to hold any anxiety and stress he felt, which would increase his likelihood of reactivity. When discussing Tizer’s behaviour, she said that the attacks on her other dogs, could be when all the dogs were in ‘quietly laying in the living room’. She stated that he would fly out at another dog without any warning. 

The incidents within the home with Tizer, would create an apprehension within the environment a dog should ideally feel a sense of calm and ‘peace’. However, as is often the case with in house dog to dog issues, this in itself can create an atmosphere and a ‘walking on egg shells’ feeling. This again is building anxiety and tension. 

Because of the issues with Tizer’s behaviour, his freedom and ‘outlet’ had been tapered, due to the restrictions his behaviour causes. A dog with ‘dog to dog’ issues, can be a life affecting responsibility. This could also contribute to his tension and eventual reactivity. 

The other factor is the genetic influence on Tizer’s behaviour. He is part herding breeding and I suspect, part gundog. Both these types of dogs, have a high level of prey drive which has been utilised for a ‘job’, if and when this isn’t allowed to have an outlet, this can also contribute to a behavioural issue. His owner stated that he often would nip at her other dogs heels, when they run which is a trait common in herding breeds. She said that because of his unpredictable nature, she had been reluctant to allow him to run with her other dogs, fearing the nip would escalate. 

You can see the picture being drawn and the ‘clues’ all merging together. 

Here you have a sensitive dog, with a level or anxiety in his make up, who has entered adolescence and started to alter the way he behaves. This has resulted in every increasing internal fights between dogs in the home, and caused a level of apprehension within the household and owner. His lack of confidence around other dogs, has then manifested itself into anxiety and defensiveness, and eventually aggression. He may have formed an unhealthy attachment to his owner, which would manifest itself in him resource guarding her, or her property, which could trigger an aggressive outburst. 

His behaviour has meant that his freedom and exercise are tapered, which could also create pent up frustration. 

Often, there is not one singular cause a behaviour issue such as reactivity and aggression. As you can see from Tizer’s case study, it is more an accumulation of several factors. 

So… now how to help him…. can I help him? Is his behavioural issues resolvable?

If you want to find out my plan to try and help Tizer, check out my facebook page… https://www.facebook.com/kamalfernandezdogtraining/

I shall be doing a live stream where you can ask questions and receive answers…. for more details, check it out!

Motown records to record breakers….

Just back from a weekend of teaching, and as always I feel so fortunate and privileged to have been asked.

However this weekend was a bit unique.

See the club I was asked to teach for, was Lichfield Dog Training Club.

For those that don’t partake in competitive Obedience, you may not be aware of ‘who’ Lichfield club is…. so let me give you a little insight into why this was such a privilege.

Quite simply put, Lichfield would be to dog training what Motown would be to music.

A club steeped in history and accolade, they probably hold the British record for the number of Obedience Champions, Ticket winners, Crufts judges and Crufts winners, within the dog sport of competition obedience. Thats some résumé.

I suspect the only club with a record to rival Lichfield would be the infamous South London DTC. If Lichfield was Motown, South London was Arista records. It was truly an honour to share the same space of so many greats, before me.

You can tell I’m somewhat of an obedience anorak and make no apologies for that. I have trawled the internet, magazines and wider publications educating myself on the history of the sport. In doing so, I have a huge respect and understanding for those that came before me (the Lichfield patrons for example), but I also can see turning points in the sports history.

Knowing the history of your sport is a worthwhile endeavour, as it is where the roots and foundation on which you now stand, are laid.

It is a balance between looking back and moving forward, and knowing the path we’ve worn will tell us the route to take.

Whilst teaching, I am often entertained and dined, and this was no exception. It was a chance to take a trip down memory lane and reminisce about years gone by, to break bread with people I wouldn’t usually have the chance to do so with.

Having been involved in training dogs for nearly 30yrs, there was quite a lot to talk about!

The conversation prompted this blog and many thoughts relating to the past and present. And in fact ‘our’ sport as a whole.

I make no secret of being passionate about all things ‘dog’, and sports are top of that list, and specifically competitive Obedience. Its been a part of my life for more years then not.

Obedience can get bad press, for being ‘boring’ or ‘serious’, but for those that partake in it, it the canine equivalent of dressage. I appreciate that it may be an acquired taste, however it is anything but boring when done well.

The contrast between intricate precise movements and exuberance and energy, are what make the sport both challenging and appealing.

I have partaken in it for all of my career and I still find the sight of seeing a ‘team’ working in total unison, a thing of absolute beauty and joy.

Often dog related matters, certainly within sports, can cause a tribal mentality to methods, views and perspectives, diet, equipment and all that relates. This is not unique to dogs, but a trait of human nature. We only have to look to politics to see this in full glory.

We draw lines in the sand, pistol at dawn, loaded and ready to be fires.

To me it is an asset that we have diversity and a broad range of opinions. It makes it interesting and topical.

However, the irony is that we have more in common then differences. This is the ultimate human story. We are far more alike than different.

Our conversation was a group of people, who may differ on some views, but our commonality is that we all are deeply passionate about the ‘game’. We want to see it prosper, it has given us all more then we could ever quantify.

The landscape of dog sports has greatly changed since many of us started, and the variety of activities available has had an adverse affect on obedience specifically. Obedience is a sport that requires a long term investment in contrast to other sports with more instant gratification. This reflects the world we live in now, where the changes in how we live mean that we are often conditioned to seek out instant solutions.

The infrastructure of clubs and classes primarily oriented to competitive dog sports has largely altered, people attend classes on a short term basis to complete a course for 8wks, with a certificate at the end. In years gone by, you worked your way up the relevant classes, and the ‘top’ class was a goal to aspire to.

You often had several key members who attended and contributed who were actively competing, which then influenced the classes, content and direction of methods. So the ‘bug’ was passed on.

However this is largely a rarity now. You may have clubs and societies that have some competitive entity, but this is becoming more and more uncommon.

Private trainers and groups serve this clientele.

This has often been a aspect to apportion ‘blame’ to…. and there may be some truth in it.

However seeking to place blame on a single factor will merely prevent us at looking at the greater picture.

Another factor is nurturing the new blood, and making the sport accessible and attainable.

The bottom line is that people want to have reinforcement. Just like our dogs, there has to be something in it for them.

Having a competition based on qualifying vs winning, at the preliminary levels would encourage people to persist.

Having a system where entry to shows was contingent on ‘giving’ back.

Having an annual inter-club competition, where members had to be ‘active’ within the club itself, would feed into the registered club system, provide help and support for shows and events.

Allow those that won a certain amount of ‘reserve’ championship certificates to qualify for our major championship would increase numbers and give supporters something to watch and a wider cross section of people, dogs and competitors.

These are just some of the ideas, that all came about from breaking bread. There were at least another dozen more.

However a large reason why the majority will never gain momentum, is the main contributing factor to the current issues we have.

Politics, misunderstanding and misconceptions. These are the greatest adversary of the sport succeeding and prospering. We could substitute ‘obedience’, for any dog sport, or fishing or knitting, or kayaking or…. well you get the idea.

We often second guess what our ‘opposition’ is thinking, yet we share more then which divides us.

Put down your sword, baton and guns… stop and listen. Be willing to do that much. You don’t have to agree, but you might hear your similarities. And there in lies prosperity and growth.

Potatoes and Eggs

I had just came from the hairdresser, getting a short back and sides in preparation for Xmas. I have to confess I normally dread the mundane conversations that ensue, normally including ‘where are you going on holiday this year?’ or ‘what do you do for a job’, as the stylist looks blankly out the window willing the day to pass….

Well this was different. I hadn’t been to this hairdresser before, and the conversation between the hairdresser and I, was nothing short of eye opening.

Don’t ask me how we got to this topic or depth, but we discussed how she had been a journey of self discovery and awareness following childhood trauma caused by being abused. She went into great detail and shared the journey of a woman that overcame adversity and an experience that would break many others. I shared my experience from my previous role, working with those who had experienced similar and the long reaching ramifications of this experience.

It caused me to ponder. A good friend put it very eloquently, when we were talking about how different dogs can respond to different upbringings. She said ‘It’s like eggs and potatoes. Eggs go hard under hot water, potatoes get soft under hot water. Both still taste good, you just have to know how to cook them’. 

What she was saying in a somewhat pragmatic manner, is we all response to pressure and stress differently, and it doesn’t make one right or wrong, or taste nice or awful. Its about understanding what the affect of that ‘hot water’ can have potatoes and eggs and being aware of the outcome. 

The same can be said for people and dogs, in how they respond to pressure, stress and being in ‘hot water’. This ‘hot water’ may be trauma at a crucial point in their life, which can be the catalyst for long term issues. This is a consistent pattern with both people and dogs. That crucial time is often adolescents, or those formative years. This can be equated to puppyhood and adolescence in dogs. This is where the majority of long term behavioural issues, and mental health concerns can be established.

It seems to be that the awareness, and importance of considering well being and mental health is becoming a more open conversation. The stigma is slowly being challenged and we can share in our experiences. Often we don’t know what people are going through, or what internal battles are they under going. Someone who is loud and confident, could be using this as a front for their own inner pain. The same goes for the bully or person who attacks others on social media. Hurt people, hurt people.

Similarly, with dogs, the one that is hyped up and ‘keen’ MAY actually be anxious and stressed. Or the dog that lies for hours on end in a corner, barely showing any interest in life, MAY be shut down rather then ‘quiet and well behaved’.  I have emphasised the word MAY, for the implicit reason that sometimes it MAY be what you are seeing is what it is. 

The same can be said of dogs, is that aggression or sniffing masking an inner angst, confusion or concern. Your dog’s confidence is the most crucial aspect of a relationship based on trust, it should be protected always. 

As a sports dog coach and professional dog trainer dealing with behavioural issues, my role is often to help deal with these issues, from both the dog and person. To unravel the protective mechanism they have built to cope with and deal with their underlying concerns. This first means establishing trust, and this can take time. But the ends does justify the means.

What could be an insignificant event for one person/dog, could be a tragedy for another and trigger a reaction, resulting in anxiety, depression, aggression….like the difference between eggs and potatoes, one may break as an outcome. Or what would be an insignificant event for one person, may be a mile stone for another. 

Dog trainers and behaviourist often say, helping the dog is the easy bit. And so often this is true, but failing to be sympathetic to the needs of the human counterpart will create barriers to progress. We are there to support them to achieve THEIR goals. Ego will get in the way of that. 

As a industry, dog training views are often so polarised and segregated. One trainer will say its about the history of reinforcement, one will view it as a neurological issue, one will says that application of appropriate Tellington Touch will help resolve the issue, whilst others will say manage the behaviour and environment and change the association to the trigger. Some will say its because the dog is ‘dominant’, some will says its because he’s ‘disobedient’. 

But the truth of it, is… none of it really matters unless you can connect with the person and dog. You can understand if they are being a ‘potato’ or an ‘egg’ in hot water. You can communicate with them in a way that they can relate, you align yourself with their goals and you set achievable tasks and objectives for them. Some people need it blunt and short with a dose of truth serum, others need a softer approach and a more sensitive delivery.

The interpersonal relationship and connection between dog and human, can be so deep and intimate, the challenges and burdens are shared. See the ‘team’ as a whole and consider the needs of both individuals. 

Here are 10 simple tips for dogs and people, to ensure you build and maintain your confidence and avoid getting in ‘hot water’ 😉

  1. Surround yourself with those that support you, your villagers.
  2. Your mind needs to be treated like a muscle, exercise it it, rest it, look after it, nurture it, care for it!
  3. Rehearse success. Train hard, fight way! The more you work towards your goal, the luckier you’ll be 😉
  4. Everyone has a story, and its far easier to be nice and kind, then negative and mean.
  5. You reap what you sow! Be accountable for your own actions. If you think you’ll fail you probably will, if you think you’ll succeed, you just might! And be aware of what you put out in the universe as it will be what you get back.
  6. Mental health and welfare concerns and issues are nothing to be ashamed of. It is what makes us human. Dispel the stigma and be open to the possibilities.
  7. Be kind, it costs nothing but is worth all the riches in the world.
  8. Social media has changed the way we engage, in the world. Often living vicariously through a filtered image or doctored photo. Having a social media detox can be just what the Dr ordered! See it for what it is, a tool to engage with others and a way to be informed. Be respectful, be mindful and be aware.
  9. Think, plan, do, review! That Bob Baily mantra should be a tattoo on your forehead by which you expose your dog to new situations. Just taking a moment to plan, can prevent a mind field of issues being faced, that you either dont want to, or dont need to deal with. 
  10. As a coach, there are times to be a butt kicker, a shoulder to cry on and arms to hug… knowing which is appropriate is a skill and takes time, which only life and experience can give you. be patient with the process. Learn to view things from the lens of the student. 

Peppa Pig in surround sound!

This morning, I was sitting on the sofa watching the program that seems to be in stereo in our house…. Peppa Pig! I have to clarify, I was not there on my own, Neave was sat with Lois at one end of the sofa, and I was further up. In between us, was Sugar aka Shu Shu. Sugar is our 3yr old rescue dog, she is a Poodle x jack Russell, and we have had her for approximately 2yrs. She arrived, like several of my dogs… on an impulse. She is just the best dog ever. She also arrived at a similar time to when we were moving house, having a new born and another puppy in the house! So you can say, that she was definitely thrown in at the deep end. 

We were having a sit down on the sofa with duvets and blankets. A rarity with our schedule and my work! So, Neave was giving her mum a cuddle, and made her way towards me, clambering in the way that 2yrs olds do, along the bak rest of the sofa. 

Sugar was curled up between us, and was half asleep. As Neave stepped in her direction, but no where near her, Sugar woke briefly and let out a low growl. She was giving Neave a warning. She was very clearly saying, I am sat here, and please be mindful of me. She didnt really move, or appeared startled or overly concerned. She was just letting Neave know, to be careful of her. She wasn’t being ‘aggressive’ or ‘dominant’, or plotting Neave’s demise… she was just communicating. 

Neave’s response, was everything that a parent raising a child amongst dogs, could hope for. 

Neave stopped in her tracks, and responded ‘Sorry Shu Shu’. Neave waited for me to lift her, so she avoided ‘Shu Shu’, and we had cuddle and Sugar continued as she was. 

I couldn’t be prouder of Neave for reaction and understanding. And I couldn’t be prouder of Sugar for her response, she taught Neave that she needed space and to be aware of her. 

Since having Neave, I have been asked regularly about how we prepared my dogs for her arrival and taught them to accept her. 

This was only half of the education. The dogs were actually relatively easy! Due to the manner in which they are reared and socialised, my dogs adjusted to her presence with little or any disruption. However teaching Neave how we wanted he to be around them, was the greater lesson to be taught. 

The minefield of videos that circulate social media, showing ‘kids and dogs’ interacting, in a way that can incite a thousand comments and execution by emoji, clearly shows that there is a lack of knowledge and awareness. Dogs clearly giving warning signals and signs to the observers that they are feeling uncomfortable, stressed or anxious, yet the signs are ignored and worse still, the child’s interactions are almost encouraged! 

Dogs and children are by nature unpredictable, and even the most ‘sound/safe’ dog can innocently injure a child with their over enthusiastic interaction. Or similarly, a child can cause offence to a dog without any ill intent. 

Sugar has an amazing temperament, literally impeccable. She reads dogs beautifully and she has endears herself to people at a drop off a hat. However, those that have followed her journey on social media will know, this wasn’t always the case. In my early interactions and attempts to play with her, she clearly showed signs of worry and apprehension when I made attempts to play with her. Over time, her confidence was built to understand that my engagement was to be trusted. Play and interaction are great ways to bond and build a relationship. In the same way, I acknowledge situations which she found stressful and created a safe space for her. 

When I introduced Neave, I did so in a controlled manner and ensured each interaction was safe, with distance and clear space for Sugar to move away to. I observed when each of my dogs met her, and what they ‘told’ me. 

My dogs general response varied from ‘oh whats that? it smells funny….’ to ‘is it here for the weekend? Its the oddest puppy I’ve ever seen…’ They were largely unimpressed, to say the least…. Sugar was intrigued, and did what Sugar does, read the situation beautifully and adjusted her body language and energy to Neave. I knew Sugar was a pretty unique and special dog, when she first came home. All my other dogs told me so. She just fitted in, everyone instantly took to her and she read them all perfectly. The only lacking she had, was confidence, and specifically around handling. This was more then likely learnt. 

Neave helps me when I prepare their Prodog Raw food, and take great delight in ‘mix mix’, and then heaping their Prodog Raw supplements onto each dinner…I have her sat on the work tops, where she in out of the way and up high. 

She then waits eagerly whilst they eat, and then once they have finished and they are removed from the area, I lift her off, and she wanders around and collects all the bowls up.  She is being taught how to care from them, and look after they needs. She is also being integrated into their lives, and engaged in a huge part of mine, so she takes as pride in them as I do. She has come on walks with me, and delights in doing ‘training’ with them.

The common theme with my dogs that I have owned, and Sugar… was that they have appropriate social skills. They have been raised and taught to engaged in a certain manner, they understand how to approach other dogs that are lacking confidence, or how to be respectful of a dog that is worried, they also know how to deal with an unruly pup that wants to jump on their hand, and behave inappropriately. They have met a variety of dogs, in a variety of breeds and understand that black dogs are friendly, and small dogs are to be mindful of, big dogs aren’t all scary, and hairy dogs are giving your signals to be listened to. They understand that being touched and handled is safe, they understand that being grabbed by the collar is fun, or that when you are concerned about something, take confidence from me. 

This process is no different for Neave. Part of her upbringing will be to teach her how to engage with her peers, adults, animals and the world in a respectful manner. She showed that one of the many lessons she has to learn, has had affect. We have many more to teach, but this was a huge ‘win’. It is down to us to educate both dogs and kids, teach them how to be in each others presence and how to have compassion. 

She is being taught how to interact with dogs, in a way that will keep her safe, and allow to create relationships with them, based on trust and mutual respect. 

This is a lesson we should all take on board, and in times when this is challenging, ensure we pass this message on. 

Tricycle to Tour de France…

So I have made a decision, and I think its one that you all will be interested in hearing about…

I have decided that I am entering Neave, my 2yr old daughter in the Tour De France next year…. I am pretty sure she will be fine, I mean she is really good at home in the garden one her tricycle…. How hard can it be?

Its a decision I have been pondering for some time, I have been planning and looking forward to this since the second my daughter came home… I mean, we had her because we wanted her to be a cyclist…. Its really important that she loves cycling, because I REALLY want her to.

I am pretty sure she will be fine, she can go straight on her tricycle, and she can turn if she has enough space… well sometimes she can, sometimes she has to push it with her feet… But thats ok. She has a little while yet.

How hard can it be? She is fine with people, so the crowds wont worry her… And she has travelled on a plane when she was young, so she should be fine with the flight over to France.

I think we are all good!!!

Before, you all start to google the number for the NSPCC…. you may have figured that I am jesting about Neave doing the tour de France next year…. It may be a few years before she does, maybe 3 or four 😉 but this is the scenario people impose on their dogs on a regular basis.

In my past vocation, we had a saying…. ‘Failing to prepare is preparing to fail’, and this articulates beautifully the thought process that should be going through our mind, when we contemplate exposing our dog to a new experience.

It doesnt matter whether we are discussing dogs sports of general domestic pet dogs, there is a multitude of experiences that we must ensure we prepare them for prior to venturing out into the ‘big wide world’ of competition or indeed life.

When I use the metaphor of asking my 2yr old to jump from riding her tricycle around in our living room, to competing in the Tour De France, the epic failing on my part, can be sighted instantly. However, it is often not so when discussing dogs.

Even getting your puppy to live in your home, can be filled with potential incidents and encounters that if not prepared for, can lead them to a road of trouble and danger. For my dogs, who live in a world where emphasis is placed on highlighting to them what I do what them to do, rather then correcting or chastising them for inevitable mistakes, preparation and anticipation is key.

When I get my puppy home, or have a dog with me for training, I have dog proofed there environment and set up areas where the can live and be where they are safe. This allows me to reinforce behaviour that I want, and deter or prevent behaviour I dont want. This is a preparatory step to creating a dog that I can live with, and take anywhere.

How about taking your puppy to the vet… this is itself is a huge ‘step’ for them to overcome. A strange person, handling them intrusively, and then potentially making them feel uncomfortable or even, in pain. Getting my puppy to accept me handling them intrusively, and also having other people do so, is a huge part of their upbringing.

These are the ‘standard’ things I have to prepare for. And depending on the dog, and the temperament, this could be where the lions share of the work will need to be placed.

For those of us that do, dog sports, we now have to add onto this list, the endless challenges that our dog will face within the sport.

First, laying the foundations. Core skill and behaviours that will create the basis for which our dogs career will be built. Then skills that are required, plus proofing, generalising, chaining, reinforcement schedules…. just to name a few.

We then have to transfer this information and learning to other environments, plus add the competition pressures and ‘furniture’, people, sounds and distractions.

When you break it down, it’s HUGE what we expect of our dogs and therefore easy to underestimate the work it takes to achieve this.

All to often, the extent of work and layers needed are overlooked and often there is a breakdown. When people approach me with issues, often its as simple as reviewing their preparation.

Dogs don’t sent out to deliberately ‘mess about’ or be ‘naughty’ and I defy anyone to prove otherwise. What they do do, is repeat what has been reinforced, whether you intended this to happen or not.

So the key is to reinforce behaviour you want. Simple, and use to articulate to your dog what and how you want them to be.

Here are some tips for effective preparation:

1. Prepare them in small pieces, not by ‘testing’ and gambling. Everyone can get lucky once, but at what expense.

2. Thorough preparation takes time, but ‘thinking, planning and then doing’ will save you this in droves.

3. Your dog should ideally not encounter anything they haven’t experienced in training or at home. That way you can teach them what you want, and reinforce behaviour rather then pick up the pieces of a mistake or error.

4. Classical conditioning wins every time. If your dog isn’t happy or comfortable in the environment, no amount of clicking sits will make any impact. Ensure they are confident, always!

5. Get your skill, behaviour or chain in 5 locations, with 5 ‘challenges’ as a means of preparation. So your dog do a sit in 5 different locations, under any one of 5 challenges in the form or environmental, noise, equipment, distraction or ring prep. This will give you a pretty clear indication of your dogs readiness.

6. Look at it from the dogs perspective. What do they see, hear and feel. This will give you an idea of what you need to do to prepare them for the question you are asking.

7. Your foundations create the basis on which everything else is built. The issue may be nothing to do with the exercise or behaviour itself, but a crack in the foundation. Review them constantly. Even experienced dogs need foundation skills brushed up now and again.

8. Attention is everything. It may not be literally looking at you, but being able to have focus in any environment irrespective of the distraction, is of paramount importance in every dog sport. Don’t underestimate its value and don’t overestimate the need to reinforce it.

9. There are two members of your team, the dog is one… do you part. Don’t let your dog down by failing to prepare yourself, physically, mentally, emotionally.

10. Its not about the destination, its about the journey. Preparation is the journey.

Culture of Influence

As a professional dog trainer, and sports dog coach, I teach a lot of people, with a LOT of dogs…. and I have been fortunate enough to compete, and teach people in most sports currently in existence.

Its really interesting, ‘sport hopping’ from one to another, and as a observer of behaviour, watching the ‘behavioural patterns’, beliefs and traditions that exist within each discipline.

For example, if we take a sport like obedience. There is a lot of superstitious behaviour… and thats on the part of the humans! For example, there are so many ‘old wives tails’ associated with an exercise like scent discrimination, what you must and must not do. The rigorous containers that clothes are kept in, which require a retina scan and finger-print ID just to access them… then a series of intricate handshakes and secret signs, to extract them from the said container, not to mention to endless list of criteria that people subscribe to when placing it on the ground! Whilst in a sport like Working trials, where a High level track can be 3hrs old, in gale force wind looking for a match stick… or in agility, where the cultural approach to training is to create maximise drive and speed, where everything is fast and furious, and the by product is a mass of hysterical Border collies, that need a stringent management system, straight jacket and padded cell to have them ringside…. or the traditional approach to bitework is to allow the dog to parade and ‘possess’ the sleeve, with a type of dog that is genetically possessive, and the trade off is an issue with ‘outs’ or control….

So what are the pros and cons, of having this cultural ‘approaches’ to training?

Well Albert Einstein once said, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same Thing over and over again, and expecting results’. But one could argue, ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t try and fix it’.

Often we fall into the trap of approaching training in a way that is familiar or ‘traditional’ because of the culture of a sport, and the approach is ‘tried and tested’.

Like all sports, those that are successful often dictate the culture and methodology to training. This is applicable to the type of dog and person.

The most successful breed of dog across the vast majority of dog sports would arguably be the border collie. A breed selected and designed to ‘want to please’, have an intense desire to do a task, repeatedly, over and over again. They have a desire to run and chase, both attributes which can be utilised to train for dog sports.

Its a catch 22, the majority of successful handlers, select dogs with an innate desire to perform and work, and therefore the methods they use are influenced by the type of dog they train. However, is this ‘the best information’ for our dogs? Is the communication as efficient and effective as we can make it? Is the by product of training with superstition, that dogs that don’t ‘conform’ labelled as ‘weird’, ‘stupid’ or ‘stubborn’? Or is the by-product of a ‘behavioural’ issue like over arousal?

The question to ask is, is what we are doing ‘actually’ working? And is this how I want to train MY dogs?

There is no, correct or incorrect answer to this question.

It really is an opportunity to reflect and decide for yourself.

Many years ago, I decided to change the approach I took to training dogs. I did so for several reasons. It wasn’t because the ‘methods’ didnt work, far from it. I had been very successful with that approach. It wasn’t even that there was a moral or ethical ‘concern’. I hadn’t done anything to my dog that I would be ashamed about, any ‘mistakes’ I made were due to lack of knowledge rather then malicious intent. And whilst I wouldn’t make some of those training decisions now, I know that it was all part of my own personal dog training journey.

I choose a different path because I wanted a different result. I explain my approach to training then and now, as watching TV in black and white, and now watching a colour HD, surround sound flatscreen! I like that my dogs have a choice, I like they can say ‘not today’ or ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. I LOVE that we can have a conversation and a direct line of communication between us, that takes into account the dogs perspective.

I love that I am conscious, aware and enlightened about my dogs learning. I have data, I have video, I have prepconceptual teaching, I have clear reinforcement placement, I have shaping, I have clarity when aroused….

I have these by looking at my own training objectively and through a new lens. I allowed myself to detach the emotional attachment, superstition and tradition…. Not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, is also wise.

And trust me, it was daunting and scary… But the gains far outweigh the discomfort of growth and change.

Moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting or discarded the past, it means learning from it. This is so relevant in todays climate, and being woke to appropriate and relevantchange is crucial! If you’re happy with what you’re doing, stand by it but also be smart enough to be objective.

PTSD is Pretty Real….

As a professional dog trainer, dealing with everything from top level competitive dog sports, helping people have well behaved family pets or behavioural problems, the focus of my work is partly on the dog, but more times than not, it is about helping the owner/handler/trainer.

A reoccurring issue that I deal with is the past experience or issue that the owner has experienced with another dog, affecting the current relationship they have with the dog they have now. 

In dog sports, this can often be the case where your previous dog had a significant issue or trait that caused you problems. For example they may have had too much drive, or not enough drive… and you struggled to deal with whichever end of the spectrum you faced. Or you had a training issue, for example your dog was a pole knocker or tracked badly, and you are overly determined that you WON’T have that issue again. So inevitably, you get the polar opposite….. the phrase careful what you wish for is definitely relevant here. Someone who has had a dog with low drive, over compensates and creates a ‘monster’! Or the person who has had the out of control head bangers creates the meek and mild wilting wall flower.

The other variation to this theme, is when you have had a dog that has had an ‘issue’, or a trauma paired with that dog, this could be an untimely loss, or a all consuming behavioural issue that governed your life.

This could almost be defined as a form of PTSD. Dogs that have had behavioural issues or ‘problems’ can have a life changing impact and as a result, affect the subsequent choices, behaviour and mentality of care giver.

For example, a rising phenomenon is that of the ‘reactive’ dog (a label I dislike, and even written a blog series on). Anyone that has lived and dealt with a dog with any form of aggression, even, as is often the case, if it is based in fear, will verify the life altering affect it can have. 

It can affect your behaviour, devising intricate coping strategies to circumventing a simple task such as a walk or the visitor attending your home. It can result in relationship break downs, or stresses on a interpersonal relationship.

It can induce anxiety, depression or trigger an emotional response to what would previously have been an insignificant event. It can leave you with a sense of shame or failure. This might all sound extreme but, I can assure you, this is very much the daily plight of thousands if not millions of people worldwide. 

It could be that the outcome has had a long lasting affect. Maybe the dog had to be rehomed, or you used methodologies you now regret. Or the dog injured you or another being, either dog or person. Or the dog may have had to have been euthanised.

It would be more abnormal if any of this didn’t have an affect on you. The trauma and affect could be obvious, but sometimes it could be buried deeper until you get your next dog.

So how do you have prevent and overcome this, which can be described as ‘second dog syndrome’. 

I write about reactive dogs and the causes of reactivity in previous blogs. 

https://kamalfernandez.blog/2017/08/05/quick-reactions/

But the affect of PTSD in owning a dog that has caused you to feel anxious, apprehensive and affected your sanity is real. It could simply be that your dog is being an obnoxious adolescent, testing boundaries and reaching sexual maturity. This is a challenging time for anyone, and often sees dogs behave out of character or a new ‘personality’ emerge. This can be both over whelming and all consuming, considering that adolescence can occur till up to 3yrs old. The daily challenge of having to deal with varied unpredictable behaviour can be, in truth, exhausting. It can knock your confidence, or make you hyper-vigilant, which can lead to anxiety related issues. 

I have had many people express a sense of ‘relief’ when the dog that has caused them so much stress and anxiety, passes or they make the decision to home that dog. This in itself creates an internal conflict. Guilt and shame over feeling a sense of relief versus the love and loss they also feel. This can resonate with someone and they bottle this up, so when their next dog arrives they over compensate for this guilt. 

Or it could be the trauma experienced with seeing that dog attack another, or being attacked themselves. The list is endless. But the concept, very real.

So how do you avoid this? How do you deal with PTSD? 

Here are some simple words of advice, to help:

  1. There is No failure just feedback. Every dog I have owned has guided me to the point where I am now, and irrespective of my career as a professional dog trainer, and sports dog coach, they have given me a ‘life lesson’. It could be acceptance, it could have been perseverance, it could have been overcoming obstacles. Whatever the lesson, there has been one. At the time, in the midst of the storm, it can be hard to see, but it’s there. Just be patient, trust that it will show itself and embrace the struggle. 
  2. You are one step closer to what you do need. You don’t always get what you want, you get what you need. Having a dog that challenges you, tests you or even drains you, is all part of the process. No, it isn’t always easy, but nothing in life worth having is. If you’re in the midst of a struggle, hold onto this. If you’ve had one in the past, make peace with it, and learn to let it go. 
  3. Everything happens for a reason. Good and bad, everything happens for a reason. Its being able to trust that, which can be the test.
  4. Being humble enough to ask for help, isn’t a reflection of your inability to ‘solve’ the issue, but you ability to recognise and accept support! Pride comes before a fall! Put ego aside.
  5. I’ll say it again….Make peace with the past. It’s behind you for a reason.
  6. Train the dog in front of you! The dog in front of you deserve a ‘chance’, don’t put the burden for living in another dogs shadows on their shoulders. Doing so, will only cause them to never shine. 
  7. Be aware of labelling! A label is limiting, as is putting your past dogs on a pedestal. What you project is what you receive! So be mindful if what you put out in the universe.
  8. Be open to change. Growth and knowledge lie ahead if you are open to change, changing your approach, changing your perspective or changing your mind.
  9. What you would/should and could do is often not what the person needs to hear. Offer support, not judgment. 
  10. Talking about it, and being open can allow others to share in your story and reduce the feeling of being on your own, or sense of shame. 

Owning a dog that is a companion, friend and member of your family is the most joyous experience you can have, and sometimes the path you are on, will lead you to that. And thats ok. We are all presented with challenges, lessons and experiences that ultimately give us lessons. After all, the movie to your life would be pretty boring without a little ‘drama’ 😉