A chip isn’t necessarily a crack…

The final part of this series on causes of reactivity, is the issue of trauma.

This is the area of the conversation relating to ‘reactivity’ that invokes the most emotion, and this is an issue that requires both sensitivity and an open mind.

The question of trauma relates to two aspects of the relationship.

The dog and the owner. And what constitutes trauma can differ from one individual to another.

Dogs are amazing at moving forward and often the trauma they are subjected to can be resolved quicker then the impact it has on the owner. Trauma can be long lasting, and go far deeper then the physical impact. The mental impact of trauma can be much harder to resolve.

Even when the damages of physical trauma have gone, the injuries may still be present. It is a wise measure to have your dog checked over by a chiropractor or osteopath post an incident.

Here is a story that that really articulates trauma, and the ability to overcome it.

My friend and student Lou Holmes, had that once in a lifetime dog who was an amazing search and rescue dog… and when she had the opportunity to have a puppy from the repeat litter, she jumped at the chance.

‘Chip’ was different from his brother, on the day he was collected… when Lou let him in the garden, it took 3hrs to get him to come out from hiding… he was incredibly nervous and frightened. He was scared of everything, people and dogs. This was partly genetic, as years later, 3 of his siblings were put to sleep due to temperament issues and medical issues…

At 10wks old, ‘Chip’ was attacked and mauled by another dog. He had 32stitches…. He had half his face literally torn off. The sight of her precious puppy in blood, and only just being able to save him from being totally massacred etched in her mind.

For the next 10 months, Chip’s traumatic experience hindered him even getting out of the car. He literally wouldn’t get out of the vehicle unless Lou was on her own.

At this point, Lou questioned his future… was her puppy ever going to be a ‘happy’ dog….was he even going to lead a  ‘normal’ life?

Lou had to re-build Chips confidence from the ground up. Any flicker of it that he had, was in tatters. Literally. This was a dog that was destined to be ‘reactive’.

You couldn’t get a more traumatic series of events. How would you even begin to contemplate rebuilding your dogs confidence and your confidence after something so horrendous? Whats best for the dog? Do you make an effort to avoid any people or dogs, so that he never has to be in that state of fear? Do you only go out early hours of the morning or late at night? Do you even take the dog out at all? Do you even try? Would it be better to have the dog put to sleep? Is life just TOO scary? Are they likely to be so reactive we can never lead a ‘normal’ life?’

These are questions that people ask themselves when faced with the issues of having a reactive dog that has been born out of trauma. And this isn’t even the trauma the owner has undergone.

Well lucky Lou didn’t read this blog…..

For 10months, Lou took Chip with her when she went search and rescue training with Brock. And for 10months, Chip didn’t want to leave the vehicle.

However at 10months, for the first time… Chip manage to get out of the vehicle. Lou never forced him, never ‘made’ him deal with life until he was ready. After 10months, he said he was ready. He ventured out of the vehicle enough to just stand there…not to engage with anyone or anything, but just be.

Lou had the sense to allow him the time and space to let her know when he was ready to progress. He made slow and steady progress, and with patience, kindness and love Chip slowly began to regain the flicker of confidence he had had and lost.

Then one day, Lou decided he was ready to see if the confidence he managed to muster up, was enough to channel into a vocation.

She tentatively gave a colleague his food bowl, and asked them to venture across the car park. Watching Chip go over that car park to the person with the food bowl, was a moment that will resonate with Lou forever. It was like a parent watching a child take their first steps. Chip took the giant leap forward in rebuilding his confidence, he took the food from the bowl. They weren’t allowed to touch him or look at him, but it was a start.

Each session built from this one. Having people feed Chip, allowing him to progress at his own rate, and using reinforcement slowly but surely started to change the ‘picture’ for Chip.

Within four months, Chip had gone from tentatively going across a car park to a bowl with food… to a fully qualified search and rescue dog. At the grand old age of 12yrs old, Chip is still a serving search and rescue dog with a history of successful searches. He is an amazing family pet and helps other dogs with their confidence issues. He is an ambassador for those who overcome struggles, showing what can be achieved with dedication, patience and belief. Refusing to accept the labels and stigma attached to trauma and adversity, rising like a Phoenix from the flames.

Lou refused to accept that Chip would be a reactive dog, this was his story. Lou refused to listen.

Being traumatised may be the outcome of an event, and justifiably so. But through counter conditioning, reinforcement, and ‘listening’ to the dog…. Chip has shown what can be achieved. And Lou has shown what can be done, when you don’t hold onto a story.

Reactivity isn’t a permanent state of being, you can change the ‘label’.

Physical education….

When discussing reactivity issues in dogs, the last two headings cannot be over estimated enough.

Physical issues are often the case of many behavioural problems.

There are two facets to physical issues that create issues of reactivity in dogs.

The first aspect of ‘physical’ issues, isn’t really an issue but a commitment. This is the question of does your dog have enough physical stimulation and exercise.

This is a subject I feel so passionate about. I feel strongly about exercising my dogs, regardless of the weather, day, amount of time i have…I walk my dogs…

A conservative day, would be just an hour walk. But this would be a rarity. Generally, speaking I would walk my dogs for at least 90mins. And there is walking your dogs, and there is WALKING your dog. I make an effort to make the walk an ‘adventure’. I picked the steepest hill, the most wooded area, beaches to go swimming, or a lake to dive in…. I like to vary the walks I take my dogs on. I LOVE to walk them, as much for my peace of mind as theirs. There is nothing more gratifying then walking up the Sussex downs, after a long day at the ‘office’. I am blessed to live in an area where I can walk in a different setting every day, and not see a single soul. However, this wasn’t always the case and my commitment to walking my dogs was still paramount. Even when I lived in my two bed flat in London with 5 dogs, I walked them religiously. I made the commitment to do so. In London, I didn’t have the ‘luxury’ of not meeting people, if I choose not to. I had to ‘run’ the gauntlet of over friendly labradors, and out of control cockerpoo’s on a daily basis….

My walks aren’t always about physical challenging my dogs, sometimes its about letting them explore, sniff, root around just be dogs. Letting them get the wind under their tail, tear around at top speed…. physical exercise increases endorphins, which in themselves are addictive and give you the feel good factor…. for dogs that have confidence issues, exercise can literally change their demeanour.

Try to vary your walks… variety is the spice of life. Invest in your recall, so that you can allow your dog freedom, when and where appropriate. Pent up physical energy can manifest itself in behavioural issues, ensure that you alleviate that as a probability.

The other aspect of physicality that can affect issues of ‘reactivity’, is physical well being and soundness. If your dog has pain, discomfort or an underlying physical issue, this could trigger an outburst of aggression of defensiveness. Thyroid issues have been shown to create aggression, if you dog suddenly has a out of character reaction, consider pain as a cause or reason. Subtle physical changes in coat, movement, posture and energy may indicate a underlying physical issue, which may manifest itself as reactivity. Imagine how you feel if you have a headache, and someone is full of energy trying to clamber all over you…

Ensuring your dog is physically fit and sound, by regular exercise, and consulting professionals is a wise investment. Prevention is better then cure, when it comes to physical fitness. Chiropractors, Osteopaths, acupuncture, hydrotherapy, laser treatment are all great ways to ensure your dog is in the best of physical health.

Physical well being and mental well being are interlinked…. ensure you work at both.

Would you bet you a thousand bucks?

Would you bet you a thousand bucks….

Following on from the series on Reactivity in dogs, the third in the topic is understanding. Obviously there are numerous layers to the concept of understanding… does the dog understand signals given by other dogs does the dog understand men in black hats, does the dog understand umbrellas etc, and that is all very relevant. But for me, I will include this in the heading of socialisation.

In this context, the question of understanding relates to trained behaviour.

How well does your dog understand behaviours such as ’sit’? How well does your dog understand a recall? Can the dog do it under distractions? Can your dog do it in different environments? Can your dog do it with arousal? And so on and so on.

This is a conversation relating to ‘dog training’, rather then ‘behaviour’ as such, but the two are related as we well know.

Whenever someone attests that their dog ‘definitely’ knows what they are doing, I ask them to place a bet on the likelihood of their dog doing it, to the sum of £1000…. suddenly you see their certainty wain…..

There is no shame in identifying gaps in your dogs understanding…..its allows for growth and stronger foundations from which to build a dog that is well adjusted.

Under the heading of ‘understanding’, two areas that need to be considered are ‘proofing, and ‘generalisation’.

Proofing is challenging your dogs understanding and may/could create some confusion, anxiety and doubt in your dog….. this can be territory that people avoid for fear of undermining their dogs confidence. However if done strategically, and in layers…. the dog should have clarity and confidence.

Generalisation is taking your dog training on the road…. location, location, location…. the more places you can take your training and in as many locations that you can access, the better.

So this is a question of chicken at the egg, when it comes to the discussion of reactivity issues. How do you get your dog out to new locations, if they are likely to ‘react’ and you can’t control the environment?

Firstly, start at home. Train behaviours in as many places around your own home as you can. Train in the front garden, back garden, bathroom, living room etc….. then ask a friend if you can train at their home, in their garden etc…. you are building your dogs understanding, and more importantly your confidence.

Proofing is a process. You are testing your dogs understanding, and potentially undermining it. So tread carefully. Proof in increments, and always balance out success and failure. Too much of either can damage what you have created.

Having a strong understanding of behaviours, with distractions that you can control, will benefit you when you venture out in the ‘real’ world. If your dog can hold a sit, whilst have a ball thrown, a fast moving toy in front of them, or treats thrown around…. sitting whilst another dog walks past at a distance, becomes more achievable in time. The beauty of having distractions you can control, is that you can drip feed information and do numerous sessions throughout the day. Split and don’t lump behaviours, break the challenges down.

Socialising sensibly

The second topic in the series of blog posts looking at ‘reactivity’, is ‘socialisation.

This in itself is a vast and meaty topic, and one that could be the source of many lengthy discussions…

For the purpose of this blog, and the series… the conversation will be restricted to its relationship to ‘reactive’ behaviour.

Following my initial post, I wish to clarify that the list is in no particular order. Each one is dependent on the individual circumstances and dog. In fact, it isn’t a case of one contributing cause. It could be a combination of several. Or indeed overlaps.

Socialisation, or the lack of, or inappropriate socialisation is most definitely a common factor for dogs that have issues of being ‘reactive’ to other dogs. This reaction may have initially been born from excitement, fear, aggression etc. But the defining factor is the manner in which the dog displays anxiety, concern, fear, excitement etc is deemed as a) inappropriate or b) unwanted.

I cannot over emphasise the need to appropriately socialising your dog, with as many different dogs, breeds, genders, ages, size, shapes and colours….

I genuinely believe that each specific breed or type have a distinct dialect with which they engage. So for example, german shepherds ‘speak’ german shepherd, beagles speak ‘beagle’, border collies speak ‘border collie’ etc…. you get the jist. But each breed or type have their own specific manner in which they interact and engage, in addition to the standard obvious methods of canine communication. As a result, if your dogs hasn’t met or experienced different ‘cultures’, they at best may take a moment to adjust and decipher what is being said, and at worst… show fear and apprehension at this ‘foreign’ tongue.

As an owner, it is my responsibility to ensure that I make a concerted effort to socialise my dog with as many different breeds, types etc as I can. I know from first hand experience that dogs don’t read and understand ‘boxers’. It is not unusual for dogs to randomly fly out at him when he is totally oblivious to them. So as a precautionary measure, I made a concerted effort to socialise ‘Punch’ with as many different dogs as possible.

The reasoning could be a partly by the stigma attached to the breed, and a reluctance to socialise your puppy with one because of it, which creates a pattern associated with all of that breed… then similar breeds etc…then dogs that look like that breed.. or that colour….

Or that you don’t know any dogs of that breed…. so your dog doesn’t quite understand the idiosyncrasy of that specific breed.

The resulting outcome of this ‘breedism’, is that there is a mis-communication when two dogs of different breeds interact. For example, my border collies think nothing of running super fast and nipping each others heels… quite a common border collie trait…. and with each other, its absolutely accepted that this is a ‘game’. However, for my boxer or malinois… this is fighting talk… or could be if they hadn’t spent hours and hours playing and running with border collies.

Socialisation needs to be perceived as a training entity, with as much thought put into it as if you were teaching your dog to do a complex behaviour chain.

The ‘lessons’ need to be thought out, planned and strategic….. The interaction supervised and manage. And allow your dog  space and time to work it out. This doesn’t mean sit back and let things unfold, but don’t rush in too fast. You could be interfering a lesson being learnt or taught. Watching two puppies interact is one of the most interesting and enthralling lessons, you’ll ever learn. Watching dogs be dogs is filled with life lessons. This requires access to well rounded dogs, with great social skills. They are out there. Just reach out.

Socialising requires commitment and last for longer then you’d actually think. You need to work at it. Play dates are a great investment of your time, effort and energy. It would be more beneficial to spend an hour socialising with a well rounded dog with great social skills, then walking in a park where you can’t control the dogs and environment.

Reinforce the appropriate interaction, don’t take it for granted that your dog has great social skills.

Build up to interaction if your dog needs time and space. Reinforcement is key. Reinforcement all the nuances of behaviour that lead up to great interaction….it shouldn’t take an explosion, to get a reaction from you. Reinforce the increments of what you want, and take your time. It isn’t a quick fix, small project to have a well adjusted dog. Its a marathon… not a sprint.

Its never too late, to socialise. Even, if you feel you have missed that crucial moment. It may take longer, and more patience… but its worth the investment.

Its not you, it REALLY is the dog…..

Following on from my blog discussing the concept of the ‘reactive’ dog, the first cause of ‘reactivity’ is ‘Genetics’.

And here’s the best bit…. for this we can definitely blame the dog! Its most definitely the dogs genetics at play, rather then yours…. however I am sure in certain cases, YOUR genetics may be a contributing factor 😉

Well when I say its the dogs fault… thats not strictly true…. We, as humans have to take some responsibility.

If we look at all the ‘groups’ of dog breeds we have created, they all have a distinct purpose and vocation….even breeds that may have been bred to be companions would have originally derived from the same source.

Dogs are predators and its this predatory response that we have harnessed and turned into usable traits for OUR lives.

So the urge to chase, stalk, hunt and kill has been refined to herding, gathering, collecting and being an aid for our survival. They have been selected to protect us, and our property….our families and material items…..

So we created specific breeds or types with a purpose, a vocation, a role and a distinct agenda. We selected the individuals who most exhibited these traits, and bred from them to enhance and exaggerate these traits, so that they would have an aptitude to do the ‘job’ with ease and little influence from us.

We pointed the pup toward sheep, and he instantly started to stalk them and move them around a field…. we throw an object into long grass, and he fastidiously hunted and searched until he found it. We selected, crafted and created the perfect tool for the job. If you need a hammer to bang in a nail, you’d select the appropriate materials…. we need the same with breeds and types of dogs.

Because the role of ‘companion’ came as a by-product of the need to work ‘together’ and spend a considerable amount of time together in the ‘field’, the notion of the dog being a domesticated pet in our home was born.

Of these dogs, there would be certain characteristics and attitude to work that would be sought after. Those hunting, seeking, gathering and guarding would need to have a deep desire to perform the same task repeatedly for hours, days, weeks, months and years, again and again. The desire to perform this task would have to be so strong that they would be willing to perform in all conditions, irrespective or physical discomfort, pain, distraction and with little reinforcement other then the job itself. We see this same level of intensity in sports athletes, high performing business people, Type A personalities.

We ultimately created our own demon though. We have created an animal with the want, need and desire to do a job…. but when those instinctive hard wired traits are not understood or satisfied, we see ‘reactivity’ and behavioural issues. It doesn’t matter if the individual dog is one of these breeds or a combination of a few…. the instinct is still within the dog. With crosses or mixes, you may even have several traits from several breeds.

Its the same with people. When I worked with young offenders, those that were often the most problematic were often the brightest, most energetic and brilliant minds… but as the saying says, ‘the devil make work for idle hands’…..

Your herding breed that reacts to fast movings things, is doing what s/he should do… we wanted it!

The guarding breed that barks menacingly and aggressively at the innocent jogger, is doing what we bred them to do….

The gundog that has been bred to dive into thick bramble and undergrowth to get a dead bird, has to have a strong desire for the ‘thing’ it happens to find… but when that thing happens to be your childs toy, and the dog doesn’t want to give it up or allow anyone else to take it, we have to take responsibility.

These are just a few examples of the various issues that we have inadvertently created.

Often these traits and instinct conflict with our expectations of the domestic companion. I have discussed in previous blogs, in what we essentially want from a domestic dog is to be inconspicuous and docile to anything and everything.

Well that wasn’t part of the contract which we agreed on hundred’s of years ago.

So, how do we deal with genetics? And is it actually even possible??

Well in short the answer is yes, of course it is. I have lived my life with numerous dogs, who on paper should have had severe behavioural issues, and they have all been well adjusted family pets.

Firstly, understand, honour and appreciate what you have in your dog. Its this genetics that make him/her who and what they are. Its what makes them so amazing. Your border collie that obsessively wants to chase cars, or bikes… is a result of years of selection for those traits! Isn’t that amazing! We have managed to change the desire to kill something into a visible act of self control and purpose.

Secondly, appease the desire and instinct. Don’t try and fight it. Don’t try and make your introvert child an exhibitionist, and don’t try and make your flamboyant party goer, a wall flower…. accept them for who and what they are. Don’t try and create calm, without satisfying your dogs more primal needs. Calmness is a outcome of satisfaction, mentally and physically.

Find a medium or outlet for that energy. So if your border collie likes to run and chase, find a safe and productive way for this to be utilised.

If your gun dog wants to search and find things, play search games in long grass with a ball…. your terrier wants to hunt, try some scent work….

Guarding instinct is often the most difficult to appease, due to its conflicting nature of what the dog would find an outlet for this desire versus what is compliant with our human existence. The other instinctive traits can largely be expelled in a safe and constructive manner. Guarding is often the hardest.

If your guarding dog wants to bark at strangers, ensure that you socialise them with as many people as possible, in a safe and constructive manner. Ensure that you have clear boundary training in place and expel their energy on a daily basis.   Additionally ensure that you are clear with your perimeter of when it is acceptable to be a vigilant guard and not necessary when you are having a coffee at the local cafe.

Focus on the behaviour you do want, from your dog don’t take it for granted when you dog ‘ignores’ another dog, or fast moving item… even if its 200m away….dont take it for granted when you dog ignores the cyclist, or greets another dog appropriately…reinforcement is key…..

Be realistic about your expectations and manage them. Your dogs instinct is hardwired in their DNA. Expecting your shetland sheepdog to stop herding is like expecting a eagle not to fly or a salmon not to swim. If they happen to herd the hoover, either train them to stay on a bed when this happens, put them in another room or ignore it…. or better still… don’t do housework!!!! Hooray!!! Always a silver lining!

Do you homework about what your dog is, and whether thats ‘really ’what you want…. what you see on TV isn’t necessarily the reality. Be honest with yourself of your limitations and get the dog that suits your lifestyle, and what you need… seeing someone else with the finished productive doesn’t mean you’ll get the same end product.

And finally, teach, train and educate your dog about how you want them to be, and navigate this weird and wonderful life…. Its not easy, it is your role to create a relationship based on trust, clarity and where needed… boundaries. At the end of the day, we have brought these amazing animals into our lives, to enrich them, give us joy and happiness…..its the least we can do to teach them what we want and accept them for who they are.

‘Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid’. (Albert Einstein)

Quick reactions…

The notion of a ‘reactive’ dog has become more and more common, with varying degrees of understanding and knowledge about a) what is a reactive dog b) how to deal with it.

In the time that I have been training dogs, there has been many methods come and go and phases in how we approach and train dogs.
Along with these trends, we have concepts and phrases that have been born from these.

The most common phrase I hear when teaching all over the world, is the word ‘reactive’. I am constantly engaging with ‘reactive’ dogs, and being asked to assist with those that have issues of reactivity.

What I am seeing more and more, is a lack of understanding of what it is and how to deal with it.

In this short series, I am going to discuss the most common causes of ‘reactivity’…. what it 'REALLY’ is and how we can resolve it.

By definition, reactive means to ‘show a response to a stimulus’, so in essence all of us and our dogs are ‘reactive’. I have previously written a blog discussing ‘labelling’ your dogs, and the label ‘reactive’ seems to be used more and more.

Years ago we didn’t have ‘reactive’ dogs…. we had dogs that were ‘aggressive’, ’scared’, ‘not friendly’, ‘naughty dogs’, ‘dominant dogs’…. the list goes on. But the terms were probably fair more descriptive, whether they were an accurate assessment was another issue…. But what they did, was give some indication of what the dog was likely to do.

However, it appears that we have become fear of calling a spade a spade, and possibly a little political correctness influencing our use of certain words….

So the term ‘reactive’ has become a generic term for anything from over enthusiasm to fear…. Without clear indication as to the specifics.

When someone ‘labels’ their dog ‘reactive’ it gives me little indication of to the specific problem, and therefore how to help them. I always urged people to call it as it is, and be ok with that. No shame, no judgement, just acknowledgement and awareness. Your dog having a reaction to something that has caused them fear, worry, excitement or apprehension is ok….its a dog being a dog. It doesn’t mean that this is a permanent state of existence. It doesn't make you or them, bad. Its not about blame.

Is the dog ‘reactive’ because it is over enthusiastic, the issue and approach to resolution would be greatly different to the dog that is fearful and defensive.

However the outcome of the dogs behaviour can often be whittled down to the same issue, the owner/handler feeling helpless and out of control.

This can develop into an anxiety transmitted down the lead, which can further endorse the feeling of helplessness and being out of control. And before you know it, the small inappropriate response to a dog sticking their nose where it's not wanted, with a completely appropriate doggy response of 'F'off, thats rude!', develops into a life changing cycle and downward spiral.

So why are dogs 'reactive'?

Here are the most common reasons why we see reactive dogs.

A) Genetics

B) socialisation

C) understanding

D) Physical

E) Trauma

Over the next 5 days I will explain each one and possible solutions to each variation.

For now, consider re-labelling your 'reactive' dog… the first step to moving forward is acknowledgement and acceptance. Its ok, and if it isn't… it will be.

Labels and limitations…..

Do you have a nickname for your dog? I mean, an endearing title or word that describes or captures who they are? This can often be a positive thing… all of my dogs, have a ‘second name’, that I often use to reference them… Sugar is ‘shu-shu’….. Punch is ‘P dog’… ‘Super’ aka suppy, dupey do, or do-do…. thriller… Girlie whirl…. you get the drift…. 

Its so easy to label your dog with a phrase, word or characterisation… but what does it actually mean? 

Whenever I deliver a seminar, regardless of the country, place or sport… I always ask people to tell me about their dog at the start of the day and as part of the introduction… Often you hear people describe their dogs with ‘labels’. Phrases or words that they feel capture who or what their dogs are. 

But what do these ‘labels’ actually say and mean….

Labels are often the way we articulate how we feel about our dog, sometimes they are flattering… others times, not so much…. 

I’ve done it myself, I’ve described my own dogs by a word…. and the resulting affect can sometimes be more damaging then you may release. 

Years ago I owned a red and white Border collie, who was closely related to my first obedience dog. I look back now, and although I didn’t feel i had a case of second dog syndrome at the time, I most definitely did. Sometimes its hard to see the woods for all the trees.

Springa wasn’t a ‘natural’ obedience dog, and I labelled him as ‘stubborn and lazy’. To teach him anything was a chore…. he literally dug his heels in at the prospect of learning anything new. I look back now, and release that his ‘stubbornness’ was actually his way of saying he didn’t understand… and his motto being ‘if in doubt, do nowt!’

His stubbornness, wasn’t ‘stubbornness’, it was my lack of knowledge and understanding. It was the dog training ‘universe’ telling me to change, rather then be disappointed my dog didn’t conform.

I repeatedly described him as ‘not the brightest’, using him as a example of how difficult it was to teach a dog something new. 

Again, looking back.. it was never about the dog. It often isn’t.

It was only when a series of circumstances, forced me to have to use ’Springa’ for some TV work. A good friend was working on the ‘Underdog Show’, a series where celebrities trained dogs each week. They needed a dog to do the links and short clips demonstrating what the tasks were each week. When she rang me up, I was in a dark place having lost two dogs in close succession, who were that brand of ‘special’ dogs that just had ‘it’. 

The dogs I had ‘left’ were my young puppy malinois, too young to do any of the tasks they had to do, and my older Obedience dog, who was too old to do any of the tasks….. I was ‘left’ with ‘Springa’. I initially declined the job. I didn’t have a dog. I only had “springa’ who was in my mind, incapable of doing any of it… or so I thought. 

My friend forced my hand, and played the guilt card. She ‘NEEDED’ a dog to do this that day, the production team had sprung this on her last minute. She played the ‘friend’ card! 

So I reluctantly took ‘Springa’. 

He blew me away…. it made me realise that even though he may have been difficult to teach, he had learnt so much information, that he had been taught to use his brain and as a result could pick up new things, string behaviours into chains he had never done before and was most importantly, impeccably behaved throughout. 

The production team commented on Springa being a ‘genius’…. a canine ‘einstein’…. I initially laughed at the thought, but when I stopped I acknowledged what the lesson was, I had a light bulb go off.

Springa might have been difficult to teach, because of my approach…. so rather then change my approach, I labelled him…but that wasn’t who he was now! I was holding onto the past….

I realised in that moment, how binding my labels had been, and how it affected my relationship with Springa.

When you label your dog, you instantly place your dog in a box. A box which has restrictions, which has boundaries and limitations.  

This label is the way in which you describe your dog to your friends, peers and fellow trainers…. who will constantly ask you about your ‘lazy dog’, or rescue dog, or ‘stupid dog’ or ‘reactive’ dog…. 

Labels can also be the breed name… for example, ‘my cocker spaniel doesn’t come back because he loves to hunt and sniff’….’my beagle cant be be trained because, well he’s a beagle’…. ‘my malinois cant settle and wait patiently because he’s too high drive’….

Don’t get me wrong, knowing and acknowledging what you have is smart dog training. My dog is sensitive, my dog is aggressive, I own a high drive german shepherd from working lines…. thats not labelling, thats making a statement. But thats where the journey starts, not where it ends.

I have lost count of the number of people that have asked me ‘WHY did YOU get a BOXER!’…. as if it was an accident, or misjudgment on my part. My simple answer is, ‘I got a Boxer because I like Boxers’. Full stop. I don’t see the limitations that others clearly perceive the breed to have, I don’t see the definition of success as what my dog wins or doesn’t win. There was a point in Punch’s life where he may have never have walked normally let alone do any dog sports. If our relationship was based on MY goals and aspirations, I would have been sorely disappointed. I make the choice the have the dog, because first and foremost, I like the dog.

Labels can sometimes be the restriction that is stopping you achieving your goal… he can run fast in agility because he’s breed doesn’t like to run, or he’s too nervous or afraid, or he’s a rescue dog and he was ill treated, or distracted but he’s a herding dog and thats what they do…. or he’s a hunting breed and thats what they do….

Discard labels and give your dog a title! Titles are owned, they are a indication or brilliance, of achievement and success….

The amazing thing about dog training is that the rules and principles don’t listen to the labels….. they merely focus on solutions…. 

Ditch your labels! Liberate your dog! 

Relatable relationships…

Thank you all for the positive feedback in relation to my previous blog…. and the offers of ‘perfect’ dogs that would suit me LOL. I have 8 dogs, all perfect… so at this moment in time… plan B, is just that… a plan! I It did however, get me thinking about the perfect ‘relationship’ and how we use that word so frivolous to capture issues we have with our dogs, or the interaction we have with them.

Indeed, I always explain my take on dog training falls under 5 distinct areas and one of which is relationship.

I would love to be able to say, that every dog I have owned I have instantly clicked with and had that head over heels infatuation with. I definitely have had that, with most of my dogs…. but there are a few that it took a minute to create and find. Thats right, my name is Kamal Fernandez and I didn’t have an instant head over heels fall in love feeling when I saw some of my dogs…. I admit it! Stone me in the streets, flog me repeatedly, tar me and roll me in feathers….what a bad owner/dog lover I am! 

But I know, some of the people reading this blog will probably have felt exactly the same. 

I would love to have that instantaneous connection with my pup/rescue dog… that gut wrenching, skip a heartbeat feeling… you know that no matter they do, you love them, accept them and adore them… yes they may have their little quirks, yes they may have some hang ups, but despite that… you love them. Warts and all. 

But sometime, that just doesn’t happen. Sorry to burst the bubble of Disney and ‘happy ever after’, but sometimes it takes work. There are several examples of relationship issues that I see and have experienced myself.

Second dog syndrome is a classic.

That phenomenon where you have had one dog, a particularly special dog that you just clicked with. You instantly had that head over heels feeling when you met and saw that dog, and it just seemed to innately know what you wanted or with minimalist training, picked stuff up, made your dreams come true and was a great family pet…. 
The time comes to find another dog, and that subsequent dog never meets up to the expectations set by of the first dog. Often they are have a connection to the first dog, which makes it all the more challenging to see this dog as an individual and accept it for what s/he is, rather then living in the shadow of your previous dog.

Another example, is getting the wrong dog for your personality/lifestyle.

This is such a common issue which affects the relationship you have with your dog. In dog sports, people assume that a breed or line of dogs will bring them ultimate success. However the traits that make the dog so great for that sport, also can be a source of frustration and despair. The high energy full on workaholic doesnt always just clock off when you leave the competition setting. That OCD desire to ‘do’ still is there at 10pm, after a long day and all you want to do is chill out and relax! Or picking a dog or breed that clearly doesn’t suit your needs/lifestyle or commitment. 

It has always baffled me when people talk about the pick of a litter…. pick for whom? One mans meat is another mans poison. 

Or the case of the ‘rescue’ dog…. the person who lives in the head space where your dog is always a ‘rescue’ case, rather then doing what dogs do, and living in the now. I can say this from experience, I’ve had ‘rescue’ dogs, several of them… i’ve had rehome dogs, several of those too…. my dogs aren’t ‘rescued’ once I have them. They are just ‘my dogs’. I always bath them when I first bring them home, for me this is cathartic. I’m washing away all their past, and whatever issues they have I merely focus on solutions. What do I have, and what do I want…. the bit in between is simply dog training.

I can speak of these examples because I’ve had them all. 

I’ve found myself telling everyone that will listen about how inadequate the dog I have is, whilst inside I am comparing him to my previous dogs…. I’ve found myself out dogged, underestimating what I had on my hands, and seeing what I thought I was getting and what I had being a rude awakening, I’ve had the ‘rescue’ dog whose every short coming was hung firmly on that ‘label’… rather then taking ownership and acknowledging my part.

You could probably say, why didn’t I just find a nice home where the dog would have been loved and adored from the get go? And sometimes this is probably better for the dog TBH…. but for me personally, I know that life is about lessons. The dog in front of me is here for a reason, it’s here to teach me something. I may have to wait to see where that lesson falls into place, but it always will. Perseverance, understanding, adapting, compromise, acceptance…. just a few of the life lessons, my dogs have taught me. Thats the choice I make, I don’t judge people for the decisions they make. To each his own. You dont always get what you want, you get what you need. Whether you think you need it or not.

I have ‘stuck’ with each and every one of my dogs and they have given me some of the greatest lesson I could ever have. They have all ended up, confident, well adjusted and happy. I have ended up with a relationship that was based on truth, acceptance, mutual respect and admiration. I set ego aside. I removed all labels, and worked with what I had. I learnt to love them for who ‘they’ were, rather then what I wanted them to be, and moulded them to the best they could be. We compromised, we managed, we train, we cried, we laugh, we contemplated given up, we got frustrated and sometimes we didnt even like each other. And at the end of it all, it was worth every struggle, every heartache and every challenge.

Thats right, relationships take work! Who knew! Relationships take work to create and nurture, to build a solid foundation that will stand the test of tme.

Any relationship is a long term investment, do the work, because the return is worth every second!

The power of genetics…

Recently a pupil and friend, got a ‘new’ dog. He is new to her, but an older dog that was to be rehomed. He is a Giant Schnauzer from really strong working lines.He came to be rehomed because of various reasons, but for the sport that he is hoping to be trained for, he will be required to do bitework. He had done some work in his previous home, however his owner decided to start as though he had done nothing, and set some new foundations.

In his first few sessions, she was dubious about what she had taken on as there were some ‘issues’ which could be a huge concern later on.
However, in the next subsequent sessions, the diamond in the rough, she had taken on… really started to shine.

In just a few sessions, you could see what potential this awesome dog had….

So why was his progression so quick? And such a difference in a relatively short space of time? Well, partly from the right approach but a more valid factor was quite simply, good genetics.

Good dog training will often improve or ‘mask’ issues, and bad dog training will often create issues, however the affects of genetics cannot be underestimated.

In the litter that I bred between my own two dogs, it amazes me to see genetics coming through.

Physical and mental traits from parents, aunts, uncles, grandfather etc…. literally clones of predecessors!
It even amazes me, how genetics can assist your dog training! 

I’ve repeatedly said since the second I got him, my smooth coated collie ‘super’ is a complete gift. He just has a natural aptitude to do anything I ask, and seems to ‘know’ what it is…. when there is in actual fact, no way he should! I literally train him one day, and then can leave him for varying amounts of time and he just has worked it out! Now, if I had less experience in training dogs, I would be patting myself on the back as to how great a dog trainer I am…. when in actual fact, its the dog!
I know when I first started dog training, there were several distinct lines of dogs, that all had a very strong ‘type’.
This type would be looks, attitude, temperament and even characteristics.

The power of genetics cannot be underestimated! And as such certain techniques to train them consistently worked, not necessarily because it was good sound training, but because it suited a type of dog… however when the occasional anomaly didnt confirm, they were often labelled a ‘reject’, ‘thick’ or dud. When in reality they needed a different approach.

Genetics can be positive and negative, when you place a dog in an environment which is unsuitable or the person doesn’t understand nor honour the dogs genetics. It doesnt make it a bad dog, just a mismatch. I see this constantly when you have people who want the dog they think will be the quickest and fastest route to success, vs the dog that would suit their lifestyle and ability. Its not a failing to say you’re not the worlds best driver, as its lucky you aren’t racing in a Formula one grand prix! 
A really good friend of mine, who is a extremely competent dog trainer would always say to me, when I had my large malinois Strut, she could admire him but wouldn’t want him, as he wouldn’t suit her. And she would be right. Does that make her a ‘bad dog trainer’? Absolutely not! It makes her a smart dog owner!
Genetics are a powerful force, literally running through your dogs veins… both the good bits and the bad bits.

Understanding them, embracing them, channelling them and working with them will ultimately lead to joy and peace for you and the dog! The key is dog training…..
Enjoy your dogs!

Socially responsible and a moment of inspiration….

Social media has a lot to answer for, it can be a powerful tool and a lethal weapon all at the same time. What it is used for can be both a help and a hindrance. 
As a professional dog trainer and dog sports coach, I utilise social media on a daily basis… I use it to connect with people, engage with my pupils and audience and a platform for my work. This will problem intensify over the coming year, with the development of an online community and teaching tool.

However, after reading on various forums on various discussion, everything from raw feeding, to jump height, to obedience issues, to rules and regs, it occurred to be that, social media and the use it, from a personal perspective, comes with a responsibility.

The question I ask myself when I post a message, status or video, is always… what is your intention? By asking myself that question, I use it almost like a barometer for the tone and message.
The post others make, that truly resonate with me, all have a reoccurring theme. They set an example to others, and leadby that example…. or in other words, They inspire in one way, shape or form.
Inspiration or being inspired, is such a profound and powerful concept, and can literally steer your life’s direction…

Personally, I can recall vividly throughout my life, when I have been inspired by en event, a teacher, a moment or simply a ‘thing’. It hits you like a tonne of bricks, it evokes emotion, excitement, thought and many more movements within you. And of late, as a new father, my daughter inspiring me to do better, push harder and strive for more from myself.

For someone who has been training dogs for more time then I haven’t been training dogs, its these moments that act as reinforcement for me.

It may come from a student, who has overcome a struggle and worked through an issue…

It may come from a dog, whose enthusiasm and tenacity for life, puts a smile on my face just watching them run and play.

It may come from someone competing, whose training resonates from their performance.

This was exactly what happened recently when I watched both the 1st and 2nd place dogs in a championship obedience class. The quality and standard of both teams was inspiring, both combining style, accuracy, drive, teamwork and an obvious attention to detail endorsed by smart handling.

It doesn’t esnt matter if its obedience, agility, IPO, working trials on any other dog sport, such performance transcend the boundaries of the individual sport and anyone with even an untrained eye, can appreciate the beauty.

Often, in this weird and complex world that is dog training, we look to highlight the difference between us, one method better then the next, one path more ‘correct’ then the other. However, it would be far more beneficial and have greater impact, not to focus on the differences but rather concentrate on being and doing the best you can, and let that be an example to others. In doing so, you may inspire someone to follow in your footsteps, and that is where the greatest impact will occur.

What inspires you to get up each day, brave the weathers, travel the length and breadth of the country, or the world, chasing accolades and achievements? What creates that burning desire within you, to start the Everest like journey that is in front of you? Are you lacking inspiration? Or are you searching for it? Who has sent an example for you, by their actions?

Irrespective of the answer to the above, start being an ‘inspiration’ to others. In your actions, your attitude, your interaction and your dogs…. send out that energy into the universe and see what comes back to you….