Calm before the storm

As I lay wide awake at 3am, unable to get to sleep, my mind starts to ponder and tick away. I’ve always had this trait, and it got me thinking about a blog…. I have now ended up writing about 4 or 5 blog posts! All in an attempt to off load some of the mental ‘energy’ buzzing around, and try and get back to sleep!

I’m giving you an insight into my personality here LOL…. I expect some of the readers of this blog, that know me personally will be sniggering or quivering, thinking ‘oh lord… here we go!’

I am most definitely a hyperactive person, and I would definitely say that when I was a child, if the awareness was there, I would most definitely have been diagnosed with ADHD. My family used to quip, that if ever I was quiet you knew I was up to something! My parents recoil stories of my antics, and clearly recognised it from an early age. Evidently, my father was the same, and I can see that same need to be active and doing in my daughter… so it’s definitely in the line!! Still to this day, I hate being still. I struggle to be still, and even if I am… my thoughts are running a mock! I can have a conversation with you, and think of 3 other things at the same time! I am also enthusiastic and optimistic. I am always a ‘can do’ person. Lets find a solution.

But when I was a child, my parents took the issue and channelled it. From 5yrs old my dad took me to martial arts classes, and I was able to focus my energy somewhere. This and dog training, were two grounded forces in my life. To this day Physical activity and my dogs are the two things that quiet the ‘monkeys’ in my head. I need to have my ‘fix’ to feel settled.. or more importantly, feel content.

But yet, in the midst of the storm I can be calm. In my former vocation as Police Officer, I was often in situations of extreme stress and pressure, yet I could remain calm and unflustered. In a situation where the world is falling apart, I can think clearly and rationally.

For a person that struggles with being still, I can be ‘calm’ when appropriate. This is through training, teaching and learning to think clearly whilst under stress. In competition, I can think under pressure and focus my mind.

The concept of calmness is becoming a prevalent word in dog training and behaviour, for some reason more now then ever. But what is calmness to your dog, or are we athromorphising behaviour?

The awareness and understanding of dog behaviour and body language has opened up our eyes to the things our dogs are telling us, and the knowledge of calming signals has become more wide spread.

But have we confused the appearance of calm, with true contentment?

Albert Einstein said “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”

If we substitute the word peace for ‘calm’, we may have the answer.

So ‘Calm cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding’.

And this applies to approaches used in dog training. Understand what your dog needs, and honour it.

There is a trend to reinforce or create calmness, with the intent that the physical behaviours will cause the brain to ‘default’ into a calm state. I am simplifying this explanation, but the link between physical and neurological states has been well documented.

However, there is a caveat to ‘creating’ calm. Have you first created contentment? Have you appeased  your dogs basic needs, to create contentment.

Reinforcing calming behaviour with a dog that has an abundance of energy is like putting a lid on a pressure cooker. Or trying to create calmness with a dog that is in physical discomfort, is like asking you to be calm whilst having root canal surgery without anaesthetic… Or trying to create calm whilst your dog is full of additives ingested from its poor quality food, is like asking your 2yr old to sit still after having a bottle of fizzy drink!

The concept of calmness is simple, if you create contentment first. I know this from experience.

And what create ‘calm’ for one, doesn’t necessarily create calm for another. I feel at ‘peace’ doing anything physical, and repetitive… running, cycling, on the rowing machine…. I feel a sense of calmness through the repetition of the action. I know in my own dogs, my high drive typically ‘un-calm’ dogs, exhibit a zen like aura when I used to bike them. They would be all excited and hyped when they saw the big, but as soon as it set in motion and started to move, they would instantly ‘zen’ out. It wouldn’t matter if it was after 30secs of bilking, or 30mins… they would hit this repetitive trot, and start to be almost in a mental cocoon’.

‘Calmness’ comes from being physically and mentally content, being satisfied in both areas and also finding what works for your dog. Like meditation, spiritual practices and rituals… calmness is a daily routine. Your dog needs a daily input to create calm.

I have a confession. My name is Kamal Fernandez and my dogs are lazy when at home! They literally spend the majority of the day milling around and sleeping! Incredibly un-inspring and lack lustre. But I am fully aware, that this is because they lead a full and varied lifestyle. They have ample physical and mental stimulation, which means they are content… which creates calmness. This state of ‘calm’ comes through into their training. They can ‘think’ because they are content.

Enthusiasm, drive and energy are not to be frowned upon and subdued. They should be utilised, channelled and acknowledge. They are attributes. However they can often be perceived as ‘flaws’ if not dealt with appropriately.

“He is so hyper, I wish he would calm down”…

“He gets so excited! I wish he would just stop and think”

“He’s a nightmare to live with, he just doesn’t stop”

“its like he’s on a knife edge, I wish he would just chill out”

Sound familiar? But what are you doing to create contentment?

Whenever I have dog that comes to me with Reactivity issues, this is one of the first things I look at.

Strive to create a dog that is content, this will create calm without even trying.

Enjoy your dogs.

Kamal Fernandez

Copy That…

Today I got an email from my friend, colleague, founder of the Fenzi Dog Sport Academy, Denise Fenzi.

She sent me a message asking if I had read an article.

Here is the link.

I read clicked on the link, and didn’t initially take note of the name. As I read through the article, it appeared strangely familiar to a blog that I had recently written. The more I read, I assumed that the author had ‘copied’ or adapted the blog post I had written…. So I just dusted it off, and took it as a back handed compliment… after all, its not the first time this has happened with ideas/methods I have put out into the world. As a professional dog trainer, its kinda par for the course. Its what happen when you put your ‘stuff’ out there.

So I asked Denise, when had it been written…. to which she said… ‘About 20yrs ago’! LOL. The author is the brilliant Suzanne Clothier.

Although I have been training dogs for close to 3 decades (geez that makes me sound ancient!), I think it would take some feat only achievable through the pages of science fiction or Doctor Who, I definitely wasn’t writing a blog 20yrs ago… in fact, did ‘blogs’ even exist?? Did the internet exist?? How ever did we manage!

So the assumption could be drawn that I ‘copied’ what the author had written. Don’t get me wrong, of course I am familiar with Suzanne Clothier’s work, she is fantastic! And my passion is dog training and behaviour, so of course I know her work! Her book ‘Following Ghost’ is a must for anyone interested in nosework, and her principles to dealing with dogs and horses with behavioural issues are fantastic, there are so many parallels to my own ethos and principles. I have referred others to her work. However I have not ever come across THIS particular article before. Its plausible to conclude that I had copied what Suzanne had written as passed it off as my own. However given that the blog post I wrote, was completed in my lunch break on a seminar I was teaching, after a conversation with some of the attendees. I flippantly used the analogy of jumping on unsuspecting members of the public, as we all compared our experiences…. Inspiration comes from many places.

So what does that mean? It means that there is someone else who sees the world of dog training and behaviour as I do! I’m not sure the world is ready for two of ‘us’…. But it also says that there is plenty of room for us all, and many more like you rather then different. If you adhere to a particular approach to training, you will naturally gravitate to those that share your perspective. This perspective should sit with who you want to be as a dog trainer, and dog owner.

The universe works in amazing ways, and send you the people, dogs and lessons you need irrespective of whether you are aware or even know you need them. Choosing a certain path of training your dog, will be reliant at times on the universe sending you the right people at just the right time. Especially those of you that are in isolation, either through geographical position or knowledge. I know that at each juncture of my career, I have been fortunate to have the right person/s come along at just the right moment. I am fully aware of walking a path laid down by many more before me. And I have always acknowledged their contribution.

There is no shame and it doesn’t detract from your own shine, to beam the light on others. This applies to business, work, sports, dog training and much more.

With information being more readily available, everyone is trying to carve their own niche and make an impression on the world of training dogs and behaviour. Outlandish stunts, dynamic video clips and eye catching marketing are like shiny buttons to a magpie. I include myself in this, as I am currently working on a my own online project. My two biggest source of advise were in fact two people Denise Fenzi and Susan Garrett, who both have their online communities! Why would they give me advice and allow me to ‘glean’ from their experience? Because, they know that facilitating others success and joy, doesn’t detract from theirs… in fact, it contributes to it. Raising others up, sharing their work and acknowledging the achievement of others doesn’t take anything away from the light that already shines on you.

This could be acknowledging how well behaved someones dog is, unbeknown to you the struggle they have gone though to get to that point. This could be competition, if you see someone do a fantastic round, or run… tell them. Even if they are in the same class as you, it doesn’t mean you weren’t great, it just means that you aren’t afraid to let others know how great they are. And you know what, the Universe is listening. When you need a pick up or some acknowledgement, it’ll come your way.

Sometimes we all need assurance and acknowledgement. Reading Suzanne’s words, made me realise that my own words may have merit. The similarities may be pure coincidence, but it was the universe affirming my thoughts and perspective. And in return, without even knowing it, her work from 20yrs ago has been echoed. The universe at work again.

I know that in my journey to follow a path of training based on certain principles, it has directed me to those that share my views and attracted others wanting to embrace a new perspective. Indeed, I became involved with the Fenzi Sports Dog Academy because of this want to share this perspective on a platform which I believed in. The more we shed light on those who share our beliefs, the greater the chance of us ‘all’ succeeding. There is no need to be afraid to share that light, or take it away from others, whether they share your beliefs or not. Focus on the energy you project and let the universe do the rest.

‘In our togetherness as a team, castles are built’. Irish Proverb.

He just wants to say hello….

I was at the supermarket the other day, doing the things ‘normal’ people do, like buying chia seeds and oat milk for my vegan baby.. when I saw this couple in one of the aisle. They seemed busy looking at the shelves for something, totally oblivious to me. I really wanted to say hi to them, I just couldn’t help myself… so i just ran over and stuck my nose up the lady’s skirt…. the guy went mad! Not sure what his problem was, I was only being friendly…. geez some people. Total over reaction!

I thought it best to leave them for the moment although I will probably go back later to say hi again, and definitely if I see them again, I’ll definitely say hi!

So I just continued minding my business and I saw an older lady doing her groceries, she looked kinda frail… and clearly from the way she was scrutinising the wording on the packaging, her eyesight wasn’t the best. But you know what, I just had to say hi! I rushed over to her, and just jumped on her. She toppled over, but hey ho, thats life. And I just couldn’t help myself, I started dry humping her in the 6th aisle of the supermarket, right next to the tin beans and tomato ketchup! For some reason, she didn’t appreciate my greeting and started using the most obscene language I think I’ve ever heard! Geez some people!

Ok… you get where I am going with this? I’m not writing this blog for the inside of a police cell, after being arrested and probably sectioned!

But substitute this scenario, for a park… or field and the person rushing up to someone and over zealously greeting them isnt a ‘person’, its a dog… perhaps even your dog. Or someone else’s.

This an all too common scenario that plays out on a daily basis for most of people, unless like myself you are blessed to be able to walk in a location where you can largely avoid people and dogs for an entire walk, which can be hours! And before you assume this was always the case, it most definitely was not. I used to live in the middle of London and walk my dogs in local parks, woods or fields where it would be more like a scene from ‘Blade Runner’ rather then a peaceful walk. And I had a dog that really didn’t like other dogs in his space at all. So I can definitely relate. And even now, I attend parks and fields to train my dogs, and don’t always have the option to avoid people.

Here is a video showing a prime example of exactly this, not once but twice

in the space of 15mins. Watch the video and note, What would your dog do? What would you do?

Typical park meeting

Its super frustrating, right? When all you want to do is enjoy your peaceful walk or train your dogs, leaving with the number of dogs you set out with, not any additional extra who decide to join you!

Or worse still, you have put months and months of work with your dog that is ‘reactive’ or aggressive, or nervous only to have one unplanned interaction that could potentially put you back months, if not further.

So what can you do about it?

Here’s the answer. Not a dam thing. Sorry people, but there’s nothing you can do about it….well certainly not the other dog or person. But you can do things to help yourself and your dog. The chances are that its probably going to happen. So welcome it, plan for it and expect it.

The reality is, you are unlikely to be able to control every single scenario your dog will encounter in the ‘real world’. I wish that we could, it would make training SO much easier. But for most of us, we have to take our dogs to public locations to train or exercise them. You could invest countless hours into counter conditioning, exposing your dog to other dogs strategically and systematically, and yet when you take your dog for a morning walk, they get rushed by that over zealous cockerpoo that notoriously frequents your local park, and sets you back another 6months.

So what can you do? When I say, not a dam thing… thats a broad statement, but you can’t concern yourself with the dogs and people that are going to approach your dog, because you can’t control them.

You can’t control the millions of un-trained dogs with poor social skills, and owners who genuinely don’t see it as a problem… you can try and educate them, but dog ownership is a bit like telling people how to parent their kids. Is a sensitive subject. People get defensive. However, you can demonstrate to them what a well behaved dog looks like and set an example they may then wish to follow.

In most instances, its not malicious, its just people being ignorant of the greater picture. They probably go through their entire dogs life without having any awareness of the affects of their dogs behaviour. Those oh so familiar phrases of ‘oh thats ok, he’s only being friendly….’ or ‘ its ok, he could do with a telling off’…. or ‘if your dog doesn’t like dogs, it shouldn’t be in public’…. the list goes on.

Now we could stand their and give them a crash course in canine communication, discuss serotonin levels in dogs when under stress, appropriate social etiquette etc but in reality, in the mindset you are in, are you going to want to stand and discuss calming signals with someone who’s labrador has just molested your geriatric old toy poodle, whilst the last thing you are displaying is anything but calmness!

What you can do is focus on your dog. You can create a dog that has so much value for the appropriate responses and behaviour, that they are almost bullet proof, or at least have so much ‘bubble wrap’ via training that they learn how to deal in those situations you can’t plan for. You can create a dog who’s sole focus is you. You can build so much desire to remain with you and attentive, that your dog isn’t interested in anything else. If it it is, the interest is minimal and brief.

Having a few simple skills, behaviours, and practical management techniques can help even the most stressful situation, pass with ease.

  • Build focus for you. A dog that is engaged and focused, is less likely to want to focus or redirect its energy. Build value for you. All good things come from you.
  • Teach your dog to love their collar being grabbed. This is a basic and simple go to skill in a situation that could be volatile. If a dog approaches your dog unexpectedly, you want to be able to grab their collar and not trigger a explosion or potentially make your dog even more ‘reactive’.
  • Teach a solid and stable control position, sit or down. This needs to be well proofed so that the dog will cope with any distraction you can create, and eventually any distraction from the outside world.
  • Invest daily in your recall, so that you can always get your dog back irrespective of the distraction.
  • take high level reinforcement with you, so that you can always distract your dog away if need be. This is about making the best of a situation and getting out of it unscathed.
  • Rather then telling people your dog doesn’t like other dogs, tell them your dog has an eye infection, which is highly contagious to close contact… you’ll be amazed how quickly they’ll come and ‘retrieve’ their dog!
  • Stay calm. Getting irate only adds fuel to the fire, breath….think clearly and don’t panic.
  • Create distance if possible, remedy the situation as best you can and calmly move away from the issue. This is not the time nor place to have a stand off about who’s right of way it is. Walking away unscathed and unharmed is a win!
  • Being proactive. Don’t avoid opportunities to improve your dogs confidence, even if its a good distance away. Be patient and keep working.

A set back isn’t the end of the road, just a detour.

Dust yourself off, rant to a friend, let it go and keep moving forward.

Kamal Fernandez

X why Z

A good friend asked me a simple but profound question, which was a huge aha moment for me…. the simplicity of the question gave me so much clarity and hit me like a sledgehammer….

I am currently working on a few big projects, which are challenging me for several reasons. It’s moments like this that make you doubt yourself and what you are doing. You question whether what you are doing is going to work, whether you are going to make it, whether you will achieve your goals or fall flat on your face. I had this same series of thoughts when ever I changed jobs, or even when I had a totally career change. This is part of the excitement of being out of your comfort zone. But can also be daunting and overwhelming.

This is a natural part of any change, growth and development as an individual.

The question was simple. ‘Why?’

‘Why’ are you doing….. You can fill in the blank with whatever issue your are currently struggling with….

The ‘why’ can be applicable to those of us that compete in dog sports, or simply your dog having a behavioural issue or your own ‘why’ you are doing something.

There is so many variations of the why.

‘Why is my dog chasing bikes?’

‘Why does my dog keep making mistakes in competition?

‘Why does my dog knock poles?’

‘Why does my dog react to other dog’

‘Why does my dog break stays’

‘Why am I out in the rain, training when other people are in the the dry and warmth ;)’

The list is endless….

But the ‘why’ often provides the answer and solution to any problem.

The ‘why’ might be simple, and staring you in the face. But sometimes the ‘why’ may take soul searching and work.


Identifying ‘why’ is sometimes the hardest part. It has been for me of late.

Identifying the ‘why’ means cutting through all the extra stuff, all the nonsense and getting down to the real issue. In dog training terms, this means dealing with the cause and not the symptoms.

Often the symptom is the ‘easier’ issue to deal with because its the most obvious issue. The dog that has a behavioural issue, it is the ‘easier’ resolution to deal with the symptom. The dog that lunges out, stopping the lunging is only half the solution. Stopping the lunging doesn’t deal with the ‘why’. The why, may take more work to resolve, it may take a more holistic resolution. The why may be because the dog is scared or fearful. It may need counter conditioning, it may need appropriate socialisation, it may have an underlying physical issue.

The ‘why’ can give your clarity. It can answer the core issue and provide a solution that will ACTUALLY work.

I often see dogs that have had the ‘symptom’ of an issue, being the primary focus of the training, but the why hasn’t been identified or acknowledge. This is a crucial step in gaining stability in resolving an issue that could have existed for literally years.

The ‘why’ may take a moment of reflection, and honesty. It may require you to face up to, or admit to a gap in your dogs training. Apportioning blame to the dog, the situation, a distraction or justifying the problem is essentially ignoring the ‘why’.

Taking time to identify the why, is crucial. Even the choices and path you choose to train your dog. Why have you opted to train the dog using a certain methodology? Why have you chosen that reinforcement? ‘Why did you deliver that toy in that manner?’. The ‘why’ should not only answer the above questions, but also answer the greater ‘why’… why are you even training dogs or why have you got THIS dog?

The answer to the why, can bring a great deal of satisfaction and peace once identified. Don’t ignore it, do the work and answer the simple question ‘why’.

For me the why provided direction. It gave me clarity to move forward and continue on the journey.

‘The universe has an amazing way of listening to you, and sending you exactly what you need, when you need it…. whether you want it or not….. So listen, and answer the simply question ‘why?’

Can I speak to the manager?

When dealing with behavioural issues, there are three key options when encountering an issue or problem. This is applicable to any training issue be it behavioural or a specific sport related issue.

Ignore, train and manage.

You can choose to ‘totally ignore a behaviour’. This is applicable to behaviours that your dog does that may niggle you, but not to the point of being an ‘issue’. You make a conscious decision to ignore the behaviour because although it may be ideally what you want, you don’t feel it needs addressing…. you may even find it endearing, humorous, or entertaining or its just simply not that big deal. All those are perfectly reasonable options. An example of this may be your dog chasing the hoover for example. This is a common behaviour amongst herding breeds that many choose to ignore. Its one of those quirky breed idiosyncrasies that although you would rather your dog didn’t do, you make a choice to ignore…. or just don’t hoover 😉

Choosing to ignore a behaviour needs to be based on the behaviour a) not affecting anyone else b) isn’t dangerous c) isn’t linked to other behaviours  that are concerning you.

The second option is to ‘train against the behaviour or train an incompatible behaviour’.  This is where you train  an behaviour that prevents the dog from rehearsing or doing the behaviour you don’t want. So for example, if you wanted to train against the dog herding the hoover, you would teach them to remain in their bed whilst the hoover was on. By remaining in their bed, they earn reinforcement… and ultimately ‘stop’ chasing the hoover.

The incompatible behaviour has to be prevent the dog from doing the inappropriate behaviour….. teaching a dog that has bitten someones face, to ‘give a kiss’ as an incompatible behaviour isn’t a ‘wise’ option….and yes, I have heard this as a ‘solution’ to exactly this problem! The incompatible behaviour needs to be appropriate, and not create an alternative issue.

The third option is to ‘manage’ behaviour. This is an option where the guardian chooses to manage the dogs inappropriate behaviours throughout the dogs life. The behaviour may be so established, or the guardian may not be able to resolve it, or the ‘ends wouldn’t justify the means’, that the option is to ‘manage’ the dogs behaviour in the circumstances where they are likely to rehearse or display the unwanted response.

So, with the dog that chases the hoover… managing the behaviour would be to put the dog in another room when you were hoovering, and when you wanted to change locations, simply switch the hoover off, move the dog then continue. the dog still has the ‘issue’ but, I have found a way to avoid it affecting my life. In this circumstances, the behavioural issue  could be seen as minimal.

However, the decision to manage behaviour needs to be a conscious one, and not the dog shaping you to avoid dealing with an issue that may affect you in other circumstances.

Management of behaviour has become a more common option for many. However often the behaviour can be resolved and trained against, with the appropriate approach. Management of behaviour can be extremely daunting and often requires a constant vigilance to your dog ownership. A lifetime of scanning, checking, constantly being on guard and aware can be exhausting. And for some of us, management of behaviour isn’t an option. We HAVE to train against the inappropriate response.

Management of behaviour is often a recommended option for dogs with aggression issues, reactivity or fear based issues. And sometimes this is absolutely the appropriate decision. When you own a dog with behavioural issues, that could result in displays of aggression, we have a responsibility to ensure that our dogs inappropriate behaviour doesn’t affect the life that others choose to lead with their dog. The earnest of responsibility is on my shoulder to ensure my dogs doesn’t harm or injure another.  Whether this issue is based on fear, previous experience, genetics etc is irrelevant to the person on the receiving end of my dogs unwanted behaviour.

However the constant need to be vigilant 24/7/365 can be exhausting. It can evolve into a full time occupation in itself. Going for a simple walk, can be a expedition, with pre-planning, equipment, time co-ordination, a partner or team to go with, as though preparing to hike to the Antarctic! The anxiety and stress of what ‘MAY’ happen, needs almost a process of mental preparation before stepping out of the door. A walk consisting of 200% attention and focus on the dogs every breath, and the route taken must be strictly adhered to…any deviation resulting in a mild to extreme panic…..This may sound extreme, but speak to anyone that lives a life of management and they will tell you, this is exactly what it feels like.

A lot of the stress and the constant ‘risk assessing’ can be mitigated with ‘training’. A dog that has some core skills can negate the need to live a life of management.

Having owned a dog that was just didn’t like other dogs, I managed his behaviour constantly. I knew that he was likely to be aggressive and bite another dog.

At this point, I could explain or give an explanation of what type of dog he was most likely to want to bite, what the circumstances would have to be etc, what they would have to do to trigger his reaction, and justify his behaviour by saying what a lovely dog he was with people.… in attempt to minimise the issue, or save the shame associated with owning a dog that was ‘aggressive’. Surely as a professional dog trainer, my dog should be perfect? However, none of this would serve to assist the person whose dog was on the receiving end of his actions, nor would they be likely to care at the point when he was attacking their dog. So management was a huge part of his life. I was always aware of his behaviour and I scanned, observed and monitored him constantly.

However, because of my choice to compete in a dog sport with him, I was also forced to have to ‘train’ against his issues. My intention was to compete in a sport where he would have to be in close proximity to other dogs, he would have to be off the lead, and there was always a risk that he could have a dog approach him, or intrude in his space that fitted the criteria of a dog he was likely to dislike, and often he would be either away from me or out of my sight.

I didn’t have the option to manage him constantly any more.

This was a dog that didn’t like dogs in his space at all, yet through training, I was able to have him in a down or sit, out of my sight, with varying distances away from me, off the lead… and another dog positioned between 3-6ft away and on one occasion, interfering with him… and he held his position… confidently, happily and wanting to remain there.

His training allowed him to lead a fuller life, and allowed me to enjoy the dog without the constant pressure and stress that management can cause. I walked him in public places off lead, he could be around other dogs he didn’t know. I merge management with training. Don’t get me wrong, I would still manage, but I didn’t live in a head space of anxiety of stress.

Management of behaviour is always an option. It isn’t a failure of the trainer/guardian. It is acknowledging what and who your dog is, and accepting them for what they are. Warts and all.

Its smart dog ownership, and being a compassionate person as your are putting your dog and others above your ego. However, training can open so many more doors for you and your dog, and allow your to lead a fuller life with the dog that your love and adore. It can result in a dog that is happy, has clarity and joy in wanting to do the ‘right’ thing.

Embrace all options, and make the choice of which option is appropriate based on the life you want to lead with your dog.

‘The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have. ~ Louis E. Boone’

The Temperament test….

There is certain qualities when selecting a dog, whether it be for a companion, working dog or sports dog that are non-negotiable in the list of priorities…. health and temperament have got to be the top of the chart.

The issue of health can be controversial and luck plays a huge part in the lottery that comes with selecting a dog. Even with the best intentions, you can still be dealt a bad hand. This is a discussion for a later time. However the topic of temperament is something we can certainly be more aware of, and placing more emphasis on its importance can definitely have a far wider reaching affect.

The importance of a Sound temperament cannot be over estimated. Simple.

A sound temperament doesn’t necessarily mean the dog has to be overly social. It can be aloof or indifferent to people, but still have a sound disposition. And a sound temperament doesn’t mean the dog doesn’t have drive nor an ‘edge’. All great dogs have an ‘edge’ to their personality, not unlike supreme athletes or high achievers, it what makes them so great, but being a ‘nice’ goes a long way.

It means that the core make up of the dog is solid and even.

It can literally change your life to have a dog that doesn’t have a sound nature. It can affect your life choices, it can affect relationships, it can change your home dynamics…. it can alter where you socialise, what you do, where you walk etc.

Temperament can be improved and worked on, with effective training and socialisation. However the power of genetics cannot be over looked.

Often, the concept of a sound Temperament can be over looked in preference to other ‘attributes’, such as aesthetic characteristics or physical attributes. It is quite common to see criteria for matching perspective mates, pardon temperamental flaws in favour of attributes that will lead to ‘success’ in a chosen sport of competition field. However, often this is a false illusion.

A dog with a clear head and sound mental state, makes life so much easier. Having to train your dog to be comfortable in various environments, accept other dogs, people, things, animals can be time consuming and extensive. Although socialisation is a key part of any responsible dog owner, it can be a long term project even for a well adjusted dog. Having to do additional work to create a dog that can just cope with life, requires commitment, compassion, patience and time. Having a the core dog have a stable and sound temperament allows you to focus on the specific task or training that you wish to pursue. Temperament is so crucial.

The advances of dog training, has improved our ability to understand and deal effectively with issues that our dogs have. Better understanding has also meant that a lot of dogs that previously wouldn’t have been able to cope with the rigours of daily life, and specifically competition, have successfully over come these challenges. However this is largely down to great dog training. It shouldn’t be misconstrued that this is the core dog.

It has been argued that better dog training could eventually lead to ‘weaker’ dogs. Dogs that are robust and resilient, even when they have poor information and faced with adversity or punishment, tend to have temperaments that can accommodate for this. If these dogs are resilient to poor methods of training, the likelihood is that they will be capable of withstanding the rigours of daily life, with little additional training.

Think about it. Training that didn’t acknowledge the ‘dog’ meant that the core dog had to resilient, even tempered, biddable, and good natured. These dogs in turn would be the more successful and therefore more likely to be bred from. The dogs were good despite us, not because of us.

As, more knowledge and understanding of effective training becomes the norm, it is achievable to overcome ‘issues’ with dogs, so therefore these dogs are likely to be successful and therefore bred on from. However the core make up of the dog, still has ‘issues’. As each subsequent generation follows, these issues may be doubles or combined.

So how do we continue to progress in our understanding of training and behaviour, whilst still breeding and creating dogs that are mentally sound?

Easy. Keep temperament as a priority.

Having a dog that can run a hundred miles per hour, or moves flamboyantly for obedience, or has an insatiable desire to work is fantastic but overlooking temperamental issues, can ultimately hinder these attributes being of any worth.

A dog that has the physical ability to run and jump with more speed then any other, is fruitless if the dog is likely to fear or have aggression issues towards people or other dogs. Imagine going to a competition where there are hundreds of dogs all in relatively close proximity, and your dog is so struck by fear it can’t leave your side… or so aggressive, it can’t be trusted off leash? Yes, both these can be ‘fixed’ with effective dog training, but this is A LOT of work before even contemplating any of the basics, let alone the ‘sexy’ stuff.

A dog with a fearful nature or nervous deposition can be affected by environments. Just think of all the challenges a dog will face at a dog show, or even going to a pub for a drink, or down the local shops.

For years the Guide Dogs for the Blind, have successfully bred generation after generation of dogs, where health and temperament were an absolute priority due to the task that they were due to undertake. They consistently breed dogs that can do the task that they were destined for, are healthy and also have a sound temperament. Of course they produce the occasional dog were genetics don’t match or mix, however the high rate of consistency of creating a dog that is able to undergo the rigours of being a fully operational guide dog, cannot be over looked. They have kept health and temperament as the basis of their breeding programme.

The majority of us, have dogs as our companions and pets first and foremost. So having a sound temperament is going to serve you far greater then the trade off, of having a great working/sports dog that doesn’t. The small window of time spent in the competition arena, cannot outweigh the day to day interaction with that same dog.

And when the prospect of a successful competitive career could be hinder or not even started due to an injury or stroke of bad luck, having a dog that you can enjoy and live with should always be at the forefront of you mind when looking for, breeding from or buying a dog.

It is the age old argument of ‘nature’ vs nurture’. And mother nature knows best.

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.