From veterinary nurse to ground-breaking behaviour specialist

Review of seminar by dog behaviour therapist Angela Stockdale.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, September 2010

Angela Stockdale: introduction

I am just back from the Angela Stockdale 2-day workshop on dogs and emotions and itching to tell the world about it.

Angela’s CV: From veterinary nurse to behaviour specialist

Angela Stockdale is an ex-veterinary nurse from the UK. Angela formed her own animal rescue centre only admitting dogs due for destruction. In the process, Angela successfully re-homed more than three hundred dogs! Her unique approach to the treatment of severely aggressive dogs, and her track record of dramatic success, have earned Angela a solid reputation among dog professionals. Today, aside from her home practice, she travels the world over to help shelters, and spread the word through her workshops and seminars.

Angela’s philosophy: that revolutionary angle

Her philosophy is one of intuition and flexibility, rather than structured protocols. This instantly triggered alarm bells for me, as I am rather concerned by the number well-intentioned dog professionals, whose highest credential is ‘having a good feel’ with dogs. Truth is: after a couple of hours, I was sold along the rest of the audience of vets, behaviour therapists and trainers.

Angela has developed her craft through working in rescue, so her approach needed to very dog-, rather than owner-centred. This basically means that you give the dog the means of coping with what is/was overwhelming it, relatively free of handler intervention. The logic is that if the dog is learning to cope, he will relax, and if he relaxes he can learn.

Because Angela has mainly worked with rescue dogs, her approach is minimally based on the dog’s history, which is mostly unavailable in shelter rescue.

Another really striking aspect of Angela’s perspective is that she refers to dogs as persons. The semi-scientific snob in me was tempted to turn my nose up at that point (ooooh, dreaded anthropomorphism), but to be honest, but it felt right when she said it. I could totally see where she was coming from, and frankly, it was refreshing to give that eternal anthropomorphic witch hunt a break. I think that, by ‘person’, Angela means that they have feelings, that each of them is unique, and that they deserve respect.

Personality: a teaching dog if I ever saw one

I was utterly charmed by Angela’s down-to-earth, approachable personality. She is as genuine as it gets, and has this great self-deprecating sense of humour. What touched me the most was how human she was. She has this superbly low-key sense of empathy towards dogs and humans that instantly puts you at ease. In a room full of eager, competitive, dog professionals, Angela did not once make someone feel stupid, guilty, arrogant, or misunderstood… She treats everybody, dogs included, with the most charming mix of respect and irreverence. To sum it up, Angela is THE teaching dog (that generous, secure, relaxed, wise, fun dog who just wants to help its stressy pals use better coping strategies).

The workshop itself

Once in a while, the workshop felt a little unstructured for my liking (I am, after all, THE hyper-structured). But I left feeling like I’d gained something very deep and very precious. A new understanding that I could not have found in one of my specialist books. If I had to put the philosophy into a sound bite, I’d call it ‘Go with the flow, listen to the dog‘. Seems obvious? Not to the other analytical minds in the room, it seemed. It took us all a few hours to be sold on the idea of letting go of our previous learning, structure, and goals, and… Just listen to the dog.

During the workshop, real-life dogs were invited with their human family for a consultation. A small part of the visit was spent putting the owners at ease with humour, empathy, and some background questions. During the owner interviews, Angela actually spent most of her time unintrusively observing the dog and sharing her thoughts with us.

One interesting case was ball-obsessed and occasionally dog-aggressive Border collie. “What Border collie is not ball-obsessed and excessively prey-driven?“, I asked myself (see this article for some of my flirting with Border collies). But, once Angela had devised a clever way of diffusing the obsession for the dog, I had to admit, he looked visibly more relaxed and happy. Angela’s eye opener #124 (I’d lost count by then): there is a difference between intense pleasure in an activity, and obsession, and indulging in the latter is anything but pleasant. One of the most surprising of Angela’s recommendations in that session? Do not play retrieve games if your dog has an over-intense prey drive. It won’t deplete the drive, but it will overwhelm and over-stimulate the dog.

A lonely dogo Argentino

We also got to watch some Before/After videos, including the most heart-wrenching story of a severely human-aggressive Argentinian mastiff stuck in the shelter system for the last nine years. Countless trainers had attempted to rehabilitate the dog and his intense (understatement) distrust and aggression towards humans. The effect of Angela’s intervention was quick, and dramatic. These were the steps she followed:

1/ Coping strategy

Angela used shaping to teach the dog a better coping strategy when faced with people by whom he felt intimidated. The film starts with Angela lying down on the floor and not focusing on the dog displaying intense aggression. Angela reacted by throwing some treats through the wire whenever the dog moved away from the fence. This gave  him a feeling of relief, as he learned to place himself at a distance he could handle.

2/ Building a relationship

For the relationship-building part, Angela laid down without fuss (and this time without food) alongside the kennel fence. Initially, the dog got confused and displayed intense aggression. After a short while, you could literally see the dog realise: “I can’t seem to drive her away, but she’s not actually making me feel stressy. She kind of makes me feel better.” As Angela laid there, she did not focus on the dog. Instead concentrating on breathing herself into a state of relaxation. Eventually, her relaxed state transferred to the dog, and he quietly laid down at a comfortable distance.
A couple of hours later, upon repeating the exercise, the dog showed no aggression at all and, after a few moments, calmly walked over to the fence and laid down next to Angela with his head resting on the ground. This had many in the room in tears.

But what about the long term?

Ever the sceptic, I asked about the long-term and generalised benefits. Fair enough, she’d established a connection with the dog. Now what? Tomorrow, she’s on the plane, and that dog is back to its pitiful isolation. Angela’s response was multi-faceted:
  • The dog has learned a coping strategy to his feelings of intimidation that he can continue to use in the long-term.
  • The dog has struck a human friendship, which he had not experienced in the longest of times, if ever. This was bound to be an eye opener for the dog, leaving him at least open to the possibility of more friendships.
  • The dog was suffering from heart-breaking loneliness (imagine nine years in solitary confinement), and the relief of even a temporary connection must have been worthwhile and reasonably long-lasting.
  • The work is now being carried on by chosen members of staff.

So although there is no question of complete rehabilitation in this dog’s case, his dog’s quality of life has dramatically improved.

Titbits about Angela’s philosophy

Angela’s approach, original and thought-provoking though it is, is quite tricky to nail down in neat points. Here is what I picked up in rather free-flowing form and in no particular order:

  • The dog is in control of finding its own coping strategy. You give him access to a chew toy (or whatever works) at times of stress, and leave him the choice of approaching the scary stimulus, if at all, at their own pace. What’s so revolutionary about this? The traditional Desensitisation and Counter-conditioning trainer would throw in some behaviour modification (e.g. a ‘watch me’ to distract the dog from the stimulus), or given a treat each time [the trainer] perceived the dog was about to be made uncomfortable by the stimulus (to counter-condition it).  Essentially, going at the pace of the human handler with his rehabilitation agenda, instead of instantly and smoothly adapting to changes in the dog’s comfort level, something only the dog itself can do.
  • Angela’s work does not focus on pre-defined objectives, and there is no attempt to measure performance or progress. The only objective  is to make the dog feel better, not to correct the behaviour.
  • In the case of obsessive dogs, the drive should not necessarily be depleted. This is especially true of an obsessive prey drive, which, in Angela’s opinion, can be (detrimentally) roused by retrieve games, fly-ball, frisbee, or other high-drive activities. Hang on, I thought. Are you suggesting going cold turkey with a retrieve addict? Angela’s elegant solution was to let the dog have the ball, but to as chew toy, not as a retrieve object. The difference in the dog’s demeanour after a few moments was indeed dramatic.
  • Use specialists to provide complementary therapies like Tellington touch or Bach flower remedies. Essentially, make sure that the dog is relaxed enough to prepare to cope with his problems, which is why it is highly ill-advised to start work on a highly stressed dog.
  • No guilt-tripping the owners, no matter how questionable you might find their treatment of the dog up to that point. Assume that everyone is trying their best for the dog, and do not make suggestions that may arouse direct resistance. One of the guests in the workshop had started using a choke chain out of desperation. Instead of tackling this issue head-on, Angela threw in the suggestion of using a harness for increased control while discussing management options, a lot later in the consultation. Angela brought up the harness in total disconnection with the contentious choke collar, which had had everybody in the room gasping. This was tact and respect at its best.
  • Make sure the owners are as comfortable and at ease as possible. This includes introducing the idea of Reiki, yoga, or meditation, for the owner’s own relaxation, in preparation to interacting with their dog.
  • Little emphasis on training and putting behaviours on cue. Once you have given the dog the means of appropriately relieving its stress, let it decide when and whether to use it, rather than attempting to control the dog’s response.
  • Question every effort you make towards your dog in light of whether it really benefits the dog. “Why go for a walk on a rainy day when even the dog doesn’t want it? Just stay in-doors and stimulate the dog in another way.” That one got my attention, let me tell you.
  • Extremely flexible approach responding to the dog’s emotion as and when, and not pre-defined. This approach may vary not only from one dog to the next, but from one moment to the next.
  • Acknowledge what caused the dog’s unwanted reaction (e.g. another dog), accept it, and then move on (ignore it). This is in subtle contrast with the traditionally advised: just ignore your dog if he acts up.
  • Focus on dog as a whole to pick up signals, rather than on each separate body part like the tail, the ears, etc. If you must absolutely focus on a body part, look at his eyes.
  • Do not mark and reward relaxed behaviour. Those are rewarding in themselves. If you must use shaping, then mark every behaviour towards an effective coping mechanism (like getting away from you in human-shy dogs).
  • Do not force tactile contact onto the dog. Extend your hand unintrusively, and let the dog decide whether, and where, it wants to be stroked.

Conclusion and thank you’s

I have to admit, I first feared from the workshop’s title (Dogs and emotions) that it would be on the wishy-washy side. But I left in a contemplative state, feeling I had received deep and valuable lessons.

By nature, I am naturally sceptical of fads and personality cults. I am glad to report that the Angela Stockdale phenomenon is neither. If you are a dog professional involved in behaviour issues, you would do yourself a favour by checking her out.

Regardless, I would go to any workshop if the speaker exonerates me from taking my dog out in the rain!

A big thank you to Angela, of course, but also to Kynotrain and Vethoconsult, who organised the whole thing flawlessly. That’s quite the achievement when you have to host for about a hundred dog professionals, and guest problem dogs, for two days.


Were you at the workshop yourselves? What did you think?

How do you feel about the structured vs. instinctive approaches in training and behaviour therapy?

I would welcome and value your comments, so don’t be shy!

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