Interview with English dog behaviourist Nick Jones
By Laure-Anne Viselé, November 2010
This interview is part of my Dog Professionals Hall of fame, showcasing the dog professions in all their glory.
Nick Jones: dog behaviourist
Nick Jones is a well-established canine behaviourist. He is based in the UK.
Should you ever get to speak to Nick, don’t be fooled by his modesty: he is among the most qualified behaviourists in the country. Add to that his sense of humour, eloquence and diplomacy, and you’re beginning to see why it’s such a pleasure to collaborate with Nick.
Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Nick Jones.
LAURE-ANNE – So, Nick, how do you position yourself? Are you a dog trainer or behaviourist?
NICK – I am a behaviourist. I wanted to keep the title simple. My job is to address what people would consider problematic behaviours from their dogs.
L-A – You are studying for a Masters degree at the moment. Tell me more about that.
N – I’m doing it at the Middlesex University. Right now, I am putting together the subject of my research for the main study next year. It will be writing about dog-human relations.
L-A – So you’re working on your thesis proposal? Commiserations!
N – Yes, it can be like pulling teeth… To my own admission, I am not an academic. My work is very hands-on. I have to think on my feet, have a problem-solving attitude.
The academic approach really asks you to look at things differently. So that’s a good challenge for me, I sincerely believe that it’ll be good for me in the end.
Prior to that, I followed a specialist qualification at the Cambridge Institute for Dog Behaviour and Training.
L-A – I did my own Masters in Information Systems Science, and my Bachelors in Zoology.
And here is a little background about the project too: this interview is part of a series of conversations with dog professionals.
With these, I try to:
- increase the public’s knowledge of the dog professions; and
- showcase the particular skills and talents required by these dog professions.
N – Oh, I was just reading the interview with Dino Dogan. I follow him with a great deal of interest.
L-A – Oh yes, Dino Dogan! His angle is totally the social media, and he so masters it.
That’s what I find fascinating about talking to you all. No two dog professionals has exactly the same perspective or area of expertise.
But you have quite the on-line presence too, actually.
Dog entrepreneurs and the social media
N – This is how I see it:
- I love dogs, and I love people, and I love helping dogs and people; and
- I can’t do that unless people know where to find me.
That’s where the social media comes in.
Take your website, for example. The design is very slick, and effective. It was one of the first examples I looked at when I started becoming active on-line.
Oh, and… You were my first Twitter follower!
N – Aaaaaawwww!
Actually, the website started as a very simple ‘business card’ page. Then I noticed that a colleague of mine was a lot more visible on-line. So I took a few pages off his book and I gradually built the site.
But I’ve always had an interest in computing.
L-A – Oh, you’re into computers! That’s why you’re so on top of it?
N – Well, I dare say if I can do it, anybody can do it.
It does takes enthusiasm, and a great deal of time. You can easily loose a few hours in front of the screen.
So over the years, I have gradually introduced:
- Youtube dog training videos;
- a blog;
- Membership to dog training specialist groups on LinkedIn.
L-A – Staying active in the social media must cost you a lot of time. Why do you keep doing it?
N – It’s true that my time is at a premium:
- I have a child;
- I have dogs;
- I am running a business; and
- I am studying for a Master’s degree.
But I have to continue to reach out and make contact with people.
It can just be about:
- Helping people in need, just for the sake of knowing that somebody is in a better place; or
- It can lead to paid jobs.
So it is in partly out of commercial interest, but I don’t do it with a hard nose.
L-A – How much of your on-line time investment translates into paid jobs?
N – 80-90% of my work comes from the web. Most of it from my website.
I gave a talk to a big business last week, actually, about how I work with the internet as an SME [Small-to-Medium Enterprise]. There, I explained that all of these on-line efforts are designed to bring people back to my website in an enjoyable manner. I see the social media as “satellites”.
But there is also a philanthropic aspect to it. We all have to make a living, we all want to achieve things and indeed buy things, and I’m no different. But I get a reasonable income from my daily work and if I can come back in the evening and answer some quick questions on Twitter, then great, let’s do that.
L-A – You definitely share a lot of good information on Twitter. I keep re-tweeting your pearls of wisdom: they are
- sensible soundbites; and
- did-you-know’s about dog behaviour.
N – I enjoy the word ‘pearls of wisdom’. I’ve always had a strong interest in philosophical thinking, and I think that dogs are great for us to develop ourselves.
L-A – I so agree! As a parent (and pet parent), we are in such a position of ultimate control. I find it so noble that most of us do not abuse that power and have a well-balanced, loving, protective, giving, responsible relationship with our dog. Dogs (and children) really make us think about our own behaviour, I find.
N – There are many other similarities between children and dogs, but of course they peel off at a certain point. I haven’t put a lead on my 11-year-old daughter yet! [laughs]
But yes, I find that, with dogs as with children, you need a balanced approach. They have to know:
- when you’re being serious, and
- when it’s all love and happiness.
To me, it’s all about
- being moderate; and
- setting clear boundaries.
Of course it’s our responsibility to ensure that the boundaries themselves are not excessive.
L-A – Oh absolutely. The excess can go both ways:
- We don’t want spoilt dogs, but
- We don’t want robots either.
Making a living as a dog professional
L-A – So you are working full-time as a behaviourist, hats off to you. Not a lot of people (myself included), have the courage to make that leap. Leaving the corporate world can mean losing a lot of financial security.
N – From the perspective of financial security, the business keeps my head above water. I have noticed a slight quietness recently, though. It’s not alarming, but I certainly would not want to be starting up last year or this year.
L-A – So when did you set up shop?
N – I got the business off the ground in 2003. It’s gone through a steady, organic growth since then.
L-A – What was your career history prior to that?
N – I am now in my early forties. When I left school, I spent three or four years working on a fish farm in Wiltshire.
L-A – Did you train the trouts?
N – [laughs] Yeah! OK guys, ‘Stay!’. But no, no. It was hard manual labour.
Then I was in Sales for about 10 years. It really:
- helped me develop my people skills (hopefully), and
- it taught me how to carry out a transaction.
- It has also definitely helped me develop a bit of business acumen.
Then I was also in the police force for a couple of years. But ultimately, it wasn’t for me. When I left, we decided to start a family so I became a house-dad while my partner returned to her full-time corporate job.
They were some of the best years of my life, and I continue to have a very close bond with our daughter.
When she started school, I had the perfect space to build the business. I thought: “Right, time to get that dog training off the ground“.
I went for it full steam ahead and I was breaking average income within 18 months.
L-A – That is very inspiring. At the same time, I am kind of jealous.
N – Oh see it as an inspiration. I am seeing increased interest in the profession, actually.
L-A – Given the fact that dog behaviourist is still a relatively little known profession. How did you manage to pull it off seven years ago, when hardly anyone had heard of it?
I am not suggesting that I align myself with any of them, but they increased awareness so much. I am quite sure that people watch these programmes and then Google “dog behaviourist” or “dog trainer”. So I owe them. I don’t know how to thank them but… [laughs]
L-A – Cesar Milan has made himself into such a successful brand, hasn’t he?
N – Absolutely. Among the famous dog trainers, he has probably had the most exposure. Sometimes for good and bad.
I am a little embarrassed to say that I look a little like Cesar Millan! We’ve got a similar amount of grey hair!
But I think people read my website and make a parallel. They think: it’s the English dog whisperer. But I do not aspire to be Cesar Millan. I just do it my way.
About standards in the behaviourist industry
L-A – So is the title “behaviourist” protected in the UK? The word can only be used by people with a PhD in Animal Behaviour in the US, can’t it?
N – Anyone can call themselves a behaviourist in the UK. Of course, that begs the question: How does Joe Bloggs know what level of service they’ll be getting?
L-A – Oh the issue of standardising the field is one of the hottest issues in the dog world today.
N – I think there is definitely a lot of room for formalising the industry.
Actually, there is a lot of wrangling going on in this field right now, with people trying to claim the area of the industry for themselves. Naturally, everybody prefers things to be done in a way that they feel is best, so you get elements of power play.
But whatever happens in the long term, we need to protect the paying customer, and the welfare of the dog.
L-A – Do you think these changes may take place relatively shortly?
N – I can see some very pronounced changes brewing right now. I would guess that it will become visible in the industry in the next two years or so. What I envisage is us, collectively, as a profession, becoming bound to a common set of standards.
Some regulations may have a dramatic effect on the livelihood of a number of practitioners, of course. But I will be degree-qualified by then, so I hope and trust that it will hold me in good stead.
L-A – I would definitely welcome some professionalisation efforts. Too many self-proclaimed behaviour therapists today fall shockingly short of the most basic specialist education standards, thus bringing the whole profession into disrepute.
Dominance: that old dogma
L-A – I moved to the Netherlands from the UK a few years back, so I have had the opportunity to compare the degree of sophistication and “modernity” of training philosophies between the two countries. I have to say that, in general, dog behaviour professionals are a lot more up-to-date in the UK.
The most obvious aspect is the fact that the ‘pack theory’ stays such a “dominant” (excuse the pun) theme here in the Netherlands.
N – Where do you think that derives from?
I think that the pack theory is a catchy model that just stuck over the years. There was this study on captive wolves’ behaviour by Schenkel (in 1948), which suggested that rank competition was a major dynamic in wolf behaviour. Then Konrad Lorenz wrote the popular ‘Man meets dog‘ (1950), infused with parallels to what was known of wolf dynamics at the time.
There are many other compelling arguments that really suggest moderation when dealing with the concept of dominance. For example:
- Dominance does not play as big (nowhere near) a role in wild wolves as it does with captive wolves;
- Dogs are not predators. They are generalist scavengers;
- They are not the (grey) wolf’s direct descendant, but its cousin: they branched off the same ancestor, but evolved differently;
- No packing behaviour has been observed in dogs (nor in many populations of grey wolves, incidentally); and
- The popular link between dominance and many canine action patterns (resting in elevated places, eating first, crossing a threshold first, etc.) has never been established in peer-reviewed studies.
The pack theory had somewhat receded in the popular mindset until the dawn of Cesar Millan.
N – It is certainly a delicate subject and there is, in my opinion, no singular best approach in dealing with a dog. Every dog is different just as every person is different.
If you were a manager in a large company you would, for best effect, seek to deal with every employee according to their individual temperament. And some people are very dominant, very pushy.
L-A – Oh absolutely. I’m not saying that the concept of dominance has no place, but I am keen for it to be taken down a notch (or two hundred).
The influence of television
N – I can only but agree. This brings us back to moderation. Television is not very good in offering a moderate view.
L-A – That’s right! It has to simplify topics to the highest degree to be palatable to tired viewers who just want to be entertained after a day’s hard work.
N – Yes, and it has to make good TV visually. A lot of my work would be rubbish for television because it’s a lot of intense talking, thinking, and making subtle changes for what can often lead to very profound changes in the dog.
L-A – And television trainers can give the impression that dramatic changes happen really quickly.
N – I don’t mind telling you that a customer expressed a degree of disappointment in my approach not too long ago. He thought I would be “… more like Victoria Stillwell” [laughs kindly].
But on the whole, I can make a good case to the customer that the approach I suggest is the most prudent and balanced way to bring about the change in behaviour that they’re looking for.
L-A – How do you confidently say, without sounding antagonistic or bitter: “Guys, this is real life, not TV”.
N – I don’t often have prolonged conversations about television trainers. I just concentrate on being me, on dealing with the customer in a polite, professional way that helps move them forward.
N – Many behavioural issues in the dog are intrinsically connected back to the owner. That’s a delicate aspect of the job. But I’d like to think that, for the best part, I can do that successfully.
I attended a seminar with Angela Stockdale recently and the room was full of Dutch dog professionals. This couple of owners had volunteer for a public audience, and gradually all the dog pros started confronting the poor owners about their methods. Angela turned the whole thing around and made the owners feel at ease again. When they’d left, she told the audience in no uncertain terms that what had happened was totally unacceptable. She reminded them that making the owners feel guilty, or cornered, or defensive, is the least productive thing you could do.
I think empathy is a great skill to have as a canine behaviourist. She has it by the ton, thankfully!
N – I can only but agree. As a colleague of mine also says that you must appeal to the owners, relate to them, get them on board, or you probably won’t manage to inspire them to make the necessary change.
Working with people in their own home, and dealing with sometimes emotional issues, is a privileged role. But if you manage to gain a family’s trust, they will do pretty much whatever you suggest, and that empowers you to make some really profound, positive changes.
Dog training and ethical decisions
L-A – There is this interesting study, the name escapes me right now, that asserts that when the owners are already contemplating abandonment or euthanasia prior to the therapy, the likelihood of success was much lower. How do you address these options?
N – In the early stages of my career, I would have avoided the subject because I was concerned about how I would deal with the answer. But now, without trying to lead the customer, I do encourage them to talk about what options they had considered thoughts prior to my involvement.
Sometimes exploring other outcomes can be part of my role. Often, I am there as a facilitator to ensure that whatever happens, we collectively come up with the best decision for the dog.
L-A – That is an honest, responsible way of handling an enormously difficult issue.
N – It is extremely difficult. It can put me as a practitioner – whilst I’m not complaining – under a great deal of stress and pressure at times.
I have had some cases where it’s clear to me that the owner is not going to succeed what they want to achieve for whatever reason. When I can see this, so I try to cut to the chase and advise them on the next step.
The important thing is: it’s not all about the dog, it’s also about the owners. The owners also have their emotional and physical lives. Of course we want the welfare of the dog, but what about the welfare of the owners?
I am just as much pro-people as I am pro-dog.
Optimising on both fronts can make decision-making more complicated, but that to me is an important ethical process in my role.
L-A – And ethics play a major role in dog training. Jim Barry’s “The Ethical Dog Trainer” discusses the issues at play with great skill.
So how often, when sensing a mismatch, do you recommend the owners do not keep the dog?
N – It is difficult to put a number on it, but it is a real element of the job.
A while ago, I had this couple who clearly would continue to be unable to physically manage the dog (because of its size, its temperament, and the intensity of the problem). We worked together on re-homing the dog and found a good home.
But there have been cases where the dog’s aggression was clearly beyond rehabilitation. I advised for the dog to be put to sleep then.
L-A – I’ve just had an interview with a vet and, he remarked on the fact that most people who come to him with a behaviour problem come too late, they just want the dog put down.
N – Oh it’s a very difficult issue. Like a vet, to I am also here to preserve life and to ensure good health. So when you’re putting a dog to sleep purely as a result of behaviour, it’s devastating. It is a very very very difficult element of the job. It is very sad that it goes that far.
L-A – What about die-hard euthanasia opponents?
N – My perspective is this: it’s very well keeping the dog alive, but with what quality of life?
L-A – So how often are you confronted with such difficult situations?
N – I would say approximately once per year. I’ll have a case which results in the dog being put to sleep. So that is between 0.5 to 1% of my case load.
L-A – Has there been a case which really moved you (emotionally).
N – [Loooooong pause] Frankly, I can get moved out of frustration sometimes.
But sometimes I get moved because I can’t get over how much work and effort the customer put in, and what a good outcome that customer has achieved.
I think I can say with my hand on my heart that the vast majority of the cases I’ve worked with ended well.
About owner compliance
N – So today, for example, I printed a certificate for a customer. This is something I only do once a year: “Best Improver 2010“.
It is going to a young couple for the work they did on their English Springer Spaniel. When I first came to see them, the dog was being aggressive towards both of them. It was resource-guarding [guarding objects and/or food against an approach] various things in the home, not coming back when called in public…
On my assessment visit, I saw that the improvements they’d made were quite profound. The dog was looking generally more relaxed and more happy, and the owners were delighted. It was just one of those real feel-good moments.
L-A – Amazing that they took it on board so much!
N – Oh the majority of owners take it on board. When you charge for your services, people tend to listen to you more. [laughing kindly].
But it’s the extent to which they applied everything I told them. I felt euphoric when I left. I got to the car and I was really moved.
The magic wand
N – Not all clients appreciate how much involvement I will require from them. Some people expect me to wave the proverbial magic wand and ‘cure’ the dog for them.
Sometimes I can handle the dog and make quite a profound and sustained difference, but very often it is a gradual process, and there are rarely any quick fixes.
Nowadays, I try to be a lot less hands on so the owners get to do everything. I try to act more as a guide and director.
L-A – Are there any cases which you refuse to take?
N – On a behavioural level, there is no job I would turn away. I am big enough now to deal with pretty much any area of behaviour.
L-A – So is the most common problem with which you get presented?
N – Dog-dog aggression is the most common, sometimes complicated by aggression to people. I also seem to be seeing quite a bit of separation anxiety lately. I find it, as a condition, quite interesting because it involves the relationship between the owner and the dog quite closely.
L-A – Oh I also find separation anxiety really interesting! I’ve just written an article about it.
N – So people try to cope with a lot of behaviours on their own, but when your every walk is being blighted by aggression to other dogs, it’s very difficult to overlook it.
Sometimes I may have an unwilling customer, but once they can see that we are potentially offering a solution then they can change their view.
L-A – So what’s your success rate on dog-dog aggression?
N – It needs to be dealt with on its own merit with every dog. We need to be looking at a whole range of issues in terms of:
- management: which potential equipment may help, and
- protocols: which technique will help the dog to relax and sit down and be quiet.
L-A – Do you also accept dog-human aggression cases?
N – On a regular basis, yes.
L-A – Don’t you feel that you are compromising your safety?
N – I have to take my own safety quite seriously because I need to be physically fit to do my job. So if I know that I’m going to see a dog that’s aggressive to people, I discuss how to put a muzzle with the client a couple of weeks ahead of my visit. By the time I see the dog, it is very comfortable with the muzzle and we are able to feed the dog treats through it (which we adapt slightly).
L-A – Have you ever been injured?
N – Yes, I’ve been bitten quite badly on my right elbow and hand by a rather large male German Shepherd. It was partly my fault, partly his fault. Partly his fault because… he bit me! Partly my fault because I had dropped a bit of cheese and, as I have quite a tidy mind, I quickly bent over to pick it up…
L-A – [jokingly interrupts] And he was a resource guarder! [shows aggression when you approach the dog’s food or toy]
N – Well, as it turns out, yes [smiling].
These sort of events leave you quite shaken and may knock your confidence quite heavily. But then something good comes out of it: you learn your own boundaries and you also learn how important your own safety is.
L-A – Were you more nervous when around aggressive dogs after that?
N – Not more nervous, but certainly more safe.
I also need to think about the safety of other people, because most of my work is done in public. Inevitably I am insured, but the insurance is there not to be used.
The set-up here here
L-A – So what’s your set-up? Do you have your own training premises, or do you travel to the customer?
N – I have a home office, and I can have people come to my property, but for best effect, I try to address the dog’s behaviour in its normal environment.
L-A – So what’s a typical day like?
N – I am very much a family man. So a day would start with bringing my daughter to school, ensuring that she has a calm, bright start of the day. So we have a lot of fun getting ready for school. When I am back from the school run (a 10 minute round trip), I look after my dogs. I have a fourteen-month-old Viszla and a five-year-old Border Terrier.
The Viszla is energetic and slightly nutty. He needs to get out quite early in the morning, so I take him out for about an hour in the morning. I also take the Border Terrier, Pip. She was sitting here at my feet when we were talking earlier, but she’s disappeared now.
L-A – She was not barking?! She’s a Border Terrier!
N – Neither of them bark. I have to say. I discourage barking. Might sound like am in the wrong job but I don’t like the sound of dogs barking.
L-A – Oh definitely not a nice sound. I do love… their smell though!
N – What are you like? [laughs]
So, in trying to to focus on giving people a quality service, I am consciously doing less work now than I would have done a few years ago. I try to limit myself to one visit per day.
L-A – That’s already a lot: preparation, round trip, 3- or 4-hour session, and reporting and recommendations…
N – Yes, travel can take an hour each way, but I’ve got my reporting down now, so writing it takes about an hour. But there’s a lot of to’ing and fro’ing by e-mail and telephone before I have that appointment.
It’s just amazing how fast the day goes. And then there’s the e-mails to answer, then you’ve got all those people pestering you on Twitter! [laughs]. And I’m trying to write articles, study, think about what we’re going to have for dinner…
L-A – So once the reporting, travelling, visit and preparation are out of the way, that leaves, what, two hours a day to run your business?
N – Am not sure if am a workaholic, but I’m working for twelve hours a day so I’m frequently in the office until 9 or 10pm, and then I’ll just have a cup of tea or glass of wine and go to bed.
L-A – You ARE a workaholic.
N – [laughs] It’s no 9-til-5 job, and I’m only pleased that I don’t sit here gritting my teeth. I’m here because I want to be, and you only do that when you’re passionate about it.
L-A – And that’s also when you’re at your most effective.
N – Because I attract my work though the internet, I can easily be in the car for three or four hours just to get to the customer. I don’t particularly mind, I just take that as part and parcel of the business.
I could set up a local business with a small training class, renting a hall somewhere nearby and never travel again. But that’s not how I do it. And because I’m a responsive business, and that involves going to people’s homes.
So it’s a privilege to do this work. It has its more difficult aspects, but I would not change a thing.
L-A – We’re out of time. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me!
N – Actually, there was a part of the interview which was rather good therapy for me. So I’d like to thank you for rather good therapy!
- Website: http://www.alphadogbehaviour.co.uk/
- Training videos: Alpha Dog Behaviour on Youtube
- Dog Blog: http://www.alphadogbehaviour.blogspot.com/
- Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/ukdogtrainer
- LinkedIn: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/alphadogbehaviour
I really value my reader’s comments, so don’t be shy and write one. I would particularly like to hear from you if you:
- have worked with a dog behaviourist: what is your experience?
- are a behaviourist (or want to be one): what is your position on
- centrally controlled standardisation of the profession
- the “pack theory”
- the importance of the social media for behaviourists
- any other subject covered in this interview
- Professional dog walker a cushy job? Think again
- Dino Dogan: dog blogger extraordinaire
- A veterinarian on behaviour therapy
- Two sisters, two groomers
- Anatolian shepherd breeder: raising gentle giants
- From veterinary nurse to ground breaking behaviour specialist
- Dog training: Traditional vs. modern theories – Academic essay reviewing different dog training perspectives
- Dogs: the art of intelligent punishment – How to punish your dog effectively and without cruelty
- Dog separation anxiety – Treatment steps explained
- The D-word. On dogs and dominance – Helium article demystifying the dominance concept
- Hot dogs – Quick poll about hotly debated dog issues (e.g. leash/no leash, treat/no treat, etc.)
- Dogs, my philosophical position – Canis bonus position statement on debated dog issues
- Thinking of getting a dog? Reality check – Article about responsibilities and chores of dog ownership