Welcome to Canis BLOGus

Canis BLOGus – Dog blogging: making evidence-based fun

A critical thinking blog about all things dogs for owners, researchers and professionals.

I share insights and techniques about the cases I see in my dog behaviour therapy practice (Den Haag), I review dog books, I discuss findings of important research articles, and I discuss controversial issues. Bursting with pop science, scathing rants, vivid analogies and tongue-in-cheek illustrations.

Who am I

IMG_6610My name is Laure-Anne and I am an English-speaking expat in The Netherlands. I run an evidence-based dog behaviour therapy practice (Canis bonus) and dog training school (OhMyDog!) in The Hague. I graduated in Zoology (University of Newcastle), then specialized in applied companion animal behaviour (postgrad dip). When I am not working on rehabilitating dogs with behaviour problems, I relax by examining ideas in the pet and behaviour world critically.

For more about me, visit the homepage.

What the blog is about

This blog shares evidence-based information about dog behaviour in layman’s terms. I am on a mission to spread fact-based and thought-provoking information about dogs. So I relentlessly:

  • bust apocryphal stories, speculation, fallacies and biased tales;
  • promote responsible dog ownership;
  • question received ideas.

I enjoy delving into technical subjects and re-surfacing with an article that every dog owner can use to make intelligent decisions about their dog.

I cover many subjects, from comparative psychology to behaviour modification techniques, training school practices and dog welfare. And then of course, I interview interesting dog pros and tell you about my latest dog book review.

To find the articles

  • Click on a category (panel to the right) such as ‘Dog behaviour’ or
  • Enter your search terms in the search bar (top right)

Write a comment

I love comments, no matter how short, off-the-mark, (or contrary). You can leave a comment on each article by:

  • clicking on the title for the post you want to read, and
  • completing the comments form at the bottom of the article.

Order an article

I can also write for your magazine, blog or website on demand. If you want to order an article on a canine subject of your choice,  contact me and I’ll be happy to discuss your needs.

To find out more about my dog writing services, go to my Dog writer page.

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Why you shouldn’t lie on an aggression screening form for a dog training school

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague: on lying about your dog’s aggression to get it into a dog training school
Written in: September 2018.
Privacy: Identifying details may have been changed to prevent the owners from being recognized.
Illustration credits: See end of the post

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Reading the dog training form, something bothered me…

I was reading a client form today, for the obedience class at our dog training school (OhMyDog!, The Hague) and something wasn’t quite right. She reported no aggression as such, but, reading between the lines, this dog needed more than improving their sit/stay.

I picked up the phone and called the client. Sure enough, the dog had a flurry of underlying behaviour issues that would have made his time at the school a living hell for him (not to mention a hazard for us and a disturbance for the other students). Luckily, they were open to private lessons so I am going to help them that way.

They are not comfortable conversations, but I’ll take an awkward phone call over an even-more-traumatised dog; and injured staff, clients, and dogs.

The 3 dog aggression screening questions

We screen for aggression through 3 questions on our form. We ask:

  1. Whether there is an aggression issue (and we explicitly list growling)
  2. About issues the owner finds problematic,
  3. About the owner’s objectives,

You would think that question 1 is enough, right? Actually, I tend to find out in question 3, or worse, once the dog is already in class. So why do people under-report aggression? Because:

  • Aggression means different things to different people. Is growling aggression? Do you need a bite to label it as aggression?
  • Not everyone finds it a problem. Many believe it’s normal that their dog lunges at other dogs. They think they just need help with the ‘pulling on the leash’ problem
  • People are worried about leaving a written trace of an aggression incident about their dog that could incriminate their dog
  • People worry the dog training school won’t take them on if they tell the truth

But by far the biggest reason is… profound denial.

So clients aren’t religious about reporting aggression problems. How often it does it happen? Very!

Let me share some cases we’ve had over the years.

The Labrador pup who cowered and growled when we approached

As soon as the pup walked in, we knew there was a problem. He was crawling, rather than walking. If anyone approached closer than four meters, he’d stare, stiffen and growl. Same response if anyone looked at him for longer than a second.

What happened with the dog?

I took this up with the owners discreetly, but after I heard their response, I feared I’d been too diplomatic. Hadn’t they grasped the seriousness of what I was saying?

I got in touch with them after class again, several times in fact, only to be met with the same answer that ‘He’s only young’ and ‘All puppies are like that at first’ – despite a professional taking time out of her day to assure them of the contrary.

I advised they contact a veterinary behaviourist on several occasions, but this fell on deaf ears. Week after week (when they would show up for puppy class), they would report great successes and declare the problem to be over, this despite the pup showing no improvement.

If a pup looks like this during dog training class, you know you have a problem

So our staff took every possible measure to protect him from his (many) triggers (no one could approach him & we gave him a special corner behind a screen). The staff was also instructed to privilege ‘field behaviour therapy’ exercises over the regular puppy schedule.

I even arranged for a temperament test at the Vet faculty at the University. Their findings matched ours, but, when the owners felt the test had gone very well.

What went through the owners’ mind?

I think it was hard for them to be confronted with the fact that their pup could have special needs (see Dr. Jens’ excellent post).

Where is that dog now?

We don’t know what’s happened to that pup. The owners didn’t stay in touch after their puppy course. My sad prognosis is that this dog will develop severe aggression issues around the 8-9 month margin, and that the rehabilitation work will be so daunting by then that he might be surrendered to a shelter. I hope I am wrong.

The shepherd cross with a serious bite history

Again, the form for this dog showed no hint of an aggression problem. This despite the fact that the dog in question had a rich history of severe bites (to humans) to her name.

This dog was particularly hard to read on the field and appeared shutdown. She opened up occasionally during his first lesson, but something was not right. Our suspicions were confirmed during question time, when the owner asked what to do about the aggression issue.

I still cannot believe that this dog owner thought it morally acceptable to hide a known aggression problem, thus putting my staff in danger.

What went through his head?

When I addressed the issue, the owner explained that he’d wanted help and he was worried that if he told the truth on the form, he wouldn’t get it. So he waited until he had a foot in the door to come clean.

What happened with the dog?

We converted the group lessons to an urgent behaviour evaluation consult, which revealed so many bite incidents that I ran out of paper! I referred this case out to a veterinary colleague. After a while in therapy, the owner saw that the dog was unlikely to be rehabilitated into a safe and happy city dog, and the dog was put down.

The Akita who wanted the other student-dogs dead

This dog arrived as a 6 month-old at the school. Again, the form was all blue skies and sunny days. We immediately spotted the issue as he singled out another dog and proceeded to hard-stare at him, every muscle coiled up and ready for (predatory) action.

We tactfully explained the red flags to the owners and proceeded to adopt some safety precautions (which the owners seem to find terminally silly).

These measures, despite being applied with tact, left the owners feeling singled out of course. So if you plan on having your dog-aggressive dog in group class, prepare for an uncomfortable time.

What had gone through the owners’ mind?

The Akita’s owners, had gone to a husky pup from a large-scale breeder. The breeder said they’d ‘run out’ of huskies but could sell them a dog that ‘looked the same’: a 5-month old  Akita (male).

So the breeder flogged a dog:

  • in the middle of his fear/aggression phase,
  • of a breed that had recently landed on a government list for high-risk breeds (thus increasing the owners’ legal liability and bad reputation burden),
  • and a breed known to require experienced owners

to an unsuspecting family.

My thoughts on the breeder

The family themselves saw their dog as a teddy bear (which he was, to them). They also thought the dog-dog aggression was normal for dogs.

What happened to the dog?

I held a dog behaviour evaluation consult with them and I explained the risks of the situation, the likelihood of success of improving particular character traits, and the safety measures required (by then, he had attacked another dog who needed veterinary attention as a result).

They were concerned about the information, but it did not rouse them into further action, as far as I know. They disappeared off the radar.

My prognosis is this: I would be surprised if the dog hasn’t been involved in more bite incidents yet, including to people.

The ‘protective’ shepherd mix

Imagine the form.

  • Aggression? No.
  • Behaviour problem? No.
  • Objectives? He can be ‘protective’ when strangers try to approach his owners and they’d like to address that (during an obedience course…).

“Don’t mind him. He’s just being a little protective”

What happened?

I asked for more details. It turns out the dog has always had stranger-directed fear aggression, and that it was getting worse. Thankfully, the dog didn’t have a bite history to his name (yet). I treated the dog in behaviour therapy and he is doing much better. Also, the owners are sticking to the safety precautions.

What do we mean with ‘dog aggression’?

Sure every dog can snap and bite once in a while. We all have our limits.

But for dogs to attend a group class, they need to be able to be comfortable in the vicinity of other, unknown dogs and people.

‘Aggression’ becomes relevant when you apply for a spot at a dog training school if it means your dog can’t be relaxed, happy and comfortable during group lessons.

We screen for issues that are likely to lead to defensive and stressed out dogs during class. And issues that could make our staff, students, and their dogs into potential targets.

Why don’t we let the dogs in at the dog training school who need it the most?

If your dog stiffens, stares, snarls, growls, barks aggressively or bites at people of dogs in a daily situation, giving it benign names won’t resolve it, on the contrary.

Failing to disclose the problem when you register for a dog training school is like failing to disclose that your child has profound autism and hoping that the local school will ‘fix’ it.

Dog training schools help you raise (‘opvoeden’ in Dutch) your dog (like teaching a solid sit or not to jump when saying hello). They do not treat behaviour problems (emotional dysregulation like excessive fear, anger or excitement).

We have a whole handout explaining the difference if you’re interested.

Behaviour or education problem?

Of course, there are gray areas. Take these two examples:

  • A dog has a behaviour problem that forms no safety or animal welfare issue in group class. e.g. separation panic
  • The problem is benign and responds well to ‘behavioural first aid’ measures (quick advice dispensed by dog training staff after a group lesson)

Conclusion

So why can’t the dog training school help me with my dog’s behaviour problem. Are they being difficult?

No. It’s about:

  • Sensitisation: Often, putting the dog in the problem situation (e.g. other dogs) will make things worse, rather than better.
  • Safety: You could be endangering my staff and students. Do you want it on your conscience that someone got wounded, or that a dog got traumatized, because you failed to disclose a known problem?
  • Liability: By putting your dog in a triggering situation, you could add a bite incident to his rap sheet. This has long-term consequences for a dog.
  • Effectiveness: The few minutes a group trainer can give you after class is unlikely to achieve much, particularly if the problem is profound.

So we are not being inflexible or stingy. We really need for you to be open and forthright on the form so we can help you better.

References

Illustration credits

(in order of appearance)

Posted in Dog behaviour, Dogs and society | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Limo’s bucket list: Why is my dog behaving that way?

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague: on the many factors that lead to ‘misbehaviour’ in dogs.
Written in: August 2018.

Privacy: Details and photos shared with explicit permission from the owners. Important details where changed so the owners could not be recognized.
Illustration credits: all photos are my own. All rights reserved

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Why does my dog behave like that?

Meet Limo, a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen. I saw him in consult the other day.

Why did they ask for help?

1. Limo goes beserk when he as much as smells another dog outside. Sometimes, he oddly doesn’t seem to see them coming and only reacts (hysterically) when they are right next to him.
2. He has bitten his owners and guests several times when touched whilst on the couch. They think it’s territorial aggression, but he’s perfectly happy letting them approach when he rests there, provided he is facing them and awake.
3. He is friends with the mother-in-law’s dog, who frequently visits, at all times except when his owners approach the guest dog. He then blocks his passage and drives him to the garden.
4. He is nervous, flighty and can get aggressive in the presence of children

The owners suspected territorial aggression for the couch/chair stuff, and jealousy when it came to the other dog and kids.

But I wanted to dig deeper, so we had a detailed conversation. Without digging deeper into what is causing, exacerbating and maintaining the behaviour, I might as well let the dog eat whatever homework I prescribe.

The dog behaviour bucket

It turned out that, as usual, the problems were multi-factorial: many things had contributed.

I like to explain multi-factoriality to my clients by drawing an overflowing bucket, each incoming drop representing one factor. This was LIMO’s bucket:

This was Limo’s “bucket list”:

1. A history of being pushed and shoved off the couch
2. Suspected sensory problems (hearing)
3. Possessive aggression (with owners as resource)
4. A traumatic first encounter with another non-related dog aged 14 weeks
5. No systematic socialisation to other dogs or to children
6. A fearful temperament (already as a young pup)
7. A Type-A coping style with stressful events (act first, assume the worst)
8. Stress signals being ignored
9. Reaching social maturity
10. Suspected hearing problems. We are having the vet check this.
11. Fear as the underlying emotional motivation for biting on the couch and other dogs.
12. Jealousy (exacerbated to possessive aggression level) for keeping dog #2 away

A custom-made dog behaviour program

I was able to draft a behaviour plan that drew on Limo’s bucket list.

We’ll be doing a BAT derivative, focusing on his problem with dogs at first, and gradually expanding to his other triggers, including kids.

In terms of Behavioural First Aid (survival advice I give when I walk out the door, to tide them over until my next visit), I left them with these recommendations:
1. Avoid negative exposures to the triggers for now, with the logistical forethought and planning to go with this
2. Good ole cognitive feeding
3. Reward and honour his stress signals.

As for his mother-in-law’s dog, not all dogs can be expected to welcome other dogs with open paws, and I advised they seek an alternative solution next time mother-in-law comes to town.

As usual, let’s see what a few weeks of this will do, and then re-group.

Resources on the etiology of dog behaviour problems

Posted in Dog behaviour | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fraudulent Service Dogs

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague: on the harm of dropping standards for assistance dogs.
Written in: July 2018.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Service dog harnesses for sale

I was just called an ableist on Facebook for expressing my outrage at the on-line sale of service dog harnesses. It could be that I poorly formulated my post, so I am going to try in long form instead.

This is the advert that triggered me. 7 euro for a service dog harness of any size or colour, on Wish.com. It casually popped up on my Facebook feed.

That advert became a sore reminder of how easily you can pass your dog as a service dog.

Fake service dogs: real-life situations

  1. A client shows up to her first basic obedience class at our dog training school in The Hague (OhMyDog!) wearing a service dog vest. The dog couldn’t t sit on command and jumped on every passerby, but it took the bus to our school wearing a Service Dog harness.
  2. A candidate trainer wants to bring his dog to work. I say no (school policy: it gets in the way of business). He unconvincingly mumbled something along the lines of “It is a Service Dog” It wasn’t. The dog just hated staying home alone.
  3. I get a mail titled “aggressive Service Dog” from a family who bought a random dog on Marktplaats (the Dutch equivalent of e-Bay) on the advice of their autistic child’s psychologist. The issue? Growling at the child.
  4. A friend who does not want her dog to travel in the hold when they fly back and forth to the US bought a Service Dog vest. Yes, I gave her a piece of my mind.
  5. A friend who is too scared to walk to her desk because of her colleague’s aggressive ‘Service Dog’
  6. A client who wants people to give their reactive dog space, so who had a Service Dog harness made.
  7. A client who insisted on bringing her barky, stranger-aggressive dog, with her to the office and who, when told this was getting to be a problem, threatened her office manager to have it registered as a Service Dog so they would have to say yes.
  8. etc. etc. etc.

And these are just the ones that come to mind…

Service Dog versus Emotional Support dog

A Service Dog is an animal trained to perform specific assistance tasks. Their behaviour must meet minimum acceptable standards if they circulate in the public arena: house-trained, not cause a noise nuisance, not aggressive, etc.

Emotional Support Dogs provide the following service: emotional support. It can be a beneficial partnership for people suffering from anxiety-related mental health issues, for example. These dogs are not trained to perform specific assistance tasks. Nor do they enjoy anywhere near as much legal protection as Service Dogs.

Service Dog temperament

Service Dogs enjoy more legal protection and wider access because the standards for their behaviour is higher. Much higher than what the average dog can achieve. I haven’t owned a single dog who could be trained into a successful Service Dog.

Can your dog stay focused with a screaming kid, a running cat, a passing skateboarder? Will he freak out with a sudden noise or if a dog gets too close? Can he ‘park’ himself quietly and durably in a restaurant?

Guide dog organizations, THE specialists in service dog training, have been working on genetic selection programs for the ideal temperament and even these are far from 100% successful. Never mind picking a random dog on e-Bay because he looks cute.

Sure rehomed dogs can make successful service dogs if they are temperamentally suited, but a lot of thought needs to go into the selection process.

Service Dog training

Training a reliable Service Dog to proficiency takes hours of training every week, perfected over months, sometimes years.

Service Dog training organisations offer this type of specialist training, but it often costs a bunch. A single dog can be worth twenty thousand euros.

This isn’t affordable to most people, so other formulas exist, like:

  1. Co-trained Service Dogs: A professional organisation & the owner share the burden of training; and
  2. Owner-trained Service Dogs: The owner alone is responsible for the training.

There are huge differences in the training abilities of different individual organisations, so an organisation-trained dog is not a guarantee. Nor are owner-trained Service Dogs guaranteed to be failures.

But the different formulas blur the legitimacy issue further. It’s not as simple as saying only organisation-trained service dogs therefore he is legitimate.

Service Dog legitimacy: what is the legal situation?

As far as I know, you are not allowed to ask for a certificate attesting to the dog’s status (in the US, at least). This is in relation to right to privacy. Nor does a handler have to carry the dog’s papers with them, or have the dog wear an identifying harness.

If you have doubts, I believe you are allowed to ask what the animal is trained to perform. This seems a much bigger invasion of privacy, but maybe that’s just me.

As a business owner, you are also allowed to refuse access if the dog’s behaviour is disruptive or “getting in the way of business”. So, behaviour can be a quick lithmus test of a Service Dog’s legitimacy. It also determines whether your refusing access is illegal discrimination or a reasonable request.

Fraudulent Service Dogs: my outrage

The blurry status situation has opened the door to all sorts of fraudulent claims and abuses.

There is an increasing tendency for demanding access to poorly socialized, badly behaved, and poorly performing dogs by playing the Service Dog card.

What outrages me about this abuse? Handlers of bona fide Service Dogs are increasingly questioned and refused access because of it. People with no visible disability are particularly affected by this.

Slapping a Service Dog harness on a dog willy-nilly is worse than taking a handicapped parking spot. I have so much respect for the legitimacy of Service Dogs that it felt to me as of Wish.com was selling driver’s licenses.

Further reading and listening

Illustration credits

 

Posted in Dogs and society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tough choice for your dog: medical or mental health?

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague: on the psychological damage of painful medical treatment.
Privacy and safety: Out of respect for their privacy, I do not share the name of the colleagues with whom I discussed  my dog’s case. I also do not share the names of the behaviour medication used as I am not a veterinarian and each case is different.
Written in: July 2018.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.I am so proud of my dog!

When an ear infection can mean the end

I cracked the other day. I called a friend, in tears, contemplating the worst for my dog.

I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t keep sabotaging my dog’s painfully slow (behavioural) treatment with frequent painful (veterinary) treatment.

My big crisis? My dog stared at my hand and pulled back when I tried to put medication in his ear canal. This was the first time he refused treatment by us in months.

The veterinarian’s perspective

The vets were confused by the idea of a fear-free approach to medical treatment.

They often mistook my reluctance to push him past his limits with spoiling or over-protecting him. They mistook his growling and desperate escape attempts for ‘bad’ behaviour.

They make the point that: “Treatment needs to happen. Nobody likes it. Grit your teeth and get it over with.”

The behaviourist’s perspective

A dog with established fear- or pain aggression, of all dogs, must be kept “below threshold” during medical treatment. You must keep the level of Fear-Anxiety-Stress so low that it won’t poison him against his next vet treatment, making matters 1,000,000 times worse.

Unpleasant memories with treatment isn’t such a big deal for dogs who visit the vet’s twice a year – although, as a behaviourist, I even disagree with that. But patients with chronic conditions can become so averse to treatment that euthanasia becomes a serious option.

A tough choice: mental or medical health?

So I cried. After months of behaviour work to fix his aversion to vet treatment, my dog was pulling back again. And consistently so.

I was caught between a rock and a hard place: either I’d grit my teeth and undo months of behaviour work, or I’d neglect a  health issue that could turn nasty.

Low stress veterinary handling

All things considered, my dog is actually a great patient. At least in our home. We’ve come a long way since the days he would growl at us for just looking down at his paw.

Now, he’ll stay relaxed and engaged when:

  • We smear painful sores on his paws
  • He sits through a 15-minute medicated bath.
  • He gets an injection.
  • We manipulate his ears.

It took months of patience and pretty much all the low stress handling and fear free veterinary treatment tools in the box, but my husband and I taught him:

  • A word for each treatment, so he could see it coming.
  • To tell us when something was getting to be too much, so we could take a break.
  • To stretch his comfort zone to even more invasive treatments.
  • To position himself so he could be involved in the process.

He was also, slowly but surely, getting more relaxed at the vet clinic and with the vet staff.

You can’t train a dog to like pain

We’d achieved so much that it hadn’t crossed my mind there could be limits.

I seriously expected him to lean into the pain with his latest painful otitis.

Looking at it from a distance, it is actually crazy how docile many pets are when undergoing even painful treatment. Think about this: The have no idea that it’s for their own good. Let that sink in for a minute.

It took me ridiculously long to realize that I could practice as often as I’d like, I would never train a dog to love pain.

After days of trying to treat the ear below threshold, we were getting nowhere on the medical treatment and he was pulling back from his other treatments too.

It pays to have friends in the dog biz

So there I sat. On the floor. With my bottle of ear meds in my hand. Angry at myself for not having been able to ‘train’ this. Angry at the dog for all the time we’d sunk into this. Angry at my husband for husbands are there to be blamed.

I called a friend in tears and said:

  • If I can’t prevent him sensitizing against treatment again, are we headed for the bad old days again?
  • How are we going to keep up with the daily treatment and preserve our behavioural progress?
  • What is going to happen to his still ineffectively treated ear infection?
  • What good has all that behaviour modification been if it comes crumbling as soon as things get real?

We talked it through and I felt a little better, but I still hadn’t solved the behaviour-medical health conundrum.

The next day, I reached out to dog pro friends to get some perspective:

  1. a trainer,
  2. a vet nurse, and
  3. a behaviour-savvy vet.
  4. I am also lucky  enough to be friends with The Netherlands’ only board-certified veterinary behaviourist, Valerie Jonckheer-Sheehy (DVM, EBVS) so I got some gold advice there.
  5. And of course, I touched base with the vet in charge of his treatment at the excellent Wateringseveld fear-free veterinary clinic.

That was as bunch of conversations but it was worth it. A strategy was starting to form. It turns out that just changing a couple of things got us back on track.

Pain without trauma: the strategy

The idea is to surround the moment of pain with a sea of tranquility. You don’t entirely give up on your fear-free oath, but you don’t let it get in the way of treatment.

Here’s how we broke the vicious cycle (note that every dog is different):

  • Carry out the session as you would any low stress handling session (food, warning word, minimum restraint, maximum choice, etc.) but be resolute and quick.
  • As you apply the treatment, give tons of treats (Not after. At the same time). And use his absolute favorite. We’re talking ostrich steak here.
  • Don’t drag it out with unnecessary prep sessions. If you’ve done your homework before, he’ll be desensitized to all the steps leading up to the pain. No need to rehearse this again and again before applying pain. Just get it done.
  • Contemplate using a muzzle (if your dog is muzzle-trained!). Your fear of getting bitten might be making you nervous, and therefore getting in the way.
  • Do a few rehearsals of the treatment immediately afterwards (not up to the pain point, of course), and couple them with treats as usual.
  • If your veterinary behaviourist or veterinarian approves, contemplate a light painkiller before the treatment. Particularly if the treatment is only short-term.
  • Ask your veterinarian (or veterinary behaviourist) about medication that keeps the fear/anxiety/stress under control.

I’ve tried this over the past two days and we are getting solid results: he stays relaxed during treatment, and does not seem to sensitize afterwards.

So it turns out I don’t have to view behaviour modification as the enemy of vet treatment. With a bit of flexibility, they can still work hand in hand.

Posted in Dog behaviour, Veterinary care and canine first aid | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Case study: French bulldog with noise phobia

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague: case study on dog-dog aggression due to frustrated greeting.
Privacy: Essential details have been changed in the story, to avoid the owners being recognized. The details and photo were shared with explicit permission from the owners. [shared with explicit owner permission]
Written in: July 2018.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Dog behaviour problem: background diagnosis

Meet Mr. X. He is a 14-months-old French bulldog I’ve recently seen in behaviour therapy. He was referred to me by a veterinary clinic for his pervasive fears.

French bulldog

Upon closer questioning, it turns out he does not have a fear problem in the broad sense of the term. He is actually bombproof about everything. Everything except for, well, bombs.

He panics at sudden sounds: a mug falling on the floor, a passing car, a moped back-firing.

He doesn’t just startle, he really panics. We’re talking crawling or running to the nearest hiding place, cherry eyes, shrieking. If you try to restrain him in these moments, he’ll frantically try to escape, come what may.

The issue is that it is affecting his walks as he’ll need time to settle after a scare and there aren’t enough noise-free moments in the city for him to recover. This is what gives him the presentation of an agoraphobic or generalized anxiety patient.

His owners want to first give med-free behaviour therapy a try before considering a vet behaviourist route.

Dog behaviour problem: etiology (causal factors)

Many factors have contributed to the problem:

  1. Genetics: his mother suffers from the same condition
  2. The dog appears to be more prone, more sensitive, after being overstimulated (e.g. market day)
  3. A few months back, the problem dramatically worsened after someone threw fireworks at the dog!
  4. Chronic ear infections: the pain and discomfort alone can decrease a dog’s irritability and fear threshold and put the dog in a state of chronic stress, but it may be something mechanical is at play too. Some ear infections lead to an over-sensitivity to sound.

Dog behaviour advice

  1. Desensitisation and counterconditioning (D&C) protocol to sudden sounds, with specific instructions on how to make the later stages as realistic as possible (see Punk your dog).
  2. Take him in the car (he loves the car) to the woods, rather than walking there via busy streets.
  3. Cognitive feeding: because this calms every dog down (a bit) on every level, it is fun, and it costs nothing
  4. Avoid above-threshold noise exposures as much as possible, and compensate each unfortunate exposure with 10 D&C moments.

Dog behaviour prognosis

I demonstrated the exercises and left detailed handouts behind and asked them to try this for six weeks, then see me again for a re-evaluation. If the dog is not making suitable progress, then I will refer to the veterinary behaviourist.

Photo credits

Photo: Canis bonus

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Case study: dog-dog aggression through frustrated greeting

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague: case study on dog-dog aggression due to frustrated greeting.
Privacy: Essential details have been changed in the story, to avoid the owners being recognized. The details and photo were shared with explicit permission from the owners.
Written in: July 2018.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Dog behaviour problem: background diagnosis

Check out this beautiful girl! She is a 14-months-old Labrador-Border Collie mix I’ve recently seen in behaviour therapy.

She is incredibly sociable to people; strangers and family alike. In fact, she was so happy to see me, a total stranger, that she immediately wriggled close to me for a cuddle and happily offered me her ball to play within two seconds of meeting me.

Her biggest problem is “frustrated greeting”: lunging on the leash when she sees another dog. She isn’t the most subtle social partner on a doggie playdate off the leash either. She is touchy, overbearing and rough. This had become an issue recently.

Thankfully, she hadn’t ever caused damage to the other dog and her aggressive bouts had stayed in the realm of: Big show of teeth, zero damage.

Dog behaviour problem: etiology (causal factors)

Many factors have contributed to the problem:

  1. A (very) excitable temperament
  2. Systematically being interrupted when trying starting lick other dog’s scent on the ground into her vomeronasal organ (the bit of the dog’s palate responsible for processing pheromones)
  3. A generally low tolerance to frustration
  4. Reaching social maturity (aaaah, adolescence)
  5. Inabity to thoroughly socialize with other dogs during her sensitive puppy period (she got Leptospirosis 😮 and barely survived: the breeder hadn’t had her vaccinated!!!)

Dog behaviour advice

  1. Organise lots of playdates with dogs with whom she gets on, to refine her social skills.
  2. Never allow onleash greetings, to break the cycle of hope-disappointment when she spots another dog (and commonsense safety advice).
  3. A derivative of the BAT training protocol, to teach her to pass onleash dogs gracefully and calmly.
  4. Frustration training games at home, to improve her impulse control and gradually increase her tolerance to frustration.
  5. Cognitive feeding instead of ‘freeloading’, to tire her out and mentally stimulate her.
  6. Let – her – sniff the world on a walk, to decrease the countless unnecessary frustration moments she endures on a walk.

Dog behaviour prognosis

I demonstrated the exercises, left detailed handouts behind. The family seemed on board and understood the reasoning behind the advice.

Let’s see what a few weeks of this brings us!

Photo credits

Photo: Courtesy of Richard Wagenaar, photographer.

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Scaredy dogs: the two fear periods

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague, explaining dogs’ two fear periods.
Privacy: Essential details have been changed in the story, to avoid the owners being recognized
Written in: June 2018.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Call the 911: it’s a wheelie bin!

Spot, a 4 months old Border Collie cross, had never been scared of anything. He loved everything and everyone. In fact, he was driving me, his puppy class instructor, to desperation as he was so unflappable he didn’t even notice the mildly ‘stressful’ situations we were teaching him to cope with.

Still, I wasn’t surprised when his owner, Wendy called to say that she thought Spot might have a behaviour disorder. Spot was such a perfect dog that we could see Wendy was getting a little complacent on socialisation and habituation exercises. We didn’t seem to get through when we were telling her: He loves the vet now, we believe you. And that is precisely why now is the best time to take him to the vet’s for great experiences, again and again. He’ll change a lot come adolescence and then you’ll be thankful you gave him a ton of positive experiences at the vet’s to buffer for what’s to come.

Fast forward to a 4 months old Spot and, not only had he become petrified of the vet’s (and started growling at the vet staff, to Wendy’s embarrassment), but he suddenly started to balk at objects he’d seen all his life, like the wheelie bins on the street corner. He used to be crazy about Tom-the-neighbour and now, Spot acts like he’s a serial killer.

Whatever had happened to Mr. Unflappable?… His second fear period.

Dogs’ fear periods: what’s the point of them?

Dogs are, like us and most mammals, an altricial species. That means that their parents – at least their mom, in the case of dogs – take care of them after birth and don’t leave them to their own devices.

Just after birth, canine – and human – puppies leave the job of danger detection to the parent in charge. Ever noticed how babies aren’t scared of heights or fire? They’re more likely to see a lion as a fluffy stuffed toy than a predator. It’s the same with dogs. As they explore further and further from the litter, though, they need to start getting a sense of danger. Don’t do that, and you’ll be fluffy lion’s next lunch.

As a general rule, the more independent they get, the more cautious they become about the unfamiliar. There are two phases of a dog’s life during which fear gets a boost. During these periods, one half-nasty startle can be enough to create a lifelong phobia.

Dogs’ fear periods: when are they?

These two phases correspond to boosts in independence from their caregiver.

  1. Between approximately 8 and approximately 11 weeks,
  2. At repeat intervals, between 4 and… 18 months! That second fear phase is not continuous, thankfully.

Dogs’ fear periods: what can I do?

The best you can do is:

  • Keep up with gentle socialisation (don’t push them in at the deep end) and
  • If you notice that your dog has already developed a problem towards something specific (like Spot and the wheelie bins), then try OhMyDog!’s (dog training school in The Hague) Make me brave protocol.

Interested in the nerdy details behind a puppy’s developmental periods? Read on.

Dog’s developmental periods: the complete details

  1. Neonatal period, 0 to 2 weeks: From the age of 0 to 2 weeks, they can’t move much anyways. They can’t see and they can barely wriggle. Absolute zero sense of danger. Tip for predators: if you want yourself an easy meal, now’s the time.
  2. Transitional period, 2 to 3-4 weeks: Their eyes open and they take their first steps. It’s the start of that oh-so-cute clumsy puppy walk. Still not much of a fear response. Top tip for predators: still an easy lunch, and a little bit fatter than last week.
  3. Socialisation period, 3-4 to 12-15 weeks
    1. Primary socialisation period: 3-4 to 5-7 weeks

      1. Awareness begins, 21-22 days: They become aware of their non-social environment. They take in the sights, feels, scents and sounds around them: the surfaces they walk on, and the household sounds they hear. Still no fear. Whatever you expose them to now will start to be classified as normal and safe stuff. Now’s the time to slowly introduce new textures and sounds into their environment. Beware though: no sudden change of environment right now. This could be hugely detrimental.
      2. Socialisation to other dogs, 3-5 weeks: They start interacting more consciously with their litter mates and mother, and imprint dogs as co-specifics: they learn that dogs are social companions, neither predator nor prey.
        1. They learn impulse and bite control from their mom who has started to chastise them if they hurt her with their needle-sharp teeth.
        2. They practice the whole shebang of canine social interactions through play with their litter mates.
        3. They (start to) learn to eliminate far from sleeping quarters
      3. 5-7 weeks = curiosity period. Pups are extremely curious and appear scared of nothing. “Hello, lion! Can I play with your mane?”
        1. Around 4-8 weeks, the mother weans the puppies. This is instrumental in teaching puppies to cope with frustration.
      4. Secondary socialisation period: 7-8 to 12-15 weeks
        1. This is the period where they learn that humans are also social partners.
          1. This period is considered the golden period of socialisation. This is the period that we want to cash in on to expose the dog to as many situations as possible, so he becomes bombproof later in life. Beware, though: do not overwhelm the pup in the name of socialisation: this achieves the exact opposite effect. Why is it a golden period? Because it corresponds with a peak in learning abilities. Learning = associating situations, people and objects with an appropriate emotional response. In other words, the pup is a sponge at this age and whatever he repeatedly encounters that is not scary or painful is getting stored as a safe situation in his long-term circuitry. Want him to trust the vet’s? Strangers? Kids? Wheelchairs? People with hats? Loud passing trams? Public transport? Car travel? Get on the road already!
          2. Socialisation-wise, 8-10 weeks is a good age to rehome the puppies to their permanent home. If you have a choice, privilege leaving the pup until 10-11 weeks with his mother and littermates, though. This is to do with the fear imprint period (see below) and teaching him impulse control. If you choose for this option, be sure that the breeder is serious in his or her socialisation efforts.
        2. The fear imprint period, 8 to 11 weeks: Because they are learning so fast and so profoundly, a traumatic encounter at this stage can have life-long repercussions. So do not push them in at the deep end, or you’ll be paying for it the rest of the dog’s life. This means:
          1. Avoid long and potentially traumatic trips – so much for the truckloads of Romanian puppies.
          2. Postpone any non urgent surgery or medical procedure.
        3. The ranking period, From about 10 weeks to 4 months: This is where they learn to stand up for themselves and try their paws at conflict resolution. They are no longer the pliable, happy-go-lucky puppy towards their littermates as they learn to become more willful. The puppy is trying to carve a spot for himself in the world.
  4. Juvenile and adolescent period, 4 to 13-18 months: This is when your pup is starting to become a grown up (socially speaking. For some breeds, there’s still plenty of physical growing to be done).
    1. The ranking period continues (during his 4th month): This time, his pig-headedness is towards you. At that stage, it can feel like they have carrots in their ears as your previously compliant puppy suddenly seems deaf to your requests. The best you can do is keep your cool and stay consistent. “Sure, puppy, you can whinge and whine, but I am NOT opening that door until you sit quietly. I have all day.”
    2. The flight instinct period (4 to 8 months): This is when a pup becomes drunk on freedom. A pup with a previously perfect recall suddenly takes off to explore the world and comes back when he damned well pleases. This is when, for some dogs, it is advised to re-start working on the recall, but with a long leash this time. He might also start chewing a lot more so give him plenty of legitimate outlets or your furniture might take a beating.
    3. The second fear period (6 to 14-18 months): This is not so much one continuous period as a series of short periods popping up once in a while. This is when you might start seeing territoriality rear its ugly head (stranger = very much danger in the dog’s mind, particularly on his home turf).

It can get really confusing as some of these are milestones and others are periods, and there are sub-phases that span over two periods. To make things worse, the start and end of these periods are approximations, particularly at the later end of the spectrum (with, in general, larger breeds being later bloomers). Here is my attempt at simplifying it by presenting it visually:

 

Illustration credits

  • Wheelie bins: By blue budgie, downloaded from Pixabay. License: CC0 (no modifications made).
  • Developmental periods chart: By Laure-Anne Visele, 8 June 2018. All rights reserved.
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Dog fear: sensitisation and reactivity thresholds

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague, explaining sensitisation and reactivity thresholds.

Privacy: Essential details have been changed in the story, to avoid the owners being recognized
Written in: June 2018.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Scared dog: push him in at the deep end?

I had the most touching Chihuahua appointment the other week. Three months ago, Cindy and Eddy had rescue Little Sam from terrible neglect: he’d lived in a backyard the first five years of his life! He was five years old by the time he started to get a life. And it wasn’t much of a life as he was scared of everything except for Cindy (his – female – owner).

From day one, he crawled up to Cindy’s neck, and stayed glued there every chance he got. Cindy’s neck had become his only safe haven.

He was scared of everything: cars, passersby, noises and, particularly strongly, men. He was even scared of Eddy, and would scamper each time Eddy even moved. Not exactly practical, considering Eddy spent most of his time with the dog whilst Cindy worked.

Cindy and Eddy got advice from the man-on-the-street (who’s had dogs for 25 years, you understand): force Sam to face his fear and he’ll get used to it. The result was the thoroughly traumatised dog I saw the other day.

So what was wrong with this approach?

When a dog is too scared to ‘get used to it’

The reason Average Joe’s dog does eventually get used to things, and not Little Sam, is that Sam is faaaar too far gone. His fear is way too strong for forced exposure to do him any good.

He considers Eddy to be a mortal danger. No way is he going to think back to the countless times he ‘survived’ Eddy without a scratch and conclude it wasn’t so bad. He is more likely to chalk it down to another lucky escape.

Imagine that you’re scared of spiders and that your mom, in her infinite wisdom, tosses a bunch of spiders in your bed every night so you can ‘get used to them’. In all likelihood, your arachnophobia would get much worse AND you would also start being scared of your bed sheets and the sound of steps on the stairs. Worst of all, you’d also start distrusting your mom.

Fearful dogs: avoidance is best at first

Most dogs do get used to something they’re not too crazy about after they experience it a lot. But this only works with mild stresses, not with a full-blown fear.

What we do for phobic dogs is avoid any exposure to the stressor for a few weeks if we can. That can be tricky, as most of us don’t live in a lab and Eddy wasn’t inclined to go live in the caravan for a few weeks – as I’d even (jokingly) suggested during the consult.

The trick then, was about keeping Little Sam ‘below threshold’ in Eddy’s presence. The dog isn’t scared of Eddy. He is scared of Eddy approaching him, facing him, bending over him, cornering him, etc. So we listed all of Eddy’s actions that the dog was scared of, and found management solutions to avoid exposing the dog to them.

A scared dog: two thresholds

A fear will get worse not only under (1) the reactivity threshold (the dog has an overt reaction to the trigger, like scampering, barking or biting); but also under  the (2) sensitivity threshold (the dog finds the situation unpleasant enough that he stores it as negative for future reference. Result? The dog is primed to react negatively at the next exposure).

To stop the downward spiral of fear, not only did Eddy need to avoid situations which led the dog to an outright panic, but also situations that led him to sensitize.

The sweet spot is a level of exposure at which the dog WILL get used to it. It is the intensity zone at which the dog notices, but does not mind (with thanks to Temple Grandin for this pithy turn of phrase).

We do want the dog to see Eddy – there is little point in distracting him all the time, or avoiding the situation forever – but we want him to do so at such a distance or intensity that he doesn’t re-classifies the exposure as neutral, if not downright positive.

We tested Little Sam’s reaction and made a list of Eddy’s movements and actions that triggered a flight reaction (reactivity threshold breach) and even the ones that triggered a stress reaction (sensitivity threshold).

A dog drowning in fear

If you want to visualize it, check out Grisha Stewart’s Stress and Support Scale (cannot be shared on this post for copyright reasons). Her analogy is brilliant.

  • Green zone: The dog is on the beach: the dog does not notice the normally fear-eliciting trigger, or
  • Blue zone: The dog’s toes are in the water: he notices, but does not mind.
  • Brown & orange zone: The dog is treading deeper waters, but his head is still out of the water. It becomes hard to get through to the dog, and the dog does not appear capable of processing information clearly and calmly. The dog is hypervigilant.
  • Red zone: The dog is ‘drowning’. He is frantically trying to get out of the situation, come what may. This could involve flight or fight attempts.

Anything from the brown zone and beyond, and you are breaching the sensitivity threshold (making it worse with each exposure).

Anything from the red zone onward, and you are breaching the reactivity threshold (the dog is barking, lunging, scampering, etc.).

What if Eddy tried to give food to the dog?

This idea is akin to a technique we call counter-conditioning (giving the dog food in a situation he hates, in the hope of changing the dog’s mind about the situation).

Eddy had tried this a lot.

Result? The dog would get so freaked out by Eddy just bending over, that he’d hide under the cupboard for hours afterwards.

Even if Little Sam was a foodie, he would only (occasionally) accept food from Eddy whilst stretching himself as much as possible, ready to flee at Eddy’s slightest movement. This sort of hypervigilant experience is not helping the dog get used to it. He is still right in the sensitisation zone, and such exposures are liable to make the fear worse, not better.

What now?

After a few days of just this – no training, no fancy protocol, nothing. Just avoidance – the owners have got back to me to confirm that the dog is getting bolder and bolder every day!

Of course it won’t be enough to entirely fix this issue, and we will probably need some further behaviour therapy, but at least the dog has stopped getting worse. We have broken the vicious cycle of sensitisation.

Illustration credits

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Dog training: classical versus operant conditio-what now?

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague, cracking the old chestnut of operant versus classical conditioning and why it matters.
Written in: June 2018.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Certified dog trainer

I was preparing one of my trainers to take over from a more senior trainer who is leaving the school when it dawned on me that she had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned operant vs. classical conditioning. I was in shock. This was a certified dog trainer I was talking to.

It got me thinking. Is it really that important or was I being a science snob? It turns out it really really really (really really) is important – which doesn’t take away from the fact that I can be a huge pedant. How common is this confusion among dog trainers? It turns out it is really really really (really really) common.

Classical versus operant conditioning: an explanation

So what’s it about, then?

Conditioning = the science of how animals (from sea slugs to us, via dogs) learn. And learning is about making connections.

Classical conditioning is about unconscious, reflex-like connections. A dog who has learnt that:

  • The doorbell predicts visitors.
  • The opening of his tin of food predicts he’s about to be fed.
  • The jingling of the leash predicts he’s about to go for a walk.

Classical conditioning can get devilishly complicated, with the laws governing fear desensitisation/sensitisation, habituation, etc.

Ivan Pavlov

Classical conditioning is often called Pavlovian conditioning, after Pavlov’s discovery and experiments on dogs salivating at the sound of a bell that predicted they’d be fed.

Operant conditioning is about doing something, performing a behaviour, o.p.e.r.a.t.i.n.g. (see what I did there? operant – operating), to get to a desired outcome (or to avoid an unpleasant outcome). A dog who has learnt that:

  • Barking at you (operation) gets you to throw the ball (outcome).
  • Sitting when you ask him (operation) to gets him a food reward (outcome).
  • Walking (operation) into the examination room at the vet’s gets him pain (outcome).

Thorndike was a pioneer in operant conditioning, but B.F. Skinner is the flagbearer.

B.F. Skinner

Operant conditioning too can get tricky when you fall down the rabbit hole: reward ratios, extinction bursts, the quadrants (positive/negative punishment/reward), etc.

Why it matters so much in dog training?

It matters enormously, as it turns out. Here are some examples.

  • I have to know whether a problem is primarily emotionally motivated (e.g. fear). It makes no sense to hammer on trying to teach the dog a particular behaviour like sitting quietly (operant conditioning) if he is primarily motivated by fear (classical conditioning).
    • When to implement operant counterconditioning: My dog jumps on guests because he gets attention when he does. I am going to make sure he gets ZERO attention when he jumps, and a truckload when his feet are on the ground.
    • When to implement classical counterconditioning: My dog hates the vet’s office because it predicts pain. I am going to take him there a gazillion times and shower him with cookies there, without a trace of discomfort.
  • It helps you understand why you can’t ‘reward fear’. You are often advised against reassuring a scared dog because it would ‘reward its fear’. This makes no sense at all once you understand Classical vs. Operant. You can’t reward a classically formed association. Here‘s why.
  • It helps you understand the clicker (or clicker word), and how to make it effective. The clicker is a sound you make to tell the dog ‘That’s it, mate! That’s what I wanted! Here’s your reward’. You have to first classically condition the dog to the fact that the clicker sound predicts food, and then you can use it in operant conditioning, to tell the dog which behaviour (operation!) is the one yielding the reward.

Down the rabbit hole

But do you know what? I am a huge science snob and that stuff is fascinating and fundamental for its own sake. That’s why I’ve prepared a little reading list for you to go down the rabbit hole. Enjoy getting lost in the fascinating world of learning theory!

References: down the rabbit hole

Illustration credits

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Why I want behaviour therapy to become a regulated profession

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague, sharing the harms of unqualified dog behaviour advice
Written in: June 2018.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Why I want to see dog behaviour therapy become a regulated profession

It happened again: yet another unnecessarily traumatised dog

It happened again recently. I had a consult with a dog who got unnecessarily traumatised by old-fashioned methods and old wives’ tales instead of a serious treatment plan.

This dog, a street dog in the middle of his fear period, showed extreme fear from day 1 (months ago) and hasn’t much improved since, on the contrary. So much so that, with every small noise he hears in the apartment, he starts barking uncontrollably, that he can barely walk a few meters before ‘putting on the breaks’ and refusing to walk further, that he sooner crawls than walks, and that he’d rather spend time hidden away in a corner than discover the world. This has been going on for months.

This dog’s owner got these gems of advice in her search for help:

“Go to the dog training school”, they said, a choke collar will help

He was advised to go to the training school where they proceeded to press a choke collar in his hand and get him to teach the dog ‘sit’ and ‘down’.

Why that’s not the brightest idea in the book?

What does obedience have to do with fear? And how exactly will a choke collar help relieve fear?

Force the dog to confront his fear

When the a trainer took on the case 1-on-1, he advised him to force the dog to keep walking, and to actually look for problem situations to put him in. This because: “That’s how they treat agoraphobia in other countries.” The dog would “get used to it” this way.

Why that’s not the brightest idea in the book?

“Flooding”, as it’s called, can lead to even more trauma. And sure enough, the dog is now becoming fearful of his owner on top of his other issues.

The self-proclaimed therapist: snake oil, leash jerks and client-blaming

A self-proclaimed specialist, who later turned out to base their methods on a famous TV trainer’s.

a- Advised Bach flower remedies.

b- Advise the owner to ‘communicate with the leash instead of with your voice’ (upon further questioning, this turned out to be just leash jerking)

c- (When this, predictably, didn’t work) Blame the client because “not everyone has what it takes to rehabilitate a dog”

Why that’s not the brightest idea in the book?

a- As far as I can work out, expensive water hasn’t ever helped with pathological fear case, but maybe that’s just me?

c- Leash jerking would, if anything, lead to not only irritation (at best), but also fear. And, worse of all, to a further loss of trust in the person doing the leash jerking. Not exactly indicated for a dog suffering from crippling fear issues.

c- Without carefully prescribed psychopharma, no one would have been able to rehabilitate that dog. And what good can come out of blaming the client? If the client hadn’t cared enough about the dog, they wouldn’t have come to seek your (expensive) advice, right?

The man on the street: go to a pack walk

Pack walks are all the rage at the moment. Whilst they can really help with some behaviour conditions, they are most certainly woefully insufficient as the only treatment tool and they can make things much worse if the dog is stressed and fearful during the said walks.

Leave behaviour therapy to specialists

Sometimes, you have to call a cat a cat. Sometimes, a behaviour problem is a downright pathology, and it needs to be treated by qualified specialists.

What we’re going to do for the dog in question? I am advising a psychopharmacological treatment immediately (after the necessary blood works has been performed), to give the client and the dog a much needed respite from constant stress and fear. The client’s only assignment between now and when the medication starts to take hold is to do nothing except have fun with his dog, and avoid all stress and fear situations.

The ins and outs of psychopharma have now been discussed between myself and the veterinarian, because I know the limits of my professional competencies.

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