Dog behaviourist column: a day in the life

Fly-on-the-wall view of a dog behaviourist’s life
By Laure-Anne Visele, May 2015

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I help with dog behaviour problems around The Hague (Canis bonus). I am also Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague). I graduated in Zoology, and am a certified dog trainer and applied animal behaviourist.

If you live close to The Hague and are getting worried or annoyed about your dog’s behaviour, tell me about the problem. I’ll get back to you within two business days. You can always read up a little on how it works first if you’re not sure.

Dog training admin

In case you’re wondering what the day of a dog behaviourist is like, here’s what I did today:


A bloody mountain of paperwork

I wake up with a bad throat and a runny nose. Seriously? Again?! It’s the month of MAY for crying out loud. Note to self: get an allergy test.

My husband is doing over the school run today, and the dog walker is due any minute. Which means that I get to hit snooze a couple of times for once before the usual dash begins.

I start out by sorting out a mountain of paperwork for the dog training school (OhMyDog! in The Hague.) Sure enough, there is more than I thought and I get caught up.

So much for my hope that I could cycle to work. Ah well. I put the finishing touches to the admin and jump in the car. I make it for just a few minutes to spare for my briefing ahead of my Friday consults at the vet’s. Mmmh, no cycling means that I will need to find time to jog today if I want to get some exercise.

A Chihuahua liking the sound of his own voice


“Seriously? You don’t just bark for the hell of it? You haven’t lived”

My patient at the vet’s is a beautiful chihuahua mix with a barking problem. A bunch of evaluations later, and we know that he’s not scared, angry, or over-excited. We go through the episodes, his history and his routine and all is revealed:…

… It is self-rewarding barking. In plain English, Mr. Chihuahua likes the sound of his own voice. And he is a tad under-stimulated in his daily routine. Once we have a good grasp of what is reinforcing the behaviour, designing the training plan is a breeze. We’ll teach an alternative response to whatever makes him bark, and amp up his mental stimulation.

We go out on the street looking for stimuli (i.e. people, dogs, bicycles) so I can demonstrate the technique. He seems to be catching on very quickly, a good sign.

I just need to write a “short” report for the vet’s, then it’s off to my next consult. That sounds right in theory, but short reports are not… my forte. So I have to skip lunch with the vet techs if I want to be on time for my next appointment. Man! I was really looking forward to it… Note to self: remind J. to give me back my watch. My time management is shot without it.

Charming an introverted dog

My next consult is for a shy rescue dog with a shady past. Her owner got my number when she told how desperate she was: the dog is so scent-driven that, whenever it’s offleash, it shoots off for hours.

The owner has tried quite a few things, and does not hide her doubts that I can help. I am a last resort, she says. I deal with skepticism often in this line of work. You’d think that it’s discouraging but on the contrary, it boosts my determination to get her results. Am stubborn like that.

First things first, let’s see how that dog’s ‘checking in’ ability is (i.e. making eye contact with the owner regularly). Mmmmmh, not great. She’s scared of looking people in the eyes, even her owner. “Challenge accepted,” I think to myself.


Shy dogs are extremely rewarding to work with

I start off by inviting the dog in play – one of my favorite moves to break the ice with the shy ones. The owner warns me that the dog doesn’t play but, miracle of miracles, I tap the floor (the universal doggie play invite) and she tentatively paws my hand. Yes! We have contact!

I make sure I move fluidly, leaving her lots of space and not making direct eye contact. You have to be VERY careful with the flighty ones or it’s quickly back to square one again.

A couple of minutes of paw-play later, and the dog is stuck to my side, asking “What’s next?” That’s where I wanted her.

Now I test out her reaction to the various goodies I have in my treasure chest. After a few samples, we narrow down the reward du jour to:

  • Stinky dried offal served tumbling down for a good chase, interspersed with
  • Normal kibble.

Now that I have a connection, and know the dog’s favorite thing on the menu, we start playing basic recall games using a brand new recall sound.

She does so great that I get to introduce distractions on the first session. She does brilliantly, ignoring my temptations to join her calling owner. And that’s when I I get greedy – my usual mistake. Sure enough, we soon hit ratio drain (when you ask too much of your students, they lose interest) and the dog start under-performing. I fix it quickly, leave some exercise to practice through the week, and then am off.

Looking for a dog training field

OhMyDog! wants to open a new training location in The Hague, and finding a suitable spot in Europe’s most densely populated city can prove challenging. We’ve been scouting the green areas for months and months, but it’s getting urgent.

And today, I think I’ve found it!!! I fall in love with the location instantly. It’s in beautiful dune territory, but very close to parking facilities. And Oh-So-Quiet! I start taking measurements, inspect the local park rules, talk to the locals, document it on my map.

I haven’t felt this excited about a location in a long time. Could this be it? Note to self to contact the municipality, other local businesses, and talk to my colleagues about this one. I am excited! But it’s time to go again.

Getting a high-on-life dog to take it down a notch

Uncharacteristically, I have three whole minutes to spare by the time I ring the doorbell for my next appointment. It’s a rescue dog from Spain – I get a lot of these. His biggest problems are exuberance, a little growling around food, and a bad recall.

Last week, I’d left instructions to practice the default sit – where the dog has to spontaneously sit in order to ask for stuff, kind of like a doggie please. It works great to keep excitable dogs out of trouble, as they switch from snatching things from you to asking for them politely. To test his progress, I pull all the stops. I act all excited and encourage him to jump. But no, he’s having none of it! He sits his excited butt down the whole time he wants to be greeted. Result! I LOVE it when my clients do their homework.

Because no, boxes are not just for cats

Because no, boxes are not just for cats

Last week, I had also started teaching him to be ‘free-shaped’, i.e. to guess what we want out of him, rather than wait to be guided. Dogs trained in this way learn in a fraction of the time, and, more importantly, become training addicts.

We had started with the ‘101 things to do with a box’ game, asking him to show any interest in an empty box. He didn’t get it at all last week, so I left instructions. This week, when we start again, he noses the box like it’s going out of fashion. Yes! Kudos again to his owners who clearly did their homework!

The next game mission will be: ‘find my keys’, so I show them how to teach him that one. I can’t wait to see next week’s results. I love to teach sniffing games to dogs as it burns tons of energy, and it mentally stimulates them. Just what the doctor ordered for a smart, energetic dog like this one.

As we get started on the next exercise, the recall, the dog gets scared of my usual “happy recall” sound. Mmmmh. A quick little brainstorm later and we settle for a soft “stinky, stinky, stinky” call. I had caught the owner calling him that as a joke, and my brains are fried. It’s as good a recall sound as any I guess.

A quick look at my phone’s clock dial and, man, I overran. Another fifteen minutes. So I leave some exercises for the week, and finally… Go home. I am exhausted, but I am determined I will jog today. It WILL happen.

Nine til five? Not so much

My to do list just has a couple of things left on it, among which clearing up my two mailboxes (behaviour practice + the training school). I start, but then I get interrupted for dinner because, according to  my husband, “People need to eat.” To be fair, I had to skip lunch so I was starting to feel peckish. So, a quick dinner, putting the kid to bed, and finally finishing my mails.

The marathon is nearly over. There is just that one teensy little thing to check off my list before I can start the week-end…


That’s all folks. Enjoy the week-end! Am off for a jog

… Write this blog post.

Done, and done. Happy week-end everybody.

Illustration credits

No changes were made to any of the illustrations.

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