Clicker Training the Rescue Dog

Rescue or shelter dogs which have been abused by humans can be remarkably difficult to clicker train – apparently!  In fact, unless they are exceptionally traumatised, most of them are only too grateful for food and attention, and are capable of becoming wonderful workers and even of competing, if they have good working drive.  But there are several things which can go wrong up front, and which may make the dog appear to be reluctant to work.  Although there is no single solution for anxiety, and no single approach to rehabilitation, here is a case study of how clicker training can apparently fail, and how to remedy the situation.

First and foremost, dogs who have been abused have good reason to be afraid of humans.  Such dogs may be reluctant to approach humans, accept affection, or work, and may even have a tendency to snap or snarl at people.  This needs to be seen as the result of real and justifiable fear, and definitely not as disobedience or naughtiness.  The protocol for resolving this is desensitisation, not discipline. 

Secondly, abused dogs, when finally placed in a rescue home where they are treated with love and kindness, often bond exceptionally closely with their new family.  But this usually does not generalise to other people, and in particular, it may not generalise to someone giving a training class or to other people in the class.

In other words, your rescue dog may become extremely attached to you in a very short space of time, but he may nevertheless be very frightened of the trainer, the behaviourist, people in class who try to pet him, or the vet, for example.  There is no information in his mind to help him distinguish between people who will hurt him and people who won’t.

And thirdly, if he has been hit or kicked, he may be able to tolerate people moving around him going about their normal business, but find the approach of a hand or foot very threatening, and become anxious.

So the first rule of conduct around dogs like this is: take his fears seriously.  If you had gone through what he has, you’d also be scared of people.

How does this apply to clicker training, though?  Clicker training is kind, non-invasive and reward-based, so should be perfect for an abused dog.  Why isn’t my dog responding to the clicker?

To come up with one surprisingly common (and frequently overlooked) answer to this question, let’s take a big step back and recall a bit of the theory.  (You’ll find more information about the theory in the Training Theory section of this site.)

To most dog trainers, clicker training is primarily associated with operant conditioning, in which the dog learns that a particular behaviour, like ‘sit’, will be reinforced, or rewarded, so develops a tendency to sit more often.  There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but the most widely understood aspect of clicker training is that we can use reinforcement as a technique for getting, perfecting and maintaining the behaviour we want.

But clicker training is also heavily dependent on classical conditioning, or associative learning, in which the dog learns that a particular stimulus will result in a particular outcome for the dog; after a few repetitions of the association, the dog will start responding with an anticipatory reflexive reaction to the stimulus as if it were the outcome.

It is this phenomenon which allows us to use a clicker and pair it with a food treat in the first place.  We start every dog off by clicking and treating several times, until the dog shows signs of anticipating the treat.  A lot of trainers refer to this as ‘charging’ the clicker, and it’s a good analogy.  The sound of the clicker begins to predict the arrival of a food treat, and if the arrival of the food treat is pleasurable to the dog, the clicker becomes conditioned as a conditioned positive reinforcer, and starts triggering a pleasure response in the dog in its own right, which is why the technique is so powerful.

But that if is a very important if indeed!

Let’s go back to the rescue dog.  We’ll look at the case of Orphan Annie, who has some global fear of humans and is particularly nervous about hands.  Annie, whose previous owner Jemma was a real pearl because of her chronic alcoholism, has also been tormented around food.  Jemma used to starve her for a couple of days so she was really hungry, then offer her a tasty tidbit and smack her or pinch her very painfully if she tried to take it, so Annie has a classic approach/avoidance conflict around food offered from someone’s hand.  She wants the tidbit, but is afraid of what the hand might do. 

Annie also got fed on takeaway leftovers more often than not.  Jemma was particularly fond of Thai and Indian cooking, so Annie got used to sweet and spicy foods, but often had an upset stomach because of the spices, and got her mouth burned by a really hot chilli in a chicken curry once or twice.

Annie has been confiscated and placed with a new owner called Nigel, who is very kind to her and whom she adores.  She has learned to enjoy Nigel petting and cuddling her, but if he moves a hand towards her suddenly, she still startles.

Nigel adores Annie too.  He feels terribly sorry for her because of what she has been through, cossets her, and feeds her lots of yummy BARF food, and she is now in really good condition.  (In fact, she’s a little bit overweight if anything.) 

Being a responsible owner, he also decides to take her to class, and since he wants to be as kind as possible to Annie after everything she’s endured, he decides that it has to be a clicker class (and he’s not intrinsically wrong.)  So off they toddle one Thursday evening.

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In 2006 a South African man, Phillip Matthysen, made sickening headlines when he used a chainsaw to decapitate his 4-month old Siberian Husky puppy after it ate his favourite parrot.

It seems both strange and appropriate that Matthysen was killed in a car accident on the morning of Sunday 12 August.  He was alone in his Toyota Land Cruiser on the R50 some distance from Pretoria, and apparently rolled the vehicle.   There were no other cars involved.

He died of severe head injuries. 

More here:

What next? A giraffe?

This is a dog site, ok? I am a dog behaviourist, ok? Are you sure you’ve got that? I do domestic dog behaviour, that is, the behaviour of Canis Familiaris, or Canis Lupus Familiaris, depending on which side of the Wolf Fence you straddle.  Is that clear?

Why so emphatic? Well, I have to confess that it’s with a certain amount of manic glee that I’ve discovered that my, er, fame is spreading in quarters beyond the usual haunts of doggy people.

It all started with the Clicker Primer on my old site (which is still there to redirect people, but has been superseded by the Dog Zone, with all its lovely content management bells and whistles.)

I set up the Clicker Primer, a collection of training lessons in a logical order, to walk people who had never clicker trained through starting a dog off on the clicker. The material is a bit more theoretical than many beginning clicker sites and books, partly because I know from experience that it’s the operant techniques underlying clicker training that make it so powerful, and partly because I think it’s possible to present fairly complex material like this in such a way that it’s relatively easy to understand. And this, of course, opens the door for many people to learn to apply the theory and modify their own techniques as they go along, which is when this kind of training really comes to life.

Anyway, I digress (I’m getting old so I’m allowed to).

Part of the Clicker Primer was, of course, a page on Intermittent Reinforcement Schedules, and because the most useful of these is in my opinion the Variable Ratio reinforcement schedule, and because this is a bit difficult to explain to people without a background in behaviourism, I decided to do a couple of explanatory  graphics, and I took some trouble over the explanation.

And I didn’t give it another thought until I decided to move to and set up a content management system. 

As part of the exercise, I checked for incoming links, and, much to my surprise, discovered that there were quite a few that I didn’t know about (I’ve had the occasional request to reproduce an article but didn’t expect to find incoming links beyond the obligatory attribution.)

And most of the surprise links were to my intermittent reinforcement schedules page.

The first one that caused a certain amount of mirth was the discovery that had turned up in the bibliography of a presentation given at an international conference on Polar Bear husbandry, cited on the website of a wonderful organisation called Polar Bears International (  This site has a wealth of information about Polar Bears and in particular the impact of global warming on their habitats, and is well worth supporting.

The mirth came from the fact that although I now live in Cape Town again, I had set up and written most of the original articles on it while running a behaviour practice in McGregor, an extremely hot and very quirky little village in the Little Karoo in South Africa. 

Of course I couldn’t resist writing to Polar Bears International to ask whether the link qualified me as an International Polar Bear trainer.  I pointed out that South Africa was a bit hot for polar bears, but that I supposed I could buy a bigger fridge, and received a very amiable reply (I would love to learn to mush and have a sled-driving holiday planned when I can afford it, so will definitely be paying the PBI folks a visit when my holiday eventually materialises.)

Then the myth burgeoned somewhat.  McGregor, where I still have many friends, is a very well-preserved 19th Century village, and still has a system of gravity fed stone irrigation channels known as ‘leiwater’ (literally: led water) fed by a dam at the top of the village.

Bruno, a close friend who lives in McGregor and works as an architect, insisted that he had seen a polar bear in the leiwater dam one morning and speculated that they might be migrating as a result of global warming.

Various unsavoury people insinuated that I had been seen in the show ring trying to pass off a polar bear as a Pyrrhenean Mountain Dog.

But the cherry on the top was provided by my friend Adam, who took over from me as webmaster of

"I don’t know what all the fuss is about," he said loftily.  "Polar bears are easy to train.  It’s the bipolar ones you have to watch out for."


That wasn’t the end of it.  I then discovered that the intermittent reinforcement schedules page was tagged in various blogs, ranging from articles on management consulting (how to get your employees addicted to work) to addiction (substances, email, take your pick) as well as a (few) actual dog sites.

Oh, and it was also at google no 1 for, you guessed it, "intermittent reinforcement schedules".  (I can just see all those slavering teenagers trying to find the latest cool thing on the net and discovering a dog training site…..:) )

However, I went ahead and moved the site, leaving a couple of pages on as redirects.  It works for me to have a suffix because I live in South Africa.  Although I’m an animal lover in general, I specialise in dog behaviour.  And there’s a lot more to behaviour practice than just clicker training, although it’s certainly a very important weapon in the arsenal.  So it made sense to make the change, and I thought that that would be the end of my 15 minutes of fame.

Until the other day, when I got an email from someone who said a professor at Colorado State University had referred him to for advice on how to train his bison.

So I’m eagerly awaiting my first giraffe.

Dealing with Aggression

Aggression is probably the most misunderstood and mishandled behaviour problem amongst dogs.  It is also one of the most prevalent problems reported to behaviourists.  Many otherwise experienced trainers are at a loss when it comes to dealing with aggressive dogs.  So why is it such a problem?

Firstly, it’s a problem because we humans define it as one.  Dogs have a variety of agonistic (aggressive) displays, which include quite severe but not lethal biting, which they use to resolve conflict amongst themselves.  Left to themselves, dogs will rarely injure one another seriously; major fighting problems almost always evolve as a result of well-meant but misguided human intervention.  To us, a dog fight is quite terrifying, and the person who can stand back, watch a fight and assess it coolly before deciding whether or not intervention is warranted, is a pretty rare being.  Show people, with their obsession with keeping their dogs pretty, are particularly bad in this respect!  But in actual fact, almost all dog fights break up spontaneously within three minutes, and it is only if a fight continues for longer than this, or if one dog bites down hard on the other dog, holds on and starts working his way toward the throat that you should consider intervening.  If the fight is all ‘teeth and claws’ (lots of snapping, snarling and foot-waving), the best is to let it peter out by itself.

The level of noise in the fight is also a good indicator of how severe it is – and this might not work quite the way you think it does!  Try this exercise.  Get an apple.  Shout as loudly as you possibly can.  Now bite into the apple, and while still biting, shout as loudly as you possibly can again.

The first time (minus the apple), you’ll probably make quite a respectable amount of noise.  But when trying to shout while biting an apple, the most you’re likely to produce is a rather muffled "mummphh".

The moral of the story, of course, is that the noisier a dog fight is, the less there is to worry about – and this is particularly important to understand when a youngster is being reared by older sibling dogs in a multi-dog household.  When an adolescent pup is flat on his back yelling his head off, with a lot of growling, snarling, barking older dogs apparently ripping him to shreds, you can be pretty sure that he’ll emerge with nothing worse than a mild nip here or there.

Quiet dog fights, on the other hand, are likely to be very serious, and if you hear a drop in volume from the dog who is winning an altercation, it’s time to intervene.  How to break up a serious dog fight without getting seriously bitten yourself will have to be the subject of a separate article (but there is some good information here – give the page time to download as it has lots of pictures, and scroll down to the text.  There is one piece of information on this page with which I disagree strenuously – never, ever, ever alpha-roll a dog.  Otherwise, it’s excellent advice, including the material on treating bite wounds, which should never be stitched and always left to heal by secondary intention).

Aggressive behaviour is thus a normal part of a dog’s behavioural repertoire, and is not necessarily deviant in any way.  When dogs cross the line and start behaving aggressively toward humans, though, aggression becomes a very serious problem because of the huge potential for serious injury.  Even at this stage, though, it is not necessarily abnormal, but nevertheless requires swift and expert intervention, particularly if the dog is a large one.

The issue of aggression is complicated in guarding breeds such as Dobermanns because some aggression in these dogs is desirable, and is selected for as part of the breeding process.  Unfortunately, many Dobermann owners regard their dog’s aggression as acceptable because they see it as part of his ‘protective instinct’, and thus fail to recognize that the aggression is in fact due to excessive anxiety or another maladaptive cause.  Owners of guarding breeds also often wish to see their dogs as courageous, and have difficulty accepting the notion that their dog may be at risk of becoming a fear-biter.

The first step to being able to deal with aggression is understanding it better.  Although there are over twenty identified causes of aggression in dogs, behaviourists generally agree that there are two main categories: predatory and affective.

Predatory, or quiet aggression is the type of aggressive behaviour involved in hunting for food.  It is highly pleasurable to the dog, and is triggered by, for example, swiftly moving animals like cats or squeaking and squealing noises such as those made by small children.  A lot of bicycle and car chasing problems fall into this category.

During predatory aggression episodes, the dog is usually quiet and there will be no signs such as hackles up or snarling; in fact the chances are that the tail will be wagging and the dog will look quite happy!
Affective aggression (or aggression with an emotional content) can be loosely defined as aggression in response to a perceived threat.  It is unpleasant for the dog and will usually be accompanied by signs such as curled lips, hackles up and snarling.

Any animal which finds itself under threat can choose from one of three options: fight, flight or freezing (‘playing dead’).  Dobermanns are bred (theoretically, anyway!) to select fighting as their primary option, and when we say that a dog has ‘courage’, what we mean is simply that he will tend to fight rather than run when confronted by a threat.

Usually a dog wavers between fighting and running, depending on the severity of the threat and the dog’s temperament.  Emotionally, the dog is torn between fear and aggression.  Figure 1 shows the facial expressions of the dog on the two axes of fear and aggression, and is a useful way of determining which emotion is uppermost in a dog who is under threat.  In a guarding breed, we would like aggression to be uppermost.

Fear/aggression continuum
Figure 1 (from On Aggression: Konrad Lorenz)

What this means is that fear and affective aggression are two sides of the same coin.  There is a popular belief that aggression is at one end of the spectrum, and fear at the other.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  At one end of the spectrum is the confident, relaxed, unfazed dog and at the other is the threatened, anxious animal whose choices are to fight or to run.

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I’ve learned this Doggy Zen stuff pretty well now (Mother-person says I’m very clever!) She holds out a treat, I ignore it, she clicks and i get the treat. All I have to do is sit still. But now she’s added a new wrinkle and I don’t understand at all!

Tonight she muttered something about ‘targeting’ and stuck her finger under my nose, so I ignored it. I mean, my job is to sit still, right? And nothing happened! She didn’t click! Sometimes I think the woman is mad.

Then I touched her finger by mistake and she clicked! Huh? Then she got out this orange fetch stick, which looks like quite a nice toy, and she waved it under my nose and rolled it around on the floor. Now under normal circumstances I would have liked to play with it, but my job during lessons is to sit still, so I sat still, and she didn’t click!

Then we got the finger again (it really isn’t polite, you know!), and eventually I started touching that with my nose because it seemed to work, and she clicked and I got some more treats. Then she held out a treat and said ‘Leave it’ and I had to sit still again.

You don’t suppose she wants me to do more than one job, do you? I mean, I get paid to sit still and not snatch treats, and now I have to touch a finger as well. It’s all very confusing, and I think I want overtime!

Slug 07.05.1997 – 11.06.2007

Slug the Bug

Today my poor old Sluggybug lost his fight against cancer of the lymph nodes, which he was diagnosed with a couple of months ago.  He had been very perky on high dose prednisone until a couple of days ago, when he started going downhill, chewing an old wound on his leg very badly, and was starting to rattle a bit when he breathed.  The vet agreed that all we would do by keeping him going was prolong the misery, so he was quietly put to sleep this morning. 

Ch Pandemonium Falstaff ("Slug") was born on 7 May 1997, one of a litter of 8, and was the son of my beloved Emily (Sharbara Elemi), and Ch Sharbara Cotton Baron ("Baron"), from whom he inherited his glorious movement.   Slug was his litter name, because he was the biggest and most vigorous pup, and would drink himself to a standstill very quickly and then fall asleep on his side next to the pigrail, looking for all the world like a large garden slug!

I had originally intended to keep a different pup, but Slug decided that he was staying, so I tried to start calling him Falstaff, his registered name – but somehow, Slug had stuck, and Slug he stayed!

This would have been fine if he’d been a pet and nothing else, but Sharlene Sutherland, my great dog-breeding friend and the person who bred all my dogs, got me to show him.

Slug as a youngster

In March 1998, when Slug was 9 months and 3 weeks, he and I went into the ring together – the first time for both of us! – and promptly took the Challenge Certificate (cc).  No Open shows required!  In Port Elizabeth a couple of months later at the Easter Shows, when he was a couple of weeks away from his 1st birthday and only just eligible for Puppy Class, he took Best Puppy, Puppy Working Group and Best Puppy on Show on the Friday show, bombed on Saturday, and then went Best Puppy and took the Puppy Working Group again on the Sunday.

Slug with some of his winnings

In his Junior innings, at Grahamstown he went CC, Reserve Best of Breed, Best Reserve in Working Group and Second in the Mini-Grand.  In October at Hottentots Holland KC, he went CC, Best of Breed and 3rd in Working Group, thus qualifying for Top Dog (which we couldn’t attend because I had moved out to McGregor and was working in the United Kingdom for a couple of months.)

Because of his Best Puppy In Show at Port Elizabeth, he had also qualified to take part in KUSA National Puppy and the extremely prestigious Supreme Puppy tournament.  Sharlene showed him through to 3rd place in KUSA National Puppy, but was unable to show him in Supreme Puppy because she and Barbara had a joint 50th birthday party on that evening, so it was up to me to do the honours.

Supreme Puppy is terrifying.  The  entrance qualification is a Best Puppy in Show at an All Breeds Championship Show in the preceding season, so the standard is formidably high, and many of the pups have matured as a result of having taken their show early in the season (Slug was almost 2 when he competed.)

It’s very ritzy, with huge prizes and sponsorship, big audiences, a PA system for the ring steward, a special ring, and a huge rosette with a number just for making it into the competition.

All these marvellous dogs are herded into a ring with an international guest judge, shown once, and then the handshaking starts.  The judge comes up to you, shakes your hand and thanks you for taking part, and then you may leave the ring.  You’re out. 

The first cut reduces the total number of dogs to 16, the next to 8, then to 4 and finally down to the 2 winners.  We made the first cut – I could hardly believe it!

We showed – and showed – and ran – and stacked – and showed.  Then the handshaking started again.  We made the 2nd cut too! 8 dogs in the ring.

Vets Choice SA Reserve Supreme Puppy 1999

More showing and stacking, and running, and showing, and we made the 3rd cut! 4 dogs left in the ring. I was almost beside myself with terror by now, noticed a foot out of position, bent down to adjust it, and heard the ring steward saying: "Ladies and Gentlemen, there are now two dogs left in the ring!"

Gosh, I thought, I’d better get out of here.  Then I realised that we were still in.

And so we ended up with Reserve Supreme Puppy – pipped to the post by a Toy Poodle!  But it was a wonderful win, and certainly my most exciting experience in the show ring!

Slug finished his Championship with a surprise CC and Best of Breed in Port Elizabeth again – always a lucky ground for him. I travelled at the last minute – I had intended to send Jessie up with Sharlene and then decided to go along when Sharlene’s driving companion fell through.  Slug was entered and came along because I couldn’t find a dog sitter at short notice, and so I showed him, and he came up trumps!

Slug in characteristic pose

But Sluggy was much more than a show dog.  He was a dear and much loved pet, and a grouchy teenager who got me to change my thinking about dog handling (because whatever I was doing, it wasn’t working!), and he was ultimately responsible for my taking up clicker training and getting into animal behaviour professionally.  You will find many references to him in the training articles on this site – he taught me lots!

One of my most challenging training exercises was teaching Slug to retrieve, because in spite of being a Dobermann, he didn’t have much prey drive, and so we had to shape the exercise from scratch, starting by clicking him for looking at the dumbbell. He ended up with a perfect retrieve and lots of other behaviours too.

And most of what I will remember and miss is his utter faithfulness.  He wasn’t the bravest, cleverest or even the most beautiful Dobermann around.  But he slept under my duvet every night of his life, and whenever I came home, no matter how cold or wet the weather, he would be at the garage door to say hello. He had a real ear-to-rear grin – he waggled his whole body when he was happy, which was most of the time. And even at the end, when he was getting tired, slow and uncertain on his feet, he insisted on doing his retrieve and getting his treat, like a good dog.

Bye-bye, SluggyBug.  Sleep well.


More on Dominance

Q. My dog is dominant and has growled at me a few times when I try to kick him off the couch. I’ve been told that I ought to alpha-roll him to prove that I’m dominant, but I’m scared he’ll bite me. What should I do?

A. The wolf-pack theory of dog behaviour is so prevalent amongst dog trainers and people who write articles about dogs that it has become taken for granted. Articles on how to deal with “dominant” dogs abound. It is assumed without question that social status and rank is important to dogs. “Dominance” aggression toward owners is one of the most frequently reported problems behaviourists have to deal with. So it would be nice to know first of all how much truth there is in the idea.

Early research into dog behaviour suggested that the dog evolved from the wolf with his patterns of social behaviour pretty much unchanged. Wolves are highly social, hunt in packs and form fairly fluid linear dominance hierarchies in their packs, with the highest-ranking wolf called the Alpha. The wolf-pack theory of dog behaviour thus suggests that the dog regards his human as another dog and that it is very important for the human to treat the dog as an Alpha Wolf would. In particular, if the dog misbehaves or shows aggression toward the human, the human is called upon to demonstrate his Alpha-ness by “alpha-rolling” the dog – hurling him to the ground on his back, pinning him by the throat and growling at him. The more devoted aficionados of the theory hold that this will “put the dog in his place” and apparently resolve a variety of training and behavioural problems at the same time.

It’ll certainly frighten the dog, or alternatively provoke him to even worse excesses of aggression, but whether it will make any difference to the dog’s perception of his social rank is highly doubtful, and it certainly won’t compensate for undertraining – the most common reason for misbehaviour.

There are several things wrong with the wolf-pack view of dog behaviour. The first is that dogs (or wolves, for that matter) don’t alpha-roll each other. An animal which is already low in rank may voluntarily roll over and display its stomach to an animal higher in rank, but this is a deferential behaviour on the part of the low-ranking animal, not an attempt on the part of the higher ranking animal to “put the other one in its place”!

The second is that dog social behaviour is not actually all that similar to wolf social behaviour. Dogs seldom hunt in packs, their social structure is much looser, and they probably don’t have an exact equivalent of the Alpha wolf. Observations of domestic dogs which have gone feral and of village dogs in primitive communities make this very clear.

The third thing wrong with the idea is that dogs almost certainly do not perceive their human companions as other dogs. The relationship, especially when it is a good one, is far closer to that of parent-child than of alpha-subordinate.

The fourth problem is the idea that dogs are continually jockeying for status. Dogs almost certainly don’t even have a concept of social rank as being something desirable as such, and it’s certainly not something that they would put themselves at physical risk for by fighting. What they will fight over is access to resources – the best food, space, the best place to sleep – and the dog who tends to win these encounters will emerge as dominant with respect to the other dog or dogs, sometimes in very specific situations. It is not uncommon for one dog to be dominant over another with respect to food, while the situation may be reversed with respect to sleeping space, for example. Once a dog has won the bulk of a series of encounters, he will expect the other dog to defer to him over access to resources, but whether he actually cares about his ‘rank’ as such is highly doubtful.

This leads to a much more sensible view of dominance, and one which fits in much better with the scientifically observed facts. Firstly, dominance is an attribute of a relationship, not of an individual dog, and secondly, it is a result, not a cause. Let’s elaborate:

Spot and Curly get into several fights over who gets the best bone. Spot wins most of them. Eventually he has only to glare at Curly and Curly will leave a bone and allow Spot to take it. Over time, then, we can say that Spot emerges as dominant, or higher in rank, with respect to Curly. Fido, on the other hand, may be able to take food off Spot every time, so Spot’s dominance is an attribute of his relationship with Curly, and not something intrinsic to Spot. We can say that Spot is dominant with respect to Curly, but it is not accurate to say that Spot is a “dominant dog”, period.

Furthermore, Spot doesn’t fight with Curly because he wants to be higher in rank than Curly. He fights with him to get the best bone. His higher rank is a result of the outcomes of several fights.

Some dogs, of course, are physically big and strong, and have a low threshold for offensive aggression, and possibly a high pain threshold as well, which means that they are likely to emerge the victor in most of their squabbles, and thus to become dominant. Such dogs often learn that they can defeat most opponents, and the more winning they do, the more confident and threatening their behaviour becomes when meeting a strange dog. But this is still an outcome of physical ability coupled with a history of winning. The dog doesn’t set out to “pull rank”.

So how does this relate to the situation where a dog is showing signs of aggression toward his owner? Is there such a thing as “dominance aggression” toward the owner?

The condition which behaviourists loosely call “dominance aggression” certainly exists, but has relatively little to do with rank at least in its early stages. It’s more likely to exist in a dog which wants to attain control of various resources and is socially inept. It’s only when the owner has inadvertently backed down to the dog a few times that rank may come into it, or that the dog may perceive itself as “higher-ranking” insofar as it expects the owner to give way to it.

Prevention, as always, is better than cure, and the best way to ensure that the problem never develops is to maintain control of access to all goodies and dole them out in exchange for obedience from the get-go, so the dog is never in doubt either about who controls the goodies or about how to get them. This has two benefits: first, the dog is never in doubt about its position in the household, and second, the dog’s environment is highly predictable and controllable, which reduces anxiety and frustration and has the effect of making it easier for a socially anxious dog to negotiate his role.

Where the problem has already developed, do not confront the dog or alpha-roll it. This is an excellent way to get severely bitten. Be particularly careful if there are children in the household as these are easy targets for a dog who has learned that aggression works.

Depending on the level of aggression, it may be possible to deal with this without professional help. If the dog has not actually bitten, then the first thing to do is to sit down and make a list of all the things which trigger growling or snarling. The next thing is to use management techniques to ensure that the dog has no access whatsoever to theses triggers (and they are usually quite specific). So a dog who growls over access to the couch must be kept off the couch, and this usually means keeping him out of the room containing the couch, or confining him by crating him or tying him out when he is in that particular room.

Thereafter, desensitization protocols should be followed for each trigger. In the case of a dog refusing to get off the couch, teach him a cue for getting off and follow up with a high quality food reward. Initially the dog should be lured off (and on) with a tasty treat so that he focuses on the treat rather than the fact that he is being asked to get off the couch. Once he is doing this quite willingly, the cue can be added and the lure faded, to be exchanged for a treat once he has actually done as asked and gotten off. If he refuses at any stage, turn round and leave the room, preferably shutting him in, and take the food with you. Try again a few minutes later.

In the case of a dog who is growly over toys or food (which need not have anything to do with dominance), start an object exchange protocol where he learns to give up an object in return for a treat and the return of the object. To start with, any high-quality items like rawhide chews, fresh bones and favourite toys need to be eliminated from the environment. Starting with a fairly boring toy is a good approach. Say a cue such as “leave it”, and offer the treat. As soon as the dog drops the toy, say “good dog” (or click if you have started clicker training), give the treat, and return the toy. Again, fade the lure until the dog will drop the toy happily on cue, and then gets rewarded. Then a slightly more interesting toy can be used, or another variation is to have two toys and swap them each time the dog is cued.

In general, the approach to a dog like this should be one of giving him many opportunities to earn small rewards in exchange for obedience: sit if he wants to go out, sit for dinner, lie down to have his lead put on for a walk, sit for attention and patting, and so on. Obviously he needs to know a few basic commands, and these should be taught using reward-based techniques, a) because using a punitive approach is dangerous with an aggressive dog, and b) because reward-based techniques give him an opportunity to get control over sources of reward. Usually, greater consistency and patience on the part of the owner will reap results.

If the dog has become seriously aggressive (biting and drawing blood), I would recommend calling in a behaviourist unless you know a great deal about learning theory. Avoid anyone who recommends aversives, alpha-rolling or the use of e-collars straight away. You are looking for someone who can identify behavioural triggers and construct the safest possible desensitization hierarchies, and also someone who has a working knowledge of behavioural pharmacology and will be able to recommend medication, at least during the process of behaviour modification.

Whether you deal with the problem yourself or call in a professional, the dog should never be regarded as cured. Managing his behaviour will mean that you will have to make changes in your behaviour which will have to last for the rest of the dog’s life.

Treats, the clicker, and fooling the dog

Using food in dog training is a no-brainer to most modern, motivational trainers. Dogs

are highly motivated by food (they’re predators, after all!), it’s easy to use food

lures to manipulate them into various positions, the dog generally enjoys the training

more so is more motivated to work, the human finds it easier so is more inclined to

persevere, and over time the association between food goodies and the owner becomes

very strong so the dog/owner relationship tends to improve. (Dogs like people who give

them treats. People often like other people who give them chocolate!)

But many traditional trainers still object to the use of food in training. Nine times

out of ten, the reason for this is that they have only ever seen food being mis-used in

training. (And of course, a few still cling to the quaint notion that the dog should

do it “for love”. As Jean Donaldson points out in The Culture Clash, these are usually

trainers who are heavily reliant on some or other form of collar correction; in fact,

the dog’s primary motivation for working is avoiding pain. A few dogs will work

exclusively for praise and bonding, but most won’t. You may like your employer and

spend time outside of work with him or her, but that doesn’t mean you’re prepared to

work for free! Nothing strange here.)

Why are there still so many misconceptions around about how to train using food?

First of all, many people confuse the training process with the end result. The other

day, a friend of mine said she would prefer to use the Koehler method for teaching a

reliable drop at a distance “because you might not have your clicker handy and the dog

might be about to run under a bus, so how would you get his attention?” (Of course,

she might not have her choke or prong collar handy, either, particularly if the dog is

off the lead!)

There are two problems with her statement. Firstly, the clicker (or any other

conditioned reinforcer) is not an attention-getting device. It’s an event marker which

tells the dog he has just done something right, and that a treat, a game or some other

primary reinforcer is on its way.

And secondly, the clicker is a training tool like any other. Eventually, for any given

behaviour, the dog has to become independent of the training device, i.e. the drop at a

distance should be obeyed even if there isn’t a clicker (or a prong collar) within a

hundred miles.

The training progression for training a drop at a distance might look a bit like this

(broadly speaking):

1) train the dog to lie down, either by luring or capturing downs, and then clicking

and treating every time the dog does. (In the early stages of teaching something new,

we use a continuous schedule of reinforcement, which just means that the dog gets

reinforced every time it does the right thing.)

2) Depending on your requirements, you might use shaping techniques to get the dog

downing faster, straighter, folding back or sitting first. If you used a food lure,

you would also start fading this so the dog doesn’t need to see the food up front.

3) Once you’ve got the dog reliably offering you downs, you add the voice cue, e.g.

“down!” just as the dog starts to lie down. Gradually start saying “down!” earlier and

earlier. You would also stop clicking for downs which the dog offered without the cue.

4) Once the dog is doing the down the way you want it and it is pretty reliably on cue,

you would move to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement. We usually use a variable

ratio schedule, which simply means that you click and treat some of the time, but not

all of the time, and never in a pattern which the dog can work out. (N.B. Whenever you

click, you follow up with a treat – that’s the deal. But you don’t always click.)

Once you’ve reached this stage, the dog now knows that the voice cue “down!” means: if

I lie down, there’s a good chance that I’ll get a treat. He also knows that the

presence of the clicker and treats doesn’t guarantee a treat. What he still needs to

learn is that the absence of the clicker and treats doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t

get a treat, either. Some clicker trainers accomplish this by hiding clickers and

bowls of treats around the house so they can get to them quickly if the dog does

something they like or obeys a cue. My housekeeping isn’t up to this; if I hid some

bits of sausage in my CD drawer, I probably wouldn’t discover them again until they got

up and climbed out by themselves!

So what I do is install a second marker, or conditioned reinforcer, this one verbal.

(I call this phase ‘fooling the dog’.) I use a word/pronounciation combination that

I’m not likely to use in normal conversation, in my case, an eldritch screech of

“treeeeeeet!” I condition this slightly differently from the clicker: I chop up some

treats and hide them in the fridge (safest place!), and then while I have both dogs in

the kitchen I screech “treeeeeeet!” and then race to the fridge, open it and then give

them each a treeeeeeet, I mean a treat. I repeat this several times until they clearly

understand that “treeeeeeet!” means “race to the fridge and get a treat”, and then I

move around the house, into the garden and so on, screech “treeeeeeet!” and race for

the kitchen. Of course I could condition both dogs separately as well, and probably

should have, as when one does something deserving of a treat, the other one expects one


I can now use my verbal reinforcer to mark good behaviours. I normally only use this

with behaviours that are already partially trained and on cue, so in the case of a

down, I would say “down!” at random moments, and if I get a down, I screech

“treeeeeeet!” and race for the kitchen…well, you get the picture.

And then I start putting randomly cued behaviours on an intermittent schedule as well.

The net result is that the dog becomes a gambler. If I say “down!”, he knows that

there is a pretty good chance of him getting a treat if he complies, whether or not

there is a clicker and treats around. And variable ratio schedules have been shown to

be extremely successful in maintaining behaviour; the more care I put into this phase,

the more likely the dog is to persist in downing on cue, even in the absence of a


5) I then generalize, or proof, the dog’s down by asking him to down under

circumstances of increasingly high distraction – in the garden, in the street when it’s

quiet, in the street with another dog at a distance, in the street with another dog a

bit closer, and so on. At this stage, I expect his down to fall apart a bit, and I

simply re-teach under the new conditions. While I’m re-teaching, I go back to the

clicker and a continuous schedule (every correct down gets a click and treat) and as

soon as he’s got it, I go back to intermittent reinforcement at that level of

distraction. This might sound laborious, and it is at first, but the more the dog

learns and the more different conditions you proof under, the faster the proofing goes.

Each successive situation is easier, and so is each new behaviour!

6) I’m now in a position to start adding distance and time (which both simply involve

delaying the click until I have the distance and duration that I want). I might start

by putting the dog on a lead, doing some downs close to me, then taking a step back and

doing some more, then taking another step back and doing a few more, and so on (it

helps a lot if your dog can sit and stand on cue as well!) Again, this is something

new to the dog, so I go back to clicking and treating for every correct response, and

only move to intermittent reinforcement when the dog is reliable at a particular


I increase the distance little by little, and as I start working at fairly long

distances, I might use a tie-out and attach the dog to a fence-post or pillar. For

each correct down I would click and throw the treat within reach.

Eventually I would move to doing this off the lead, and again, I would go back to a

short distance and increase it gradually. I would also need to teach the dog to down

in motion.

The end result – the fully-trained behaviour – would be a drop at a distance which I

would only need to reinforce the dog for occasionally, and which would be pretty

reliable regardless of whether I had a clicker handy, assuming I had done a good job.

Now I’m not trying to suggest that this is an easy or basic behaviour to train – far

from it. It’s one of the more difficult things in the dog trainer’s repertoire. And

I’m also not suggesting that you allow your dog to wander around without a leash in

potentially dangerous situations! But the point here was that one shouldn’t confuse

the training process with the end result, and this is something that critics of reward

-based training often do. (They also often take shortcuts and end up punishing the dog

for non-compliance at a level he hasn’t been proofed at yet, but that’ll have to wait

for another article!).

So to rephrase what we’ve said so far: when teaching the dog to do something new, you

use treats almost constantly. As the dog’s knowledge and experience increases, the

food rewards become intermittent and ultimately it shouldn’t be necessary for you to

have a clicker and treats on you in order to get compliance.

You should, of course, continue to reinforce occasionally even for well-known


Another area of confusion is the difference between a lure/bribe and a reinforcer. We

often use food lures to teach the dog something new or to get him into a new position,

but we make a point of fading (gradually getting rid of) these as soon as possible.

Why is that?

Well, luring really does make the dog dependent on seeing the food up front. I’ll sit

if you wave a treat over my head so my nose goes in the air, but if you don’t show me

the treat first, then no way!

The problem with a lure is that it comes before the behaviour we want. First the dog

sees the lure and then he does the sit. And for many people who experiment with food

when teaching their dogs tricks, that’s as far as it gets. (And for many conventional

trainers, that’s the extent of their experience in using food to train!)

A reinforcer, on the other hand comes after the behaviour we want. First you sit and

then I give you the treat. In other words, by the time the food is produced, the dog

has already done what you wanted him to. A totally different training bargain – and

the one on which all operant training techniques are based.

A third area of dispute is the idea that if you use food in training, your dog will be

more inclined to beg at table or when you’re eating. Well, if you give him food from

the table or when you’re eating, yes, of course he will, but this is a training

problem, not a failing of food training. If you don’t want the dog to beg, then never,

and I mean never feed him from the table, and never share your snacks with him. In

fact, if he learns that he gets treats when you’re training him, but never when you’re

eating, he will if anything be less likely to beg (dogs are great at making this sort

of distinction). You get what you reinforce. If you don’t want your dog to beg, don’t

reinforce him for begging.

A fourth, and final ‘problem’ with food training is that the treats are bad for your

dog and he might get fat. This is the only one which actually has any validity, but

it’s certainly not insurmountable. Most of us, myself included, just don’t get to

spend enough time training to make this a serious issue, but if your dog has a tendency

to pick up weight, then go for high-taste, low-fat treats (baked liver treats are

good), and cut down his meal rations. There’s a very good case to be made for getting

the dog to work for at least half his food. Vary the treats as much as possible so he

doesn’t get an overdose (or underdose) of any particular ingredient. Cut your treats

up as small as possible and give one (not a handful) when you click. And never give

your dog chocolate, especially expensive chocolate. It contains theobromine, which is

toxic to dogs and can be fatal.

Until next time, all the best, and above all, have fun!

Dominance Myths

It started with the words of dog trainer Konrad Most, writing in 1910:

“In a pack of young dogs fierce fights take place to decide how they are to rank within the pack. And in a pack composed of men and dogs, canine competition for importance in the eyes of the trainer is keen. If this state of affairs is not countered by methods which the canine mind can comprehend, it frequently ends in such animals attacking and seriously injuring not only their trainers, but also other people. As in a pack of dogs, the order of hierarchy in a man and dog combination can only be established by physical force – that is, by an actual struggle in which the man is instantaneously victorious. Such a result can only be brought about by convincing the dog of the absolute physical superiority of the man.”

This highly influential theory has permeated to all levels of the dog world, and has resulted in dog abuse on the grand scale, culminating in atrocities such as the Koehler method, with its horrific recommendations such as beating dogs with rubber hoses and half-drowning them to prevent digging. Even trainers who do not themselves espouse the more violent methods beloved of Koehler and his disciples generally accept the dominance model of canine social behaviour without question. Dogs who are routinely beaten or hung by their owners, and who finally retaliate in self-defence, are written off, over and over again, as ‘dominant’ because they decline to submit peacefully to appalling levels of physical punishment. And the solution offered by most trainers, even today, is more punishment, and still more, until the dog has to be put down because its temperament has been irrevocably ruined.

It’s only in the last decade, with its explosion of interest in the field of canine behaviour and cognition, that anyone has seriously questioned the appropriateness of pretending to be a wolf when interacting with your dog! And the results of this somewhat more rigorous and scientific approach to the subject have been surprising indeed. Here is the truth behind some of the most cherished myths of dogdom:

Myth: Some dogs are naturally dominant, while others are naturally submissive.

Fact: Dominance is an attribute of a relationship, not of an individual. If Rover and Fido have had several fights of which Rover has won the bulk, Fido will start trying to appease Rover whenever Rover threatens him. We can then say that Rover is dominant and that Fido is submissive, but only in the context of Fido and Rover’s relationship. Fido may well be the dominant partner in his relationship with Curly, while Rover may well be the submissive partner in his relationship with Spot. In this way, loose dominance hierarchies develop.

It thus does not make sense to say that Rover is a dominant dog, nor does it make sense to say that dominance is an inherited characteristic. What can be inherited are traits such as large body size and a low threshold for offensive aggression, which will make a dog more likely to succeed in disputes, and thus to become dominant. Dominance is learned, not inherited.

Myth: Dogs, like wolves, have a rigid and linear pack structure.

Fact: Both dogs and wolves have a fairly fluid pack structure. There will generally be separate male and female hierarchies, so a pack will thus have an alpha female as well as an alpha male. Within those hierarchies, however, there is a lot of movement, and most dominance behaviour seems to be situational, with the same dog being, for example, dominant with respect to food resources and submissive with respect to social space.

Myth: Dominance can be tested for and detected in puppies as early as seven weeks.

Fact: At seven weeks, dominance is as fluid as any other temperament characteristic. There is in fact no correlation between social dominance test scores at seven weeks and at sixteen weeks.

Myth: Dominance can be maintained only by physical force.

Fact: Dominance may be established by physical force, but is maintained by, at most, the use of stereotypical threat-appeasement displays. In fact, many canine dominance hierarchies are established and maintained without any force whatsoever, and furthermore, these hierarchies are far more stable and likely to last than those established by means of force.

In fact, it is more accurate to refer to dominance hierarchies as deference hierarchies as they are maintained by the affection and deference of the submissive members toward the alpha rather than by threat displays and violence from the alpha toward the submissive members of the hierarchy. What is important is that the flow of attention and affection should move up the hierarchy rather than down it.

Myth: If your dog jumps up at you, he is trying to dominate you.

Fact: If your dog jumps up at you, he is trying to lick your chin, an act of active submission which developed from the puppy behaviour of licking the mother’s chin to get her to regurgitate food! Next time he jumps up at you, watch his ear position. Chances are, his ears will be pinned back!

Myth: Your dog sees you as another dog and it is essential that you should be perceived as the alpha.

Fact: The relationship between you and your dog is far more complex than a dominance hierarchy can explain. There is a surprising amount of evidence to suggest that humans are a supernormal object of affection to dogs, i.e. that dogs love their humans much more than other dogs and relate to them more deeply than they are capable of relating to other dogs. And the reverse may also be true, which might explain why we’re so crazy about our dogs! Certainly it is true to say that your dog probably does not regard himself either as particularly dominant or as particularly submissive in his relationship to you. Where competition between human and dog emerges, it is more likely to be pseudodominance (or obnoxious submission) than true, status-related dominance.

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Boredom bites

No training today – Mother-person is doing something to the website and has been glued to the laptop all day. I’m bored!

Well, there’s lots for me to do. Pulling books off the bookshelf is great fun and chewing them is even better! I’ve gotten hold of a thick animal behaviour textbook. It’s fascinating stuff – something I can really get my teeth into. And she’s concentrating so hard she hasn’t even noticed!

Then there’s the wicker dressing table drawer. Great stuff, wicker! You can shred it, tear it, gnaw on it and yank on hard enough to open the drawer – and there are all kinds of goodies inside.

And when I get tired of that, there are loads of plants in the garden for me to chew, dig up and generally mutilate.

Maybe tomorrow she’ll let me train her some more!