OhMyDog! behaviour seminar in Den Haag

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I had a great time presenting the theory evening in The Hague tonight. Teaching you about the science of dog behaviour so you an raise a well-adjusted, well-behaved pooch. A dog who is dying for his next training session and works for you with all his heart.

Thank you to the students for being their enthusiastic, active selves. See? An evening of science doesn’t have to be about dusty old lab coats. It was games and quizzes all round.

Here are the highlights for you all.

Body language

To guess a dog’s emotional state:

  • Little known signs of fear: Rounded back, weight on hind legs, whale eyes
  • Often overlooked signs of tension: Hardened look, tightly shut mouth

Some interesting body language things:

  • Shaking when not wet: Getting rid of tension after a mild stress
  • Piloerection: It means arousal which can come from (happy) excitement in wild play, fear, anger, you name it. Look at the context and the rest of the dog for clues.
  • Wagging tail: It means “I have seen you”. This can be “I am so happy to see you” or “Watch yourself”. Look at the context and the rest of the dog to know if it’s a happy wag or a not so happy wag. Little extra clue: If the dog is wagging her tail stiffly, it may not be such a happy wag.

Appeasement and other stress and conflict signals:

  • They are itsy bitsy signs that the dog is not 100% comfortable with a situation, that he feels the situation may be a little unsafe, or may lead to a conflict if allowed to escalate.
  • Here is a poster that shows you the ones we talked about. Feel free to print it out and stick it in the loo or on the fridge, as a daily reminder. You could also watch this beautiful video, or purchase Sophie Collins’ Tail Talk.
  • And remember, it’s all about the context, and the whole dog. If he has a tightly shut mouth and he’s asleep, chance is he’s not extremely tense, right? But if you’re wondering in a potentially uncomfortable situation how you dog feels, check the signs.

Dogs and play

I shared the signs that tell you that either 1/ All is probably well (all is rosy), or 2/ It might be time to think of taking a break, and / It is advisable you leave (calmly) before things get hairy.

These signs count for dogs who aren’t all that familiar with each other. You have a lot more play (excuse the pun) with dogs who know each other well.

All is rosy:

  • Dogs are pawing each other gently, using their paws in play.
  • Self-handicapping: the larger, more powerful dog makes himself smaller, weaker, slower so as not to overwhelm his play partner
  • Puppy-like movements: Silly-looking, fluid movements. Not stiffness.
  • Lots of tiny little breaks when they check that the other dog is still into it.
  • Play bows: Forelimbs slammed against the ground, bum up like a flag.
Laure-Anne’s dog displaying a play bow (and his “superior” intellect)
  • Reciprocity: Not always the same one insisting on playing, not always the same one being the underdog, not always the same one doing the chasing, Not five dogs against one, etc.

Take a little break: (again, this is for unfamiliar dogs. Dogs who are familiar with each other have a lot more leeway)

  • Lots of neck biting
  • Close-body wrestling
  • Tug-of-war between two dogs over a toy/stick/etc. There’s nothing wrong with this per say, but it greatly increases the chance that happy play turns into possessive aggression. Best keep valued objects out of sight with unfamiliar dogs.
  • Chase that gets too fast, too intense. If you’re not convinced you can easily call the dogs to you and get them to calm down relatively quickly, it’s probably too intense.
  • Vertical play: One dog constantly tries to get on top of the other dog, often from the shoulders.
  • Body slamming: One dog runs really fast towards another (unfamiliar) dog and hits him full on from the side. This may very well be with the best intentions but invariably leads to irritation- or pain-aggression on the part of the recipient.
  • Stalking: One dog is making himself small, staring intensely, lots of focused tension from a large dog towards a smaller one. Chance is we are quickly switching from play to predation.
  • Size mismatch: Be very very very watchful when there is an important size mismatch. Particularly if the larger dog is not going through great lengths to self-handicap.

Time to calmly leave:

  • One dog is insistent, while the other tries to ignore him and walk away.
  • One dog frequently seeks refuge behind human legs, a bench, etc.
  • Body slamming: one dog runs at full speed towards another dog, and slams them off balance. Terribly rude, and bound to make the receiving dog angry.
  • The game is getting too intense: you don’t feel the dog would come back if you would call him, and the game is only getting more and more intense. The dogs are not taking regular micro breaks to check that all still want to play.
  • A group of dogs against the same one dog.

Wrap up on dogs and play

If you want to remember just two things out of all of this:

  • Teach your dog to interrupt himself to come to you regularly, long before he is wound up. Work on a perfect recall with and without dogs as distractions. And take a break every minute or so, even if all is rosy, to get your dog gets into the habit of detaching himself from other dogs to come to you.
  • The key word is reciprocity. If the game is off-balance, things are iffy and one dog is not having a good time.
  • Do NOT ‘let them sort it out’ Would you let several kids intimidate one on the playground? Don’t do it with dogs either. The only thing they are learning by letting them sort it out is how to be scared and bullies, respectively. As soon as things get hairy, get out of there.
  • Find your dog appropriate play mates.

Problem behaviour

Most problem behaviours can be fixed by working out what the dog gets out of it, and then:
Making sure he never gets that pay-off when executing that annoying behaviour. Getting him that pay-off through an alternative behaviour that you like (e.g. sitting instead of jumping to greet people)

Moments you catch the dog red-handed are NOT teaching moments. If you are faced with a problem that annoys you, take the dog out of the situation and make a note to yourself that you need to train this.

When you start training, do this at times you’ll have the time and patience and calm to see it through. e.g. Teaching him to sit to greet you, instead of jumping, means you may have to withstand a lot of annoying greeting attempts before he ‘guesses’ the sit is what gets him the jackpot. If you crack when he’s intensifying his attempts, he might just greet more intensely from now on!

You can break a habit within 4-5 tiny 1-minute sessions over the course of a couple of days. But if you are not consistent, it’ll be very hard to break indeed.

Why won’t my dog listen?

In 99% of the times, it’s because of STUFF:


You know it’s the case when you see the usual stress signals (see poster, etc.)

Solution: take a deep breath, relax your muscles, stand slightly sideways to the dog, take a step back, and ask again. Nicely does it now. Basically, take it down a notch when you ask him to do something.

Teach him: is he really fluent enough?

You know it’s the case when: you wouldn’t bet 50 euros he can do it. That means the behaviour was shaky at best.

We played the French game, during which I mumbled an order in French, and the (non-French-speaking) student had to guess what I wanted. I put increasing pressure on the student to really make them feel how we make our dogs feel every single day. Take home point: Dogs don’t come out of the box speaking Dutch, English, Arabic, or French.

So you have to teach them new words in stages:

  1. Show them
  2. Say the word, then show them.
  3. Just say the word
  4. Gradually teach them the 3x D’s of fluency: Distraction, Duration, Distance.

You know you’re ready for the next stage if you would bet 50 euros he can perform flawlessly at the current one. If you’re not there, go back to ‘kindergarden’ for a second or two. Go back a stage or two to refresh the dog’s memory, and then take things back up at a more challenging level. It’ll take two seconds of your life and save you and the dog a lot of frustration.

Unfamiliar context

To generalize a learning moment, many dogs need to be showed the behaviour in at least 2-3 different spots. And so do we. One successful session in one context does not mean that the dog has internalized the word. If he’s falling apart in a new situation with a word you could swear he knows, just go back to kindergarden for one or two seconds, to refresh his memory.

Far too distracted

If your dog is too distracted to work, go back to kindergarden and show him what you mean again by pointing at it, etc – by doing whatever it is you did to help him understand the word when you first introduced it.

If he has to perform reliably in this distracting environment, you’ll need to train that gradually, by asking him to perform in environments resembling that challenging environment more and more.

Would you bet 50 euros he is going to hold his sit next to this loud kid? No? Then you’re being unfair and unrealistic expecting it. Is it important to you he has does? Yes? Then get training. Start with quiet kids at a distance, then quiet kids closer, then wild kids at a distance, then wild kids closer, etc.

And if it’s not that important to you, then just cheat if you have to stay close to the distraction and use a ‘combat treat’ (the more delicious kind, the larger kind, but the less healthy kind). You could also put a visual barrier (when it comes to dogs, it’s pretty much out of sight out of mind). This can be yourself, a line of trees, etc. The simplest thing is often to increase the distance to the distraction, and asking again. If you can at all, that’s your best bet.

Far too excited

In the long-term:

  • Ditch that dish, say no to fast food. Feed your dog from weighted puzzle feeders (called ‘antischrok bak’ in Dutch) and/or Kongs (good recipes here) instead of a dish.
  • Let him go out offleash as often as you safely can, particularly if this allows him to play with other dogs
  • Let him sniff, sniff, sniff. (tossing treats in the grass forces the sniffing issue nicely)
  • Other tips to chill your dog out

Right now:

  • Make sure your rewards are exciting/challenging enough, not just a treat in the mouth, but perhaps a game of tug, or tossing a treat for him to chase, or a little jog when he stops pulling on the leash. When he is in one of those moods, make sure he gets the kicks he clearly needs right now out of you.
  • Play a focus game where you say ‘yes’ and reward every bit of attention he pays you. When you have him in your grip, so to speak, then reward only calmer reactions. If you are feeling patient, don’t even prompt this. If time is of the essence, then make yourself obvious (make a strange noise, etc.). You can also play the ‘fist bump’ game. Hold your fist close to his nose and say ‘yes’ as soon as he bumps it with his nose, then give him a treat. Repeat in rapid fashion from different angles. You can repeat your original request to the dog when you have his calm focus back on you.

Will my dog be fat?

Not if you follow this advice:

  • Start to wean the dog off systematic rewards as soon as he is fluent for a behaviour. Wean him off gradually, staring by skipping a treat reward once in a while (but still reward with your voice), then skip it more and more often. Make sure you don’t do this like a clock (e.g. skipping 1:3 times) or the dog will work it you out and only work the times he expects a treat. Once you have weaned the dog off treats for a well-mastered behaviour, a ratio of 1:10 is reasonable, just praising the other times. Anything below that and you could lose the dog’s motivation.
  • Only use ‘combat treats’ (treats that are delicious, but potentially not as healthy) in situations when you really need it, like when teaching something particularly difficult, or in a highly distracting environment.
  • Take the treats you use for training from the dog’s daily ration, do not give him MORE than his daily ration of food just because you use treats in training.

Dogs and science/ethics

If you want to dig into the whole dominance bombshell:

If you want excellent sources of evidence-based and ethical tips on dog (mis)behaviour, check these out:

Essentially, the formula is this: patience, consistency, patience, boundaries, patience, intelligent discipline, patience, informed understanding, and… a lot of patience.

Lassie was a fictional character played by lots of different dogs who got hours of weekly training. And no, your childhood dog was not perfect when you really think about it.

So, like or kids, pick the battles that matter and enjoy the one you have.

Happy dog raising!

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