OhMyDog theory evening on dog behaviour in The Hague

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I had a great time presenting the theory evening in The Hague last night, even though I had my puppy brains on (supervising the puppy class before the theory can be hard on ye old trainer).

Thank you so much for your participation, particularly Zehra, who was our ‘French’ victim for the free-shaping game.

As promised, below 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, stiff muscles/movement

Some interesting body language things:

  • Shaking when not wet: Getting rid of tension after a mild stress/startle moment
  • Pilo-erection (hair stands on end): It means arousal. It can be fear-based, sex-, anger-, or play-based. Look at the whole dog, and the context, to know what you’re dealing with.
  • Wagging tail: It means “I have seen you and I am right here”. It doesn’t necessarily mean “I am dead happy to see you”. Again you’ve guessed it: look at the context and the whole the dog to know if it’s a happy or not so happy wag: is it wagging stiffly or softly? is it held high or low? etc.

Mild stress 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.
  • 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.

This is particularly useful for these situations:

  • A dog is barging towards your dog and you’d like to know the intruder’s likely intentions.
  • A kid is closely interacting with your dog and you’d like to know that he luuuurves it, not just tolerates it.
  • You get the feeling that rough play is getting a little, well, rough and you want to check your gut feeling.

Dogs and play

I shared the signs to help you tell whether 1/ All is probably well, or 2/ It might be time to think of taking a break, and / It is a good idea to leave 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 housemate dogs.

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 a couple of take-home points on the play thing:

  • 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, the incentive, and then making sure he gets the incentive for doing something else, and he no longer gets the incentive for engaging in the problem behaviour (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 When you do train this? At times you are feeling patient, at times you can control the trigger reasonably well (you’ll need to control-freak your guests a little at first). Any other time is not a teaching moment, but a management moment. Whatever you do during management moments, make sure you are not forced into in a situation where you have to give in and give the dog his incentive after he acted up. And remember the dreaded extinction burst. “If at first I don’t succeed… It means Mom’s gone deaf and I’ll just bark louder and longer.” You HAVE to go through the extinction burst without cracking, or it could become his new starting point. And obviously, any aggression problem, please don’t try to sort out yourselves (we don’t want an aggressive dog to try bigger and louder, right?) and drop us a line.

You can break most horrid habits within 4-5 tiny 1-minute sessions over 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, rather than being stubborn, dominant, stupid, a Beagle, etc.


Check: You are confident it’s stress because you see some of the stress signals.

Solution: back off a little, don’t be so intense. Take a deep breath, relax your muscles, stand slightly sideways to the dog, soften your eyes, talk in a happy whisper, take a step back, and… ask again, this time not like you’re shouting an order, but offering a nice opportunity. If stress was the case, your problem might be solved that easily.

Teach him: is he really fluent enough?

Check: Would you bet 50 euros he can do it? That means the behaviour was not rehearsed to a reliable enough degree in this context. Remember the French game? It wouldn’t be enough to teach that French word once. We’d have to repeat this a few times, mix it up with other words to make sure the student discriminates that word, etc. Same with dogs. Check they REALLY get it before you get annoyed at their lack of compliance.

To fix it, ‘go back to kindergarden’, go back a stage or two. The stages were:

  1. Showing them: i.e. luring them there, or pointing your finger. They comply? Say ‘yes’ and give them a treat. Repeat, repeat, repeat for a minute or two, and this a couple of times a day until they reliably do what you want when you point them there. Then go to stage 2.
  2. Saying the word, and only then showing them: Say the word in a way that is compelling to a dog (a happy whisper). Make sure they are taking it in, paying attention to your voice, or you’re wasting your time. At first, work in an environment that is not full of distractions. You will notice that, after a few reps, they start anticipating what they have to do after you’ve said the word, just before you start helping them with your finger. Delay the finger/lure help more and more at that stage, and make the help less and less obvious, until you can rely on your voice only to get the dog to comply. You’re ready for stage 2!
  3. Just say the word: Practice a few times, in a few different environments. If the dog forgets, just go back a stage or two a couple of times, then try again at stage 3.
  4. Take it on the road: proof that dog: Pick your battles, obviously, but for the behaviours you want to get mega-reliable, you’ll need to put in the effort. Unless you’ve taken a behaviour to stage 4, you don’t get to be annoyed with the dog for not complying when you ask the dog to do something for you. Proofing means making that behaviour road-ready, practicing in little increments of difficulty in terms of Distraction, Duration, Distance. As you work on one D, drop your criteria for the others.

Oh, and, nothing will die but your ego if the dog doesn’t comply one day. The life-death situations where the dog needs to be uber-reliable are basically the recall and the sit/wait.

Unfamiliar context

To generalize a learning moment, many dogs need to be showed the behaviour in at least 4-5 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. Here some ideas.
  • Let him go out off-leash 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 if I use food in training?

Not if you follow this advice:

  • Start to wean the dog off systematic rewards as soon as he is stage 4 in any behaviour (i.e. he can do it with his eyes closed in this situation). Wean him off gradually, starting by skipping a treat once in a while and ‘only’ praise him, then skip it more and more often. Don’t do it like clockworks (e.g. skipping one out of three systematically) or the dog will work it you out and only work hard one time out of three. Once you have weaned the dog off treats for a well-mastered behaviour, a ratio of (roughly) 1:10 is totally reasonable, praising the other times. Go too far below that, or go too fast when weaning him off, and you could lose the dog’s motivation. He could conclude that word no longer means what he thought it meant as he no longer gets rewarded for it – ever. If you play your cards right on weaning the dog off, he’ll be even keener to perform than when he got treats every time (we’re riding the gambling effect).
  • Only use ‘combat treats’ (treats that are delicious, but often more fatty) 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:

For the fanatics among you, I have written a million book reviews which you can find here (plenty more are in the pipeline, but I’ve not had a chance to write them).

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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