Scared of fireworks – working with Breagha

I’ve been working with Breagha, the working black Labrador, for a few months now and we have had six sessions in total. Alison, Breagha’s owner called me a few months ago and was looking for general training to have more control over B when out, who at the time was a 9 month old at the time.

Initially, we worked on focus and control using loads of play, as B is, quite typically of Labs, very playful and eager to please. We taught her a really good recall, sit and down at distance and speak and shush on cue for when people come to the door.

About 5 or 6 weeks ago, Alison was out with B and a firework exploded and Breagha got a huge fright and ran back into the house. For the next few days, she would barely come out of the bedroom and was far from her usual self. Alison emailed me but I wasn’t able to see her until this morning because of scheduling difficulties.

In the meantime, I asked Alison to get Breagha super super excited in the house with a ball and tug toy, then run outside, ask B to follow her, and then throw the toy back into the house. This would hopefully get B into a better frame of mind and then bring that more positive state of mind outside where she was scared, so she would be more confident. This worked well. I then asked that Alison feed Breagha outside by hand in the garden and let B try to relax a little and again, classically condition her to a better frame of mind out doors.

Also, in the meantime, Alison played a fireworks CD at a really low volume almost constantly in the house when she was in. When B no longer paid attention to the low volume, she gradually increased the volume, this habituated Breagha to the sound of fireworks so in time she would just ignore it as background noise.

This was going well and Alison was venturing out of the garden with Breagha but B would sometimes shut down after becoming overwhelmed and would then have to be driven home. Alison tried walking her with her dog friend Ellie but this didn’t work all the time.

I saw Alison and Breagha this morning. We continued with the play in the garden, getting her really excited with tug games and chasing the ball and then I got her to chase me out of the garden onto the street while I had the toy and we played tug on the street and then I brought her back in and we started again, getting a bit further off property with each trial. We did about five or six trials and things were going well so we put her on a long line and went for a walk. This method used the principles of “front-loading” which I blogged about previously

Breagha was relaxed when we left the garden and we walked around the leafy streets with her leading the way on the long line. Because she is well trained, we could afford to give her plenty of rope and she happily enjoyed her walk. Also, because Alison has done such a great job of training her and building a lovely bond with Breagha, if she started to get a bit stressed, we could ask he to recall, sit and speak and reward her with a game of tug which then put her in a better state. I’ve also blogged about this previously

We let Breagha go at her own pace, watched her body language carefully for signs of stress and caught her before her stress became to severe and changed her mood. We also really fired her up before she went off property with the intention of not allowing her to be stressed in the first place.

B is well on her way to recovery and will hopefully be back to herself in no time. A number of factors made her recovery fast. Good training, a good relationship with Alison, a well adjusted and well socialised dog (so she bounced back quickly) and a dedicated owner.

A well deserved game of tug to finish a successful session


Interact with your dog, build a relationship with them base in fun and respect. Train them to do a variety of basic behaviours. You never know when you, and they, might need it.

Dog whispering in the 21st century by Prescott Breeden

The following is an essay written by Prescott Breeden who is a certified dog trainer specialising in behaviour in Seattle. All the work is his and I have reproduced it here. Full credit for this essay goes to Mr Breeden. it is a well researched article which needs to be shared and read.

The original link is

Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer,” is undeniably popular and commercially successful, however his methods that rely on provocation and dominance have been controversial in the world of dog training and among dog owners. Conversation about his techniques is a very incendiary topic that brings out the strongest passions in both dog trainers and owners alike. Opinions are usually extremely polarized and often the conversation provokes individuals into a rage of character attacks—whether they are aimed at Millan, his supporters, or his critics. I am not here to talk about character; I am here to talk about the science of applied animal behavior and why there is such vast dissension on the topic.

Road Map

This is an atypical essay for the casual reader in so much as it is not really intended for casual reading. Due to the nature of this topic and the plethora of essays that have proceeded my own, I have decided to present the science in a little more unusual detail. I believe that one of the reasons for so much dissension regarding the topic of dominance and training methods is that they are typically dumbed-down to a level that is casual—the belief being that the average reader is not educated enough to be given the marrow of the subject. The issue with casual discussion is that it invites casual counterarguments that usually have no support in the academic literature, turning the conversation into a cartoon of “you’re wrong” “no you’re wrong.” Personally, I believe people are incredibly intelligent and if we hope to raise the understanding of dog behavior with dog owners then we need to spend more time teaching the complexities. The language in this article is no different than what you would find in the academic literature, thus in the hopes that I do not lose anybody, I want to give a brief overview of some terminology to come.

View slideshow: Darwin’s drawings

In the terminology section below, I have laid out six terms: five that may be new to many readers (agonistic behavior, intraspecific, dyad, phenotype, and phylogenetic), and one that is as sticky and overused as ‘dominance’ (aggression). I will get to dominance in a later section, however I want to take a moment to explain why I will be using the term “aggression” as minimally as possible.

I spent months looking for a definition of aggression in dogs, and as it turns out, it is essentially still undefined (Miklosi, 2008, p. 172). There is a great debate between the “lumpers” and the “splitters” and attempts to create a unification of one definition have not yet been successful (Houpt, 2006). One author categorized aggression into 12 different types (Beaver, 1983) but then later re-categorized those into 15 various types with as many as 21 different subtypes (Beaver, 2009, Box 4-1). It is impossible to have a general scientific discussion about an idea that requires so many various definitions depending on context.

John Paul Scott, a founding member of the Animal Behavior Society and prolific author, said this about aggression:

Aggression is a poor scientific term and chiefly functions as a convenient handle to relate phenomena described in more objective terms to practical human problems. What we are really concerned with is agonistic behavior, a behavioral system composed of behavior patterns having the common function of adaptation to situations involving physical conflict between members of the same species. We cannot analyze fighting behavior without also studying the alternate behavior patterns of escape, threat, “freezing”, defensive posture, dominance and subordination, etc. (Scott, 1966)


Agonistic Behavior: any behavior associated with conflict between two individuals

Aggression: a physical act* by one individual that reduces the freedom or genetic fitness of another (Wilson, E.O., 1975)

*As JP Scott said, aggression is generally a poor scientific term, so for the purposes of this essay I have limited the definition to try and avoid confusion. For more definitions, see references (Ramirez & Andreu, 2006; Houpt, 2006; Beaver, 2009).

Intraspecific: arising or occurring within a species; involving the members of one species

Dyad: pair; two individuals maintaining a socially significant relationship

Phenotype: set of observable characteristics of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype with the environment (i.e. traits such as morphology, development, physiological properties, behavior, and products of behavior)

Phylogenetic: evolutionary development and diversification of a species or group of organisms, or of a particular feature of an organism.

Criticizing the “Dog Whisperer”: Getting Through the Polarization

The largest opposition to Millan’s techniques comes from animal behaviorists (individuals with PhDs typically in psychology, ethology, zoology, or biology) and positive trainers. These professionals employ methods that rely on avoiding confrontation, reinforcing desired behavior, and changing negative associations that are typically the cause of undesirable reactive and agonistic behaviors. Their criticisms of Millan’s methods are often dismissed as jealousy of his financial success. The problem with this argument is that anyone who works in animal welfare (which is the role of any dog trainer) is not in a financially lucrative field, and so professionals who choose a career with animals are not governed by financial motivation. It would be the same as arguing that a child welfare worker had an issue with a television show that demonstrated methods for intimidating children in school simply because they are jealous of their income. Ninety per cent of dog professionals earn less than fifty-six thousand dollars a year[1]. If financial success was a motivation for criticism among scientists and professionals, than we would see other individuals with highly lucrative incomes being attacked and criticized as well; however, the debate is always focused on these specific training techniques with no correlation to the money earned by the individual(s) utilizing the techniques. Millan earns significantly more money than the Monks of New Skete, however the techniques employed by both (which are very similar; involving provocative confrontation and dominance) are criticized equally. Millan comes up more as a topic because he has been popularized through media exposure.

Millan’s perception from his television show has placed a very unique spin on the issue of polarized opinion. There is no denying that he is selling products—books, collars, apparel, and pack leader training DVDs[2]—Millan has gained immense credibility by his presence on television, far more credibility than if he had only written books. Not only does television create publicity from a non-company source (in this case, National Geographic), but it biologically creates strong learning associations in the brain due to the neurological characteristics of the number of pathways in which the messages travel (Tavassoli, 1998; Stammerjohan et al., 2005). This combines with a very normal human phenomenon of dismissing new information that doesn’t conform to a pre-existing understanding (i.e. is contradictive) because it is threatening to their world-view (Nyhan & Reifler, 2011). Thus, criticizing Millan’s training techniques can cause an individual to react defensively or even aggressively towards the information, even though the criticism was neither directed at them nor was incriminating of their views and opinions. It is important for everyone to take a step back and realize that no one is born knowing the universe, and education is something that happens for a lifetime. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the life-long attempt to acquire it.” If we stop striving to understand the biological mechanisms of behavior beyond our current understanding, than our beliefs become cultism, not science.

This goes for both dominance trainers and positive trainers.

Holly and the “Showdown”

Recently, Nat Geo Wild released a trailer for the final season of The Dog Whisperer called “Showdown with Holly”[3]. In this video, Millan shows the owners of a yellow lab (Holly) how they should handle her resource guarding. In short, Millan instigates Holly to react defensively by intimidating her with hard eye contact (a threat signal to dogs) and crowding her physical space while she is trying to eat from her food bowl. After causing her to react defensively, Millan strikes her in the neck with what he calls “the claw” or a touch correction “designed to simulate the mouth and teeth of a mother dog or a more dominant dog” (Millan & Peltier, 2007, p. 48). He is always very clear that these are never hits; however, if you watch the video in slow motion, he clearly strikes her hard in the neck with the narrow side of his flat hand. You might not think much of this except that when force is a constant, pressure increases when you reduce surface area. Thus instead of dispersing the contact points across the diameter of this hand, he creates a focus point of contact approximately at his knuckle. This increases the sensation of the contact (which to a soft part of the neck is a fancy way to avoid saying increases the amount of pain).

Ethically, this is inexcusable to broadcast around the world. The general population is not educated enough in behavior science to understand the vast number of problems that can arise with trying to implement this training style which is nothing more than antiquated abuse (Jensen, 2007, p. 138). It does not matter how many times a disclaimer reads, “do not try this at home” because people do, and there are an estimated 4.5 to 4.7 million dog bites every year that are directly related to the approach people use to change major behavior problems (Sacks et al.,1996; Herron et al., 2009; Yin, 2011)—as demonstrated by Millan in the video, who was bitten very hard creating a puncture wound with significant bleeding.

Behaviorally, there are several concerns with the claw or a bite-mimic. Foremost, there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in how an inhibited bite is performed by mothers towards their pups. Some mothers are gentler in their approach and others seem more aggressive; however, mothers that use less aggressive corrective behavior with their pups appear to develop stronger social bonds with their offspring (Wilsson, 1984).

Ultimately, humans lack the morphological and hormonal traits required to reproduce maternal behavior towards a puppy and thus using occasionally observed maternal behavior as support for a highly confrontational technique on a broad scale is behaviorally flawed. Confrontational methods which involve pain, fear and intimidation increase the probability of owners being bitten by their dogs, damage the owner-dog relationship, and decrease a dog’s willingness and ability to obey commands (Weiss & Glazer, 1975; Reisner, 1994; Hiby et al., 2004; Schilder & van der Borg, 2004; Herron et al., 2009; Beaver, 2009; Arhant et al., 2010; Rooney & Cowan, 2011). Not only do we lack an understanding of which degree of corrective maternal behavior, in all of its wide variance, actually produces the best offspring but it is also impossible for us to physically replicate the jaws and teeth of an obligate carnivore and swift strikes with our fingers can teach dogs to be fearful of hands—another significant factor for dog bites (Rosado et al., 2009).

What most Millan supporters fail to appreciate is that these techniques have a significantly lower rate of success as opposed to systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning employed by Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists and positive trainers. Biting is just one behavioral outcome during agonistic behavior, and one of the primary reasons why well-socialized dogs bite people is that we do not respond to their other agonistic signals. If a dog is attempting to peacefully resolve a conflict with us and we ignore their attempt to ask us for space, they will be forced to respond defensively. Pushed to the limit, most animals will resort to aggression in a moment when withdrawal is not an option (e.g. attempting to force ‘submission’). Occasionally, the removal of withdrawal in a conflict will flood a dog into a state of learned helplessness and they will shut down—causing a state of severe emotional depression and psychological stress no different than PTSD-like symptoms in humans (Seligman, 1972); however, with other dogs, it simply suppresses warning signals creating dogs who bite without warning. It is difficult to predict which outcome will happen—which in any case, neither is good—so through research, behaviorists have learned alternate ways of addressing the same behavior while limiting the risk of escalating symptoms, suppressing warning signals, creating psychological trauma, or damaging the human-canine bond. Intraspecific agonistic behavior is adaptively significant behavior designed to prevent injury in social animals, however as owners, we frequently view signals intended to keep the peace as hostile acts. By doing so, we naturally escalate the behavior right at the point where it would be easiest to fix with systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning.

What is always shocking to me is that Millan gets bitten a lot. Regardless of methods, which can be argued until people are blue in the face, if Millan knew how to read the visual signals of canine body language he would not be bitten so frequently. Because pathological aggression is rare, a dog has usually been provoked in some fashion whenever he or she bites—typically inadvertently—and the most common response when this happens is, “I did not see that coming.”

The Problems with Error Cues and Contradictive Information

Positive trainers are not devoid of fault in failing to help dog owners understand the problems with colloquial dominance, frequently making statements to the effect of “dominance is a myth”[4] and trying to throw this messy, sticky, and complex concept out the window because of trainers who use a complete misapplication of dominance to support their abusive methods. First, this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater and goes against the terminology used in an unquantifiable amount of behavioral research on social behavior in animals. Second, the concept of dominance is not going to “go away” by pretending it is a myth when it is one of the oldest principles of ethology—even if it is rampantly misused by its colloquial misunderstanding. Third, dog trainers are teachers for both dogs and their owners, and being a good teacher requires building a student’s confidence (something Millan does extremely well). Telling people they are “wrong” (an error cue) when they mistakenly misapply the concept and believe “Muffy is biting the mailman because she thinks she is dominant,” is very punishing. Error cues damage self-confidence and produce weaker learning (Tzetzis et al., 2008), so modifying information is a more effective teaching tool in general than being dismissive and contradictive. Dominance is complicated; it is thoroughly discussed in the literature; and you cannot take 80 years of research and throw it out the window because you do not understand it.

What is Dominance?

When trying to find common ground to expand a concept, definitions are essential. We cannot go anywhere without accurately defining what we are talking about. Irwin Bernstein, a primatologist, wrote perhaps one of the most comprehensive and influential essays on dominance called “The Baby and the Bathwater.” In my research for this essay, which encompassed hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and various ethology textbooks over the course of several months, I have not found anything that defines it so eloquently.

The concept of dominance is used in the behavioral and biological sciences to describe outcomes in a variety of competitive interactions. In some groups, a history of agonistic encounters among individuals modifies the course of future agonistic encounters such that the existence of a certain type of relationship can be inferred. (Bernstein, 1981)

The Bathwater

  1. Dominance is not an inheritable trait, therefore an animal cannot be ‘dominant’ in the same way that you can say an animal has brown eyes (Bernstein, 1981).

No animal is born dominant. They are born with phenotypes that will produce teeth, coloration, size, strength, etc. The product of these traits and others (such as temperament), paired with another animal’s individual phenotypical characteristics, will promote an outcome during a dyadic agonistic interaction. Dominance is not an individual trait, rather a reflection of the agonistic relationship between two individuals that can vary over time depending on the context (Fatjo et al.,2007).

  1. Dominance relationships are not dependent on the presence of a social hierarchy (Hinde, 1978).

Because the nature of dominance is about a dyadic relationship, you can accept its existence without implying agonistic dominance rank hierarchies as well. There is tremendous variance in the way animals form both social hierarchies and agonistic relationships; so, to assume that they must be reflections of the same proximal, evolutionary, functional, and developmental causes is not supported in the literature. In wolves, social hierarchies are created largely due to ecological conditions (such as abundance of food, local competition, size of prey, etc.) whereas agonistic relationships are largely a product of temperament, learning, and proximity. Even if an animal has the phylogenetic capacity to develop a social hierarchy—which some dogs may not (Ha, 2011)—they still have to meet the correct environmental conditions for the behavior to emerge (Udell et al., 2010).

  1. Dominance is not a motivation (Bradshaw et al., 2009).

Agonistic behavior is highly dependent on the context of the resource. One dog might love bones but have no interest in toys while the other loves toys but has no interest in bones. The majority of the agonistic behavior seen between these dogs is dependent on both the perceived value of the item as well as phenotypical characteristics (e.g. size, strength, weaponry, etc.) to determine the motivation for fighting between both animals (Choi et al., 2011). The motivation is the perceived value of the resource, not achieving a rank.

Obligate carnivores are powerful and capable of killing and dismembering an animal with ease, including each other (Polis, 1981); therefore intraspecific aggression is not adaptively significant for survival and inappropriate aggression is usually selected out of wild populations due to adaptive pressures (Lorenz, 1966; Schaller, 1972; Brown, 1975). Survival among such potentially dangerous predators that prefer living in tightly knit groups is dependent on the ability to avoid conflict (Pierce & Bekoff, 2012). Dogs have evolved to utilize a host of agonistic behaviors that have this conflict avoiding purpose. Unfortunately, these go unrecognized by humans or are interpreted incorrectly as dominance (McConnell, 2002). The function of many agonistic behaviors (e.g. looking away, avoidance, play bow, etc.) is to terminate aggression from a social member (Bernstein, 1981). To mistake the desire in our dogs to peacefully resolve a conflict as an attempt to become dominant is extremely damaging to the trust that guides that relationship.


Short list of behaviors seen during agonistic encounters in dogs (Scott & Fuller, 1965, Table 3.1; McGreevy et al., 2012)

  • Avoidance
  • Bare teeth (snarling)
  • Biting*
  • Body shake
  • Chasing
  • Crouching
  • Ears back
  • Ears forward
  • Excitement bark
  • Frustration bark
  • Warning growl
  • Head and neck roll
  • Lick lips
  • Look away
  • Pawing
  • Pilo-erection (hackles up)
  • Play bow
  • Play growl
  • Prance
  • Relaxed gaze into face
  • Rolling on back
  • Running away
  • Sitting
  • Snapping teeth
  • Stalk
  • Stare
  • Submission grin
  • Tail wag
  • Tail high (flag tail)
  • Tail between legs
  • Whine
  • Yelping and showing teeth


*Note that biting is only one of 32 behaviors on this very short list; a comprehensive list would fill a thesis paper for a PhD candidate.

Visual Body Language: Dogs and Wolves

Unfortunately, understanding the complexity of any language is not as simple as memorizing a definition. Recognizing the context is imperative when it comes to reading body language correctly—without the right context it is easy to make mistakes. All of these behaviors are commonly seen during other types of interactions (such as play), however the context of the behavior is just as important as the inflection and tone we use with our voice when we try to discern meaning in a sentence. “Your son is special” vs “your son is special” vs “your son is, special” all mean slightly different things (and you might even be offended by the latter) even though the words are identical between them. We can turn a compliment into a sarcastic insult purely by modifying which word(s) we emphasize (i.e. the context of the sentence).

Analyzing the visual language of the domestic dog dates back to Charles Darwin, nearly 100 years before any biologists began studying wolf behavior in captivity. Darwin’s theory of antithesis was the beginning of our understanding of agonistic behavior; his theory was that animals in opposite states of mind perform movements directly opposite in nature (Darwin, 1872). A dog responding to a threat of an object approaching from a distance [Figure 1] in contrast to the behavior expressed as soon as it recognized it was their owner [Figure 2]. The original context of Darwin’s drawings is that they demonstrate how these signals readily change as the context changes—the motivation for the behaviors are not to ‘be’ dominant or ‘be’ subordinate rather they impart intention and the behavior in Figure 2 is a highly prosocial behavior that is key to building strong social bonds with companions.

[Figure 1]

(See Slideshow)

Hackles up, back arched, ears forward, tail up, head down

[Figure 2]

(See Slideshow)

Hackles down, back inverted, ears back, tail down, head up

Holly and her Appeasement

In the “Showdown,” Holly gives Millan about ten different signals to ask him for space and avoid conflict. If you watch it in slow motion you will notice all of the following agonistic behaviors: avoidance, crouching/hunkering, ears back, warning growl, snarling, lick lips, look away, relaxed gaze into face, sitting, and snapping teeth. She gives him an abundant amount of information saying, “please give me space,” until eventually, the pressure is built up to a point where she gives an eleventh agonistic behavior and bites him.

Previous to the bite, Millan says that he had never seen those behaviors before in her, that he was “seeing them for the first time.” His approach to her behavior problem—which mind you was nothing more than run of the mill resource guarding—was causing her symptoms to escalate. If you hired me to fix your gutter because you had a leak, but instead of fixing the gutter I put a hole in your roof, you would have me in civil court in a heartbeat.

After the bite, Millan says, “I didn’t see that coming.” To be fair, once in a while a professional will encounter a dog with very little warning signs and get caught off guard. This was not that case. Holly gave him more warnings than I have ever seen a dog give under such immense provocation; even after he strikes her in the neck she still displays more signals asking to be given space and terminate the conflict before resorting to a bite.

Aggression and Dominance

Psychological stress is far more potent than physical harm (albeit physical harm always has a negative psychological by-product), and methods involving confrontation are dangerous in the response they can evoke. Behaviors included in confrontational methods are: leash corrections, muzzling, choke and prong collars, forced released of items from a dog’s mouth, alpha rolling, force downs, kneeing dogs in chest for jumping, hitting or kicking dogs, grabbing jowls or scruffs, dominance downs, neck jabs, shock collars, bark-activated shock collars, rubbing a dog’s nose in house accidents, yelling, “tsst” or “schhhtt”, stare down, water pistol or spray bottle, forced exposure, and growling at a dog. These methods produce aggressive responses from dogs as much as 43% of the time that they are employed by pet owners (Herron et al., 2009). What is particularly frustrating is that aggressive behavior in response to these types of methods, typically due to pain or fear, is quickly labeled dominance-aggression and dogs are often euthanized as a result when attempting to instill ‘submission’ doesn’t work (Sherman et al., 1996). Millan says, “Powerful dogs in the red zone have caused severe bites and even deaths. Most of the time, these are dominant dogs whose owners can’t handle them” (Millan & Peltier, 2006, p. 147-148). When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like nails.

Status-seeking or Group-seeking?

The pervasive damage done by the ideology of dominance as a trait is often supported with the concept of dogs being status-seekers. As I mentioned earlier, dominance and rank are not synonymous. A dominant-subordinate relationship is capable of predicting the outcome of an agonistic interaction based on a history of observations between two individuals. Rank, however, is subject to other factors beyond a single dyad and is influenced heavily by group dynamics (such as intraspecific alliances—not many kids get beaten up at school when they have an alliance with the Rugby team).

Millan and other dominance-based trainers maintain the idea that not only are dogs born dominant or submissive, but also that they are naturally motivated to achieve a higher rank—especially if there is an ineffective leader (Millan & Peltier, 2006, p. 3, 27, 113, 139, 168, 230, 242, 247-248). The idea behind this is a misperception of evolutionary motivation.

Evolutionary selective pressures cannot select for relationships such as heavier than, taller than, smarter than, or more dominant than. Evolutionary selective pressures cannot operate on the relative contents of social contexts favoring one individual over another. Genes lie in the individual and not in the space between individuals. Genes influence the absolute and not the relative properties of attributes. Dominance, as a relationship between individuals, is not an absolute property of an individual, but an outcome influenced by multiple properties of individuals. (Bernstein, 1981)

The more we learn about social behavior in animals, the more we realize that social animals evolve away from conflict, not towards it. Prosocial behaviors like cooperation, fairness, reciprocity, empathy, trust, consolation, and altruism are a central driving force of evolution; not dominance (Pierce & Bekoff, 2012). It is—and has always been—a dangerous world, and species that are prosocial and cooperate for protection and food gathering are more successful. One of the most important factors in developing cooperation and reciprocity in a relationship is through a play atmosphere where animals learn the rights and wrongs (i.e. morals) of social interactions, motivated to keep play lasting longer by inhibiting their bites, playing nice, self-handicapping, etc. (Jensen, 2007).

Enlisting the Help of a Professional

It is absolutely imperative that if you have a dog with major behavioral issues that you seek aprofessional who is experienced with reading body language and understands the importance and science of positive methods. If you hire a person like Millan who cannot recognize the difference between threats and conciliation (or worse believes that the signals themselves have dominance characteristics) then you will be unable to gain the trust needed to build a better bond with your dog. Leadership is about communication, not dominance, and trust is the foundation of every sentient and gregarious being’s social relationship. It is the foundation of what dictates our ability to communicate and to share a life of cooperation instead of confrontation. You cannot build trust by striking, kicking, and intimidating: only fear.

Dog Bites

These are not safe tools, and with Cesar hitting mainstream media, dog bites are on the rise both in the U.S and other countries. Hospital admissions due to dog bites have risen 59% in some areas (Newman et al., 2010) since his episodes began airing. Television is consistently listed as the source of information where an owner learned to attempt a technique that resulted in their dog becoming aggressive towards them or biting them (Herron et al., 2009).

It is undeniable that Millan has created a highly appealing explanation and philosophy for understanding dog behavior. Before I began studying applied animal behavior, I was Millan’s biggest fan—read all of his books, watched his show, and could not understand why my uncle (a veterinarian) called him a quack. His pontifications are a call to arms, to step up, to be a leader. It is immensely empowering to listen to and read. He takes the romanticism behind the concept of the dog whisperer and tells the world that they can do it too; that as long as anyone steps up to be a leader, behavior problems disappear.

However, dogs do not read poetry, and Millan’s dangerous and abusive methods ignore 80 years of research in animal behavior. The references below are from more than a half-century of PhD-level research in psychology, behavioral neuroscience, applied animal behavior, ethology, and zoology. Cesar Millan is “self-taught.” The arithmetic is really pretty simple.

Recommended Reading and Viewing:

Marc Bekoff, PhD, an evolutionary biologist and a pioneer in the field of animal behavior, emotions and cognition, has written excellent blogs on the subject of dominance and on Millan after he strangled a husky on national television

James Ha, PhD, CAAB, a certified applied animal behaviorist and one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, wrote an excellent blog on Millan’s dangerous methodsand you can watch his interview on Komo4 news

Ian Dunbar, PhD, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist, talks about the “Mickey Mouse” version of dominance in traditional dog training

Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB, a certified applied animal behaviorist and a brilliant writer. Her book “The Other End of the Leash, Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs” (McConnell, 2002) is an absolute must read for gaining insight to human and canine body language as well as understanding dominance in both primates and canines. Be sure to check out her excellent blogas well.


References (alphabetical)


Arhant, C., Bubna-Littitz, H., Bartels, A., Futschik, A., & Troxler, J. (2010). Behaviour of smaller and larger dogs: Effects of training methods, inconsistency of owner behaviour and level of engagement in activities with the dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science123(3-4), 131–142. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2010.01.003

Beaver, B. V. (1983). Clinical classification of canine aggression. Applied animal ethology10(1), 35–43.

Beaver, B. V. G. (2009). Canine behavior: insights and answers. St. Louis, Mo.: Saunders/Elsevier.

Bernstein, I.S. (1981). Dominance: The baby and the bathwater. J Behav Brain Sci 4:419-57.

Brown, J. L. (1975). The evolution of behavior. New York: Norton.

Choi, D., Kim, K.-H., & Jang, Y. (2011). Agonistic interactions between nymphs of Lycorma delicatula (Hemiptera: Fulgoridae). Journal of Asia-Pacific Entomology14(1), 21–25. doi:10.1016/j.aspen.2010.11.010

Darwin, C. R. 1872. The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray. 1st edition.

Fatjó, J., Feddersen-Petersen, D., Ruiz de la Torre, J. L., Amat, M., Mets, M., Braus, B., & Manteca, X. (2007). Ambivalent signals during agonistic interactions in a captive wolf pack. Applied Animal Behaviour Science105(4), 274–283. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2006.11.009

Ha, Jim. (2011) Behavioral Genetics. DVD, TawzerDog. Retrieved October 6, 2012, from–Jim-Ha-.php

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Front loading your dog training sessions

This post applies to both training sessions for general work like recalls and also behavioural work like aggression or nervousness.

I started applying this almost inadvertently. When I initially meet clients, especially for behavioural sessions, the client can understandably be nervous. Judgements from others, not knowing what to expect and feeling that they are not in control of their dogs can all play a part in this. I’ve already spoken to most of my clients at least once on the phone, so I hope I’ve put them at ease and let them know that what they’ve done in the past is in the past and that we are there to try to de-stress them and their dog and to resolve the issues they are having.

With all dog training, engagement with your dog is absolutely key. Some clients have little or no relationship with their dog, so we start by getting them to engage with their dog either through play or by feeding them. We do this in a low distraction environment, so that the dog gets some training and the client sees the techniques working. In aggression cases, we do this even before we see the stimulus which causes the dog to react. The client’s skill level and how trainable the dog is, are factors which determine how long we do this for. Sometimes it can be 5 minutes and sometimes a bit longer, even as much as 20 minutes.

What happens here is that the owner is teaching the dog that they are relevant in that environment. Often, I see people out walking with their dogs who are listening to their ipod or talking on the phone. in many circumstances, they are teaching their dogs that the dog is on his own time throughout the walk and they wonder why the dog won’t recall when they need it to.

Now the dog knows the owner is there and is a source of fun. Short “dog time” sessions are frequently interrupted by engaging, fun sessions with Mum or Dad and then they are let off to play again.

Here’s where the “front loading” part really comes into play. When the training starts, the dog has already been paying attention to the owner for the past 5-20 minutes. What I find here is that they are then far more likely to engage with the owner, or at least disengage from the reactive stimuli that they were before. It seems very obvious and according to the rules of common sense but the level of interaction the dog is willing to give you is high.

So, next time you take your dog out for a walk, for what ever reason, think about feeding her for a couple of minutes by hand before you go out the front door. Ask him to sit in front of you in the front garden and play a game of tug before you even get out the gate. Do this at regular intervals throughout out the walk to the park and again before you release him to play when you get there. You will find he is much more willing to spend time with you.

Until next time, happy dog training


Martin working with the now non-reactive Magnus in next to Archie the Boxer


Sessions with Serge

Serge is a 7 month old Dogue de Bordeaux who I have been working with recently. His problems stem from not enough socialisation during his puppyhood. If you follow my blog, you will know how important I feel proper socialisation, both at the right times and in the right way, is in the development of your dog.

Serge lives with his owner in a more rural area close to me. He has been brought up around horses and with two other dogs and is more confident when he is out with the bulldog he lives with who is great with other dogs. Serge can react aggressively with other dogs and to some other novel things he experiences but his reaction is fairly mild and he soon comes round.

We have done two session so far. In our first session, we worked on teaching Nikki his owner, proper handling skills so she could use correct distance from other dogs to keep Serge feeling safe and I also taught her how to time her reinforcements effectively.

The second session was a few weeks later and Serge had already started to make good progress. Nikki had been keeping Segre from a safe distance from other dogs and feeding him when he saw them so that Serge builds an association between seeing other dogs and being fed. We met at a local park, which I use often as it is large, and had very large open area so you can see the approaching dogs from a distance of up to 400 metres. The park is always busy with both dog owners and professional dog walkers, there are loads of dogs off leash and because I use it often, I know lots of the dogs and how social (or not) they are. There is also an enclosed dog park where Colin, one of the dog walkers, exercises his dogs.This enclosed dog park has an “air-lock” gate.

We moved round to the dog park and we approached from  a distance of about 25m away from the gate. There were about 15 dogs or so, including several large dark coloured dogs in the park who all ran up to the fence to see Serge. Serge stopped and looked at the dogs. His reaction was a bit too head on but not really “high” so we told him he was a good lad and rewarded him with food and then moved him away. We then approached again. By this time, the other dogs had moved off and were playing with each other again. Because they had moved away from the fence, Serge felt more comfortable approaching the gate. He then looked at the other dogs through the gate without reacting. One dog came over to say hello and then a few others joined this dog and soon there were several dogs at the fence and Serge was greeting them all appropriately.

At this point, I was watching for any adverse change in Serge’s body language. Any stiffening of his body, hard staring or snarling/growling. If he had done this, I would have immediately called him and moved away with him (he was wearing a long line which I was holding without tension). Colin’s dog came out to say hello. This dog has great social skills with other dogs. As Colin’s dog cam out, we called Serge and moved away with both dogs so Serge could say hello to him away from the fence. the reason for this was that Serge was no coping with greeting several big, calm dogs behind the fence and was fairly relaxed but he might not have been able to cope with the added stress of Colin’s dog being so close, so we moved away to reduce the pressure of the bigger dogs and Serge could say hello to Colin’s dog.

This went well. Colin called his dog back in and then a wee Cockerpoo came out to say hi. This also went well. The cocker was really gentle, inviting Serge to play with play bows. Serge was a bit reluctant at first but the cocker persevered and soon Serge was playing. What was interesting here was if Serge became too intense, the cocker stopped the play by lying down, then Serge stopped running. When Serge calmed down, the cockerpoo began to play again.

We ended the session here and called it a day. There is always a tendency to want to continue but I prefer to err on the side of caution in the early stages. A good session from Serge and Nikki and thanks to Colin and his own dog and also the cockerpoo.