Possessive dogs – working with Wallace


I worked recently with a young guy, Steven, who has a five month old Rottweiler. Wallace is a handsome dog, very friendly and a typical Rottweiler puppy. The reason for the consultation was that Wallace had started to become increasingly possessive over certain items which had been dropped on the floor, such as tissues, items of rubbish outside and so forth. Steven told me he usually tries to get the items from Wallace by holding his collar and taking them from his mouth, which Wallace has taken a dislike to and had started to react by either running away when he has something and hiding or snarling, growling and lunging if he wasn’t able to run off.

Now, from my previous two blogs, I’ve explained that dogs do what works for them. If behaviours are reinforced, they will increase. So, as Wallace lunges and snaps which causes Steven to back off, he learns this behaviour works. He is not “winning” or being dominant or “bad”, he is simply learning what actions get him what he wants.

Also from my previous blogs, you may recognise the following statement which I have started to apply to my training – Control the environment, not the dog, so that the dog makes better decisions and then reinforce those choices to make them more likely in the future. 

In this instance, our environmental controls would be working at a distance where Wallace feels comfortable and not allowing him to run off and hide under the table where we would be unable to work. The decisions we are looking for Wallace to make are not reacting in a way we don’t like (lunging etc), and to willingly drop the item he has in his mouth on our approach. We were aiming to train Wallace not to want or feel the need to guard the object from us.

We started off with Wallace off leash in the livingroom and used Chirag Patel’s method which is described in the following link


I told Steven to continue to work on this technique often, at least a couple of times a day for several weeks, to build a really strong behaviour.

Once Wallace had the hang of this, we tethered him with a 6 ft long leash to a piece of furniture so he couldn’t move away under the table. Another way we could have controlled the environment would have been to move the table out of the room or practice in an empty room. We then gave him a pig’s ear (a prized item) to chew on. Ordinarily, Wallace would run and hide with the item if you approached from about 4 feet way and lunge if your hand was within about a foot of him. Starting at 5 feet or so, I used the “drop” cue and dropped pieces of cheese on the floor. I pointed them out to Wallace, he dropped the ear and ate them. I then walked away and let him go back to his pig’s ear.

We did this several times and then I got a little closer. He was now willingly dropping the pig’s ear on my approach, even before the cue and approaching me with relaxed body language. I reinforced this with food and let him go back to his ear. I repeated this several times also. The next time, I approached, asked him to “drop”, he dropped th pig’s ear, I reinforced with food and then I picked up the pig’s ear while he was eating cheese cubes from the floor. When he finished, I give him the ear back and walked away.

Here, I was continually reinforcing behaviours I wanted, i.e. relaxed body language on my approach and giving up the pig’s ear. Because I didn’t get into a confrontation with him (something I would undoubtedly lose in a few months time), reinforced the right decisions he made and gave him his pig’s ear back, he started looking forward to me approaching and all thoughts of running away of fighting for the pig’s ear were gone.

The last few times, after I gave him the pig’s ear back, I help onto it for a few moments before letting go. What happens here is that the dog learns that your hand is better at holding the pig’s ear than his front feet, and then he enjoys you holding it as he can chew it more easily. This stage can only be done if your dog has enough trust that you won’t try to take it from him.

I then had Steven do all the steps and talked him through it so he felt confident in doing it when I wasn’t there. Before I arrived, Wallace would have run under the table and would have probably bitten me if I had tried to take the ear from him. By the end of the session, he was willingly lying next to me or Steven while he was chewing the pig’s ear. The technique described will take many, many sessions for it to be come completely reliable in Wallace and Steven will need to practice daily. If you are doing something similar with your dog, take advice from a professional and go at your dog’s pace.

A great result, all without force or intimidation.

Three Levels of Dog Training

Bunty, thinking about her options
Bunty, considering her options

I’ve been trying to formulate my own system of training and behaviour modification for a while now from the information I’ve learned from a number of great dog people. I’ve come up with a three level training/behaviour modification system which hopefully is easily to understand and apply.

Level 1. This is the most empowering level for both the dog and the owner. The crux of it is in the following statement which I learned from Dr Susan Friedman – control the environment, not the dog, to allow him to make other choices, and then reinforce those choice to make them more likely to happen in the future. It is hugely empowering for our dogs to be in control of their own decisions. Now this doesn’t mean we allow our dogs to do whatever they want. Through careful control of the environment, we can limit or change the dog’s options so it now becomes easier for them to do something we want them to do (and difficult for them to do something we don’t want them to do) and when they do it, the wise use of reinforcers makes it more likely to re-occur.

If your dog jumps up on people when you stop to talk to them, we can stand on his lead so he can’t jump (give him enough slack that he can still stand or sit comfortably). We have now controlled his access to reinforcement (the person) and we can now reinforce (with food/praise) four feet on the floor. If we do this every time, the dog now has a large reinforcement history of four feet on the floor, and a tiny history of being reinforced for jumping. Not jumping is now much, much more likely.

Level 2. This is less empowering for the dog but the dog still has lots of choice. In this level, we use previously trained behaviours to give the dog instruction about what we want him to do. This is useful if our environmental control, as described in Level 1, gets away from us and the dog isn’t voluntarily able to make a decision which we are able to reinforce. We can now tell the dog what we want him to do.

To give you a couple of examples, say we are training our dog to remain within a certain radius of us. The dog is almost at the limit if the radius and suddenly a pigeon lands very close to her. The environment now changed and we couldn’t do anything about it. It is unreasonable to expect the dog to return to us without prompting at this stage unless we have trained for it, but what we can do is prompt the recall with a verbal cue which we have previously worked on. The dog now returns to us and we can reinforce this choice.

Another example would be if your dog is reactive to other dogs. At 100 feet, he might be able to willingly look at you, which you can reinforce. At 50 feet, your dog might not be able to look at you without prompting, but if we have taught an emergency U-turn which he knows well, we can ask him to perform the U-turn and reinforce it when he does.

The reason this level is less empowering for the dog is that he has less choice and you are starting to rely on more automatic responses. Although these responses have been taught using reinforcement, the dog is starting to perform them automatically and without conscious thought, so the question we could reasonably ask here is how much choice does the dog actually have?

I don’t think this is too much of an issue as long as we are either practicing the behaviour to maintain it’s reliability or we are using it because the alternative (running off or reacting aggressively in the previous examples) is a far less attractive option for us and potentially far more damaging to the dog.

As part of a society, and I include dogs in this, there are absolutely times when we need to do what we are told.  We do this willingly in many cases but we are still doing it because we are either told to or asked to.

Level 3 – Physically moving our dog out of trouble. At level three, our dog is now unable to offer anything we want to reinforce, either voluntarily or with prompting. This is all about management and keeping the dog safe. At this point the environment has completely got away from us and we need to get our dog out of that situation. We are now controlling the dog. Examples would be if we are training a recall using a long line and the dog is running very quickly towards a busy road (think about how much environmental control we had in the first place!) we would stand on the line to stop the dog moving forward. In the case of the reactive dog, if another dog appeared round a street corner, and our dog reacted, we would physically move our dog away on a short leash to a non reactive distance.

When working on this, we can switch between levels 1 and 2 quite often. I use level 1 when I can, but also use level 2 frequently so we can use the available distractions as practice to keep previously learned behaviour strong and reliable. If we do this often, the ultimate aim is so that we don’t have to use level 3 and all.

The last thing to consider is training your dog to do many different behaviours. This allows the dog to offer previously learned behaviours during level 1 and gives you multiple options during level 2. If your dog doesn’t know how to do an emergency U-turn or recall, how can you ask for it? Also, different situations will call for different responses. Sometimes sitting may be more useful (when you are talking to someone in the street), other times having your dog to “leave”, “drop it” or “back up” might be better.

More training means more options. I’ll write more about this as I practice more. Until next time, happy dog training.

Building a balance of trust with your dog

Reinforcement can take many forms.
Reinforcement can take many forms.


I attended the WOOF Training and Behaviour Conference recently. It was organised by Chirag Patel of Domesticated Manners and it was a truly amazing conference. The highlight for me, and many, judging by their comments, was hearing Dr Susan Friedman speak. Dr Friedman is a professor at the University of Utah and is a pioneer in the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis in companion animals.

Dr Friedman summed up her philosophy in one simple sentence, which I’m paraphrasing – Control the environment, not the animal, so that the animal makes better decisions and then reinforce those choices to make them more likely in the future.

To a dog, there is no difference to it jumping up or sitting as long as the behaviour is reinforcing. The only judgement put on the behaviour is by ourselves. We think of jumping on people as a “bad” behaviour and sitting as a “good” behaviour. To the dog, however, if both or either of those behaviours are reinforced i.e. they work for the dog, the dog will continue to do them.

One of the points Dr Friedman made was that the ability to make our own choices is very reinforcing. Imagine you had the most amazing life you could think of. You had all the money you ever needed, met the most interesting people, did the most fun and exciting hobbies and activities, ate most delicious and healthy food, had the best friends and a fantastic house with every gadget you could think of. Now, imagine that same life, but someone told you when to eat, when to do your hobbies, when to watch a movie and which one, when to see your friends and for how long and when to go on holiday and to where. The same, great life, might somehow now seem less satisfying. This is because we wouldn’t be in charge of our own destiny or decisions. Dogs need to make their own choices, at least some of the time. It empowers them and makes them happy. It’s our job as their owners to make sure the choices they make are appropriate and safe and to then reinforce those choices.

We can do this by managing the environment. If your dog tends to run off when you let him off the leash or bolt out of the door when it’s open, it’s because there is something reinforcing about doing this, otherwise, he wouldn’t do it. Now, if we put a leash on the dog when we open the door, we’ve now manged the dog’s access to the environment and her ability to self reinforce. We can now wait until the dog does something more appropriate, such as stop pulling or sit, and then reinforce this e.g. with food or access to the outside. This way, she then learns that dashing out the door no longer works, but sitting does, so she’ll offer this instead. I’ll give some more specific examples of this in upcoming blogs.

When the dog does make the right choice, we need to reinforce this, heavily and frequently. Think more in terms of reinforcement than rewards. When we use the term “reward” I think there is a tendency to view it as payment or compensation for the behaviour which has just been performed. What we are actually doing, is using the food “reward” or game/ball etc, to make the behaviour more likely to happen in the next time. When the dog offers the same behaviour again, we then have a further opportunity to reinforce this. This makes behaviours very solid. What happens quite often, and I include myself in this until recently, is the tendency to try to reduce the amount of reinforcement too quickly. What we are trying to do is build up a balance in a behavioural bank account.

Every time we reinforce a behaviour, we are making a small deposit into the account. When our dog performs a behaviour we want, and we don’t reinforce it, we are making a withdrawal. Unfortunately, the withdrawals are bigger than the deposits and if we don’t have an adequate balance in the first place, we can very quickly become overdrawn. To further illustrate, imagine you win the Euromillions lottery of £140m ( about Euro 150m or $200m). With that money, you make a £2m investment and you lose your money. Although it’s £2m, you still have £138m to fall back on so you probably won’t be too upset (which is pretty ridiculous given the amount of money we are talking about). Now, say it’s two days before payday and you only have £30 left to last you the two days and you need to pay a bill and buy food. If you lose £20 of that, the impact is so much bigger than losing £2m from the previous example, because the £20 has so much more relative value.

To apply this analogy to dog training, every time we reinforce a behaviour we are making a small deposit into the  “trust” account and make that behaviour more likely to reoccur. If we have a huge reinforcement history, built over months and thousands of reinforcements, we will build a huge balance. Our dog trusts us as there is classical conditioning occurring at the same time. What then happens is there comes a time where, for whatever reason, we are unable to reinforce the dog. We are cashing in some of that balance, but because it is so big, the trust between us and out dog isn’t affected (the lottery example). If we don’t have that same reinforcement history, we try to make a much larger withdrawal relative to the balance (the £20 loss before payday example) and the dog’s trust in us is affected.

Make loads of deposits into that account with your dog. He will do more of the behaviours you want him to do, less of the behaviours you don’t want him to do and your relationship will be stronger because he will trust you more. Until next time.

John McGuigan, Glasgow Dog Trainer and Behaviour Consultant

Labeling your dog and self limiting beliefs


“He’s stubborn. She’s disobedient. He’s aggressive. She doesn’t do as she’s told. He’s an Akita. She’s a Shiba Inu. I have to use a prong collar because he is X Y or Z or because he is a (fill in the blank) breed/type of dog. Postive reinforcement training doesn’t work because he is a dominant breed.”

I’ve heard loads of these comments from clients and dog people over the years and read more of them online. One of the most memorable was a guy who described his pitbull as a “cunning, conniving cur” which then gave him authority to treat him as such. One of the reasons for his description was that pitbulls are bred to fight, so they have to use “every trick” they can to win. As opposed to the reality of the matter, which is the dog is fighting for his life to entertain sick humans.

I’ve heard arguments or excuses from people on a number of topics –  that bull breeds fight with other dogs because they are bull breeds. Hounds and Spitz breeds cannot be let off leash because a recall is impossible because their desire to hunt is too high. Mastiff and livestock guardians can’t be trained because they don’t have the brain for it (whatever that means). One of my favourites was a client who owned a border collie who read on an online collie forum that you can’t expect collies not to chase cars, which was the problem she was having. We managed to train her dog not to chase cars in the space of an hour, using a ball, not to mention the hundreds of collies I’ve seen in my lifetime happily walking down the street as cars drive by.

Yes, certain breeds do have tendencies to do things more than other breeds. But they don’t do them because of that. They do these things because they find it reinforcing (a different thing from enjoying something) and because they have been allowed to be reinforced for doing it. I know I am not the best dog trainer in the world. I know I’m pretty good at it and I know that I will never stop trying to be better than I am just now. I say this because I know it’s possible to retrain dog aggressive bull breeds. I know it’s possible to train a husky or a Shiba Inu to recall. I know it’s possible to do these things without resorting to aversive training methods. The reason I know these things is because I’ve done them. I know there are loads of other things you can train a dog to do, without having done them myself because I’ve seen others do it.

If you think you can’t train your beagle to come back to you because she’s a beagle, you won’t do it and you’ll never let her off leash. If you think your Akita is unfriendly to people because he’s an Akita, it gives you the excuse not to do anything about it (although with any work with dogs who react aggressively we need to always be aware of safety issues).

Rather than attaching a label to your dog, think in terms of “If (a certain sequence of events or situation occurs) then (my dog reacts in a certain way)”. If my dog is off leash and catches an interesting smell then she won’t come back when I call her (prudent use of a long line and reinforcers is how I would go about changing this). If my dog is on leash and there is another dog within 15 feet, he will react aggressively (here you could alter the  distance and use classical conditioning). If you need to label anything, label behaviours, which we can change.

If you believe that you need to use aversive training methods (prong or shock collars, rattle cans, ear pinches, leash corrections, spray bottles), than you will be closed to other possibilities and you will never learn them. I don’t think that every dog issue can be solved but most of them can and the rest of them can be managed. I know that not every dog issue can be solved with force free techniques but that shouldn’t stop us from constantly trying to find behaviour modification solutions which are the least aversive. When we have exhausted all of these options we have a decision to make. How we make that decision will depend on our own ethics. A more aversive approach might work, but do we really need to use it? Is it worth inflicting pain in order to achieve our goal? If the answer is yes, then it’s a matter for your own conscience. Having tried all available force free alternatives to get your reactive dog safe around strange dogs or people, can we justify using a shock collar rather than getting up earlier in the morning and taking him out when it’s quiet and not exposing him to situations which will make him react. Is the reason for you wanting to take him out where there are other dogs or people around for him or for you?

I believe that force free methods can impact the vast majority of cases. Of all the dogs I’ve worked with, there is only one which I didn’t know how to help. Aversive techniques may have changed her behaviour, but there is always a high risk of fallout and I don’t use those techniques in any case. I haven’t stopped thinking of a solution for this dog and still ask other trainers their opinions. So in my own experience, I don’t know of a force free technique which hasn’t worked in 0.002% of cases and I work with dogs other trainers have tried to help and haven’t been able to or that other trainers won’t work with so it’s not as if I’m handpicking my clients.

“Let’s push beyond old limitations and see what’s truly possible for dogs, and their trainers” – Eric Brad, Canine Nation

I don’t know how to fly a plane, but I can learn

Copper and Nero
Copper and Nero

I worked with a client recently who has a one year old Landseer Newfoundland called Nero and an eight year old collie cross called Copper. Copper is one of these “once in a lifetime” dog’s who everyone wishes they could own but very few of us, unfortunately, ever have the pleasure to. He is very confident, experienced, has great social skills with other dogs and people and is a true gentleman. This would appear to have come naturally to him. Nero, will be Copper in a few year’s time. He needs some more practice and guidance, but he has been reared in much the same way as Copper, with steadiness and consistency. He is naturally a little more inclined to do his own thing than Copper is, and doesn’t always respond the way Jeannine, his owner, wants him to.

Jeannine is an airline pilot, I’ll explain why that’s relevant in moment. The issues with Nero are that he tends not to settle when people come into the house, as he wants to say hello and he has a habit of running up to people in the park (he doesn’t jump up) also to say hello. I explained to Jeannine why he is doing this, and when we changed how he is being reinforced, when he is being reinforced and by whom, we very quickly changed his behaviour to something which was more acceptable for us.

During the first session in the park, I did the majority of the handling, as Jeannine had her delightful baby girl (who clapped every time I said “good boy!” to Nero), so she could have a clear picture in her mind of what we were looking for. I reinforced Nero for calmer behaviour with food, praise and the continued opportunity to play and explore every time he did something I liked, which was either waiting, recalling or sitting. As the session continued, Jeannine gave the cues and I reinforced the behaviour.

About 40 minutes in, Jeannine observed that Nero was responding to me much better than he usually responded to her. My response to Jeannine was ” But I would expect that, because I don’t know how to fly a plane”. This is a strategy I’ve adopted to make clients feel better, as often the remark is made by clients that their dog responds better to me than to them. Initially, and until recently, I’ve put it down to the fact that I have handled and trained dogs for years, my timing is better than novice dog handlers, and I am better at reading body language and predicting dogs’ behaviour. This is true, but it’s not the whole story.

When a dog lives with a novice handler/trainer (and I would put very many owners into that category, as it has to do with training experience rather than ownership experience) the reinforcement history can be very sketchy. The dog’s behaviour is sometimes reinforced, some times not, sometimes punished and sometimes not. The result of this is that the dog either consistently tries behaviour which works for him (very often the ones we don’t want) and doesn’t reliably perform others (very often the ones we do want).

On the other hand, when I meet a client for the first time with their dog, I am starting with a clean slate and I write my own history with the dog, with no reference to anything else. This leads very quickly to the dog trusting that when I act in a certain way, and he responds, his behaviour will either be reinforced or not. Because there is no history, the dog has not point of reference other than the limited experience with me, which is very clear (hopefully).

The point of this is that I can learn to fly a plane, given enough time, commitment and effort. We can all try to wipe the slate clean with ours dogs, and start building a new relationship built on consistency and trust.

In my next blog, I’ll talk more about how to build this trust and the things we can do, inadvertently, to damage this trust, which can lead to further frustration in both human and the dog and a further breakdown of trust.