A question of ethics – part 1


I was at the office today (our local park) doing a consultation with a man and his Labrador, working on recall and loose lead walking (connection). We have a really nice community at the park on weekday mornings, the professional dog walkers, the power walkers without dogs, the recreational cyclists and the dog people walking their own dogs.

There is a fella who I see who has two GSDs who he has trained to a high level from the brief glimpses I get of him (I see him several times over the month). He appears to use positive trainng methods from what I can see. He uses food to reinforce the behaviour which he likes and I’ve never seen him physically correct his dogs. When he asks the dogs to do something though, he’s not really asking, he’s telling.

This fella knows I’m a dog trainer and from reading his body language (he never says hello to anyone etc) I get the impression that’s he is trying to show me how it’s really done. Today (and every other dog he sees me), he put his dogs in a sit stay in the middle of the path and walked away. There were other dogs and people around walking past his dogs. The dogs were transfixed by him and then he called them, they raced towards him and then held a heel position targeting his hands for about 50m or so. They were then reinforced with food. Impressive? Yes, maybe. Ethical? I’m not so sure. If this had been in competition for a dog sport, then yes, it’s impressive. If it had been in preparation for that dog sport competition, then yes, cool also. My issues is that it’s done for the benefit of all those watching and at the dogs’ expense to boot.

For me it would be far more impressive if his dogs were walking with him off lead, moving forward in front of him, sniffing, moving with him when he walked on and behaving in an appropriate social manner with dogs and people. But they’re not. The appear to be automatons, with little choice and not allow ot behave like dogs (I’ve never seen them sniff when out)

Training with positive methods isn’t enough. We need to train with an ethical mindset too. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Until next time, have a great Christmas.

John and the Glasgow Dog Trainer Team

How the environment effects your dog’s behaviour.

A short video on how your dog acts and what they feel is a direct result of what is happening in the environment at that time.

It’s all (well mostly) about reinforcement

Sorry it’s been a while since my last blog. I asked a question on my Facebook page the other day.(https://www.facebook.com/pages/Glasgow-Dog-Trainer-and-Behaviour-Consultant/137403276291620?ref=hl) What is the single biggest issue you have with your dog? On looking through the answers, there was a common theme about trying to eliminate unwanted behaviours. I’ll address some of the issues as best as I can. When dealing with any dog behaviour/training issue, it’s always absolutely essential that we have at least a basic understanding of reinforcement. Reinforcement simply means that the behaviour is likely to reoccur. If behaviours are reinforced, they will continue. If they aren’t reinforced they won’t. Here I’m only going to address reinforcement. Punishment (the scientific term) is the is about reducing behaviour. Behaviours which are not reinforced will go away. If the dog continues to do the behaviour you don’t want, he is still being reinforced on some level for doing that behaviour, or has a sufficiently long reinforcement history for that behaviour that he’ll continue to keep doing it, with the hope of accessing reinforcement.

If your dog doesn’t have access to reinforcers, he can’t be reinforced for the behaviour which allows him access to it. If the behaviour isn’t reinforced, your dog will stop the behaviour. This may take time, depending on your dog’s history of being reinforced for that behaviour. One of the sometimes frustrating rules of learning is that behaviours which are randomly reinforced, are resistant to extinction i.e they won’t go away. Think of it like a fruit machine at a casino. They pay out randomly to keep you playing. So if your dog has had a history of being reinforced for jumping on people, and you now try to stop it, but your dog is successful on average one time in fifty, this may be enough to motivate your dog to keep trying because sometimes it pays off. Sometimes dogs will work for one chance in twenty, others one time in one hundred, it depends on the dog.

So, to address some of the issues which came up. These are general points designed to illustrate principles of learning and aren’t exhaustive.

1. Jumping. Dogs find attention reinforcing. When a dog jumps, people will generally talk to (shout at), touch (pull) and look at the dog or a combination of the three. The three things which have occurred, are reinforcing to the dog, he now knows jumping gets a reaction and will do it again the next time. If you are still doing these things time and again, and your dog is still jumping up on people, what you are doing isn’t working and we need to try something else. Dogs I work with often jump on me on greeting them the first time. The client generally does a combination of the above. The first thing I ask them to do is just to ignore the dog. If the dog is on leash, I talk a step back, so I’m out of range (the dog can’t touch me) I don’t give eye contact and the dog isn’t reinforced. As soon as the dog stops jumping, or trying to jump on me, I reinforce the “four on the floor” with attention, praise, treats etc. The other technique I use very often is to stand on the leash. I use 6′ leashes for training. This is a good length for a number of things. What it allows me to do here is to drop the leash towards the ground while still holding it in a relaxed manner, and stand on it. I’m not pinning the dog to the ground here, there is still slack so the dog can sit or stand comfortably, but what he can’t to is jump. I’m stopping him from jumping, so he cant be reinforced for it, and behaviours which aren’t reinforced will go away. In this instance, I’d also combine reinforcing the wanted behaviour, four on the floor. this way the dog learns the jumping doesn’t work but four on the floor does.

This can be done for dogs jumping on visitors. Have the dog on a leash when they come in. Calm behaviour allows access to visitors, excited, jumping behaviour doesn’t. If the dog is calm and you release her to say hello and she jumps, you take her back to where she doesn’t have access. Consistency is the key. Remember the rule of random pay off.

2. Barking and growling at kids, visitors, strangers, men, other dogs, cyclists, skateboards. Again, this is a general description based on your dog being fearful/anxious of these things. Give the dog enough distance that he feels safe (generally, the distance that he isn’t reacting). Give him tasty treats or throw a toy for him. Generally, what happens here is that your dog feels scared/anxious and has learned that barking/lunging/growling causes the scary thing to go away. The dog doesn’t realise that the scary thing is likely to go away anyway. What we want to do is keep the dog feeling safe and make him feel better about the scary thing. overtime, we can decrease the distance as the dog feels better about the scary thing. Another approach is to kong train your dog. Every time a visitor arrives, you give the dog a “super” kong filled with the best food. Allow the dog to take this where he wants. He will make the association of visitors coming in with the kong coming out. Make sure the visitor comes in first and don’t give this “super” kong any other time.

3. Attacking the mail. Management can solve this. An external post box means the dog can’t access the mail, can’t attack it, so can’t be reinforced. A basket which the mail falls into helps also. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most easiest.

Ian Dunbar tells a story of being asked how to stop a Yorkshire Terrier from messing on the bed by a woman at a seminar years ago. He asked her how long this had been going on, to which she told him “every day for 9 years”. He told her to shut the bedroom door. She was delighted. If we stop access to reinforcers, we stop behaviour. Management should always be our first step in training or behaviour modification. This is because it’s easy with some thought and imagination, least aversive for the dog, allows the dog to think, and therefor allows the dog to learn.

If your dog is doing something you don’t like, think about what she is being reinforced with. The more we understand this, the more successful we will be and the more successful our relationship with our dog will be.

I’ll address some problems with recall next week.

Future posts – what would you like to see?

Firstly, apologies for not blogging for a few weeks, I’ve been crazy busy. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to blog about the following

1. Preparing your dog for the arrival of a new baby

2. Nothing in Life is Free Protocol versus using your dog’s food and toys for training and classical conditioning

3.Building a truly meaningful bond with your dog through positive reinforcement

4. Forging a new behavioural path and letting the “bad” ones overgrow.

If there is anything at all you’d like me to write about, please comment below, If you are having a problem with your dog’s training or behaviour, write a comment and I’ll do my best to answer it in a future blog.


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