Posted tagged ‘dog training’

Two simple strategies to reduce the incidents of dog bites

February 1, 2015

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

National Register of Dog Trainers and Behaviourists

Cuddly toy! Cuddly toy! – Bruce Forsythe

The meeting held at the Kennel Club recently which had as its objective the devising of a strategy which would make some progress in reducing the number of dog biting incidents in this country was an initiative which, rightly, has been widely praised. Much of what was discussed was not in itself new but the initiative brought a number of issues together which enabled a fresh focus. I have been discussing these ideas with others and some very interesting ideas have surfaced.

We have friends in Belgium who have two teenage daughters, one of whom has always been passionate about dogs. Four years ago her grandparents bought a Basset Hound bitch from a local breeder which some judges might like but certainly would not pass any vet checks in the UK were it to be shown. Almost everything about her is ‘overdone’: too long, too close to ground, too much skin for her frame, ears dragging on the ground and eyes which have to be carefully cleaned regularly. But Chloe adored her and when her maternal grandmother became ill the dog came to live with her and her family. Chloe looks after her dog beautifully, cleans up after, feeds it and takes it for walks regularly. She is an ideal and dedicated owner who loves her dog who loves her in return.

Recently, Chloe’s paternal grandmother went to stay with them and, as a dog breeder herself was very concerned about her granddaughter’s behaviour around her pet. Chloe’s parents are intelligent and sensible but they had not realised that the way Chloe ‘played’ with her dog, rolling with her on the floor, pulling her about and dragging and carrying her around could be dangerous. Not because the dog has ever shown any defensive or aggressive behaviour: in fact she greatly enjoys the attention, but because its weight and conformation is such that its spine could be seriously damaged. And, of course, if she was hurt, then she might turn and instinctively bite whoever she considered to be the source of the pain.

Problems simply not considered

Chloe plays more carefully now: it was simply not something that either she or her parents had considered – but what her grandmother pointed out in discussions with me was that it made her realise that there has been a significant change in the toys that children are now given compared with the past. The teddy bear has been an important ‘person’ in the lives of many young children as have dolls for girls and fire engines for boys but it is only relatively recently that the range of ‘cuddly toys’ has been so very wide. One of our 17-year-old student students at Bell Mead, when Angela and I were running Battersea Dogs Home’s country kennels at Old Windsor, had a collection of over 50 which she insisted on bringing with her and which lived, packed like a pile of fluffy sardines, on her bed. And it was not so very long ago that the huge ‘cuddly toys’ which we regularly see being carted around Crufts draped around their necks and carried over shoulders became available.

Of course, I am not against toys, ‘cuddly’ or otherwise, but it does seem that if children chew them, tear them, mistreat them and whirl and throw them around without some behavioural control from parents then, when they get a dog, a cat or any other pets, they are likely to treat them in the same way. It may even be the fact that so many toys are so available and there is, presumably, the money to pay for them, that they are not regarded in the same way as they were in times when toys were fewer and consequently more precious.

Two important issues

In a previous article I mentioned that most dog bites occur between 3 pm and 7 pm because this is the time when the dog in the family is under the greatest stress and maybe, quite inadvertently, put under pressure by the tension generated as a normal part of family life. But there are two further aspects of this particular issue which are important and should be underlined.

The first is that my friend suggested to the family that their dog had its own bed, preferably covered and tucked away in a convenient corner where the general hubbub of family life can be avoided. There are many good reasons for any dog being provided with its own safe haven (worth an article in itself from the point of view of sound training and good socialisation) but in terms of biting incidents, it may be that this one recommendation could significantly reduce the stress on dogs in families to the extent that many bites would be avoided.

The second issue was highlighted by a case I was involved in as an expert witness several years ago. The boarding kennel involved took in many stray dogs, many of which were quite difficult to handle, as part of its service to local authorities. One of the kennel staff was quite small in stature but she had worked at the kennels for several years and had never had any problems. In the months before this incident she had taken a particular interest and ‘shine’ to a large dog (a working breed and probably a cross but I only had rather poor quality photographs to go on) which she trained and who became her constant companion around the kennels. The dog would be in the kitchen area when she prepared food and would follow her around when she fed the dogs under her care, usually only being put away while she carried out her general cleaning duties in the kennels. It was a small operation so both the employed kennel staff worked on their own. They had mobile phones and a telephone in the reception area from where they could contact kennel owners direct. There was no suggestion that the routine was anything other than well thought through. On the day in question she sat down on a chair to have a lunch in a common area outside as it was a beautiful day The dog, as was usual, nuzzled up to her for his expected treat. It appears that she got up to reach for something, turned and unfortunately tripped over, knocking her head against the edge of a step which caused her to lose consciousness. The dog ate the lunch from the lunch box and then proceeded, quite calmly it appears, to ‘play’ with the woman to the extent that the seriously damage her legs and arms as he dragged her about over the concrete and the steps.

The point of this terrible accident is that the dog was not angry or under stress. It had no history of aggression as far as we were aware in our enquiries into its previous owners: as far as the dog was concerned it was behaving perfectly normally.

This is the incident I describe when people tell me that their dog is a ‘sweetheart’ and that there is no need for any supervision when it is playing with their children.

There appears to be a temptation among many animal behaviour professionals to overcomplicate the issue. I would not for a moment suggest that the important and interesting research which has been carried out into canine behaviour and psychology by both academics and working practitioners is of no value: it is vital in the long-term interests of pet ownership that there be a thorough understanding of the relationship (and complications) between humans and their pets but I cannot help thinking that if some easy, common sense actions were put in place many problems would be solved. Making sure every dog has its own space and ensuring that young children are always at least within immediate call of an adult might be the best place to start.

We need to demolish these ‘Ivory Towers’

December 6, 2014

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

All national institutions[..*.] appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit. – Thomas Paine

The All Party Group for the Welfare of Animals (APGAW) has published a Strategy for Dogs in England. In my view little is likely to be achieved as there is, despite the varying pronouncements of all political parties, both a lack of will and, as was clearly stated by other speakers at a recent APGAW meeting, a significant lack of resources to carry out many of the suggestions.  That said the Strategy Document contains much that is thoughtful, sensible and sound (along with some wishful thinking) but there are some glaring inaccuracies and assumption in one aspect of the strategy: that which concerns training and behaviour.

Under ‘Education’ the document says: ‘All animal welfare organisations, public sector bodies and central government should ensure all messaging in this area is up to date, evidence-based, clear, consistent and accessible and visible. Such information should be positive in its tone rather than the scare mongering approach some advice currently takes. The understanding of dog behaviour and welfare has improved and advanced significantly in the last 10-15 years and is now a well-established science and discipline. Some previously accepted theories and techniques have been shown to be outdated and can place dog welfare at risk making behaviour problems worse and placing people in danger. There are still practitioners that use these theories and techniques and this is compounded by the problem that anyone can still call themselves a ‘behaviourist’ regardless of their qualifications, knowledge, experience and skills. This has resulted in a plethora of people offering behaviour therapy and training and because there has been no joined up agreement on where to sign-post the public or other industry practitioners there is much confusion. Over recent years, the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) has developed, maintains and oversees a range of standards for those in the behaviour therapy and training industry to which the majority of stakeholders have signed up. For the standards that have been created by industry to be upheld and recognised, the public needs to be informed of them and there needs to be clear signposting from Government that these bodies offer the highest standard and demonstrate best practice. Additionally the Kennel Club accredits dog trainers, providing a high quality standard of training from accredited instructors and those working towards accreditation. In 2010 the scheme achieved City and Guilds recognition. Recommendation: Defra needs to urgently identify and endorse a suitable industry standard and independent regulatory body (including qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience) so that the public can be confident in finding and going to a suitable behaviourist or trainer.

Evidence based?

I was especially interested to see the phrase ‘evidence based’ because although much of the above is correct some of its statements and conclusions are quite wrong. I am not a dog trainer but have been involved in animal care education for almost 40 years through the Animal Care College and eleven years as deputy to the Director General and manager of training with Battersea Dogs Home so I am therefore absolutely behind much of this report, especially those general points made about education. It is certainly true that sometimes confusing messages bombard the public. This needs to be addressed although the report omits to point its finger at those responsible: those groups, charities and lobbyists defending their own particular castles of influence. They are institutions which occasionally work together but their prime objective is inevitably, as Gavin Grant said in a published interview in PR Week a couple of years ago when he was appointed the Chief Executive of the RSPCA: ‘My first job must be to bring in enough money to pay my staff’!

I think I would also take issue with the phrase suggesting that dog training is now: ‘a well-established science and discipline’. You would not think so reading the immense amount of contradictory material available through books and the Internet. But let me address my specific concerns about the above paragraph. And I would add that I am not on my own – many organisations have already expressed doubts regarding the summary which contains a number of assumptions and inaccuracies.

First and foremost is the report’s endorsement of The Animal Training and Behaviour Council. The statement that it ‘developed, maintains and oversees a range of standards’ is simply not true and the assertions on their website are disingenuous to say the least. There is no doubt that ATBC has done a great deal of work but the ‘standards’ referred to are incorporated in the National Occupational Standards recently agreed by Lantra and I wrote about them at the time.  These standards were created by many organisations working together: they included the Kennel Club, the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council and the Guild of Dog Trainers among others.  Not only was the ATBC not one of them but, in fact, it argued strongly against their adoption as may be confirmed by Lantra.

Furthermore, the list of organisations which ‘support’ ATBC is mostly made up of groups (mainly those ‘castles of influence’) which only have a peripheral impact and influence on dog training and behaviours.  This is not to undermine the work that any of them do but it is important to understand that the various ‘bars’ set by ATBC and its few associated training/ behaviour organisations is such that the vast majority of those involved in dog training who have knowledge, experience and expertise could not comply – and do not need to.  

It’s not rocket science

Basic dog training is not rocket science: socialisation and the simple behaviours that families required for their pet dog do not need degree level knowledge and expertise.  Complex behaviour modification and the training of support dogs, search and rescue and sniffer dogs require immense skill, and expertise but, sit, walk, stay, come and fetch, the basics, are all straightforward. The APGAW report complicates the whole issue by supporting the view of ATBC and other ‘castles’ that just a few highly educated, expensive, dog trainers only should be allowed to train dogs and modify their behaviour.  This ignores most of the excellent work being done for thousands of dogs and their families in the community by practical, experienced dog trainers both individually and through the many training clubs – many of which work closely with the Kennel Club.

It is essential that the dog training sector gets away from the ‘ivory tower’ approach and reaches out to everyone involved – preferably through membership of one of the sensible and practical  organisations which belong to the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council ( or through the independent National Register of Dog Trainers and Behaviourists which I launched recently. The Register is free and welcomes any and every dog trainer or behaviourist who is prepared to sign up to the Companion Animal Welfare Council’s Code of Practice – the one and only thing, I might add, that everyone within the sector has ever agreed to. Unlike any other organisation it provides links to all the Kennel Club Training Clubs and all the recognised organisations which themselves ignore and often seek undermine each other.
To make progress we need to open doors – our society seems to be more and more determined to close them.

*Thomas Paine was writing about religion and the church/es in this quote but I think it applies equally to most institutions

The background to I Train Dogs (iTD)

October 15, 2014

It is an excellent rule to be observed in all disputes, that men should give soft words and hard arguments; that they should not so much strive to vex as to convince each other – John Wilkins, one of the founders of the Royal Society in 1660

I have lost count of the number of times I have written about dog training and behaviour modification over the years: I only know that it would total many thousands of words. To give you a little background I should first emphasise that I am not a dog trainer. I can teach dogs to sit, catch, jump over things and walk on a loose lead (despite what you may have seen the show ring!) and over the years through my many friendships in the world of training and behaviour I have learned a great deal. Neither does the Animal Care College teach people to train dogs but it does have many courses, all written and tutored by experienced professionals, related to canine psychology and behaviour so I have been involved with that associated (but separate) world to show dogs for almost 35 years.

I was therefore pleased to be involved in the series of meetings Chaired by Sir Colin Spedding under the auspices of the Companion Animal Welfare Council (CAWC) several years ago. CAWC had written a report, (the Regulation of Companion Animal Services in Relation to Training and Behaviour) in 2008 and set out a list of recommendations. The report said, in no uncertain terms, that the world of dog training and behaviour modification was in chaos and pointed out that most of the distinctions and claims made by groups of trainers regarding a wide range of behavioural problems were ‘indistinct’ and that such ‘distinctions and their promotion may have important negative consequences for the welfare of both companion animals and their owners and the public at large if they reduce uptake of basic or competent services’.

I recently wrote in an open letter to trainers: ‘What has happened is that in some quarters there is an attitude of elitism which is at best an ivory tower mentality and at worst simple protectionism. Both attitudes will be defended on the grounds of animal welfare but I do not believe such a defence is rational or valid of itself’,

The results of the CAWC meetings were not satisfactory for precisely the reasons set out in this quote.

The truth about the formation of PRTbc and ATBC

After the first meeting a group of professional trainers got together and proposed a council of organisations and colleges which would provide a viable structure for the points being made at the meetings. I was not involved in those discussions but by the time of the second meeting I had been asked to take the chair because it was felt by those involved that they would like to have an independent and experienced person who would not be involved in the politics and commercial interests which had surfaced over the previous few years. For both had reared their heads as more dog owners were prepared to pay to solve their problems, and through the acceptance by pet insurers that they would pay for counselling if it was authorised by a veterinary surgeon (some of whom took on the role themselves although mostly they dedicated either members of their staff or people they knew locally to take on the task).

At the second meeting, the formation of the Pet Education Training and Behaviour Council as it had been called (PETbc – was announced and the secretary was asked by Sir Colin to describe how it had been set up and what its objectives were. When he had completed his review Sir Colin said, and I quote exactly: ‘That’s it then – job done’. Since then PETbc has drawn together and itself carried out much valuable research into dog training. It has established clear objectives for the various level of dog trainers and its website continues to be an important focus for education. It is not designed to promote either specific techniques or individual trainers. It is a forum for the industry and a provider of sound ideas and information for government.

However, there were many issues still to discuss in what have become known as the CAWC meetings including agreement concerning the writing of a Code of Best Practice which could be accepted by everyone involved in dog training and behaviour modification. It took another meeting to hammer this out and in the meantime what some describe as ‘the Ivory Tower group’ decided that PETbc was not an organisation that they could support so set up their own. This group, the Animal Training and Behaviour Council (ATBC – describes itself as ‘the regulatory body’ representing animal trainers animal behaviour therapists – though this description is disingenuous. Nevertheless, the organisation’s website provides much interesting and useful information and is anxious to promote education for instructors, trainers and behaviourists. But it sets a high financial and qualification bar for those wishing to join its lists and separates out four levels of expertise (classes?) with Veterinary Behaviourists, Accredited Animal Behaviourists, Clinical Animal Behaviourists and Animal Training Instructors – designations not recognised anywhere other than in the ivory towers.

The formation of RCDTBP

Quite rightly, and as the CAWC report pointed out, it is vital that those involved in training animals at any level have knowledge and expertise and there is no doubt that formal qualifications added to this mix are likely to be an advantage. It is also important that animals are treated with the respect they deserve and that any encouragement to behave in a particular way or any requirement that they change their behaviour, must at all times be in accordance with best practice in animal care as set out the Animal Welfare Act in 2006 and, of course, in the Code of Best Practice hammered out during the CAWC meetings.

It was clear at the final meeting that Sir Colin felt that the development of two opposed organisation was not what had been envisaged in the original CAWC report. He said that he felt that a formal Register, open to all those involved in training, should be available at a reasonable fee and at that stage the Kennel Club offered to host it. It became the Registration Council for Dog Training and Behaviour Practitioners (RCDTBP). This last has been a frustrating journey for all those involved. Neither PETbc nor ATBC were prepared to support it (the Animal Care College became a member because we support any initiative which will improve the quality of animal care) and, sadly, its enthusiastic chairman who was its driving force died before it could really get up and running. Attempts are currently being made to revive it.

All these organisations, understandably, require money. They may be charities, companies limited by guarantee or not-for-profit but they have expenses in terms of websites, postage and telephone charges which must be covered. Persuading people to part with their hard earned cash is difficult – and when there are competing organisations for that money then the natural reaction is not to become involved in any of them.

And finally – the NRDTB

I believe that a National Register of Dog Trainers and Behaviourists is an important step towards bringing all these disparate groups together. Like everything complex, it is a long hard road but last year I began to think the only way forward would be an entirely independent Register which was essentially free and would have no bias or baggage other than to post the list and enable the general public to contact trainers and behaviourists who have accepted the Code of Conduct and Best Practice. I have too long been frustrated by arguments which all too often resemble those of the mediaeval scholars regarding the number of angels who could dance on the point of a needle. In addition if you take into account my general dislike of unnecessary bureaucracy and administration you will not be surprised that I have taken the decision to cut through all this red tape and launch National Register myself.

It makes no assumptions about dog training, it does not discriminate against any dog trainer whatever their philosophy or technique so long as they are prepared to accept the Code of Conduct. It has no agenda, it does not market anything other than details of dog trainers and accepts no advertising. Joining the Register is free although there is an entirely optional choice to provide more information about the member for a very low annual fee. I am hoping that this will provide enough income to fund the costs of setting up the site and to maintain it for the foreseeable future. You can find it at . It has been welcomed by many and objected to by a few. I hope it works and the general public finds it useful and that in the long term, it improves the behaviour of dogs in society, lessens the stress of owners with problem dogs and eventually enables more dogs to be cared for in loving homes.

Why have incidents of dog biting increased?

December 22, 2009

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Figures recently released by the National Health Service have shown that biting incidents by dogs have risen sharply over the last ten years. Apparently these figures only include those people admitted to hospital after reporting to Accident and Emergency and not those who are treated and sent home. This means the actual figure and percentage is likely to be much higher. The immediate reaction of those involved in re-homing dogs is that this is due to the increased number of dogs being used for fighting and as ‘protection dogs’ by individuals who want to look tough on the streets. To some extent this may be true but I believe the real reason is much more to do with society’s attitude and approach to dog training, an approach which has undergone and significant change over the last ten years. Can this be co-incidence? I think not.

Let me explain. At one time, the Barbara Woodhouse school of dog training reigned supreme. The owner had to be ‘in charge’ and the dog had to be forced into subservience by recognising its owner as its ‘pack leader’. The theory is based on what has been perceived by researchers as the behaviour of wolves in the wild, although it has since become clear that most of that research was carried out with wolves that were not truly ‘wild’ and did not have to compete for food. What was not recognised was the immense changes which had taken place in the behaviour of dogs as a result of their being domesticated. The DNA may have remained the same but the subtle changes in behaviour as a result of selective breeding had not been taken into account.

Added to this was the work by Karen Prior and many others that showed the effectiveness of what is called positive re-enforcement. That is, if you reward the behaviour you want the animal will quickly continue to behave in that way rather than behave badly. As a teacher I know that if you encourage pupils you get better results than beating them and that one of the most powerful forces in education is not punishment but the withdrawal of praise. The principle is the same although we have to recognise that there are circumstances when it is not enough – as we shall see.

Personally, I accept and use positive re-enforcement and there is no doubt that it is extremely effective as can be seen by such disciplines at Heelwork to Music where its ‘magic’ is so clearly demonstrated. If you bring a puppy up using this approach you will almost certainly have a well-behaved and well-socialised adult dog, which will be a pleasure to own.

Dogs behave well for one of two reasons: they are either selectively bred to behave in a certain way as can be seen in the Border Collie, many gundogs and the work of Guide Dogs for the Blind who have many generations of dogs bred to be ideally suited to their work, or they are well trained by their breeders and their owners using the positive re-enforcement techniques which we are speaking about and which are described in many books and used by many behaviourists.

But as always with changes in perception the pendulum tends to swing too far and this has resulted in many canine behaviourists rejecting any suggestion that a dog should be subjected to ‘negative’ re-inforcement and some believe that even raising your voice to draw a dog’s attention to its unacceptable behaviour is tantamount to ‘cruelty’.

A recent statement by an group called the Dog Welfare Organisation tends towards this view. It calls what I have referred to as ‘negative re-enforcement’, ‘aversive’ training techniques which includes choke chains – used by Guide Dogs for the Blind incidentally as well as many in the show world and Kennel Club registered trainers) among the unacceptable ‘unpleasant stimuli used to inhibit behaviour’.

I do not and would not condone any form of cruelty in ensuring a dos behaves acceptably but the thinking behind the Dog Welfare Organisation is naive and makes the assumption that all dogs and all anti-social behaviour can be treated using positive re-inforcement (what is often called ‘reward based’ training) and I am afraid that this is simply not the case.

The reason is not because positive reward based training does not work – it most certainly does – but that many, many dogs in the community become adult with ingrained bad habits because their owners have allowed them to behave in a way which is not acceptable and have not encouraged the dog to behave well through proper training. It is these dogs that cause the problems and these dogs that are mostly responsible for the rise in biting incidents and, incidentally, clogging up the re-homing system in our rescue kennels.

I think we have to recognise that any learning experience is not necessarily comfortable – ask any student preparing for examinations. Of course it better if learning is fun and the learner is highly motivated but to achieve anything worthwhile requires hard work on someone’s part and a degree of discipline, whether self or externally imposed, is essential if progress towards any skill is to be made. And if there are bad habits then the demands are inevitably increased: think of giving up smoking or dieting and remember a dog does not have that sort of personal, peer motivation and support.

This is not say that the negative equipment and procedures which include prong collars, electric shock collars and ‘pinning to the ground’, named by the Dog Welfare Organisation are acceptable but to condemn an effective trainer such as Cesar Millan (and by implication many others such as Mic Martin in the UK) who deal with dogs which have behaviours which are exceptionally difficult to modify is misleading and counter productive.

In my view it is no co-incidence that there are no DVDs showing really difficult dogs being rehabilitated by positive re-enforcement while there are many which show effective training using other techniques which, I must emphasise, are neither cruel nor unusual. The press release states that ‘a number of scientific studies have found an association between the use of aversive training techniques and the occurrence of undesired behaviours in dogs’. There are certainly some such studies but the information I have about them is that ‘scientific’ is a misnomer, that they have not been peer reviewed and there are no links to them on the organisation’s web site at

The answer of course, is as always, the education of breeders and pet owners to ensure dogs are properly socialised from the nest. That is where the focus of these organisations should be.