Dogs cannot live on food alone


Getafix Greater academic acknowledgement of sentience in animals is shamefully recent, and a wider understanding and recognition of their lot is still a long way off. As we improve our efforts to know other species better, we will recognise that they too have real awareness and sensory responses to positive and negative events in life, in many ways similar to our own.  In fact, in some areas they have much heightened senses compared to ours.  In spite of the overwhelming anthropomorphism that marks our thought, it can at last be said that emotional attributes and needs are no longer considered the exclusive preserve of humans.

If we are to call ourselves humane, we have a moral obligation to ensure that the basic needs of the animals taken into our care are met, and that they do not suffer from neglect, loneliness or abuse.  Taking in a dog, whether rescued or bought, really does demand more than supplying something to eat and drink. As a behaviourist, I am often made painfully aware of the mistaken belief of many that a dog should automatically be programmed to diligently serve the double role of alarm system and protector and to know what is expected, together with all the rules of the house, simply by the supply of food and water. If we try to see this situation from the dog’s perspective, which would be so similar to our own in such a position, we will quickly realise that the animal is suddenly and uneasily confronted by the strange and probably frightening domain of unknown people and cannot possibly know how to feel or what his position is.

This is where patient and informed teaching and learning go hand in hand. The first acknowledgement should morally be that an animal not be considered a slave but part of a family. Make friends with your dog.  Make him or her feel at home and secure.  It should go without saying that a dog needs a complete and healthy diet, water, and a safe, warm and sheltered place to sleep. Other obvious needs will be inoculation and parasite control and the care of a vet as necessary.  Health insurance should also be considered for the dog.

Being a gregarious animal, your dog will probably be happiest with the added company of another, most especially if left without human company for many hours during the days. In order to understand the dog’s predicament in such confinement, we need only imagine ourselves alone all day with nothing to do. It is a bad human failing, in spite of our much-vaunted brains, to fail dismally to understand and accommodate another’s perspective.  As an exercise, try to imagine yourself as the dog.  Left alone with no companion, no means of occupying your time,  you might resort to barking all day, chasing the cat, digging holes, trying to jump the wall, chewing up the hose pipe, all as a consequence of the suppression of your natural need of mental and physical activity.

Give your dog love and attention. Read about dogs and try training with non-aversive, modern methods. Consider the advice of a reputable trainer. It should be fun to play with your dog, but there also happens to be good evidence indicating its therapeutic value to both of you. Two compatible dogs left alone will naturally be able to play together and share each other’s company. Take your dog or dogs for walks. This will benefit you too. Be patient while your dog sniffs the various messages along the way.  Playing an enthusiastic game of tug (not too violently), throwing a soft ball (keep it low) and other shared activities will all be bonding. Groom your dog, talk to your dog, teach tricks, cuddle her, invent amusing games.  Whether or not you wanted a watchdog, in the ways mentioned you will have earned your dog’s respect and love, and protection will come quite naturally.

Susan Henderson©


The Morality of Play

The act of playing is usually thought of as little more than an entertaining pastime, but research is confirming that it is in play that we first learn the manners to facilitate our interactions in society. As we realise what an important function it serves, we can see how play could well have been the nucleus of civilization. Parents with problem-children might come to realise that a significant causal factor has been a lack of proper old fashioned rough and tumble play (computer games and the like don’t count).  And so it is with dogs.

Jaak Panksepp, the eminent psychobiologist, psychologist and neuroscientist, and Lucy Biven, the distinguished psychotherapist, have explained how seven emotional systems – seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, grief, and play – govern not only how we as humans live and behave, but how remarkably similar these systems are across the mammalian species.  Here the focus is on dogs, and so we will be looking at the importance of play to the development of the higher brain regions that help make happy, creative and socially cohesive canine adults.

Increasing evidence is indicating that play stimulates the production of what we may describe as brain ‘fertiliser’ (IGF – an insulin-like growth factor), which results in brain growth and development.  One third of the frontal cortex brain genes are altered during play, effecting the creation of pro-social circuits. These frontal lobes are responsible for calm, rational, considered behaviour, and may be thought of as the brain’s ‘braking system’.  When dogs unduly jump up and down, tear around, whine and can’t be still, this inhibiting system is not functioning, and their behaviour is socially unacceptable.  They are out of control. Conversely, when the system is intact and functioning we are likely to see better impulse control and a reduction in undue reactivity.

When the brain’s play centre is deprived, by social isolation for instance, the grief centre is activated and the animal becomes lonely, miserable, depressed.  Conversely, an adequate amount of play reduces activity in the play centre and results in improved concentration and learning ability. If we look at the play centre as we would a hunger centre, we can see how Panksepp’s work links ADHD in children to a starved play centre.

I have found the research of Panksepp and Biven to be supportive of my own experience as a dog trainer and behaviourist when working with hyper-active dogs.  Dogs without suitable companionship whose behaviour has indicated the deficit now under discussion, have become better balanced and calmer when a compatible playmate has been introduced and adopted.  Most animal-watchers will have observed many species of domestic and free-ranging animals engaged in play.  As the research confirms, play is not merely a pastime but an important requirement for healthy social development.

It is also known that during play and dreaming, the brain assesses and arranges important information that helps develop a repertoire of innovative behaviours that enable the animal to better cope with potential life events.  On the other hand, play deprivation may lead to traits such as fearfulness and aggression in animals lacking the ability to cope with life’s ups and downs.

A potential problem to watch out for in play is that without sufficient cooling off periods between bouts, the participants may become overly aroused and the play may escalate into a fight (note the same danger among children). This is the ‘dilemma of play’. But dogs with good play skills regularly pause briefly during play sessions to calm themselves down.  The law ‘do unto others’ applies, resulting in prosocial behaviours being learnt and employed.  The rules of fairness and reciprocity are to be adhered to, and a contravention is likely to result in a correction or an abrupt end to play.

This kind of play naturally develops communication skills as well as teaching boundaries of right and wrong.  For example, if a puppy bites an adult dog too hard, the response will be a reprimanding stare or perhaps a paw placed over the puppy’s body, and the play session will cease. In this way the puppy quickly learns that if it wants to play, it needs to inhibit its bite and earn that right.  Among puppies at play, a painful bite would usually result in a yelp.  This would end the fun, and thereby the puppy should learn to inhibit its bite in play. In these ways the animals are taught when boundaries have been overstepped, and other valuable social lessons are taught.  Animals who do not play fairly are liable to lose reproductive fitness because they will be shunned by potential play mates and become social outcasts.

Play also includes role reversals:  now the prey, next time the hunter. This teaches locomotory and balancing skills. Taking turns playing dominant and submissive roles also teaches control. A more naturally dominant animal will signal the intention to play with a play-bow and will then adopt positions and postures that it would seldom assume in real life.  For instance, it may roll over and play a submissive role for interaction with a weaker or less assertive play mate.  By the same token, when well-mannered dogs play with puppies or older, weaker ‘opponents’, they might use self-handicapping techniques to level the playing field, thereby ensuring that both partners may enjoy the game.

It is wise to supervise play involving unfamiliar dogs because, as among children, some may have deficits in play skills. Play may become too intense, usually because one party does not abide by the rule of role reversal. If the victim’s attempts to calm the situation or disengage are ignored the play-bout may become increasingly frenzied leaving the victim little option but to take more defensive action which could result in a fight. If a dog deceives by giving play invitation signals and then uses the opportunity to deliver an un-inhibited bite, the consequences will likewise be severe.  Dogs who do not abide by the rules will be excluded from play, and so from the social group, and consequently lose out on genetic fitness.

It is not an exclusively human practice to require that acceptance in society demands that certain basic rules of conduct be upheld.  Animals clearly have their moral codes as well, and we have seen how these are formed in play.

Susan Henderson©


Catch me if you can with role reversals.


A much needed Pause

play 11

Even with the ugly face Shenanigan is displaying the bite is    inhibited, lips are long and body is curved. Skye is learning  crucial life skills.

The Gentle Way

What is wrong with the confrontational methods used by some trainers, and aren’t there better ways?

The Gentle Way

The Gentle Way

Yanking a dog up by the scruff of the neck, overturning it and pinning it down on its back and staring into its eyes (all naturally read by the dog as signs of aggression) is one example of the bad training technique favoured by practitioners of the popularized but increasingly discredited Alpha Dominant school of thought which is based largely on false premises.

This style of training was thought to mimic methods of establishing dominant leadership among wild wolves, but research has shown that this is not in fact the way of wolves.  Secondly, the domestic dog has evolved enormously from its wolf origins over a period of more than forty thousand years in the company of humans and our ancestors.  We recognize humans as distinct from chimpanzees, and so should we distinguish between wolves and dogs.  There are similarities but so are there differences.  Emphatically, then, a dog is not a wolf.  Continue reading

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety in dogs

Separation anxiety in dogs

Before discussing ways of dealing with separation anxiety it is important to get an holistic view of the problem. There are various factors that make dogs susceptible to developing Separation Anxiety. These consist of evolutionary self-protective mechanisms, physiological effects, boredom, as well as dogs’ social nature.

Dogs are gregarious by nature. They have a strong need for companionship and are therefore not suited to living alone. Leaving a dog on its own on a regular basis for long periods of time is unkind and irresponsible and many behavioural problems arise from a lack of companionship. However, dogs can be taught to tolerate reasonable amounts of time in their own company without showing significant signs of distress. The key to this lies in early training. To work out how we can make these times acceptable for our dogs, we only need to imagine being left alone with no avenues of distraction. Continue reading

The Importance of Early Puppy Training

Alsation puppy in training

Lexi in training

So you have finally got your adorable puppy and have taken it to the vet for a check-up and inoculations and have bought the puppy a bed and toys. Is there anything else you need do so that you can enjoy a happy relationship lasting a decade or more with this new member of your family? Yes, there most certainly is, and that is to start a humane training programme as soon as possible.

A puppy’s mind is most receptive to learning before the age of 12 weeks, and at this stage in its life it is crucial to introduce it to as many instructive experiences as possible. That is why Dog Box Training School likes to start training puppies from as young as eight weeks. Your puppy’s brain is like a dry sponge ready to absorb any training and it is now, at this crucial time, that the opportunity should be taken to teach your puppy all that is necessary to make it a valuable and compatible  asset to your family. Continue reading