Dog Training in and around Topsham, Exeter & Exmouth

For home consultations please call: 07582 645580 : Testimonials

Welcome to my website and our Facebook group which may be viewed here. Topsham, Exeter & Exmouth Dog Training is for those in the area seeking tips and advice on all matters of dog training. The group advocates totally force free training. We do not practise any forms of dominance or punishment based training. Please feel free to ask any questions and get involved in the discussions. The various blogs below are on general aspects of dog training rather than dealing with specific issues or training problems.

One-to-one home consultations include problems with: general skills training for puppies and adult dogs; anxiety, fears and phobias; separation anxiety; loose lead walking; resource guarding; poor recall and others. Consultations are followed up by a full written assessment and training plan. Please follow the links in the menu bar for further information or to make contact. I look forward to hearing from you.

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The link between serotonin and dog behaviour in a low vs high protein diet.

Dogs are of the taxonomic order Carinvora but are not obligate carnivores and may be described as omnivores, indeed, being able to tolerate a diet high in carbohydrates. However, in March 2019, Dr Emma Bermingham et al of AgResearch at Massey University, New Zealand, conducted a study into dog nutrition. The researchers said: “Up until now science has looked at studies on nutrient digestion in humans, mice and rats and assumed the same to be true of dogs………………..much more needs to be done to understand the digestive system of dogs and the long-term health consequences of feeding different diets”. Dr Bermingham goes on to say: “We already know dogs have no nutritional need for [added] carbohydrates in their diet, so this study looked at the role different bacteria, and its production of serotonin, play in a dog’s digestive system to help us work toward a clearer picture of what is the optimum diet for dogs” (Bermingham, 2017).

Serotonin, an amino acid, is one of the constituent molecules of proteins involved in sleep, memory, mood, depression, aggression, pain, anxiety, temperature regulation, eating behaviour and other neurological processes. It is manufactured in the brain and the intestines the majority of which, between 80-90%, can be found in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is also found in the blood platelets and the central nervous system (CNS) as a neurotransmitter – though is not classified as a hormone. It is synthesized from tryptophan (trp). Tryptophan in the body has to compete with large neutral amino acids (LNAAs) found in protein, too many of which can, therefore, be potentially detrimental to a dog’s behaviour. However, using a two pronged approach the ratio of tryptophan to LNAAs can be increased in order to enhance good mood (and potentially behavioural issues) in dogs. Firstly by increasing, in the diet, food rich in tryptophan such as turkey, chicken, salmon, certain red meats, oats, beans, lentils, pineapple and others. Secondly, whilst these foods alone will not boost serotonin levels and, indeed, may upset the balance causing a shortage of serotonin, the addition of certain carbohydrates in the diet will aid its absorption. These include brown rice, whole grain, fish, eggs, wheat flour, sweet potatoes, peas, carrots, beet pulp, chia seeds and oatmeal.

Nicholas Dodman, along with Drs. Richard and Elizabeth Wurtman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted studies in 2000, the results of which were published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The objective was to “evaluate the effect of high and low protein diets with or without tryptophan supplementation on behaviour of dogs with dominance aggression, territorial aggression and hyperactivity” (Dodman et al 2000). Given that the research is now 20 years old and only 33 dogs were tested it is most certainly not conclusive. The results were that dominance and territorial aggression scores were highest in dogs that were fed supplemented high-protein rations. Significantly lower results were obtained by feeding a low-protein tryptophan supplemented diet rather than low–protein diets without tryptophan supplements.

The results for hyperactivity appear less conclusive. In a report by Dr Karen Becker at, she points out that hyperactivity and/or ADHD is rare amongst canines and that often, reported cases are misunderstood and may be age or breed related (Becker, 2017). The report also points out that low-protein diets for young and growing dogs should only be given under strict medical supervision.

In conclusion, protein, a macronutrient and source of slow release energy, should ideally not exceed 25% of total diet. Nicholas Dodman et al have concluded that there is a correlation between high protein diets and fear based territorial and dominance aggression. Conversely, the behaviourist and author, William E Campbell, found, in another study, that feeding more protein and fewer carbohydrates improved learning and reduced hyperactivity.

A well balanced diet, therefore, is essential for our dogs, containing, I would suggest, primarily high quality meat based protein, including organs – heart, kidney, liver – for optimum ‘performance’ whether this be dry, wet or ‘natural’ home cooked or raw food. As a treat, oily fish and cooked eggs are an excellent source of fatty acids and protein respectively along with green vegetables, certain fruits and cereals which may help boost serotonin levels (as discussed). Dogs (and cats) will sometimes forage for grass, even berries, possibly as a form of ‘self medication’. Commercial pet food manufacturers have an obligation to domesticated animals, but alas also have an obligation to their share holders and the ‘bottom line’. Learning to read the label is important as cheap meat derivatives, water, vegetable and cereal ‘fillers’ are invariably included. It is clear the ‘jury is still out’ regarding a dog’s ideal diet!

You’ve drawn the short straw this time!


Dogs pick up new words like babies.

It will come as no surprise to dog (or cat) owners that their pets, like babies, are able to understand words, or word combinations, even if spoken in continuous speech. For humans, the ability to learn their mother tongue is innate; ask any English speaking adult learning to speak, for example, Spanish for the first time. There would not be enough hours in the day or days in a week for a baby to learn grammar, syntax or parts of speech……….it comes naturally! The domestication of dogs over many thousands of years may have led to a rapport between our two species enabling canines to pick out syllable patterns after only a few repetitions. Recent research at Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University, using a combination of brain imaging techniques, has confirmed this ability. “This has never been seen in non-human mammals before” said lead author, Marianna Boros.

An infant will learn to spot new words in a stream of speech even before the word meaning is known. To tell where each word ends and another begins, babies use complex calculations that keep track of which syllables appear together — and thus likely form words. Known as ‘statistical learning’, we now know dogs are capable of similar feats.

Firstly, the researchers measured the dogs’ brain activity using an electroencephalogram (EEG). The tests were conducted on awake, unrestrained and cooperating dogs. They were able to walk away at any time. Secondly, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore how similar the brain regions responsible for this complex computational capacity in dogs are to the those in the human brain. fMRI scanning of dogs was pioneered by Dr Gregory Berns in the 1990s. As with the EEG scans, the tests were performed on awake, cooperating, unrestrained animals, although the dogs involved were previously trained to lie motionless for the duration of the scans.

Overall, the findings suggest that the neural processes known to be key for human language acquisition may not be unique to humans after all, according to the researchers. The findings come in the same week that a study revealed that dogs tilt their heads when listening because it appears to help them hear and process information more easily.

The study found that dogs with the greatest number of head tilts recalled the names of their toys more reliably and that the action may help them hear and process requests. Known as asymmetrical behaviour including tail wagging and paw lifting. The behaviour is sometimes referred to as ‘triangulation’ or ‘orientation reflex’, thought to be a primitive reflex to help orientate prey. “Often owners observe dogs tilting their head but we still do not have a full understanding of the function and circumstances in which this behaviour happens. However, this study is the first step in this direction showing how this behaviour could be related to the presence of meaningful and salient auditory stimuli for the dog” said Marianna.

Anxiety, Fears & Phobias

Anxiety, fears and phobias are not only human traits but can apply equally to our pet dogs and other animals.

Anxiety may be described as an irrational feeling of worry, panic, dread, nervousness or apprehension about an actual OR imaginary situation, person or event. Stress and fear are often catalysts. A state of dysphoria often impairing physical and/or psychological functioning may also exist. Mild anxiety, however, is not necessarily a bad thing as this may enhance performance, for example, in an exam, a sporting event or public speaking. Anxiety lies on a continuum from normal, even desirable, to a severe disruption to daily life.

Evolutionary biology suggests that anxiety is learned and that fear is innate. This makes sense – if our ancestors were not fearful of lions on the African savanna we may not be here today! Behavioural theories of anxiety acquisition are based on the nurture paradigm: we learn to be anxious; we are not born that way. However, research tells us that a predisposition for neuroticism may lead to general, or ‘free floating’, anxiety and that a neurotic trait may be inherited. This type of anxiety can have a profound effect on one’s wellbeing and anxious periods can last for days potentially leading to a mixed anxiety and depression disorder (MAD). Psychologists may not regard neuroticism as the same thing as behaving in a neurotic way.  

Anxiety may be internal or external. For example we may feel anxious about a meeting (external), triggering a belief that we are not capable or have the necessary ability or knowledge to participate (internal). We may feel anxious about the past, present or future or this may present more generally to include all three, leading to the ‘free floating’ condition described above. Some sufferers report sleeplessness along with anxiety dreams – the latter, however, may help to achieve a state of mental homeostasis at least in the short term.

A precise definition is not always agreed; clinicians may differ from sufferers in this respect. The sufferer is often unaware of the cause of their condition. Other emotions may present, such as depression, malaise, sadness, anger, shame, guilt. Physical responses may also present in the form of displacement behaviours, for example, avoidance, freezing, refusing to cooperate, hostility, talking excitedly, not talking at all, and invariably autonomous reactions, for example, palpitations, sweating, shaking, dizziness, hyper-ventilating, headache and increased blood pressure.

There is a distinction between fear and anxiety; fear is taken to refer to feelings of apprehension about ACTUAL, tangible or realistic dangers. Returning to our ‘lion’ analogy, the fear emotion needs to be present at birth. The wildebeest calf, for example, simply does not have time to LEARN to be fearful! Fearfulness is generally accepted to be a dominant feature of anxiety.

A strong, out of control, irrational fear of something may elevate to a phobia. Phobias can have a debilitating effect on one’s life often affecting day-to-day living. As with anxiety and fear it will fall somewhere on a continuum – for example a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) may lead to the sufferer checking every room before entering! A fear of open spaces (agoraphobia) will invariable mean the sufferer is housebound; an avoidance behaviour. Phobias can include objects (e.g. trains), situations (e.g. open spaces, meeting people (a social phobia)), animals or phenomena (e.g. thunderstorms).

The English word ‘anxiety’ derives from the Greek ‘angh‘, making its way into the German language as ‘angst‘ – anguish, worry. It was in a ground-breaking paper that the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud coined the word ‘Angstneurose‘ – anxiety neurosis, as opposed to other forms of nervous illness or, indeed, other physiological illnesses. Of course Freud wrote in German and it was James Strachey who translated the paper into English. Strachey was acutely aware of the potential pitfalls of incorrectly translating the word ‘angst’, for example, fear, fright, alarm – however, the word ‘anxiety’ stuck and is now the accepted translation.

These posts may also be of interest:


It’s not all about qualifications!

Two years ago I moved to the West country from London; for a quieter life, or so I thought! One thing that struck me in particular was the enormous difference between NHS care in the two regions. There appears to be a huge disparity between different NHS Trusts and, indeed, different doctors. I have visited a few doctors in the past and, thinking back, I have met those with the highest qualifications, yet no ‘bedside manner’, to those showing empathy and a great deal of care. I mention this as there is a certain correlation between home visits from doctors and those from dog trainers / behaviourists.

If we, trainers, have no rapport or empathy with our clients (and their dogs), then we are on a hiding to nothing. We may as well give up as we will fail miserably and certainly get no referrals. We may have, for example, an MSc in Canine Behaviour but this does not necessarily impress potential clients; it’s all about our attitude, getting referrals and our feedback score on Yell dot com, amongst others!

Similarly I have read, or attempted to read, many dog training books. Some I cannot put down and others I give up after the first few pages. I wonder who the authors are trying to impress; their audience or themselves with convoluted vocabulary and oftentimes poor, clumsy and nonsensical sentence construction!

The moral of the story is be yourself and do not try too hard to impress!

What exactly do we mean by the ‘science’ of dog training? Part 1

A science or an art? The dog training industry in the UK is unregulated – though most would agree it is actually ‘self regulated’. There are many successful dog trainers who, through their own dedication and experience, have achieved success and high regard without necessarily understanding the ‘science’ behind it all. For example, they may not be aware of the psychology involved in how dogs learn. Conversely, a canine behaviourist will be concerned with the dog’s mind (as opposed to the physical brain) and why the dog behaves in a certain way. Historically, the industry has been bifurcated though, thankfully, with greater awareness by professionals, this is changing.

“The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it” (Neil DeGrasse). Science is not an answer it’s a process. Furthermore, a theory is considered scientific if the research is empirical and it can be falsified or disproved. We could argue, therefore, that ALL theories are scientific until they become fact! For example we have known, since Magellan, that Earth is a sphere or, more precisely, a geoid, period; it is now beyond doubt, therefore unscientific. However theories about ‘black holes’ abound. Almost weekly a theory is offered; the next week it is disproved and another one offered. To this day, comparatively little is known about the workings of the BRAIN, let alone what is fermenting in the MIND and associated behaviour. Therefore, it must be scientific!

In a blog of this length it will be impossible to go into depth, rather to highlight, what I consider to be the three main criteria of dog training. These are the ‘intangible debate’, the ‘tangible debate’ and the ‘philosophical debate’. I use the word ‘debate’ as I’m sure we will be discussing these long into the future!

The intangible debate concerns things that we cannot actually see, for example, how a dog learns, the psychology of training, intelligence, his mind and his soul. So, how does a dog learn? Actually it’s no different to bringing up a human toddler up to about the age of three years. Psychology plays a big part here – there are a number of names that, historically, have played a big part in the study of animal psychology and behaviour. These include Ivan Pavlov, B F Skinner, Edward Lee Thorndike, Konrad Lorenz, J B Watson and many others. Dogs and other animals (including humans) will learn by association (classical conditioning), consequence (operant conditioning), and mimicking. This is described in ‘How Dogs Learn’ (Burch & Bailey, 1999).

Whole books have been written on the subject of dogs’ intelligence. This is where science truly comes in – measuring an intangible! In ‘The Intelligence of Dogs’, Stanley Coren describes adaptive intelligence (learning and problem solving), working or inherent intelligence (breed specific) and instinctive intelligence (individual specific). (Coren, 2006). Basically, adaptive intelligence is the ability to learn from experience and adapt to the environment. For a human this could mean learning how to drive a car down the road, how to be a better salesman and so on. For an animal this could mean learning to be a better hunter from previous bad or good experiences. For example wolves may form into larger packs when times are hard and there are fewer prey animals. They learn that the sum becomes greater than the parts and are able to bring down large ungulates. On the other hand a lone wolf may decide, from experience, he would be better off hunting smaller prey on his own. It depends on the personality of that particular individual; loner or socialite! Either way, they have adapted to the environment and have learned after one or two gained or missed opportunities.

Anyway, I digress – back to dogs. Coren, in his blog posted online on July 15th 2009, describes how he compiled his list of canine intelligence criteria comprised of 133 breeds. He contacted all the registered dog obedience judges in the US and Canada. 199 responded which was roughly half of those contacted. One criterion was that at least 100 judges provided assessments of the various 133 breeds. Breeds not recognised by the American Kennel Club or Canadian Kennel Club were not included in the list. The results were amazingly consistent with 190 of the 199 judges ranking the Border collie (BC) in the Top 10 with Afghan hounds consistently marked in the bottom 10. It was further discovered that, of adaptive intelligence, a dog may perform well in learning and ability, but only average in problem solving and vice versa. The Border collie – of the pastoral group – is good at learning and memory aspects, responding well to rote learning but slow at problem solving – in spite of appearing in the top 10 – as are many others of the this group. The reverse appears to be true of terriers and working breeds. My own observations confirm this when a BC, at a recent event, was stranded on the wrong side of a river. He waited for instructions from his handler. A Border terrier alongside, however, dived straight in and fearlessly swam to the other side (some may say foolhardy!).

The tangible debate centres on things we can observe, for example the conformation and physiology of a dog, behaviour, emotions (assuming these are shown), temperament, personality, how he responds to training, what he likes to eat and how often, what his favourite toys are – the list is almost infinite. Alas, kennel clubs around the world put much emphasis on the conformation and appearance of dogs – oftentimes to the detriment of their health. In spite of the Kennel Club’s Breed Watch initiative there appears little evidence of any improvement in dogs’ health overall (if any vets are reading this I am open to discussion on this point).

The importance of a basic understanding of a dog’s biology, in particular the digestive system and the limbic system is, I believe often underestimated by owners (and trainers alike). Likewise, the importance of a balanced diet. An imbalance of protein and the production of serotonin plays a huge part in a dog’s behaviour, ability to concentrate and learn, aggression, hyperactivity and general physical health. For more detailed information, this was discussed in a previous blog.

The smell, texture and taste of food, in that order, are important to dogs. There is no evidence that dogs prefer a variety – though feeding tidbits under the table may well produce a fussy, overweight dog.  The feeding of our pet is almost a science in itself as much so as training. Learning to read and interpret dog food labels is essential as these can be misleading, though perhaps not intentionally so. The ratio of moisture will vary between dry and wet food and also between brands giving a false perspective of the nutrient content. For example, a label of dry food may state 30% protein which may actually be lower than a canned food label stating 10% as the latter has a higher proportion of moisture which should be deducted from the calculation. That said, which represents better value as we do not want to pay for moisture which has no protein?

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association discovered that dogs prefer canned meat to fresh meat, cooked meat to raw meat, and meat over cereal. There are two schools of thought regarding the feeding of raw food with little tolerance on either side. It is a decision for the owner knowing what the dog prefers; raw food may well require additional nutrient balancing for a healthy diet. The modern dog, being a scavenger at heart, has a high tolerance to a variety of foods including a degree of vegetable matter, though certain foods, such as chocolate and some fruits, are strictly off the menu!

I touched on canine personality. Any pet owner knows that there are as many personalities as there are dogs, cats etc. But what about emotions? Do our pets have emotions and if so to what extent and are they comparable to humans’ emotions? Much research by eminent scientists such as Jaak Panskepp, Gregory Berns, Becky Trisco and Evan MacLean – to name but a few – have discovered that dogs’ brains release hormones, as with humans, that are responsible for certain emotions. These include vasopressin linked to aggression, oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and dopamine known to enhance the experience of pleasure. Berns, the first neuroscientist to use MRI scans on dogs, showed that they do recognise humans’ facial expressions and will react accordingly. The ‘cow like’ eyes we all recognise are a result of selective breeding, but the cocked head or cute expression may be utilised, after many thousands of years of domestication, to gain our attention! (NB – the dogs underwent months of training to stay still whilst in the scanner. The dog was free to walk away from the experiment at any time). So, yes, our dog is capable of falling in love and does not necessarily bond with you simply because you are the source of food and shelter! Furthermore, we have a responsibility towards our pet dogs as they were specifically bred with socialisation in mind; they are capable of feeling acute separation anxiety unless trained from an early age how to cope with this.

The philosophical debate centres on the ethical treatment of animals. For example, is it OK to kill and eat an animal by virtue of our superior intelligence? We just happen to be top of the food chain and animals below us eat each other so, it must therefore, be OK. Or is it? This is discussed fully in ‘Animals in Translation’ by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Written in an authoritative way, without jargon, and aimed at the layperson, Grandin was the designer of many farming aids consulting with farmers and abattoir operators alike. To our knowledge, animals are incapable of anticipating death so, therefore, I would suggest a good life and a good death! Industrial farming is, alas, becoming the norm and is an ethical problem as well as a wider environmental problem.

On a more positive note, man has come a long way in the last couple of thousand years, and even further in the last four hundred years, with regard to the treatment of animals. In the early 17th century, the philosopher and scientist René Descartes philosophised that human beings were fundamentally different to other animals. He believed that humans have a soul that interacts with the physical body. Both act in the same mechanical way but as animals don’t have souls they are incapable of feeling pain. If we step on a dog’s toe he will yelp as a mechanical response, not because he was in pain. He therefore, had no qualms about performing vivisection on live animals!

Some would argue that it is morally and ethically wrong to be showing dogs, tied round the neck, in dog shows. My blog ‘Crufts: The Greatest Show on Earth or Animal Exploitation?’ discusses this. Given another four hundred years, will we be looking back on this with our anti Descartian hat on? That said, my recent poll showed that 78% of respondents were NOT in favour of outlawing Crufts and other dog shows!

Perhaps of greater immediate relevance, for example, are the questions, ‘what is the difference between a fear and a phobia?’ or ‘how does de/sensitisation versus socialisation differ to habituation’? Theo Stewart discusses the latter in her excellent blog here. Are these actually philosophical questions? Well actually no; thinking about it, it all becomes apparent. But isn’t that what philosophers do; think?

René Descartes: manic depressive or a genius?


On a happier note, Dr Berns shown here training a dog to feel comfortable inside the MRI scanner.


What exactly do we mean by the ‘science’ of dog training? Part 2

Beginning in the 1800’s, behavioural scientists were in their labs discovering the principles that laid the groundwork for the 1938 arrival of operant conditioning. At the same time, without using the technical terminology or being aware of the scientific theories, dog trainers were using many operant conditioning methods. But first, let’s consider the theory of classical conditioning.  

Ivan Pavlov (1849 -1936)

Today’s theories of behaviour began with the work of Ivan Pavlov. A Nobel Prize winner, Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who studied digestion in dogs. In the course of his research, Pavlov observed that the dogs he was studying would salivate before food was placed in their mouths. He thought the dogs were associating the lab assistants, or the sound of the door opening, with food. He tested this theory by ringing a bell just before feeding the dogs. After a number of trials, ringing the bell would cause the dogs to salivate even if food was not forthcoming. This became known as a conditioned reflex. The development of such reflexes has come to be known as Pavlovian conditioning or, more commonly, classical conditioning. This is all to do with reflexes – learning by association; the pairing of two stimuli. Pet owners will be fully aware that shaking the biscuit box will bring their pet running in anticipation.

Edward Lee Thorndike (1874 – 1949)

While Pavlov was busy in Russia studying the kind of learning that involves reflexive responses, in the United States, Edward Lee Thorndike began studying what different consequences have on new behaviours. This was important groundwork for the development of, what is now known as, operant conditioning. Thorndike is known for the Law of Effect, which basically state that behaviours that produce rewards will increase in frequency. If you do something that brings a reward, you are more likely to do it again. For example if you get up and go to work then get paid at the end of the week, you will likely do it again next week. Thorndike’s work provided the foundation of all the treat training we use with dogs today.

John Broadus Watson (1878 – 1958)

J B Watson was a psychologist who worked at John Hopkins University and the University of Chicago. In spite of the studies of his counterparts, he is credited as the father of modern behaviourism. His view was that thoughts and feelings were unscientific and that a more objective and observable view was needed. Watson’s ‘Little Albert’ is enshrined in the history of psychology. Albert was an 11 month old boy. Watson and his colleague, R Raynor, conditioned a fear reaction in Albert. Initially, Albert was allowed to play freely with a rat. Then a loud bang was presented whenever Albert reached out to touch the rat. Within days, whenever the rat was presented, Albert would withdraw and cry, even without the bang. He also generalised his fear to other things, including a rabbit, a dog and a Santa Clause mask. Watson was using classical conditioning – in this case a startle reflex – to modify Albert’s behaviour. A Youtude video showing the experiment proves difficult to watch. Of course, today it would be considered unethical, indeed illegal. Watson is responsible for today’s branch of psychology known as behaviourism.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904 – 1990)

For obvious reasons he was known as B F Skinner; an American psychologist, behaviourist, author, inventor and social philosopher. He was a professor of psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974. He considered free will to be an illusion, Skinner saw human action as dependent on consequences of previous actions, a theory he would articulate as the principle of reinforcement. If the consequences of an action are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger.

He was influenced both by Pavlov and Watson. He expanded Watson’s work on behaviourism when he described the science of operant conditioning. When he was a doctoral student at Harvard University, he discovered that he could systematically change the behaviour of rats by giving them food rewards for pressing a lever in his (infamous) Skinner box. He was the first to talk about conditioned reinforcers and conditioned punishers.

Ian Dunbar

I am writing this blog during the International Dog Trainers Winter Summit 2020. This was opened with an engaging presentation by Ian Dunbar. Ian will, I’m sure, go down in history as one of the GREAT dog trainers. At the summit he spoke about, amongst other things, putting an unwanted behaviour on cue, schedules of reinforcement, making an unwanted behaviour the reward, the importance of games in training, luring vs. bribing, ‘response reliability ratio’ and ‘analogue feedback’.


We may have a dog who loves to bark at the sound of the front door bell. This may be desirable to alert household members, but is it out of control? We could put the behaviour on cue, for example ‘bark’ or ‘talk’ along with an appropriate visual cue. A reward may not be necessary as the unwanted behaviour of barking becomes the reward! Once the dog has mastered the new ‘trick’ we can then teach for the opposite – ‘shush’, again with an appropriate visual cue. Practice this regularly when the dog is sitting quietly. The reward then becomes ‘bark’!


See above. Another example may be a dog who loves to run away and chase. Assume we have trained our dog to ‘sit, down, stay’, we then cue the dog ‘go play’ as the reward. This negates the need for a food reward and may have the effect of being more reliable as the dog places much value on running away. Also we have put the unwanted behaviour – running away – on cue. Next recall him again to the ‘sit, down, stay’ position – he will come running ready for the next ‘go play’ – and the cycle is repeated. It forms part of the dogs repertoire of tricks and adds the element of fun and games.


See above. Tug, chase, ‘hide and seek’ amongst others, helps build a dog’s confidence and sociability. Search and rescue dogs, drug detection dogs and others are trained using the element of fun and games. The ‘real thing’ then becomes a game – the dog does not differentiate. Sounds like nirvana to me!


Here I will discuss reinforcement as opposed to punishment (think of the two as reverse mirror images). Reinforcers can be either positive (something is added to increase behaviour) or negative (something is withheld or withdrawn to increase behaviour). They can also be secondary (such as a mechanical ‘click’ or verbal praise), a predictor of a primary reinforcer (something pertaining to biology, such as food or certain physical contact). Depending on the character, and even the breed of the individual, a secondary reinforcer may cross over and become a primary reinforcer – for example enthusiastic words of praise, chin rubs, visual or olfactory stimuli.

A reinforcement schedule is a rule stating which instances of behavior, if any, will be reinforced. This is a component of operant conditioning for which we can thank Skinner. Schedules can be divided into two broad categories: continuous schedule and intermittent schedules.

  1. Continuous Reinforcement Schedule
    The desired behaviour is reinforced (rewarded) every single time. Because of this the association is easy to make and learning occurs quickly. However, this also means that extinction occurs quickly after reinforcement is no longer provided. Furthermore the value of the reinforcement, for example food, is lessened and the dog potentially looses interest.
  2. Intermittent Reinforcement Schedules
    Unlike a continuous schedule, intermittent schedules only reinforce the desired behavior occasionally rather than all the time. This leads to slower learning since it is initially more difficult to make the association between behavior and reinforcement. However, intermittent schedules also produce behavior that is more reliable over time and resistant to extinction. In reality, a trainer may start with continuous reinforcement and phase out in favour of intermittent reinforcement. Here it can get complex for the novice trainer and is beyond the scope of this blog. However, the six intermittent schedules are listed:-

    (1) Fixed ratio
    (2) Variable ratio
    (3) Fixed interval
    (4) Variable interval
    (5) Fixed duration
    (6) Variable duration

    2, 4 and 6 are random reinforcers and may cause the younger dog to become frustrated. Conversely, they may improve reliability insofar as it keeps the dog guessing.


RRR is described as the number of responses ÷ number of cues x 100. For example if we cue the the dog ‘sit’ 10 times and he responds correctly 5 times then: 5 ÷ 10 = ½ x 100 = 50%. Ian showed the results collated as bar charts over two time periods for comparison. This is what science is all about – collecting and collating data then presenting it in a clear and understandable way. The results are unambiguous and prompts us (and our clients) to move to the next stage of training.

Analogue feedback is a term borrowed from electronics. Feedback can be either analogue or digital. As with dog training there is also both negative and positive feedback. Imagine digital as an on/off light switch – there are two poles, there is no in-between except a nanosecond’s time delay between the two. Now imagine a dimmer light switch as analogue – it is continuously variable and instantaneous. With dog training the aim is to give the dog appropriate and instantaneous feedback. Hence we have ‘analogue feedback’. As with voltage (input) and current (output), input from the trainer = output from the dog!


This causes much debate amongst dog trainers. We can, for example, lure a dog over a fixed series of agility hurdles (fixed ratio) using a small piece of frankfurter. If the dog is willing it’s a lure; if he is unwilling it becomes a bribe.

The following related blog may be of interest:

Modern day working breeds are often put to the
test in the exciting and challenging world of canine agility

What exactly do we mean by the ‘science’ of dog training? Part 3

Dog training: a science or an art? Surely it’s a mixture of both. We may be a scientist or at least be scientific in our approach, but if we have little rapport or empathy with dogs (or animals generally), lack the personality or temperament of a trainer, then it’s a non-starter. On the other hand, I wonder how many shepherds have read ‘How Dogs Learn’? You don’t need to be a mechanic to drive a car. Just do it! As with any profession, there is an element of jargon and sometimes a tendency to make things more complicated than they actually are – ‘reinventing the wheel’ – even over analyzing; but isn’t that what scientists do?

In Part 2 of this series I spoke about the International Dog Trainers Winter Summit 2020. Yesterday Bob Bailey gave an engaging presentation. He spoke about “science, or the scientific method as being a systematic way of asking questions and making it difficult to lie about the answers…………… is a process of studying the complex world around us……………….scientists usually break apart, or simplify, complex phenomena into its component parts. Science APPLIED to solving specific problems is one definition of TECHNOLOGY. The technology of animal training involves the sub-sets: psychology (and ethics), biology, biochemistry and mechanics.”

This will be the last blog in the current series. What follows is a random selection of theories that have, hitherto, been a source of bemusement to me. A THEORY is just that; it is said to be scientific until it has been falsified or becomes an enshrined FACT.


This takes the science of dog training to a new level! I mentioned the danger of OVER analyzing and here I think we may have ‘lost the plot’ (see next item). Trainers will understand the concept of ‘The Quadrant of Training’. However, how many understand, or have even heard of, ‘The Quadrant of Punishment’? Cesar Millan, in his book ‘Cesar’s Rules’, discusses this, though I should point out he does not take credit for it! The four quadrants of punishment are:- 1. ‘aversive punishment’, 2. ‘non-aversive punishment’, 3. ‘aversive non-punishment’, 4. ‘non-aversive, non-punishment’. 1 and 2 are self explanatory. However, non-punishment implies INACTION or the opposite – REINFORCEMENT!


It is possible to over analyze an action rather than let it occur naturally. The over analysis of an action or string of actions, for example in sports, could lead to paralysation and non-action or incorrect action. A goal keeper about to defend a penalty shoot will have to decide whether to dive to his left or to his right. As the ball leaves the foot of the striker he must make an analysis resulting in a nanosecond of inaction or freezing (then he dives the wrong way!)


Differential = 1. the relationship between two points on a sliding scale, 2. graduated.

Also in Part 2 I mentioned Ian Dunbar‘s presentation at the Summit and gave examples of Ian’s theories. However, the thought processes firing in a dog’s mind are, of course, complex and we can only guess as to what a dog is thinking (an educated guess nonetheless). Going back some years to his ‘Growl Class’, Ian spoke about ‘Differential Classical Conditioning’ (DCC). This was in relation to a dog-reactive dog lunging and the following string of events to avoid a potentially dangerous situation arising. (However, there is little reference to DCC in dog training books or the internet other than the defensive withdrawal reflex of a sea hare (slug) from a noxious event – an electric shock!) Ian went on and concluded the class by stressing the importance of giving the dog feedback for ALL behaviours – i.e. lunging, then withdrawing, followed by the WANTED behaviour – not simply ignoring the unwanted behaviour! Think of our sliding scale analogy.

Grisha Stewart discusses in her book, ‘Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0’ (BAT), a procedure referred to as ‘Differential Reinforcement of an Alternative Behaviour’ (DRA). She describes this as extinguishing an unwanted behaviour by withholding reinforcement for it whilst reinforcing an alternative behaviour. I quote, “the handler is NOT applying ‘differential reinforcement’, rather ‘differential reinforcement of an alternative behaviour’. With BAT, we don’t apply operant extinction, because it’s not ethical………………to force a dog to stay in a stressful situation just because he is not offering the ‘right’ behaviour to get out of it. If the dog [lunges], for example, we move him away from the trigger…………….it may however reinforce the [lunging]. That’s risky but not as bad as it sounds. We can just arrange our set-ups so that [lunging] or other such behaviours are unlikely. That way the dog gets lots of reinforcement for behaviour we want, and not much reinforcement for the behaviour we are trying to eliminate. This has a similar effect to differential reinforcement, without the added stress and disempowerment of extinction.” (Stewart, 2016).

Of course, as responsible handlers, we will be looking ahead for potential areas of conflict with a view to avoidance as Grisha espouses. In the Summit, Jamie Pound later spoke about the importance of ‘scent work’ and the positive affect this has on a reactive dog. For example the laying of a food reward as a means of desensitisation (in this case, to another dog) and counter conditioning – here the two are NOT mutually exclusive. Dogs were born to sniff (and run)! Sniffing is self rewarding and signals sent to the brain induce a self calming effect. We could argue that the reactive dog has simply been distracted, but nevertheless, he is aware of the trigger in the distance. The dog, in effect, is handed control of the situation – a fundamental philosophy of BAT!

An easier concept to understand may the the scenario of our pet dog sitting under the meal table whining. We can do one of two things. 1. Apply ‘differential reinforcement’ by offering ‘not much‘ reinforcement or, indeed ignoring the behaviour, praising for NOT whining and relying on extinction – though Grisha describes this as disempowering (for the dog)! 2. Apply ‘differential reinforcement of an alternative behaviour’ by luring the dog away with, for example, a toy (preferably NOT food) to his anchor mat. The danger here is that the dog may perceive this as reward for whining! Only WE can judge.


Sometimes referred to as ‘Premack’s Principle’ named after the researcher David Premack in 1959. The idea here is that a high-probability behaviour reinforces a low-probability behaviour. For example, Grandma explains to her Grandchild that he can have his sweet providing he eats his greens! So, if he eats his greens (low probability) he gets to eat his sweet (high probability). The child has been bribed! This principle is more commonly applied in a classroom setting with children (or adults) and would not necessarily apply to dogs because it requires self management and understanding of what is in one’s best interest.

However, in dog training it has the potential to increase impulse control and/or recall probability. The disadvantage here is that three handlers are required – one to hold the dog, one to call the dog and one to apply the high-probability behaviour. In the scenario our dog is aware that handler 3 has a high value reward (a piece of smelly frankfuter) – but handler 2 (preferably his guardian) is calling him. This gives him a predicament. Does he control his impulse to run to handler 3 or run to his guardian (handler 2) in order to reach his ultimate goal – the frankfurter? To help the dog, handler 1 may ‘point’ the dog in the right direction! Unfortunately we will be applying negative punishment (P-) by not allowing the dog access to the reward for the ‘wrong’ behaviour, thus adding the element of frustration and the dog potentially walking away in disinterest.

The following related blogs may be of interest:-

Two very different emotions on display. We need to apply the principle of DRA to the dog on the left, whilst possibly showing
some sympathy for the dog on the right

All children are born equal – or are they?

As recently as the 1960s, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1939 – 2002) espoused the idea that a persons aspirations and final status in life are determined by their relative social position and, of course, that of their parents. Have you noticed that some people work hard all their lives but appear to achieve very little, either materialistically or intellectually? This is so true in today’s Britain where the wealth gap is widening alarmingly due to the inept policies of consecutive governments since the early 1970s, and we appear to be returning to the Victorian era, with free food queues and rough sleeping. Even those in work very often have to ask for handouts. Britain enjoyed a boom in the 20 years since 1945 with real earnings increasing and as prime minister McMillan said “You’ve never had it so good”. So what went wrong? (But I digress – that’s a topic for another day).

Unlike his posthumous mentor Karl Marx, Bourdieu described three forms of ‘capital’. He was looking for reasons why different people, of similar intelligence, may or may not succeed in the educational system and subsequently, may or may not, enjoy jobs of power and influence (or indeed any job at all). In other words he was looking for sociological reasons rather than intellectual or genetic reasons.

  1. Economic capital – that which we may inherit from our parents and is invariably passed down the generations giving a child at least a ‘fighting’ chance!
  2. Social capital – with economic capital we may be able to afford, for example, a private education for our children, holidays abroad, join an exclusive tennis club, learn a musical instrument, learn a foreign language via ‘exchanges’, a university place (inclination allowing) and generally mixing with children of a similar background, and their parents’. Our children will then use their ‘network’ of contacts and acquaintances to further their job and career prospects and subsequent financial status.
  3. Once economic and social capital are acquired these may now be progressed by some children into cultural capital. This, amongst other examples, consists of gaining post graduate qualifications, experience working within an international organisation, travelling and gaining an understanding of other cultures and religions, the appreciation of music, poetry and the arts and much more.

Of course this is only a brief and general introduction to a far more nuanced and complicated subject, but will be continued.

Pierre Bourdieu  c1960


The Rule of Three

‘The Rule of Three’ states that facts, events and definitions tend to occur in groups of three. For example; childhood, adolescence, adulthood; red, yellow, blue; primary, secondary, tertiary; fear, anxiety, phobias; space is three dimensional, and so on! Text containing three pieces of information is inherently likely to be all consuming and of greater interest to the reader than otherwise.

Animals (including humans) learn in three ways. By association – classical conditioning, by consequence – operant conditioning, by mimicking – allelomimetic learning. Social learning is via play, experimentation (trial and error) and reinforcement (see below).

We train our dogs using three steps; the ‘ABC of Behaviour’ – antecedent (cue) (assuming the dog understands), behaviour, consequence. The psychologist B F Skinner designed a closed box in which rats were trained. This became known as the Skinner Box. The rats learned by consequence that if a bar was pressed food would be forthcoming – Skinner coined the phrase ‘operant conditioning’. He further refined this by adding a signal, for example a light. Food would only be presented when the light was on and the bar was pressed. In other words the rat learned to discriminate. The relationship between the signal (the light), behaviour (bar press) and consequence (food) is called a three term contingency; one is contingent upon the others.

The opposite of discrimination is generalisation. Classical conditioning relies on two stimuli being paired. For example if we shake the dog’s kibble box a rattling sound is made and the dog will eventually learn by association that food will (hopefully) be presented. The dog may generalise this this to ALL rattling sounds. The reflex has become conditioned and hence automatic. If, however, food is NOT forthcoming the behaviour will extinguish. ‘The Rule of Three’ at work again!

Incentive vs. motivation. A subtle difference. For example we can offer our dog an incentive to carry out a certain cue (external) but the motivation comes from within (internal). Dogs are predator animals and are often motivated to chase – the incentive is the prey animal running away. Returning to our example of allelomimetic learning, whether or not our dog continues to do what has been observed depends on his/her motivation of which there are three aspects. External reinforcement which is analogous to learning by consequence, vicarious reinforcement when our dog is simply happy to observe, and self reinforcement when our dog enjoys a certain amount of satisfaction, edification or pride in completing a task. Of course we can only surmise the latter!

The renowned dog trainer and behaviourist, Sue Garrett, discusses how we, the dog parent, are motivated. For example, if our dog is displaying an unwanted behaviour we can do one of three things. Ignore and hope for the best, manage by simply dealing with it, or train for an alternative behaviour. It’s YOUR call!

Learning is committed to memory via three parts of the brain, the amygdala, hippocampus and cerebellum. Like many humans, it is thought that the short term memory of dogs is limited to perhaps a few minutes until stored in long term memory (LTM) via the cerebral cortex. LTM memory is either episodic, semantic or procedural. Respectively, this is memory formed from life’s experiences – episodes, learning the differences between objects and remembering their names – semantics (for example we know a bird is a bird and not an elephant!), and learning different practical skills – procedures.

As dog trainers we may have unconsciously and unwittingly become psychologists. The word ‘psychology’ comes from the Greek ‘psyche’ = mind, and ‘logos’ = study; the study of the mind. Comparative psychologists will study the mind of animals to help understand that of humans but it works both ways. How often do we ask, “I wonder what my dog is thinking?” To answer this we may put ourselves in the same situation hypothetically and ask what WE would be thinking; we empathise with our dog. Psychology is a branch of science and in order to study the mind a psychologist will apply scientific methods, as with the natural sciences. In order for a theory to become a fact, first a hypothesis is formed and put to the test. This involves three steps. 1. Finding and measuring all the factors contributing to the hypothesis. 2. Correlating the factors. 3. Varying the factors one at a time to measure the overall effect of the hypothesis. In short, it is scientific if it can be falsified, disproved or altered.

Happy training!

The following related blog may be of interest:

Why does my dog pull on lead and what can I do to stop it?

Thank you Eileen Anderson for prompting this blog. Two questions in one and a ‘hot’ topic in the dog training world. This, and poor recall are the two problems I am most often asked to help with.

Here are some reasons WHY a dog is pulling:

1. They often naturally walk faster than their human
2. In their enthusiasm they are eager to get to their destination for the ‘good stuff’
3. They are frightened and are trying to escape a perceived threat
4. We are trying to pull them away from something

The term ‘resistance reflex’ is often banded about. The theory being that a dog (horse etc) will automatically pull against a pull or push against a push. However, a reflex is something that happens involuntarily, for example, a knee jerk when the doctor taps our patella. Lead pulling on the other hand is entirely voluntary. The dog CHOOSES to pull or WE choose to pull him/her.

A more probable explanation is that the dog is resisting coercion. Sure, if someone put a rope around my neck I would pull away!

For many owners this is a ‘big’ issue. Prong collars and choke chains were designed to stop pulling. These rely on negative reinforcement (R-), the theory being if the dog stops pulling the pain goes away. This invariably implies, however, that positive punishment (P+) has been applied in the first place. In reality, the dog often learns to cope and the adrenaline rush to reach the park, or wherever, may outweigh the pain. Nowadays, body and face harnesses have been designed as a ‘kinder’ alternative. What do these teach the dog? Nothing, except to comply with the coercion. It’s a sticking plaster remedy to treat the symptom rather than the cause.

So, how can we stop lead pulling? For many the natural solution is to apply pressure by pulling back or, worse, applying a lead ‘correction’ or jerk. But why are we punishing our dog for resisting coercion? It becomes a double whammy. They are being punished for being punished. Furthermore, long term repetition may result in damage to the neck and throat area including nerve endings, tissue including muscles, veins and arteries and the thyroid glands (of which dogs have two). It is testament to our dogs’ temperament that they will tolerate the punishment to achieve their goal; getting to the park.

Encouraging our dog to walk alongside us requires exactly that; encouragement. Correct training will teach the dog what IS required rather than what is NOT required. After all it’s easier to teach a positive than it is to teach a negative. Steve Mann of the IMDT explains this eloquently in his video:

My recent blog also helps to explain loose lead walking: