Teach your dog to fetch, retrieve, find, and bring things back

Teach your dog to retrieve. www.brilliantfamilydog.com/blog/teach-your-dog-to-fetch-retrieve-find-and-bring-things-back

When you first got your new dog you may have expected him to come with a retrieve installed. After all, don’t all dogs love chasing balls and sticks?

Well no - actually not all of them do!

You may have struck lucky and got a natural retriever, or you may have a dog that stares in puzzlement at anything you drop or throw. But all is not lost! You can teach your dog to love retrieving. 

In fact you may be better off having to teach from the start. When I was working in Obedience competition with my dogs many years ago, I had two Border Collies.

Rupert was a natural retriever. He loved pouncing on toys, making them scoot away so he could chase them again, grabbing them, tossing them in the air, and racing around shaking them. Can you imagine how hard it was to get a formal retrieve from him? Dear Rupert could lose a lot of marks on retrieve.

Want a program to work with your dog to achieve great results? Get on the notification list here!

Dodger, on the other hand, came to me a little later in life and had no idea what to do with objects. So I broke the retrieve down into many separate steps - the first being to hold the item in his mouth - and taught him step-by-step. When it came to competition I always knew I’d have full marks in the bag for Dodger’s retrieve: it was always accurate and faultless.

So even if you have a happy-go-lucky toy-fetcher you could still look at tidying up some aspects of his retrieve. It’s so handy to have a dog who can fetch your shoes, keys, or the tv remote without fearing that they will arrive in your lap in many pieces.

'Tis a common question

I’ve had some emails lately on just this subject. First was Kevin and his ESS Charlie:

"I have found your four books extremely useful and continually use them as reference material. I have an English Springer Spaniel, almost one year old, and have been using your methods with considerable success. I would like some advice on how to teach him to fetch as he does not seem at all interested in returning thrown items nor holding on to them for even a short period of time. It doesn't seem instinctive to him. Thank you."

What a delightful challenge for me: a spaniel who doesn’t retrieve! Here’s what I suggested Kevin try:

"For getting your pup interested in toys, I suggest using foodtoys - kongs with a bit of liver sausage smeared inside, or a lotus ball, or even better an old knotted sock with some bits of cheese or sausage in. Get Charlie to chase it and grab it. Then you can open it for him. After a while you can show him you're putting food in, then chuck it away, so he has to give it to you to open. You can gradually build up a desire to hold the toy. The first thing is to plug in to the instinctive chase drive. 
Let me know how it goes!"

[A lotus ball is a soft ball-shaped toy that opens up to reveal its foodie contents]

This was Kevin’s first response:

"Tried the sock/return idea. Only shows interest in chewing at the sock to get at the contents. I've ordered a lotus ball so that may work. Perhaps I'm doing something wrong here."

Kevin wasn’t quick enough to reach Charlie when he got the sock - no need for him to bring it back at this stage, just show an interest. Remember, we're breaking it down into tiny steps. So here’s what I suggested next: 

"When Charlie’s about to grab the sock, twitch it away on the ground a few inches. As long as he tries to get it, do this two or three times - then when he grabs it, open the sock and give him a bit of the food. Then twitch it again. You want to stimulate his chase instinct. You know how rabbits run, freeze, twitch whiskers, then dart again? This is the action you want to simulate to get his chase going. He may start by just stamping on it - he'll graduate to catching it in his mouth. If you put the sock on a string that will help to get him interested without crowding him - some dogs don’t like you leaning over them while they are focussed on a toy and will shy away.

See this video of fun with a flirt pole. Once you've got the chase going you're halfway there!

Introducing puppy Cricket to the flirt pole

Report back!"


And I was so pleased to hear from Kevin a little later. It can be very disappointing when you take time to help someone and never hear from them again … not so with Kevin.

"With a combination of your advice including a lotus ball we have success. Charlie is eager to return to hand any thrown items on demand. Thanks again."

Baby Steps

10-week-old Loki learns to tug with all his might!

10-week-old Loki learns to tug with all his might!

So you can see the key to this is to break the problem down into tiny steps and work on just one of them to begin with. In Charlie’s case it was getting him to find his chase instinct. Once he was keen to chase the object to get a tasty reward, he was able to start enjoying the actual chase and the toy itself. 

In some cases a puppy’s chase instinct may have been quashed through punishment early on. (I’m not saying that’s what happened with Charlie! He was like my Dodger - just didn’t get this whole toy thing.)

But if you shout at a puppy for picking up something you don’t want him to have, one of two things may happen. He may be so terrorised by your outburst that he never picks anything up again for fear of being shouted at. Or he may say “Game on!” and try and get you to chase him. Of course if you do, he has succeeded in teaching you a new game that he will always win!

So with a new puppy, tidy up and ensure the only things he can get hold of are his own toys. And I like there to be a wide range of toys so your puppy can choose what appeals to him and fits his mouth.

Two Toys

Interestingly I had another query about retrieve only the other day:

"Could you give a few tips on how to get your dog interested in running after his toys and bringing them back please? My Dodger loves his ropes and used to run after them when I threw them in our garden, but now he’s more interested in lying on the grass and just chewing them. I never could interest him in bringing them back to me, but when I picked up another of his ropes he dropped the rope he had and ran to take the rope I had."

Another Dodger! And this time the writer had inadvertently hit on an answer to this problem. Using two similar toys and getting your dog to switch his attention from one to the other will transform into a retrieve over time. The key is to make the toy you’re playing with alive and exciting, then when you want to swap to the other toy you let the first toy go limp and dead while the other toy springs to life in your other hand. 

Remember you’re harnessing the instinctive drive that every dog - whatever the breed or history - has: to locate prey, stalk it, chase it, catch it and kill it. 

Your dog will soon let go of the first toy and transfer to the second. Once he enjoys the engagement with you of pulling on the “live” toy, he’ll know that toys are more fun when you’re involved. Then it’s a short step to you letting go of the toy mid-game and watching him bring it back to you - nudging your hand to get you to play again. 

Here’s a great game which shows you how to get a fast and engaged retrieve. You need to follow the directions closely. 

Tugging: Two Toy Game

What sort of toy should I use?

Rollo waits for his frisbee to drop into his mouth

Rollo waits for his frisbee to drop into his mouth

It’s a mistake to inflict your idea of a retrieve toy onto your dog. Let him choose!

Offer him a few different toys to see which engages him more. For tugging games I favour a soft fleecy plait, long enough to keep hands safely away from teeth, and narrow and soft enough for your dog to grip it comfortably.

Balls work for many dogs, but can be hard to get out of their mouth when they bring it back - all wet and slimy! So I like to use balls on ropes, then there’s something you can hold on to while you wait patiently for your dog to let go. Don't spoil his fun by insisting on him releasing it instantly.

Once you’ve taught your dog to bring back things you throw, you’re ready to teach him how to catch a frisbee! All mine love their frisbees, and as each has his or her own toy, there’s never any arguing over the toys. They’ll simply ignore any toy unless it’s their own.

And here's that link again, so you can be the first to know when my new project to help you teach your dog is released

Are retractable leads safe or useful? 11 reasons why you don’t want to use one

Retractable leads are they safe? www.brilliantfamilydog.com/blog/are-retractable-leads-safe-or-useful-11-reasons-why-you-dont-want-to-use-one

Resounding answer: NO!

This article is prompted by an email from a reader:

“Hi Beverley, I am in hospital thanks to someone who didn't use an extending lead  properly. It must have been 30ft and the dog at the end, totally out of control. The dog came right up to mine and over I went in the road breaking my femur. Instead of taking her dog away she left her to play and I was getting dragged round the road. I had to tell the owner to take her dog away.

Housing estates are not the place to use extending leads, it is too dangerous and I was wondering if you had any information on them please. The internet is not very good in the hospital and of course I keep getting interrupted by nurses wanting to take my blood pressure etc.”

Wow. Do you need to read any further to be convinced that these leads are an accident waiting to happen? Well, just in case you do, here is some more evidence against:

What's so bad about them?


1. They are unreliable. The mechanism can break and your dog zips under a bus

2. They are unwieldy and easy to drop. Then your frightened dog races away with the handle bouncing along behind him chasing him

3. They slice people's legs - especially children's bare legs. Or necks ... or amputate fingers

4. The cord is thin and can snap, with recoil injuries to both parties

5. The lead is hard to control in a crisis

6.  If the dog races to the full extent of the lead this can result in neck and spine injuries, and see no.2 again

7.  Common sense would suggest that they should never be used near a road - but they are! And that has led to the deaths of a number of dogs who were at the full extent of the lead and saw a cat that had to be chased, or a person the other side of the road that had to be greeted


Free Guide: Dog Walking Gear


Download your free guide to save you making the wrong choices!

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

These are all pretty frequent occurrences and documented facts. I have heard several of these stories direct from the unfortunate victims of the misadventure. 


Physical damage

Think I’m exaggerating? There are stern warnings on the website of the biggest manufacturer of these infernal devices. They say "This leash should only be used by responsible people who have read and can follow all of these precautions."

You can go and read them yourself, but suffice to say that some of the headings are as follows:

• Cuts & Burns
• Finger Amputations & Fractures
• Eye & Face Injuries
• Falls
• Injuries to Bystanders

They also advise that:
Children should not be allowed to use the flexi leash


I hope by now that you have taken your retractable leash (if you have one - most new dog-owners are duped into buying one) and put it in the bin. But if you are supremely confident that none of the things listed above could ever happen to you or yours, take a look at what these leads do to your training and - for me, the most important thing - your relationship with your dog.

A soft long lead is essential for successful dog training. www.brilliantfamilydog.com/blog/are-retractable-leads-safe-or-useful-11-reasons-why-you-dont-want-to-use-one

Training implications

1. They teach the dog to pull - every time he pulls he gets more lead

2. There is always tension on the lead - Loose Lead Walking is impossible. You can't give the dog the choice necessary to achieve harmony. One reader found this out the hard way, but saw the light and changed things:

“I used to use a harness with a retractable leash, which I think started some problems. I threw the retractable away. We do now walk and jog with a loose leash all the time.”

3. There is no sensitivity in a lump of plastic. Imagine asking a showjumper to hold a clumpy plastic handle instead of having his delicate fingers on his horse's reins!

4. They are a lazy option and teach the dog nothing that you would like him to learn.

Illegal devices

To cap it all, these leads are illegal in many US states, notably in San Francisco and New York. 

“Leash length: the length has been set at three meters. Dog trainers will be happy about this because it bans the use of most retractable leashes, which are deemed dangerous and do not support having care and control of your dog at all times.” – Pat Lee, The Chronicle Herald, California

So do yourself and your dog a favour! Bin the expensive retractable lead and equip yourself with the right sort of lead to achieve safety, connection, and that lovely loose lead walking. 

This post will get you started!



Don’t know what to get? Download this free guide to Dog Gear so you don’t waste money on equipment that will compound problems and only make your life harder.

Free Guide: Dog Walking Gear


Download your free guide to save you making the wrong choices!

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

The Joy of Autumn Walks

The joy of Autumn with your dogs.png


Kicking up dried leaves, low sun, lengthening shadows, fairy rings, cold fresh air: Autumn is my favourite season.

I live in England, a temperate maritime climate, which means that we get the warmth of the gulf stream till quite late in the year. 

It also means we get a lot of fully-laden clouds looking for somewhere to drop their rain! This combination accounts for the greenness of the British Isles - what joy when all the blowsy heavy green of summer turns to burning golds and reds in the Autumn!

And it’s the perfect time for the dogs too. 

It’s not too hot, nor yet too cold. Early in the Autumn there is not much mud, and there’s no ice to cut paws, or salt to dry pads. The sun is gentle with a body-infusing warmth we seek out. The streams are flowing and the pond is still warm enough to swim in. 

The ground is soft and good to run on. There are endless branches and pine cones, brought down in the autumn gales, for the dogs to discover, toss, carry, and chew. There are blackberries for all of us to forage for. 

Watson chases leaves.jpg

Fallen branches make great climbing frames, smaller ones are jumped over or scrambled under. Leaves and feathers dart past in the wind for puppies to chase and catch.

Cold, fresh air, warm sun

The beauty is all around us. The last leaves cling to the trees and flutter and flap in the growing winds. The air is cold and fresh in your lungs, your breath misty. As the dogs run they billow out clouds from their soft mouths, the heavy damp scents drawing them on. 

The dogs will show you things: the steam rising from an occupied burrow, the disturbed ground where squirrels have been burying their autumn bounty, the sound of the wind high in the treetops. Twigs crackle and snap as they bound across them, nose down, exploring the scents they release as they run across this crunchy carpet. 

My four dogs on fallen tree.png

As we move into late November and December we get heavier rain, faster streams, choppy waves on the pond, gales to buffet the last leaves from the trees. It’s time to wrap up well, to put a fleecy jacket on the whippet, an all-over rainsuit on the poodle. The collies delight in the wet and the cold, and scorn outerwear!

Mists and magic

But October is often dry, fresh, chilly early on, with swirling mists which lend a magical air to the landscape. Rain tends to be light and fine. You feel it on your eyelashes. The Irish would say, “’Tis a soft day, thank God!” 

Children are in school, people are huddled in the warmth of their homes, and there is a blissful solitude on walks.

Just me, my dogs, and nature.

Then, as the sun slides behind the hills and the sky darkens, home we go, to a rubdown and bones for the dogs, a hot drink for me, and a doze in front of the fire for all of us.

A cosy cuddle in front of the fire rounds off a lovely day for Cricket and Lacy

A cosy cuddle in front of the fire rounds off a lovely day for Cricket and Lacy

For a free email course to help change whatever is preventing you enjoying long walks with your dog, add your details here

Is walking your dog a pure joy? 8 steps to a loose lead

Is walking your dog a pure joy.png

So is walking your dog a pure joy? Or do you find yourself putting it off until you are racked with guilt and feel you just have to take her out?

I absolutely, really and truly, know just how you feel! My dogs didn’t always walk like angels on a loose lead. I can clearly remember the times I stopped and realised with embarrassment that I had been shouting at them when they were pulling. I guess they thought I was encouraging them to go faster! 

So I decided to do something about it. Not yelling or cursing at them - they’re only being dogs.

Like with almost every dog problem, it was me who had to change! 

That was when I learnt the secret

It may seem counter-intuitive, but pulling on your dog’s lead is actually making her worse. It takes two to tango, and if you pull, she’ll pull.

So, what’s the answer to this pulling question?

Believe it or not, it’s for you to stop pulling.

Get your free 8-part email course to sort out lots of dog and puppy problems

The reason dogs pull is because someone once followed them. Think about that one. From the moment you got your little puppy you let her tow you about on the lead wherever she wanted to go. I know - you thought you were being kind. But it wasn’t all that kind, as it taught your puppy something you didn’t like and wanted to change as soon as she got a bit of meat on her. 

A common scenario is this: 

      The puppy pulls to the end of the lead. The owner’s arm floats up. 

      Yay! Puppy has gained another yard! 

      Then the puppy pulls harder and the owner takes a few steps               behind her. 

      Success! Got another three yards! 

So what has this puppy just learnt? Got it. She’s learned that if she pulls you will follow. 

DRUM ROLL ….. So from now on you are never going to follow your dog again.

“But,” I hear you cry, “if I stop pulling she just pulls more!”

There is something called the opposition reflex. If you’re standing next to me and I pull your arm, you’ll pull back. You have to, in order to stay upright. If I pull harder, you’ll resist more strongly, and if I suddenly let go - you’ll probably fall over! 

You can see from this that pulling harder is not the answer.

8 steps to a loose lead

• To start off you need a proper lead - a six-foot one or longer. If you have a short lead your dog cannot help but pull on it as soon as she moves an inch from your side.  This is even more exaggerated with a small dog who’s already at the full length of the lead just keeping his feet on the floor. So to achieve a loose lead you need one long enough to be loose. It should droop down in a nice floppy loop between you.

“Best tip for me on loose lead walking was about the length of the lead! Thank you.” Annabel and her Border Collie Lily
Young Wilfred is proud to walk beside his owner on a loose lead  

Young Wilfred is proud to walk beside his owner on a loose lead


• And when you’re holding that lead, you keep your hand close to you. Tuck your thumb into your belt if you find your arm floating up in the air.

• You start out with your dog. She pulls to the end of the lead. You stop. You tuck in that thumb and keep your hand close to you. And wait. At some stage, she will stop pulling and look at you, wondering why you haven’t followed her as you are meant to.

• As soon as she looks at you, you cheerfully say “This way!” and head off in the opposite direction. Now she’ll walk with you a couple of steps, and probably (if this has been her habit) surge forward to the end of the lead.

• Guess what? Repeat Step 1.

• You may walk these five yards quite a few times until your dog realises that something is new and different. She should by now be looking at you and wondering what on earth is happening. Fortunately dogs are very flexible and tend to take life as it comes. So if you’re consistent, she’ll accept that this is the new modus operandi and go along with it. 

• It’s important that you don’t have to get any particular place in a hurry while you work on this. You need to think happy thoughts and be enormously patient. You may think your dog will stand straining at the end of the lead for ever - but in fact, sometime between now and next Christmas, she’ll relax and look back at you. (In fact it’s only usually a few seconds - it just feels like forever.)

• If you have two dogs, you need to walk them separately while you fix this.

Does this seem over-simple to you? Can it possibly be that easy? Just go out now with your dog on a (long) lead and stand still. See what happens. See how long it takes her to realise that pulling is absolutely fruitless. (If your dog is big and you are not, wrap an arm round a convenient lamppost or tree so that you have no fear of being pulled over.)

This is just the beginning. 

The first step is to stop the fight for possession of the lead. View your lead as your gentle connection with your dog. Like walking arm-in-arm with a friend.

So here’s the change you have to make

You need to change your perception of the lead as a controlling device and start seeing it as a connection between you and your dog. 

You are no longer having adversarial walks, but companionable ones.

Try it then come back to me: what do you think? Let’s get your dog jogging nicely along beside you so that walks become a pleasure again, not a battleground.

A complete program

Although your attitude to the lead is your starting-point, you’ll do well to follow a complete step-by-step (haha!) program to develop loose lead walking with your dog. You’ll find it here at www.brilliantfamilydog.com/books

or just head over to Amazon, download it, and start straight away!


There’s lots more you can do to build your relationship with your dog, and you’ll be reading that soon. As ever, the ways I suggest will all be force-free and pleasant for both of you. 


Is there more you’d like to work on with your dog? Get on the notification list for my new project here!  

Is my dog protecting me?

Is my dog protecting me.png

I often hear this question. It usually involves the dog lunging aggressively at someone or something that gets too close to you out on a walk. And the questioner often looks quite flattered by this acknowledgement of their own importance.

But sadly, the only person your dog is usually protecting is his poor, sorry, self. 

It’s what's known as Resource Guarding.

You may think that Resource Guarding only involves food, and a typical scene would be a dog with a bone or other tasty morsel. Someone leans towards the bone with outstretched arm, the dog freezes, crouches, and lowers his head over his possession, wrinkles his lips, snarls, shows the whites of his eyes as he stares at you, deathly still. This is a very clear warning! Take one step closer and you will be bitten!

There’s no moral judgment here. We use body-blocking and turning to cover the thing we want to keep, to warn others off. We’ll shove with our elbows, shout, whine. We see this more in children who are still learning our strange social ways. Dogs do it as above. That’s the way they’re made. 

They’re not bad or vicious, they just have something they want to keep.

Food, bones, a bed, old socks, toys …

And what the dog values can vary hugely. It may be a shred of dirty tissue, a dead rat, a toy, his bed. And the more value you place on the item, the more value the dog will think he has. So if you make a song and dance about your dog holding that dirty tissue, you’re making him more likely to guard it!

In my experience, dogs are either serious resource guarders or they’re not. And not many are. Coco Poodle is the first of my eleven dogs to show any resource guarding at all. You can certainly use early training to ensure that any such tendencies are not going to cause a problem. 

So with your new puppy or new dog, when you feed them just leave them alone to eat. Don’t interfere. Don’t touch them. Don’t go near them. Don’t threaten their food. Some people seem to have a mad idea that taking the food away from the dog while he’s eating will show him who’s boss.

Imagine you came to dinner at my home, I put a splendid plateful of food in front of you, then just as you were about to tuck in I snatched the plate away. How would you feel? I give the plate back to you, then snatch it away again! Now how do you feel? Next time I reach for your plate you’ll probably hang on to it and, within the bounds of normal polite behaviour, resist me.

Want to follow a complete program to get quick results with your dog using choice and understanding? Get on the notification list for my new project here!

So to think this will make the dog less of a resource guarder is nutty. It’s actually likely to trigger Resource Guarding in a dog who wasn’t showing it!

What you can do, is to give your dog his food and leave him. Then you can breeze past him and drop something really tasty down near him - something better than what he has in the bowl for preference, like chicken or beef. Gradually, over several days, you can get nearer to his bowl. He’ll now associate your approach with good things, and move his head out of the bowl so you can drop your treats into it. As Gwen Bailey says in The Perfect Puppy, “Hands come to give, not to take.”

This is the monstrous and delightful Coco Poodle!

This is the monstrous and delightful Coco Poodle!

With the exception of Coco, my dogs will all move off and relinquish a prize if another dog wants it. And they’ll happily give anything they have to me. I’ll inspect it - I may have thought they had something dangerous - and wherever possible I’ll give it back to them. If it’s something they shouldn’t have, I’ll “buy” it with a treat or a game.

And Coco will move off if the other dogs approach him when he has something he values, but he may grumble and snatch it away with him. It never advances beyond him stating his displeasure though, because nobody ever tries to force him to give up his prize.

I can ask him to give me a fresh chicken wing or bone and he will, reluctantly. Then I can give it back to him. Trying to force him to give me what he has could have resulted in a bite - probably a “covered” bite in his case, an inhibited bite which doesn’t do damage. 

But some dogs - especially dogs whose history you don’t know - may have been tormented whenever they had anything they wanted to keep, be it food or otherwise, and they are very ready to defend their valued item.

What should I do?

The important thing is NEVER to challenge your dog when he has something he wants to keep. You will get bitten. Always back off and organise a diversion. This isn't "losing face" - it's just pragmatic. Sometimes scattering some treats on the floor away from him and his object is enough for him to drop the item and go foraging, leaving you able to pick it up. If the foodbowl is an issue, feed him in his crate with the door shut, so that inquisitive children and cats can’t get bitten. Put a training program into place at the same time.

Management of a behaviour problem should always be coupled with training a better response.

Practice swapping things with him - things he doesn't value at all to begin with, gradually grading up to more valuable (to him) things. Swap for a similar item, or swap for food. One day you will be able to swap a bone with him. 

If you are worried that your dog will bite someone, or that this is too dangerous for you to manage on your own (and it may well be), get a force-free trainer in to help you. It's essential that it's a force-free trainer - so-called “balanced” trainers will make the situation worse. You'll find some resources to locate a trainer for you beneath this post: Is my dog a reflection of me?

Back to the Protection issue

So you can imagine that to your dog you are a very valuable resource. You provide food, shelter, comfort, play, for your dog - you are his home. So when you are out together, if your dog is the guardy type, he’s going to protect this valuable resource of his. Maybe from other people, maybe from other dogs. 

There is, of course, a difference between your dog just being fearful of things and one who appears to be protecting you. You’ll find help for the generally reactive dog in lots of articles here on Brilliant Family Dog 

And usually your dog is making a hullabaloo because he’s trying to keep something scary away from him. But some dogs want to take it that bit further and make it abundantly clear that no-one is going to get close to you. And that's one reason for the threatening behaviour - the other reason is just plain fear. Coco Poodle, for instance, gets on far better with other dogs at a distance from me.

The key is always to give your dog a choice. Help him make a good decision by taking the pressure off him. If it’s an item he has, back off and distract him, as above. If it’s someone out on a walk, turn away and keep a comfortable distance if you want to chat. 

Resource Guarding is a natural process, not a moral issue.

For more help with your Growly or challenging dog, check out our free 4-part email course 

Are you a Firefighter or a Planner?

Dog Training Are you a firefighter or a planner.png

I get so many emails along the lines of 

      • “How can I stop my dog doing xyz?”

      • “Every time x happens, my dog does y”

      • “My dog does xyz out of the blue.”

      • “My dog always does xyz - I say NO, but he doesn’t seem to learn and does it again next time.”

Let’s take these one by one.

1. “How can I stop my dog doing xyz?”

Far, far, easier than stopping your dog, is to ensure he doesn’t start!

It may be that you’re new to living with a dog, and you can’t foresee what’s likely to happen. Once you have a few dogs “under your belt” you get much quicker at spotting hazards in advance. So, if your dog already has an established behaviour pattern that you don’t like (and if he was re-homed with you, he may have come with this habit already well-learnt), you want to look at what causes that action to happen. 

Once you know the precursor, you have a chance to change the outcome

Perhaps your dog jumps up on visitors. What happens before he jumps?

1. Visitor arrives at house and knocks at door (huge excitement!)
2. Visitor is admitted (excitement unparalleled)
3. Maybe visitor tries to greet the dog, in self-defence (dog is massively rewarded for lunatic activity)

So you have three clear points there where you could make changes. 

1. When visitor arrives, or - if expected - before visitor is due, settle your dog in his crate or another room with a chewtoy or stuffed foodtoy.
2. As the visitor is admitted to the house, your dog is either safe in his crate or other room, or is on lead beside you with your foot on the lead, and cannot jump.
3. If visitor wants to greet dog (preferably when you ask them to) dog has to stay sitting in order to earn this mighty reward.

So there you have three easy fixes to a nuisance behaviour with little effort - just a little advance planning.

2. “Every time x happens, my dog does y”

This is along similar lines as the first point, but this time my correspondent has picked up on the fact that something happens first, then the dog reacts. So we’re ahead already!

Sometimes the full question may read:

“Every time another dog walks towards us on the street, my dog lunges and barks.”

What’s happening here?
1. Strange dog (and probably strange person) are advancing towards your dog
2. Your dog is afraid of this incursion
3. Your dog is on lead and cannot exercise the “Flight” part of “Fight or Flight”, so he puts on an aggressive display to frighten away the intruder
4. Other dog and owner turn and go, or hurry past, or you turn and go (Result! The threat has gone! The barking and lunging worked!)

So we want to change this to:

Get lots more help for growly dogs in this free 4-part email course

1. Strange dog/person advancing - turn and go the other way, or cross the road
2. Demonstrate to your dog that he needn’t be afraid, you will take care of him
3. Keep hands soft on the lead so he doesn’t feel trapped, and make distance
4. The other dog has gone without the need to be shouted at!

3. “My dog does xyz out of the blue.”

So you can see by now, that your dog never does stuff out of the blue. Unless your dog has dementia, there’s always a reason, just like there is for anything we do. 

The trick is in identifying the reason so we can fix it at that stage, without waiting for the full bad thing to happen.

And one of the commonest times I hear this statement is in regard to dogs reacting - perhaps leaping up and snapping. There’s always a reason!

Perhaps the dog is resource guarding - a speck of food, his owner, a shred of tissue, a toy - and someone got too near. Perhaps he felt another dog was threatening him, too close. Perhaps someone leant over and scratched his bum without permission! (How would you feel if a stranger scratched your bum without so much as a “by your leave”?)

Dogs always run through a sequence of calming signals before biting. Granted, they may run through it pretty fast, especially if they do it a lot. But they do do it. Just as you’d be unlikely to spin round on that stranger and pull a knife: rather, you’d fix him with a frosty glare and maybe say something loud enough for others to hear. 

Kendal Shepherd's Canine Ladder of Aggression

Kendal Shepherd's Canine Ladder of Aggression

So the dog who bit “out of the blue” will probably have tried to turn away, gone still and stiff, shown the whites of his eyes, given a stare, wrinkled his lip, mumbled a growl, swished his tail stiffly, maybe snapped - all steps ascending the Canine Ladder of Aggression - before he felt forced to bite. Fighting is dangerous for all parties, and is not entered upon unless it’s the only choice. 

By the way, dogs are so much faster than us, that if a dog is going to bite you, you are going to get bitten. There is no “He nearly bit me but I moved away in time.” If you are genuinely threatened by a dog, your best course of action is to avert your gaze and posture, keep your arms still, and stop being a threat. 

Teaching children to “be a tree” when confronted by a dog they don’t know is an essential skill: 

  • Plant your roots (keep your feet still)
  • Fold your branches (fold your arms across your body)
  • Watch your roots grow (look at your feet)

A child running away screaming and flapping arms and legs is a great target for a chasing dog!

4. “My dog always does xyz - I say NO, but he doesn’t seem to learn and does it again next time.”

Here we have a combination of acting too late to affect the outcome, and using punishment to try and fix the situation. Both are doomed to failure.

We’ve seen above that you have to identify the precursors to an action if you want any chance of changing it. If your dog “always” does whatever it is, this means it’s a firm habit which you are allowing to happen every time. Change something! Find out what the sequence is and interrupt it. 

If you wait till he’s done it and punish, he’s already been rewarded and you are too late

And as for saying NO, this really is not going to help. Saying NO gives the dog no information about what you do want, and just tells him that you are angry with him and adversarial. You’re not on the same side as him any more, so he can’t expect any help from you. This is exactly what we don’t want in our relationship with our dog! 

Instead, decide on what you want him to do instead, teach him how to do that, reward his response enthusiastically, and you now have a new go-to action for that situation. 

Let’s revisit the first example above:

1. Your dog jumps up on a visitor (fun - visitor dances and flaps hands)
2. You shout NO (more fun! You’re joining in with him now!)

How about, instead:

1. You ask your dog to sit on lead as visitor arrives (you have taught and rewarded this endlessly)
2. Dog sits as you welcome your visitor
3. Dog is rewarded - either with a treat, or by being allowed to greet the visitor calmly

Luna 2.png

No firefighting!

A lot of these “beginner” mistakes can easily be avoided or changed with a little foresight. Don’t expect your dog to be a small hairy version of a civilised human brought up with our society’s values. 

He’s a dog.

So think of how he sees the situation - get inside his head and think like a dog - then you can pick out the turning points where you can directly influence the outcome, with a happy dog!

You have to be proactive, not a firefighter. This is true of life in general, and never more true than in developing the magical bond with your dog.

Lots more help can be found in other articles here at Brilliant Family Dog, and specific “recipes” to change things you don’t like can be found in our free 8-part email course.
All text and images © Copyright 2017 Beverley Courtney