Have a Happy Canine Christmas

Top Tips for a Safe and Happy Christmas with your Dog

As we rapidly come towards the close of another year, this is the perfect time to remind us all that this may be a time of fun and festivities for us, but for our dogs, especially those in the home, it is going to be a time of increased hazards and dangers. So, I’m going to cover a few tips and tricks to hopefully get you all through the festive season without incident.

The first thing to do is to take a few moments to consider what these seasonal hazards could be – a few minutes spent doing this now and then thinking about how to reduce the risk of an incident, is going to be time well spent. Remember, some may not be as obvious to us as others.


Because incidents involving people are the most serious, from a legal perspective, I’m going to start here. A dog, for a variety of reasons, may be cautious around new and novel things and Christmas can be a feast of the weird and wonderful. Imagine from a dog’s point of view the first time he sees Santa, he does not know whether Santa is safe or unsafe – let’s face it, he does not look like your regular human – all in red with a monster beard and lots of Ho Ho Ho – he’s probably going to look a little out of the ordinary to the dog.

So, in the case of Santa, it’s pretty understandable if a dog finds him scary – I have seen many children in floods of tears at the thought of meeting him.

What we forget is that at this time of year we are likely to have lots of friends and family visiting our homes, to our dogs though, these visitors could be strangers and potentially dangerous.

Unfortunately, when a dog sees something out of the ordinary, it is quite understandable that he will be cautious and consequently, if he feels sufficiently worried or scared, may well behave in a way that you may not expect.

To help our dogs, it makes sense to be aware of their body language and then you will hopefully be able to see if your dog is unhappy. Dog body language is complex, but as general rule, if your dog looks worried, he probably is and we need to understand that he is not comfortable and would rather not meet your guests. Another more obvious sign would be snarling and growling and we generally do not need much help in understanding this one.

So, if you have a dog that is uncomfortable around visitors, give them a safe space where they can be kept away from the hustle and bustle and where people will leave them alone. Believe me, a dog that is uncomfortable around people, would much rather be left alone.

So far I have concentrated on a dog being worried by visitors or a very odd looking stranger in red, but there are plenty of hazards associated with the festive season that the dog would not even consider dangerous.

Puppy Stars tree

Dogs are professional scavengers and have refined this skill with thousands of years of evolution and the festive season is an absolute treasure trove of opportunity to exercise this behaviour. This innate desire to scavenge may unfortunately expose them to a wide variety of dangers.

Many of us will have the obligatory tree and will decorate it with a variety of interesting objects and goodies. To our dogs, the tree is a collection of shiny and smelly objects that need to be investigated and of course, being novel, are likely to get some additional attention – dogs love to chew and eat things we would not even consider edible.

Then we have the presents tucked under the tree, these can be of great interest to dogs. Some will have food hidden in them (please remember that chocolate is toxic to dogs) and who knows what else; batteries, plastics, sand, chemicals etc. Because of these hazards, we should think carefully about what we hang on or around/under the tree.

Alcohol is another substance that is harmful to dogs and likely to be more available over the festive period. We all know that alcohol in excess leads to hangovers and hangovers lead to hangover remedies. The trouble is, some of these remedies can be something our dogs’ like to eat, given the opportunity. I am certainly aware of several dogs who have consumed packs of paracetamol or ibuprofen that has accidently been left within reach of the dog and subsequently resulted in emergency veterinary treatment.

No matter how diligent we are, there is always a chance we are going to make mistakes and this is a time of year, where there are often plenty of opportunities to make them. If your dog gets something you do not want him to have, all that ‘retrieve’, ‘leave’ or ‘drop’ training is going to have been time well invested.

Sometimes though, your dog may decide that he wants to keep something that he perceives as valuable. If you have a dog that guards objects, this is the time to choose your battles, if the object is safe for the dog to have and he is unlikely to ingest it, then leave alone. If however, you need to get the object from him, don’t go into a battle of wills, in the contest of ‘teeth and skin, skin don’t win’ be smart and avoid adversarial methods. Being smart, most dogs rush to the door if the bell is rung or the door is knocked, so if your dog has something and you want it, go ring the doorbell. While the dog runs to the door, somebody collects the guarded object. Another option is to show the dog a really tasty treat, toss to one side at a good distance from the dog, as he gets up to collect it, pick up the object. Once you have retrieved the object and all is safe, consider how you can prevent it from happening again.

There is lots of good information on the internet at this time of year – The Kennel Club do a great downloadable leaflet on poisons.

Puppy Stars Pie

If your dog ingests something hazardous, you need to seek medical advice immediately.

Finally, this is the one day a year where lots of families cook together and overload the hob. If we had toddlers in the house, we would be extra cautious around cooking and leaving hot items within reach – a pan of boiling water pulled over could cause serious injuries. We would not leave toddlers unsupervised and if necessary, would place them into some type of confinement, such as a playpen. With this in mind, we should not take our eye off the ball if we have dogs – dogs are just as capable as toddlers of not seeing the danger and subsequently jumping up to grab something from the side or from the hob if the opportunity presents itself.

If we think of our dogs as toddlers and supervise and confine where we need to, we can have a happy and safe Christmas.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all form us all at Puppy Stars.

Nick Honor





Puppy Stars: Fireworks Survival Guide

If you have a dog who is fearful of fireworks, you will probably be dreading the arrival of the darker nights which inevitably herald the impending 5th of November and the barrage of flashes and bangs that accompany it. It is terribly distressing to see your beloved friend shaking in fear and desperately trying to escape in the hope that they can get away from the scary noises.

It would be lovely to help all dogs to be fine with fireworks, but for many dogs, the best we can hope for will be to help them cope better than they would have without our intervention, so if you have done nothing previously, start NOW! Even if you have a dog that is fine with the loud bangs now, do not take this for granted – it may not be this way in the future.

Over time and repeated exposures, dogs that appeared fine at year one are terrified by year three, so instead of thinking my dog’s fine, I do not need to do anything, use the information below to help protect them for the future.

If you do have a dog that is currently not that bothered by the sound of fireworks, you can use a recording of firework noises. Just leave it playing at a very, very low level for long periods of time; gradually increase the volume only when the dog pays no attention to it. We want the dog to hear the sound so much that it just takes no notice. If however, you have a dog that is already anxious about loud noises or appears to be worried by the sounds, seek professional help.

It is also worth getting a vet check if the fearful behaviour suddenly starts, as it may be linked to a medical condition.

The first thing I would recommend, if you do have a dog with an extreme fear of fireworks, is to speak with your vet as they can advise you of appropriate medications which would help support any long term behaviour modification plan or if you have left it too late, counter some of the effects of the fireworks.

So, if you know you have a dog that is scared of fireworks, it is best to start early and prepare a carefully structured desensitisation and counter conditioning programme – if you think this is something you may need help with, look for a professional to help build the plan for you.

This can then be supported with all the other interventions listed below.

It used to be believed that comforting your dog would make things worse in the long run, but I want to make it clear that comforting your dog will do no harm and may well help. In fact, always making sure somebody is at home to support and protect them from harm, is something I would recommend.

Provide your dog with somewhere safe to hide by creating a ‘doggy den’. Ideally this needs to be created some time in advance, so start now! Identify somewhere where your dog likes to be and feels safe. This could be a place they already retreat to in times of stress, or their crate. In an ideal world, this would be as far away from windows or openings as can be practically managed.

Next, furnish it with comfortable bedding and cover with multiple layers or something like a duvet. This will help make them feel safe and deaden the noise a little.

It would then help to build strong positive associations with this place allowing the dog to come and go at will.

Use super nice treats and leave them in the den for the dog to find and play fun games around the area of the den.

This needs to be done over several weeks prior to the event but better to start late than never at all.

If after all this prep you still find at the first sign of trouble your dog runs to a completely different place and tries to hide away elsewhere, leave them be and see if you can make that place feel safer instead.

Please do not pull your dog from its place of safety unless it is in imminent danger. Please, please DO NOT PUNISH YOUR DOG for being frightened, as this can only make things worse.

Walk your dog before it gets dark if you can, if not, walk in the early morning and miss the evening for a time. Consider hiring a dog walker for a few weeks to exercise your dog during the daylight hours, if you cannot do so yourself.

Check that your dog is wearing suitable identification and that your microchip information is correct and up-to-date. If you want to give them a little more freedom, have them on a longline so that they can still safely explore and run a little.

When you expect fireworks, check that all possible openings are secure and that your dog cannot escape from your property.

Make sure the room is well lit to try and counter the effect of flashes, (especially if you cannot be away from a window) and try to cover any windows to prevent flashes and soften the noise.

Put on the radio or TV at a volume that will help mask out the noise, practise this before the night so that moving the dog to a safe den/room, bright lights and loud radio, do not become associated with a chain of events leading to the bangs.

Provide new and novel toys as distractions, food stuffed chew toys can help distract a dog that is not too stressed. It is highly unlikely though that your dog will take food if it is frightened, but worth doing to help those not suffering so extremely.

Massage and touch can help to relax your dog if its feeling stressed, so why not learn some basic canine massage techniques. However, do not restrain your dog and force them to endure handling if they are trying to get away from you, let them move away – a frightened dog is more likely to bite if it’s being forced into situations it cannot cope with.

There are other non-prescription products that can help support your management plan. The ones I would consider using are body wraps that gently ‘hug’ your dog with a constant pressure that can have a dramatic calming effect on a lot of dogs, specially developed music CDs that are designed to calm your dog and I also personally like to use herbal scent-diffusers with my own dogs.

You will also find a range of calming preparations, liquids and tablets available which use a variety of ingredients which may help to calm a dog in stressful situations.

These are generally available from good pet shops, veterinary practices and on-line. Whatever you choose to use, make sure you follow the recommendations provided by the vet or the manufacturer’s instructions, as some products may require a period of time before they start to work and others will need to be used before the fireworks start to have the most effect.

So with a bit of forward planning, you can help your dog get through this time of year with minimal upset and stress.

Baby Days 

I was recently contacted by a potential client regarding an issue that they were having with their dog and during our initial communications it came to light they were having a baby later in the year, too.
Following my congratulations to them, I asked if they had thought about the future with a dog and baby and preparing in advance for their new arrival.
The baby was due in four months and they had not really thought about it and initially did not think it was worth starting anything yet, but on reflection, they reconsidered and thought it was probably a good idea to start sooner rather than later.
I then had another request for help to safely introduce a multi-dog household to a new baby and it prompted me into thinking it may be useful to provide some general information that may help other people in similar situations.
First, it’s never too late to start preparing your dog or dogs for your impending new arrival, but the sooner you start, the better.
If you have a dog that you know to be fearful of children or strangers, I would encourage you to seek help immediately – you are going to be getting a lot of visitors and you need to know what to do with your dog.
There are a number of things you can do to help prepare your dog for the new arrival and increase the chances of a successful integration; this is not a complete list, but hopefully it will provide enough to get you thinking. One thing I can pretty much guarantee is that you are going to have to make some life-changes and adjustments.
Up until now you have probably been able to spend quite a lot of time with your dogs, but being a parent myself, I know this is going to suddenly change when baby comes along; you will have other competing priorities for your time, baby is going to want feeding, changing and cuddling etc, so start preparing your dogs for this reduction in time, now.
Whether you have help to exercise your dog or not, it is worthwhile gradually reducing your dog’s physical exercise, why not instead spend time with your dog training and developing ways to exercise and stimulate them within the confines of your home and garden, along with just chilling-out together doing nothing much.
For me, training is my number one enrichment option and is the ultimate work to eat puzzle and as a bonus, you will be training your dog in preparation for the new arrival.
As you reduce the amount of exercise, why not use the time to train some exercises that you may find useful instead.
For example, ‘go to your bed’ to move your dog to a crate or station on a predetermined position, a really good ‘settle’ to just relax, ‘leave’, so that your dog does not steal things. ‘Stay’ to know where they are while you are changing nappies, ‘four on the floor’ for all the visitors that will be dropping by and ‘walk nicely’ to not pull you around while you are out with baby.
This list is far from exhaustive and these are just a few examples, but there are many others you could choose. I would personally be inclined to develop the dog’s impulse control and there are plenty of exercises that will certainly be useful.
When baby comes along you will probably be wanting to walk your dog alongside a buggy or pram, while you carry rucksacks and other baby related equipment. If this is the case, start practicing this too, but it does not end there. There will be all manner of new objects coming into the dog’s environment – changing mats, wipes, bottles, nappies etc, there is so much more that is going to be new and interesting for your dog.
Consider practicing with a toy doll to simulate holding a baby, changing and feeding a baby etc. These activities are likely to all be new pictures for your dog and so they are likely to be very interested in what’s going on, so by practicing early and introducing them to as many of the other sights, sounds and smells associated with baby, you can reduce the interest that your dog is likely to show when you have baby with you.
Just imagine how much interest your dog will have in all this new stuff if you have not done this preparation.
Scent games are a great way to stimulate a dog, providing exercise, enrichment and interaction with your dog and can be done in a limited space and in some cases, you do not even need to be an active participant – on a dry day, why not scatter their food around the garden for them to search out and eat, a great way to feed their meal and keep them busy at the same time.
If you have a super high-drive dog, you could consider burning some of that extra energy with retrieve/ball games or even flirt poles which can be another great way to exercise them in the confines of a garden.
Even with these dogs, I would still look to reduce the amount of time spent with them in high activity games and spend more time in lower activity games and puzzles.
Are you a creature of habit?
Do you get up at the same time, walk the dog at the same time, feed at the same time?
This is great until it changes and then I’m sure plenty of you have dogs that bug you when they have not had their walk at exactly 5.30pm or did not get their food at 7am.
To help your dog adjust better to the impending unpredictable nature of having a young family, it would pay to gradually vary your dog’s routine, but do this gradually so that you do not frustrate your dog.
Get a supply of hollow chew toys that you can stuff with food and if you want to make them a greater challenge, freeze them for your dog/s to work on. These could be used when you are changing or feeding baby and have the added bonus of baby predicting great stuff.
Management is the foundation of safe protocols. Start setting up your management prior to baby’s arrival too, this is so that the dog can get used to the new physical boundaries; consider using stair-gates, crates and strategically placed tethers which can be really useful. You could fit anchor points around the house or make some temporary tether solutions using heavy furniture or doors etc.
NEVER leave baby and dog alone together, even if you think your dog is an angel – it’s not fair on the dog to be put in this position, so when you cannot be around and actively supervise, manage!
If you have multiple dogs then this will give you some further challenges, but with good management and preparation there is no reason why you cannot be just as successful.
If you have any concerns about your dog’s behaviour or you need help with training or practical household management, then contact a reputable trainer to help you, it will be money and time well spent. 

Whizz Pops and Bangs?

I know the season for fireworks is way off and this is traditionally when we write about all the things you can do to help your dog, but often we are just providing a sticking plaster to get your dog through the scary ordeal as we have left any proactive work until too late. Ideally, if you really want the best chance of helping your dog, you should start now.

When we talk about dogs that are noise sensitive or have phobias, we generally think about the big two – fireworks and thunder, but there are plenty of dogs that are just as terrified of other sounds such as bird scarers, gunshots, exhaust pipes and video games sounds etc.

This month I thought I would break with tradition and write about noise phobias, which may prompt you to start working with your dog that is terrified of fireworks, now. I will use the term phobia which is an intense fear of something that in reality poses little or no actual danger.

Noise sensitivity and phobia can have a sudden onset caused by a single scary event or it can appear gradually over time where, for example, in year one they did not seem to notice the fireworks, in year two they were a little more anxious and by year three they are terrified at the first bang.

Like many behaviours that have their roots in fear, noise phobias can be incredibly challenging to work with, not least because it can be so difficult to control the environment and predict when the sound will happen. The loud noises always seem to happen when you least expect them and suddenly after weeks of work gradually desensitising your dog, you get caught out and you find yourself back at square one.

In some cases, it can be so bad that the welfare of the dog must be a big consideration and it may be better to find a new home for the dog as far away from the problem sounds as possible.
A few months ago, I started working with a dog that got anxious about going outside.

I thought I would give you a brief outline of what we have done so far. A little background; this dog is a male, neutered, Staffie cross, believed to be 12 years old and had been living with the new owner for two years, following a rehome from a local charity. The reason given for relinquishment was that the previous owner had been unwell and could no longer cope.
The presenting behaviour problem that the owner wanted help with in their own words “he won’t go out into the garden”.

Before starting on the plan, a veterinary health check was requested to rule out any potential medical reasons that may cause or contribute to the problem behaviour but our dog was given a clean bill of health.

When we met, I went through several questions and it transpired that the dog was actually scared of gunshots and sounds similar to gunshots and they had been out walking when the shots started and the dog turned tail and ran home. The owner was a little surprised by his dog’s behaviour, as before this he stated “he had never done this before and had been fine and just ignoring them”.

This apparent sudden change from appearing fine, to not fine, was not as surprising to me as they lived near a military base where there was a rifle range and an area where recreational shooting takes place. The dog had probably never been fine, but gradually became more sensitive to the sounds of gunshots and now it had got to the point where the dog would only dash out for the toilet and would not go out to the garden even when there was no shooting, and certainly would not go for a walk.

The dog had started to build a picture in its mind where these scary sounds may happen and this picture involved the owner, the time of day, the direction of the walk and where the walk would take place. It was possible to walk the dog by other family members and when this happened, he appeared much more relaxed and would go out on his own free will. This did not mean the fear had gone, but instead having new people walk the dog probably just masked the behaviour.

During our initial meeting, we spent some time discussing the behaviour and why the dog may well have become fearful of the gunshots, even though it had appeared to be okay for the last two years.

We set our goals and discussed what was realistic and what were the range of possible outcomes we could expect to see – more often than not an owner’s expectations are significantly higher than what is probably achievable, but in this case, the client’s expectations were realistic – he wanted to be able to take his dog for walks again and be able to go out in the garden.

They were asked to discuss with their vet how they could help support the plan with appropriate medication and complementary products that they felt would help.

It is important for desensitisation that the dog is not continually exposed to scary sounds beyond the current step of the plan and certainly not when in the garden, as you can imagine, this can be a real problem and although it appeared unpredictable, it was actually more predictable than first thought. The military range and the shoot both had regular times of the week and year for their shooting activities and the land in close proximity did not allow others to shoot, so it was unlikely that they would hear gunshots in close proximity.

For walks, the initial solution was simple enough, they were going to take the dog in the car to ‘quiet’ areas on days when there was going to be shooting and on the other days they were going to take a new walk from the house that did not start from the rear garden.

Unless in a safe area, walks needed to be on a long line or lead just in case of a sudden and unexpected event that panicked the dog into fleeing.

Although the dog appeared to feel safe enough in the house, we have started creating a safe space in the house for him to retreat to if he becomes worried by the sound of gunshots from outside.
We discussed the use of a radio and pre-recorded music to make the noise less obvious when in the house.

We have set about making the garden a fun place and less predicative of scary stuff, we have been introducing scent games and been able to get the dog into the garden and playing games, which have also added a number of alternate exercising options.

Finally, we have started a desensitisation programme to gunshots sounds.

In all honesty, we have only just started, but the owner is happy again, they have been able to walk together again and their dog has started voluntarily going into the garden – baby steps, but baby steps in the right direction.

Reproduced with the kind permission of Dog World

Don’t let your dog be a nuisance

I know you might find this hard to believe, especially just after Crufts, but some people do not like dogs! I know this sounds mad to a dog loving audience but some find dogs’ behaviour at best irritating and at worst grounds for formal complaint to a local authority with the aim of some form of legal action.

With modern UK building practices resulting in population densities increasing, it is inevitable that dogs and people are going to come into contact more and so this will result in some people finding our dogs’ behaviour, grounds for complaint.

I’m not sure if it has always been this way, but it just feels to me that some sections of society have become less tolerant of dogs in general and that social media and legislation gives people a platform to express their upset without actually talking to each other.

I would say the number one problem that brings dog owners into conflict with their neighbours, is barking. I say this because most of the time when I am asked to help with barking dogs it is because the owners have received a complaint.

Let’s first agree that barking is something that dogs do; fish swim, birds tweet and dogs bark. They may bark for a variety of reasons – they may be barking in play, worried about something, frustrated or just plain bored, but whatever the reason why, it is not something you can just switch off like a light.

Now as pro dog as I am, I do have to agree that a dog that is left for long periods of time on its own, that barks continually for hours on end, day after day, may be considered a nuisance and unreasonable for your neighbours to put up with. In fact, there is probably a welfare issue that needs addressing in this scenario too.

Accepting dogs bark, I do struggle to understand why people get upset when a dog barks for just a couple of minutes broken up throughout the day. Some people will not even tolerate a small intrusion into their lives – they notice every noise your dog makes and become very intolerant of everything the dog does, picking up on every single bark. People will literally fall out over the stuff that dogs do and behave completely irrationally.

One of the first questions I ask clients who have received a complaint is; have you talked to your neighbours? An awful lot will reply ‘no’, along with ‘it’s pointless, they just won’t listen’ or they are worried about their reaction.

I have even worked with one owner who had received a complaint from her neighbour about her dog barking and the neighbours who complained also owned a dog that did not stop barking for the full duration of the consult! When I asked if this was normal, the owner told me ‘it’s like this whenever they go out’, I did feel a little sorry for her, especially when she told me she never let it bother her but now if she mentions it to her neighbours, she is afraid they will just think she’s saying it to get back at them.

So, what can you do if you receive a complaint?

Whether you have been spoken to in person or maybe all you have had is a letter through your door, start by trying to defuse the situation – it will be much better than going into battle with them over it. Listen to what they have to say and try to avoid being defensive (it is very hard not to be defensive, especially if you feel you have been done an injustice and the complainant is being totally unreasonable). They will probably tell you that your dog barks all the time, which you know is an exaggeration, but for now just listen and accept your dog probably barks sometimes. Tell them you are sorry that your dog has been a nuisance to them and be sincere, but do not admit guilt. Take them wine, beer and flowers as way of an apology and empathise with them but do not offer things you could not deliver or are prepared to do. Ask them what would make it better for them and negotiate a little, do not promise, but do your best.

Start to gather information about your dog as this will be useful if the local authority get involved. There are a vast array of apps and technology that is available to let you monitor your dog’s activity and I use them often for my own dogs. You want to have something that will record the date, frequency and the duration of barking, when you are away from home. When you are home with the dog, note this information down as this may be important evidence should local authorities become involved. Try to figure out if there are other dogs barking around the area – sometimes it can be an accumulation, certainly when I did this exercise, there were at least three other barking dogs in my location. It is also worth asking neighbours on other sides of the property if they are hearing the same things and make notes of their replies.

If you have irritated a neighbour, there is a fair chance they will be looking for any other opportunity to support their case, so do not give them additional ammunition, always be polite and courteous, make sure you fulfil your responsibilities as a dog owner, clear up after them and keep them under control etc.

Once you have a better idea of the problem you can then start to act. You could call in professional help, but understand that no professional should ever guarantee that a dog will not bark again, that would be unrealistic. The aim of training is to reduce the number of occurrences and the duration of barking to an acceptable minimum.

There are a number of things I could do to assist with this, for example if your dog is bored and under stimulated, we could increase its exercise and give it more things to do when you are absent. Change the time of its walks and make sure it is not left alone for long periods. We could increase the amount of white noise, maybe leaving a radio playing will make them less sensitive to everything going on outside. We could add visual barriers in the way of opaque film on windows, or better still, don’t give your dog access to places where they can sit and bark at the world as it goes by.

If your dogs’ fence-fight with the neighbours’ dogs, you could add a second fence or barrier to keep them further apart. It might be they are just frustrated at not being able to get to each other – could they spend time together if they were all dog friendly? Work with your neighbour to reduce to a minimum when they are out together, do not leave it to your neighbour, encourage them to participate but act as if you were working on the problem alone. Improve your dog’s recall so that they can be called away from boundaries and fence-fights, which will help you when out on walks too.

If you think your dog is barking excessively and/or is worried about being home alone, please seek the help of a competent force-free, reward based professional who will be able to help your dog feel happier about life in a kind, aversive-free way.

First Published in Dog World

Should we allow our dog’s to play

To play or not to play, that is the question! I was recently working with a client and a question came up about whether they should get another dog to join their family because their own dog does not play as much anymore.

Now, my first thought when asked this question was, every time a new dog joins your family, you reduce the one-to-one time you can give your existing dog – you can only spread yourself so far. Maybe instead of thinking about another dog for your dog to interact with, why not spend more time with the dog you have? I am certainly not against multi-dog households as I have one myself and from an enrichment point of view, having a member of your own species around adds another dimension to your life for sure and I’m certain dogs benefit from this too.
However, to get another dog because your dog does not play as much anymore may well not be the answer you are looking for and could possibly come with a range of other unintended consequences. Many owners place a great emphasis on their dogs playing and being able to play with other dogs and sometimes they will even feel something is wrong with their dog if they do not want to play or that they used to play lots with other dogs but now they are not so keen. Saying to a dog you must like playing with other dogs because I think you should, is a bit like me telling my wife that she must like horror movies because I do!
Some dogs will play for the whole of their lives, but most will show some decline in their playful behaviour as they age, just as we do. As some dogs mature, they may become less tolerant of those that want to play and will tell them in their own doggy way to back off and leave them alone.
So, what is play all about? Many animals play, especially when they are young, I did, you did, lions and wolves do and left to their own devices, dogs will play. It is generally believed that play serves as a way for young animals to rehearse the life skills that they require as adults and play activity will fall into the four categories of fight, flight, feeding or reproduction and if you watch dogs playing, you may well see them chasing, body slamming, growling, mouthing, mounting and fighting etc and it can look rough! What I have found is that most owners love to see their dogs playing with other dogs and to be honest, I also love to see my dogs running around, chasing and wrestling with each other.
However, my dogs do not all play like they did when they were young – two of the three play on a regular basis and enjoy wresting, biting and chasing. I have one however, who seems to prefer human interaction and plays very little and when he does, it usually involves short bursts of just running around like a fool.
So, is dog-play good or bad? When you ask a trainer this question, their answer will be more of a reflection of that trainer’s experiences rather than a scientifically proven fact.
If a trainer has had mostly ‘bad experiences’ or they feel out of control when they let dogs play, then they may well think play is a bad thing for dogs, but on the other hand if they have had mostly good experiences, they may well think play is a good thing.
I personally think that dog play is mostly a good thing, offering elements of socialisation, exercise and enrichment to our dog’s lives that only dogs can provide and like I say, there are others who think it’s mostly a bad thing and allows dogs to behave inappropriately with other dogs and rehearses undesirable behaviours like ‘bullying’.
What I do know is that nobody really knows for sure, but trainers will try to figure it out from the dog’s body language, but even this can be problematic if you are not careful and start over interpreting what you see. Just take something as simple as the popular term ‘calming signals’, are they calming? Do they defuse conflict? Is that what the dog really thinks?
What we are really getting is somebody’s interpretation of what they believe the dog is thinking based on watching numerous dog interactions and the outcome of those interactions.
We can apply this same process to play and this helps us identify that a dog’s intent is play, rather than the real thing. So, what do you look for? We would be looking for clues from the dog’s behaviour that we believe signal the dog’s intent and those behaviours fall into the following categories; meta-signals, self-handicapping and role reversals.
It is believed that meta-signals are how dogs signal that their intent is play and not the real life equivalent of the behaviour. You will often see these signals before, during and after play. What are the meta-signals you are looking for? You are looking for what most people recognise as the classic play-bow – front end down and bottom in the air, but there are others. You are also looking for ‘play faces’ – basically looks like the dog has a big happy grin over its face or inefficient bouncy running (a rocking horse gait) as they chase each other – it should not look like they are chasing a prey animal.
When I talk about self-handicapping, I am referring to when the dog is holding back, for want of a better word, pulling their punches – they look like they are biting but without punching holes in each other. You will often see their mouths wide open and waving their teeth around but not bearing down on each other. Another common example of self-handicapping is where you see a big dog rolling onto its side while a little dog bites its face – my Border Terrier over-powering my Dogue, really? Only if she wants and allows it to happen!
During play you should also be looking for role reversals – this is where the dogs’ roles swap, for example where one is on top biting, they then swap over and the other goes on top biting or where one chases the other and then they swap around so the chaser becomes the one being chased.
Don’t get me wrong, if you allow play, squabbles will, from time to time, break out, but most dog squabbles are nothing but arguments – they are not trying to kill each other. If they were really trying to kill each other every time they had a fight (and judging on the number of dog fights there are every day), they are not very good at it!
A great website for dog body language is called ‘I speak dog’ and can be found at http://www.ispeakdog.org.
So, as I have already stated, I think dog play is generally a good thing, but play is not just about letting dogs get on with it and hoping for the best, we need to monitor their interactions, understand what to look for and not let our dogs just run up to others uninvited – yours may love play, but not all do.

First Published in Dog World 21.04.17

It’s all Mine!

I know I have said this before, but it is interesting to see how certain dog behaviours go in batches. Since writing my last article, I have had a group of cases that have proven this to me again. This month, I have seen several dogs with resource guarding issues – guarding spaces, places, objects, guardians and food items. Now, just because I have seen a lot of dogs with these issues, it does not mean I am seeing an epidemic.

What it is really telling me is that I have seen a cluster of cases and because of what I do, I am more likely to see more, but to complicate this further, these cases never happen in nice even frequencies, it is just that I am seeing more cases than usual at this current moment.

The reality is that I do not even know how many dogs are in my local area, so how do I even know where to start counting from? It could be that the numbers of dogs living locally to me have increased but the cases of resource guarding have remained the same or not increased proportionately to the increase of dogs so this would suggest resource guarding dogs have gone down in number, not up.

So, why do dogs guard? I was told by one guardian that they had been told it was because their dog was the biggest in the litter and another because the litter was so big it had to compete for food. But was it? It could be true, but we just don’t know and what we’re actually hearing are people’s opinions which can be formed on somewhat rather shaky data.

You would think in a world of plenty where most dogs have access to everything they need – food, warmth, shelter and comfortable resting places etc, why would they feel the need to guard from us and other dogs? It’s simple really, guarding is a normal behaviour for dogs which has an adaptive significance and has ensured their ancestors were successful on the playing field of life. Basically, those ancestors of the dog who guarded their food and resources, were the most successful and so those behaviours served dogs well.

These days there are not the same selection pressures on dogs so there is no need for them to resource guard and we now have a situation where being a good resource guarder is not actually favourable for the dog’s survival. Domestication has resulted in dogs becoming a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to whether they will resource guard or not.

Resource guarding is not breed specific either; I have recently seen spaniels, cockerpoos (technically not a true recognised breed) Vizslas, terriers and Border Collies. I have also seen puppies do it as young as ten weeks of age but in most cases, older dogs develop this behaviour as they mature. In fact, three of the dogs I have seen recently had bitten their owners while resource guarding and sadly one of these bites was serious, but not one of the recent resource guarders I have seen had been a bull breed.

Of those that got bitten, two of the owners were under the misguided impression they had to be the boss and when the dog growled, they thought they should make them move/take away their stuff because once the dog thinks it’s in charge, it’s a slippery slope to dog domination.

What this really demonstrates to me is that the commonly held belief that you must be the boss and that there is some kind of dog pack structure in your house, with the dog trying to be top dog, is alive and well even though there is no science to support this.

Ultimately, the real function of this behaviour is to get us to move away and for the dog to retain what it has. They are trying to create distance between you and the thing they want to keep, but if you ignore their warnings through not recognising them or by you challenging them, they have no option but to either concede or drive you away in the best way they can which can sometimes result in a bite.

Often people tell me the snap or bite came without warning, but could you recognise your dog’s more subtle communication? As you approach your dog when they are eating something, chewing a favourite toy, or resting peacefully, do they pick up the object and move away from you, start eating faster as you approach, freeze over the object, give you that ‘hard eye’, ‘whale eye’ or do they growl, snarl, snap or bite?

The above behaviours and associated body language when in context are indicative of resource guarding. The trouble is, we tend to only notice when the dog decides to growl, snarl, snap and bite and as dogs do what works, the next time they may not bother with the subtle warnings and go straight to the ones we do take notice of.

It’s interesting though how times have changed – when I was child, my parents would say to me, “don’t go near the dog while he’s eating or sleeping, you will get bitten”, but now we expect to be able to walk up to the dog and take anything off them without a grumble. We wouldn’t do this to humans and not expect repercussions!

So, what can you do? To start with you need to understand that it is a process that will take time and the great news is that it is a behaviour that has shown to be very modifiable, especially in comparison to something like fear of strangers.

If you suspect that you have a resource guarding dog, you can start with the following steps:

Step 1: Manage diligently – restrict access to your dog’s preferred resting places, for example by closing doors to a room with an area they guard (bed etc), feed the dog in places where you do not have to walk by when they are eating, avoid going up to them when they have items they will want to keep, etc.

If your management systems slip up and they do get something you don’t want them to have, do not try to snatch it back off them, but instead use distractions such as a tossed piece of food to lure them away from the item and when the dog leaves the item behind, pick it up and remove it. If they take it with them, drop the food for them to eat and then toss another piece. You could even try ringing the doorbell and see them run to an imaginary visitor, while you retrieve the item.

Step 2: Get professional help, especially if your dog has already bitten you! They will help you identify body language to take note of, refine your management systems, develop a hierarchy of guarded objects and build a plan for you to follow. If you are not in the position to employ a trainer to help you, it may take a little longer, but it is still achievable with patience and care. Get a great book to help guide you and I highly recommend Jean Donaldson’s Mine.

By Nick Honor and reproduced with the kind permission of Dog World.