Saturday, 27 August 2011


Dogs love routine. In addition, ex-racing greyhounds have known little but a strict kennel routine. It is quite amazing how quiet the kennel goes after the morning feed and after the evening turn-out. The dogs know that this a time where nothing interesting will happen, and there is no point in expending energy on whining, barking and jumping about.

Breakfast time!

These activities are liberally indulged in before breakfast and particularly vigorously when strangers appear, for they may take the dogs for a walk! Indeed, staff can walk up and down the row of kennels with little more than sporadic outbreaks of noise after breakfast, but introduce a stranger and the calm is instantly broken. It is pretty clear that these dogs, contrary to what it appear as to the casual visitor, don’t bark and jump about aimlessly. They do it according to schedule, when something nice is coming such as food or a run in the field, or at an interruption in the routine.

Time for a post-breakfast nap.

These two triggers of noisy behaviour in kennel dogs are useful to note. They indicate how canine behaviour can be steered by routines and the break of routines. Knowing this means we can use routine to encourage desired behaviour and discourage disruptive or destructive behaviour.

Although important to all dogs, establishing a routine is going to be very helpful for an adopted greyhound settling into a new home. Keeping walking and feeding time, as well as quiet resting time, regular will help the dog relax, by allowing him or her to understand when it is ok to let their guard down, as nothing interesting is likely to happen.

Getting these timings right can also help with separation anxiety. Dogs are naturally inclined to rest after a walk and food (given after a suitable interval depending on prior exertion). If you have to leave your dog at home alone, plan your daily routine so that they are walked and fed before you go. Quite obviously a dog that doesn’t need to go to the toilet or isn’t hungry will be more likely to stay calm when alone. But it also means your dog can allow him or herself to be less alert, safe in the knowledge that this is now quiet time.

It doesn’t take long for an adopted dog to get used to a routine as long as it is consistent, and interruptions avoided for the first few weeks. However, always expect that any break in your dog’s routine, even after it is settled, is likely to lead to excitement at best and anxiety at worst. Being prepared and planning ahead is the best way of dealing with this.

Our lives don’t always lend themselves to rigid routine, and there will always be occasions when we for some reason have to break them. This does not have to be a big problem, because dogs don’t see daily routines as a whole. Rather they react to events that foretell the next step in their schedule. You may have noticed how your dogs will jump up ready for a walk even before you have got up off your chair. They are reading tiny little cues such as that “I’m finishing off this email”-sigh, or the way you say “Right!” to yourself when you’re about to see to the dogs. Eddie always jumps up when I close my laptop lid – this usually means he will get to go for a walk or get fed.

These cues incite our dogs to pester us for food and walkies, but we can also use them to encourage calm. It is about keeping the routine, but in bite-size, mobile chunks. If I have to leave Eddie and Cassie alone for any period of time I always walk and feed them first – even if it may only be a short walk and snack – whatever the time of day. This signals to them that it is time to rest; like the dogs in the kennels, they know that nothing particularly exciting is likely to happen now, and they can rest without remaining alert. I have also noticed how they react to cues in a similar way on car journeys. If the car reaches a certain speed and steady pace, they lie down quietly – nothing is happening, we’re on our way. As soon as I slow down, and start turning, however, their heads pop up – are we there yet?

Are we there yet?

With a bit of thinking and creativity we can reproduce cues from our dog’s daily routines to modify behaviour effectively at other times. For example, having a bed-time routine can be very useful when staying away with your dogs. Ours is the dogs being let out for a pee, and then going to their bed, and getting a final good-night cuddle. Repeating this makes them feel safe and calm for the night wherever we are.

Settling down in a new hotel room.

We can also make commands such cues – “go back to bed” means “there is nothing to see here, calm yourselves down and stay quiet” in our household. Indeed, all commands work best if the become routine for the dog – I have talked elsewhere about having found that conditioning with positive reinforcement being the most effective way to train recall. Making commands routine means, of course, using them regularly, indeed, every day. Again I find an argument for the fact that training dogs is not something you ever finish, but an ongoing way of being with your dog.

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Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Talking to Dogs II: They Know When You're Lying

In the previous Talking to Dogs post, my argument was that it is never wrong to talk to your dog, quite the opposite. We humans have to verbalize our intentions to make them clear, so explaining to your dog that everything is all right and you’ll be back soon, will, although they won’t understand the words, probably soothe and reassure them. As you are saying the words, you make the feeling clear to yourself, and dogs feel that. As long as you are telling the truth.

By the same token, if you tell your dogs something you don’t fully mean, they will pick up on it. They’re not listening to your words, but to your feelings. Oliver Sacks in his famous The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat points out the similarity between dogs and people with aphasia. Aphasiacs have, usually through brain damage, lost their ability to recognize language. That is, the pure, verbal system of words. Many aphasiacs nevertheless understand most of what is being said to them, because they are still able to read the non-verbal parts of human speech. And these parts are considerable. Sacks writes:

Thus the feeling I sometimes have - which all of us who work closely with aphasiacs have - that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily...

We recognise this with dogs, and often use them for this purpose - to pick up falsehood, or malice, or equivocal intentions, to tell us who can be trusted, who is integral, who makes sense, when we - so susceptible to words - cannot trust our own instincts.

Indeed, as I argued before, us humans are so susceptible to words that they are necessary to our process of thinking and understanding. We swallow lies because we are seduced by words, unless we deliberately pay attention to non-verbal cues, which is very hard to do. Sometimes we can even make ourselves believe lies, our’s and other’s, by repeating them enough. If you say something enough times it becomes the truth, just have a look at politics and media.

However, if you say something to our dogs that we don’t believe, they won’t believe you either. Dogs are not listening to your words, but reading your intentions. This is something that is worth remembering when training dogs or trying to modify their behaviour.

I am having real difficulties stopping Eddie from barking at, and trying to chase cats. I tell him off, sharply, every time he does it. My admonitions have limited effect, though, both in the heat of the moment, and long term. He won’t let those cats alone. Yes, he is a greyhound and his chasing instinct is strong, so it is a difficult task, but there is, I think something more going on here. I have had to admit to myself, that I actually quite like his behaviour towards cats.

There is something in my view of dogs that naturally includes the idea that they chase cats. This, to my mind, is what dogs do. I expect it has something to do with all those Tom & Jerry cartoons I watched as a child, my parents attitude to cats, and so on and so forth. Wherever it comes form, it is clearly some kind of deep-seated belief. I know rationally that it isn’t a good idea for Eddie to chase cats, but somehow I cannot make myself feel it, and I think that Eddie, however much I tell him off for barking at cats, can sense it. He simply knows that I don’t fully mean it.

I think this issue is evident in a lot of dog-owners who appear to be telling their dogs off for some anti-social behaviour, such as barking at visitors or showing aggression to other dogs, but with little effect. Deep inside, and I expect this goes back to our evolutionary history with dogs, we like our dogs defending our property and persons. Whether we think we are “that kind” of dog owner or not, a strong dog exhibiting good guarding or hunting instincts appears beneficial to our survival instinct. As Sacks says, we use our dogs to pick up falsehood or malice.

Equally, owners scalding their dogs for minor misdemeanors or mishaps often don’t really really mean it. We are often so deeply emotionally attached to our canine companions that a little chewing or peeing on the carpet is by the by. And they know it. Our dogs need us, but we, maybe even more, also need them, and this makes correcting undesired behaviour difficult. How can you persuade a creature which can read your feelings like an open book, that you are really quite cross, when you – and they – know this will all be forgotten and forgiven in five minutes time.

Sometimes the problem lies not just in the fact that we don’t mean what we say. I find my dogs are a lot less attentive to my commands when I am distracted, tired or feeling low or insecure. They sense when the intention behind my words is less determined than usual and quickly take advantage of it. Communicating with and training dogs takes a lot of energy, precisely because it is not simply about saying the words. One also needs to project the intentions behind the words clearly and strongly. If you’d rather be a at home with a cup of tea than in a field with your dog, they'll know it.

There are two potential solutions to this problem. We can work on convincing ourselves – and I do think that changing our attitudes often plays a great part in successful modification of problem behaviour in dogs. The old platitude that it is the humans that have to be trained, rather than the dog, means precisely this: we have to change our feelings and beliefs in order for the dog to change a behaviour that responds to these feelings and beliefs. I want to talk a bit more about this elsewhere, but needless to say it is often easier said than done to change ingrained attitudes in ourselves.

Another way is to use appropriate training tools and techniques, which allow you to strengthen the message you want to give your dog. Treats as well as corrections external to your voice and body language work this way. For example, you are unlikely to make your dog feel fully rewarded by your voice only – pats and morsels of food are also needed. A bit of sausage never lies, even when you’re ready to give up and go home.

With Eddie and his cats, as I have said elsewhere, I have started using a spray collar. This type of corrective training tools should be used with caution, as they are not suitable for all dogs. However, with Eddie it allows me to support my “lie” that I want him to stop chasing that cat, in a very immediate and effective way.

Ultimately we have to do a bit of both: work on ourselves and the use the right tools and methods. Importantly, however, I think we need to be aware of our own lies. There is no use in pretending that I am terribly upset when Eddie barks at yet another cat. However, rationally I know I can’t allow him to do this at his leisure, so I know that I need to use other means than telling him no, half-heartedly. Dogs know when you’re lying, and they tell you when you are, sometimes when you don’t even know it yourself.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Wanted: Your Dog Rescue Story

  • "His heart was racing and he was panting so fast I was worried he was going to have a heart attack. It was a hot June day and I was sitting at the back of the car trying to reassure Eddie, the ex-racing greyhound boy we had just picked up from the re-homing kennels. I had chosen him partly because when we took him for a walk he had made eye contact with me. Then, he seemed to be more communicative than most other greyhounds at the kennels. Now he seemed a million miles away.

When we got home he wouldn’t lie down for hours. He’d pace the garden and the house, or just stand there panting. When he finally settled down, and I leaned down to stroke him, he immediately shot up again. The first night he spent hours pacing and whining before giving in to exhaustion. The things that we thought that Eddie, finally out of the kennel life, should rejoice in – space and attention – seemed to unsettle him most.

On the other hand, he was so easy when it came to many of the things I had anticipated problems with. He walked on the leash like an angel, and he learned not to toilet in the house after only three accidents. He didn’t bark, chew, jump, lick or run about indoors. For someone used to having dogs from pup, Eddie seemed like a strange, distant creature. I thought I knew how to communicate with dogs, but this one was speaking a different language.

Although it mystified me then, I now realize that Eddie’s behavior was typical of rescue greyhounds. They are often extremely easy to handle, yet frustratingly aloof. Eddie would let me touch him and groom him without problems from day one, but seemed unsure and uncomfortable when I gave him pure pats and cuddles. He followed me around the house, but it took him over six months to be comfortable with someone sitting down next to his bed. If it is true that greyhounds make great pets, as the re-homing movement is keen to tell us, it is also true that adopting a greyhound comes with its own set of problems and frustrations."

This is how my dog rescue story begins. Do you want to tell yours?

Bocci's Beefs Blog is looking for stories to include in a book on dog rescues. I have submitted my tale about the frustrations and joys of adopting retired racing greyhounds Eddie and Cassie.

Now, Bocci and Joan would love to hear from you. Click here to link to further details on how to submit your story: