Gut Socialisation. What!?

Now this is a type of socialisation you probably have not heard of before.

For me, gut health is of huge importance for my dogs, and I think everyone should feel the same. The gut is often referred to as the second brain. The gut contains more neurons than the spinal cord (!), it can work independently from the brain, and can communicate directly with the brain. It also has a huge influence on mood (more on that further down) . I think that’s a pretty big deal.

Inside our, and our dogs guts are microbiomes, I think of those like the bubbles at the Eden Project. Inside these bubbles are colonies of microbes made up of bacteria, viruses and fungi. 98% of these microbes have been found to be either beneficial or vital to our dogs to our dogs’ health and wellbeing, only 1% has any badness in it.  These microbes need to maintain healthy and stable for the bubble communities to continue to thrive.

Brace yourself for what I’m about to tell you. Serotonin is a chemical responsible for our good mood. 95% of our and our dogs’ serotonin is found in the gut! The microbiota has been shown to strongly influence the levels of serotonin. Maybe it’s not “you are what you eat”, but “you feel what you eat”.

How are these microbiomes created?

Well the very first microbes are introduced to the puppy from it’s mum, from birth and early feeding. When the puppies are suckling, they aren’t just getting the milk and whatever microbes come with it, they’ll be taking in bacteria etc from the mum’s skin as well. This may sound dirty, but actually will build the puppy’s immune system for later life.

This microbiome building continues with the weaning process and through the puppies experiencing the world through their mouth.

Recieving antibiotics can damage this microbiome building, by doing what they say on the tin. Antibiotics don’t just wipe out the bad bacteria, they take out the good stuff as well so it’s important to put thought into rebuilding the microbes after a course of antibiotics.

Mazikeen enjoying her dinner from a Kong

Why do I refer to Gut Socialisation?

Studies have shown that the development of disease in later life is linked to an abnormal gut microbiota make-up in infancy, so starting them off right can set them up for long term health.

Aggression has also been linked to changes in the intestinal microbiota. Giving your puppy the best microbiome bubbles is really worth the effort.

Gut Socialisation is similar to environmental socialisation, the bigger the range of experiences, the better. To socialise the gut, let your puppy explore different surfaces and dirt, they could also eat their dinner off different surfaces, grass, dirt, bowls, lickimats.

Probably the most fun part of Gut Socialisation is letting your puppy (or dog, it’s never too late!) try a great range of food. You could create a platter with a handful of fresh foods to taste. You could try

  • Fresh fruit: apple pieces, blueberries, banana, pear, mango, blackberries etc Cheats hint- the organic baby purées are handy for giving a variety of tastes
  • Fresh vegetables: carrots (they can have carrots frozen too as a healthy teething relief), red cabbage, broccoli etc
  • Meats: cooked chicken, raw or cooked beef, pork, venison
  • Fish: tinned or fresh sardines, haddock, sprats
  • Dairy: goats milk, natural yoghurt, cheese (goats dairy products are a safer bet for sensitive tummies than cows)
  • Cold soaked oats
  • Fermented foods like kefir

Putting a range into a muffin tin will keep it all contained and you’ll he able to watch your puppy to see which foods they aim for first and what most tickles the taste buds.

Reef as a puppy enjoying variety at dinner. Meat, carrots, strawberries and turmeric yoghurt.

It doesn’t matter what you choose to feed your puppy- kibble, raw or cooked, the big benefits come from adding fresh food into their diets. Aim to replace a handful of their usual dinner with a variety of fresh foods a minimum of 3 times a week for maximum health benefits. A university study found that dogs fed a handful of fresh food 3 times a week were 90% less likely to get cancer than the control group of dogs who ate their regular kibble daily with no changes.

Have fun with this one! And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be away to stock up on kefir and a big range of fresh food for yourself as well after reading that!

What is socialisation?

The last blog post was about getting puppies out and being socialised as early as possible, but what exactly does socialisation mean?

Contrary to popular belief, socialisation is not letting as many people as possible hold your puppy, or letting them meet and play with every dog they see. Socialisation is so much more than that.

Carrying Maze on a dog walk

In simple terms, “socialisation” refers to the learning process that a puppy must undergo to learn key life skills which ensure that they are happy and confident in their environment, and can communicate effectively within their social group.

The Kennel Club

Puppies don’t come preinstalled with an understanding of our world. This means that if we don’t teach them, it can be a really scary place. When they experience lots of different scenarios in a safe way when they’re young, the less new scenarios are scary through life. If we wait until our puppies are much older to start experiencing our world, they have already had a chance to establish what is a normal world to them, and these new experiences don’t fit that.

So, the first area of socialisation is experiencing lots of different things, sounds, sights, smells, ensuring that puppy isn’t feeling uncomfortable or scared. You’re aiming for inquisitive, maybe a bit unsure but happy to check it out and be brave, or completely unfazed. If puppy is terrified and forced to stick with it, they’re setting the idea that it’s a terrifying thing for life.

The key to this is getting as big a range of experiences as possible, as well as making sure they see all the things you will expect them to be able to deal with later in life. I don’t think many gundog trainers are going to wait until their puppies are 6 months old before they hear their first gunshot, guide dog puppies aren’t going to start going out in public at 6 months old. If you’re going to be walking them on the school run daily when old enough, let them experience it in your arms nice and early. If you live on or near a farm it would be a good idea to get them used to the sights, sounds and smells of farm machinery.

Maze watching a horse riding lesson

Think about all those things you’ll expect them to cope with, and make a list. Try to check off as many of those as you can while they’re still little blank slates, everything else then is a bonus.

One of the venues we regularly go to agility shows at has a farm nearby that uses bird scarers (regular bangs like gunshots). It was so convenient that someone went shooting near my house and I could get Maze out to hear it before she’s 8 months old and visiting the venue for the first time. So many dogs find it really hard there, hopefully now it’ll be no big deal for her!

Playing in the garden with gunshots sounding nearby

Next to consider is surfaces. Not only is it handy if they’re happy to move on all surfaces, plastic, grass, concrete, gravel, sand, rubber etc it’s handy if they can go to the toilet on all of them. I’ve certainly had dogs before that would only pee on grass, that’s not so handy when you want to go on holiday by boat.

When it comes to other dogs and people, it is good to let them interact with nice dogs and other people, but unless you want your puppy to grow up thinking that they can play with every single dog and person they see, don’t set that precedent. You could sit near a popular walk location and reward your puppy for chilling while watching, or interacting with you while they pass. If they lose their minds seeing the other dogs, you’re too close. Just move back to a distance where they can cope, reward it, then move closer over time. This should get you a puppy who doesn’t bounce and pull on the lead to get to everyone passing them.

Bottom line of socialisation is, think about the dog you want to have and show your puppy all the things they’ll need to be happy and confident in that role.

Vaccination Vs Socialisation   

Elle carrying Maze around Jollyes

For a long time now there’s been this idea that once your puppy is vaccinated you can take them out and start socialising.

When we talk about socialisation, the “critical period of socialisation is usually referred to as up to 12 weeks old. In reality socialisation can occur at any stage of life, but getting lots in nice and early when puppies are *almost* blank slates means that you can set ideas from the start, rather than trying to fix ideas that they’ve already formed.

If you wait until your puppy has had both vaccinations at 10 or 12 weeks to take them out of the house, think of all the missed opportunities for them to experience new things.

You don’t have to stick them on the ground until they’ve had their vaccinations, but you could carry them out, take them for trips in the car, sit on the bench and watch the world, have nice friends over to meet them, if you have a covered pram you could take them for walks in it so that they can see everything but not touch!

Your puppy’s breeder should have started this process long before you even get your puppy, so make sure you ask a potential breeder what socialisation they do with the puppies, if it’s not a satisfactory answer, they’re not worth buying from. Even during lockdown, Reef’s breeder ensured the litter had loads of experiences. They met horses, sheep, ducks, chickens, they felt gravel, grass, bark, concrete, rubber, they had a playground with wobbly cushions, tunnels, crinkly toys, squeaky toys. They went out in the car to buy puppy food, they met all the other appropriate dogs in the family. That’s before I even collected him at 8 weeks. How do you think he’d feel about the world compared to a puppy that didn’t see the outside of a shed until sold in a carpark at 6-8 weeks old.

Reef’s litter enjoying water play. Photo credit: Marvelmas Miniature American Shepherds

Yesterday there were gunshots going off close to my house, they were so loud. I took Reef, Flash and Maze out to the garden. Flash obviously was oblivious (though was raised as a gundog anyway) and Reef was just chilling out, chewing a horn. They were both fantastic influences on Mazikeen. She was slightly startled to begin with, but every time the shot happened initially we had a party, then when she wasn’t so surprised she just hung out with Reef who had no reaction at all. She ended up being more startled by Flash barking than the gunshots!

Maze getting more startled by Flash barking than the gunshots, Reef completely unphased

Maze is currently 9 weeks old, I have had her for 3 weeks. She has seen chickens, ducks, horses, been on loads of surfaces, met new people and nice well known dogs, we’ve had kids at the house, she’s been carried around Jollyes, sat in the Tesco carpark. She doesn’t get her second vaccination until next week but I’m not waisting any time creating her normal. What do I want normal to be? Anything unexpected. The more she sees strange new things, the more any strange new thing seems normal. I don’t want her to have a pessimistic outlook- that all new things are scary and dangerous. I want her to be optimistic and see new things and experiences as opportunities for fun and adventure.

Maze watching a horse riding lesson

This week I plan to carry her around Portrush to watch traffic from a comfortable distance, hear the beeps at the crossing, see people and dogs passing and smell all the different smells.

When you get your new puppy, think about all the safe new experiences that you can give them before you are able to take them for walks.

Expert Interview: Veterinary Physiotherapist

If there’s anything I truly believe about caring for our sports dogs, it’s that we need a team. Yourself- the owner, a trainer, veterinary physiotherapist, canine massage therapist, vet and someone to make sure they are getting the best nutrition possible. I have decided to interview some of my own dogs team to give you an insight into what they do and how they could help your dog too, even if they are not a sports dog.

Atlantic Veterinary Physiotherapy

First up I have interviewed Lynsey Adams who runs Atlantic Veterinary Physiotherapy based on the North Coast. Lynsey has assessed and treated my own dogs on numerous occasions and also was a big help in the rehab of young Cody, the spinning spaniel puppy foster. You’ll see my questions to Lynsey in bold and her responses in italics below.

What exactly is Veterinary Physiotherapy?

Simply it is where physiotherapy treatments including manual therapy (such as massage, pressure point release, joint mobilisations), electrotherapy (such as laser, NMES), tailored exercise programmes and advice or education are provided to benefit an animal rather than traditionally a person.

What got you interested in Veterinary Physiotherapy?

I always had an interest in working with animals but I thought I would end up working in a caring profession with people. Growing up I adored animals, I had dogs and cats as well as a small yard of horses. As a teenager my horse was injured and I had an ACPAT physio treat him. From that moment I knew that was the profession for me. I loved the potential mix of working with people and animals. 

What training did you go through to become a Veterinary Physiotherpist?

As I decided to go down the ACPAT route I initially completed my BSc Hons Physiotherapy starting to work as a physio in the NHS. I then went on to complete my PG Dip in veterinary physio at Hartpury College which took a further two years of study before starting my own veterinary physio business as an ACPAT category A member. I felt it was important to qualify in this route to provide the best possible care. Many people do not realise that unlike Physiotherapy, Animal Physiotherapy is not a protected title so a professional can claim to be one with very limited knowledge or training.

Atlantic Veterinary Physiotherapy
How is Physiotherapy beneficial for our sports dogs?

Like any athlete, having a physio working with you and your dog will allow them to reach and maintain top function and fitness. Any mild injuries can be spotted early and strengthening/ flexibility programs can be provided to reduce the likelihood of sport based injuries. 

Is it just for sports dogs?

No, I regularly treat a variety of dogs from pups to elderly dogs with a wide variation of needs. Dogs may be recovering from injury, surgery or even struggling with age-related diseases, degenerative diseases or obesity.

What signs can we look out for that may mean our dogs could benefit from Physiotherapy?

It is often difficult to spot signs of pain or discomfort in dogs especially those with high energy levels. You may see uneven weight bearing, a limp when walking or trotting or a change in behaviour (e.g. avoiding steps or not wanting to jump on /off furniture, new episodes of aggression or licking of joints) or something as simple as a change in sitting or lying posture.

Atlantic Veterinary Physiotherapy
What kind of treatments do you offer?

At AVP we offer a wide variety of treatments depending on your pet’s needs. We use soft tissue massage, manual therapy/ mobilisations, myofascial release, low-level laser therapy, electrotherapy (TENS/ NMES), stretches and home exercise programs. We also work closely with other professions and can signpost you to other services if needed.

What does the process look like, from getting in contact with you to the appointment?

Once you get in contact we will send you a message or phone you to discuss your pets needs. We will then contact your vet (with your consent) to gain consent for treatment. Following that we will organise a date and time that suits for an initial assessment and treatment to be carried out. We usually treat dogs in their home environment but other arrangements can be put in place if needed.

How can we contact you?

You can get all our information on however you can email us on, call us at 028 7087 8182 or WhatsApp us on 07849535134

Where should someone look to find a Veterinary Physiotherapist if they are in an area that you don’t cover?

There is a “Find a physio” feature on the ACPAT website which is very useful for finding your nearest ACPAT Category A physio. There is also the RAMP register which incorporates a mix of veterinary professionals with a variety of qualifications.

Finally, what piece of advice would you give to help us keep our sports dogs fit and healthy?

Although it is difficult to find the time, try to incorporate a warm up and cool down into all training and competitions to reduce the chances of sports injuries.

Thanks so much Lynsey for taking the time to talk about Veterinary Physiotherapy. I have linked her website a few times in the text, make sure you check it out!

Why is canine hoopers the next big thing?

Mini American Shepherd taking a barrel in canine hoopers
Reef going around a barrel. Credit: Jacob Henry

Let’s start at the beginning- what is hoopers?

Canine hoopers is a dog sport that originated in North America, coming to the UK in around about 2016.. It aims to be a full inclusive sport for all dogs and handlers, low impact for the dogs and with emphasis on training skills rather than a handler’s own physical ability to get themselves around a course. Dogs navigate a course made up of hoops, barrels, tunnels and a touchngo/tango mat (a large non-slip rubber mat that the dogs run over). The courses are smooth and flowing- there’s no sharp turns or twists. Dogs are trained to have a fantastic understanding of the obstacles.

What are the benefits?

  1. The inclusivity for dogs: The tunnels are much larger than agility tunnels, shorter as well and always straight which makes them more inclusive to larger dogs who would have to hunker down to get through a 60cm diameter agility tunnel. There’s no jumps! Therefore very little impact on joints so again suitable for giant breeds but also tiny breeds, and even dogs with some mobility issues like arthritis. This also makes it a great sport to start younger dogs on before they get into higher impact sports like agility. AND it’s a fantastic, fast, flowing sport for athletic dogs as well.
  2. The inclusivity for humans: Can’t sprint around a course with your dog? No problem! Want to sprint around a course with your dog? No problem! We train the dogs to understand and have value for the obstacles. They will be able to look ahead for the next obstacles themselves and be able to follow directions by verbals or body motion.
  3. It’s a fun bonding activity for you and your dog. Spending time together, learning and having fun can improve your relationship while getting in the daily exercise AND mental stimulation which I truly believe tires them out more than any running could!
  4. It’s confidence building. Got a velcro dog? Hoopers can help unstick them, they gain confidence in being able to work away from you thanks to that fantastic training!
  5. It’s a brilliant foundation sport for agility. All of these independence skills they learn transfer over from hoops to jumps so you are able to train a lot of agility skills without needing to introduce any impact in the early stages.
MAS doing canine hoopers
Reef flying through a hoop. Credit: Jacob Henry

So why is it the next big thing?

Hoopers truly is so much fun, it’s inclusive for everyone and so easy to practice at home as well on a low budget. Dogs can start at any stage of life and handlers can come in with any ability. Why would you not want to do hoopers!?

How do I get involved?

Well if you’re on the North Coast we run hoopers classes working through the Canine Hoopers UK Good Hoopers Awards, rewarding teams for training achievements from foundation up to silver level at present. Spoiler alert- the awards come with amazing rosettes! Details of upcoming classes can be found here: Foundation Hoopers – Causeway Dog Training

If you are not so lucky as to be on the North Coast with us you can find a Canine Hoopers UK accredited instructor in your area using this map.

And lastly, if you want to get making your own hoops, I made a video tutorial. They are cheap and easy to make, don’t take up much space and make training at home even more fun!

I hope to see you hooping soon!

Deaf dog performing canine hoopers
Flash speeding through a hoop. Credit: Jacob Henry

Am I actually a dog trainer?

No…. and yes….

Picture by Jacob Henry

A few months ago I did a 1-1 session with a client and their dog and they emailed after, quite displeased that I only showed them how to train their dog, and didn’t just train it there and then. So why am I not actually training the dogs? Pretty good reason actually. Dog training is basically just creating habits.

Habit, noun

a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

Loose lead walking or settling down when you go out are good habits, excessive barking at dogs passing the window or pulling on the lead would be bad habits. When we teach our dogs a new behaviour it isn’t a habit yet, it’s just a behaviour they have earned reinforcement for (check out Why positive reinforcement isn’t what you think it is…). In humans “On average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact” and that can vary based on the complexity of the habit and the individual.

This is why it is so important to be consistent with your training, and why there is absolutely no point in me coming in and training your dog for a single, or even a couple of sessions. I might be able to teach them the behaviour you want to see. They could do it beautifully, but they are most likely not just going to continue doing it from that day on! Especially when there’s already a pre-existing less desirable habit in place.

So what is my role in all this?

I am there to give you the strategies to create these good habits in your own dog’s lives. You are spending every day together- you have the power to reinforce the behaviours that you want to see become habits. I can help you to find the right things to reinforce and the right ways to reinforce. We can spot the start of behaviours and figure out why they happen and decide on a more appropriate behaviour to replace it with. What I’m doing is training the humans! I don’t actually train the dogs much at all. Maybe I should be called a dog training instructor instead!

I am still a dog trainer though, I have a lot of fun training my own dogs. It’s just not my job.

If you book training with me, be prepared to get to work! You will be spending a lot of time with your dog over their lifetime, it’s worth putting the effort in.

Think about what habits you are creating, and what habits you would like to see. Get to work on rewarding the stuff you want to see more of.

If you’re interested in 1-1 training, see here 1-1 Dog Training

Where Does My Dog Come From?

Will knowing their origins help us to make care and training decisions today?

brown wolf on green grass

When it comes to the evolution and domestication of dogs, there’s not actually an awful lot that scientists can agree on.

Strap yourself in, we’re taking a trip back in time to where in all began. Let’s go back to the start and to the first thing most do actually agree on. Dogs descended from wolves; not the wolves we know of today though, it’s likely that dogs and wolves have a common ancestor in a now-extinct wolf species. Dogs and modern day wolves are actually genetically very similar, even more so than we are to our closest living relatives- chimpanzees.

How exactly dogs came to be the dogs we know today, everyone is a bit less sure. There’s a few theories thrown around- wolves began approaching humans at campfires asking for food, pretty unlikely given how successful wolves are as hunters in their own rights. A more likely story is that wolves started scavenging around the human settlements, and chasing them off just meant new wolves coming along, so they left them to get on with it.

closeup photography of wold lying on ground

The wolves that were scavenging around the settlements would have been bold enough to exist so close to the humans, with the more reserved wolves keeping to themselves to the wild. The reserved wolves likely evolved into the wild species’ of wolves we have today and the bolder types likely headed towards dogs. The humans probably realised that the wolves could be quite handy to have around, perhaps assisting with hunting, maybe they were just fantastic cleaners for the settlement. The wolves living alongside the human settlement continued to adapt to the changing conditions, the humans started caring for them and over many years, impact their breeding, starting to control it by breeding those with traits they found desirable.

Dogs vs wolves

Once domesticated it seems that we were loyal to our dogs even back then, these are relationships spanning hundreds of thousands of years. Geneticists found that when Middle Eastern families expanded into Europe over 10,000 years ago, they took their dogs with them. Domestication also brought about big changes from their wolf origins. Evolving in our human world meant that dogs that best suited the human lifestyle thrived and reproduced the most.

How dogs differ from wolves:

  • Tight-knit family structure was lost
  • Wild dogs will exist in loose and changeable groups of 2-4 dogs
  • Dogs show no hierarchical behaviours.

So what does that mean for living with our dogs?

Very basically, we’re not living with modern wolves, we can’t use wolf behaviour to analyse our dogs or influence our training choices. Dogs don’t have the hierarchical structure of wolves, they don’t do things to “become the leader of the pack”. Sure they may take advantage of a lack of boundaries but they aren’t aiming to become Top Dog. Look out for trainers who are using the “alpha theory” to design their training programme. The man who originally came up with the alpha theory, Rudolph Schenkel, actually debunked his own theory, realising that not only was the study of captive wolves completely misrepresentative of how wild wolf packs behave, but that it also had terrible consequences for dog training. Despite debunking his own dominance theories, some dog trainers still use these outdated methods which can cause big relationship issues for those seeking help.

“Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Fox 1971a; Zimen 1975, 1982; Lockwood 1979; van Hooff et al. 1987) is particularly misleading.

David Mech

white wolf on brown dried leaves
Photo by Shelby Waltz on

The emergence of breeds

As humans continued selectively breeding over the years you would start to recognise our modern breeds, for better and for worse (think about pugs with breathing problems and dachshunds prone to intervertebral disc disease). We have been selecting for traits that benefit us, collies for herding, spaniels for retrieving, Dobermanns for guarding, terriers for pest control and toys like the Pekingese for companionship.

Thinking about the original purpose of the breeds we choose to live with can really help us to understand their behaviour and quirks. The traits that our dogs breed has been selected for can be really internally rewarding to them- sighthounds chasing, hounds tracking and barking, retrievers picking things up and carrying them around (Flash does this when he’s really excited, he’ll grab the closest thing to him, often a shoe, and parade it around the house), shepherds and bull breeds may mouth or nip and collies may stalk and herd.

When we understand what our dogs are just built to love we can use this reinforcement to our advantage. Allowing our dogs to partake in activities they were built for in ways that we find appropriate both satisfies their instincts and can act as a really powerful reinforcer for us. I’ve written about this concept before in Why positive reinforcement isn’t what you think it is…. If you have a spaniel who lives for water, how about asking for a recall, then reward by releasing them for a swim, ask your beagle for eye contact and then reward by letting them go sniff.

Inherent traits aren’t the only thing we have impacted through artificial selection. Where breeds were developed has also played a role in what we feed our dogs. Breeds developed in areas thriving with agriculture- like the Saluki, have actually genetically adapted to the diets of the humans in the area. We have a gene which helps with the breakdown of starch, these breeds developed in these high grain agriculture areas genetically carry more of these genes than dogs from colder regions like Nordic breeds, who were probably raised on a more fish and meat based diet and would have a similar number of these genes to wolves. So, knowing where our breeds originated from can even help us to make nutritional decisions.


  • Dogs and modern wolves descended from a common now-extinct wolf ancestor
  • No one really knows for sure how wolves evolved to dogs, but it was likely a very slow process over hundreds of thousands of years
  • Dogs do not have a hierarchical pack structure mentality
  • “Alpha theory” was debunked long ago
  • Breeds were all developed with a purpose in mind
  • Finding out what our dogs breeds’ were developed for can help us to reinforce their good behaviours with activities they find internally rewarding

I described my dog as wild, but was I the wild one?

It happens all the time in class, someone says “that was my fault” and I always say, “99% of the time it’s the handlers fault!” I need to listen to myself more.

Despite a very long stint of no training I entered Flash and I into the Down District Show on 11th July 2021. Just 2 jumping classes, partly because I got FOMO and didn’t want to get left out of the action, and partly to get Flash out for some ring experience since he missed what should have been his whole first competition season due to Covid. I went in with very low expectations, I thought he’d hit every single bar and probably just run into the river. Honestly he was quite fantastic. The majority of poles stayed up, he was mostly focused, he held his start line. I came out of the ring saying it was great and he did some fantastic stuff but he was wild! Taking everything in full extension and blasting off!

Who was the wild one?

I fully believed it. That’s what happened in my head. Flash was just so happy to be there that he was literally flying. I came home and told husband all about it, he did great weaves, he followed some handling really well but he was wild!

Moderately late last night I was sent the videos of our “wild” runs. Guys, I owe Flash an apology. What I remember happening wasn’t exactly matching up to what I was seeing on video. Yes sometimes Flash did get literal tunnel vision and there was nothing I could do about that, but on the most part it was all my fault!

Maybe didn’t trust him as much as I should have, we all know Flash is a fantastic dog! I sent him flying towards jumps, I gave turning cues late, no wonder he was soaring! I wouldn’t have handled like that in training. He needs early cues because he’s so fast and obviously I cant just say something to him, it’s all body cues and they need to happen before he’s in the air. That was my bad. I was pushing him and he was doing what I was asking. I was the wild one!

My takeaways from this show:

  • Flash is fantastic, I need to trust him more
  • Video review is so, so important
  • It really nearly always is the handlers fault!
  • I definitely need to work on both our fitness but mostly mine!
  • We do have some training bits to work on
  • We had lost a bit of a buzz for training agility, but now it’s back!
  • I really really love my dog
  • Competing really is at it’s best when you just go out and have fun

If you’re having issues training something and haven’t yet videoed yourself, do it! It doesn’t matter if it’s dog training or something else. Sometimes what we think we’re doing and what we’re actually doing don’t quite match up and when we see it we can fix it!

Thank you so much to Down District for putting on the show, The Patch for hosting and David McVeigh for the photos. It was so good to be back, and now we’re keen for more!

Flash’s first jump. Photo credit: David McVeigh

Are you punishing your dog? No? Are you sure?

adult white and black jack russell terrier
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on

Do you have a dog that comes back when you call but stays an arm length + a hand away? You have probably punished your recall. Read on to find out how.

If you read my last post on Positive Reinforcement you’re probably coming into this knowing that a curveball is coming. And you’re right! The trouble with positive reinforcement is that is seldom understood as what it really is, being thought of as nice training, where we now know that it actually means the addition of the something to increase the likelihood a behaviour happening again (take a look at the Positive Reinforcement post here if you need more explanation).

So what exactly is punishment?

Punishment is defined as a consequence that decreases the likelihood of that response occurring in the future

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Iowa
loyal purebred dog sitting near tent at campsite

Now punishment can be mean, just like how we usually think of it, but we don’t have to be hitting to be punishing our dogs.

We’ve just read that punishment means something happening to reduce the likelihood of a behaviour happening again- the opposite of what reinforcement is. Let’s have a chat about positive punishment: adding something to reduce a behaviour.

I’ve got an example for you. Back when Flash was a rowdy teenager his recall became useless, he’d see me waving at him and blatantly pretend he hadn’t. At first I would try to reward him with food, but the more I tried to feed him for coming close, the less he’d come back to me at all. Positive punishment was happening- I was adding food to the recall behaviour, and the likelihood of a recall happening was becoming less and less.

saluki in collar on leash on street under sky

Let’s think about this in humans. I like chocolate a bit, though I get sick of it really quickly, but I love crisps.

Imagine my dear husband calling me into the kitchen every so often. Every time I enter he shoves a piece of chocolate into my mouth. I’ll probably go in the first few times he calls, accepting the chocolate but it won’t be long before I start pretending not to hear him calling me because I really don’t want to be given any more darn chocolate. He has punished me coming to the kitchen when he calls by giving me chocolate: positive punishment.

But what if he gives me a Pringle, or even better yet, a Tyrrells Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar? I can guarantee you I’d be racing to the kitchen every time. That’s positive reinforcement.

It doesn’t matter that giving me chocolate was a nice thing to do, I didn’t really want it and it made me do the behaviour less.

Remember that it is your dog that chooses what is reinforcing and punishing to them- not you. If you’re having trouble teaching something, like I was with teaching Flash a recall, make sure that your “reward” isn’t actually punishing the behaviour you’re trying to create. The solution with Flash was actually to recall him then let him go back off to play again, that was so reinforcing to him that his recall became rock solid and he will come back first time I ask 99.9% of the time.

Another case of accidental punishment came with Polly: a few times I have tried to reward her with a stroke or a pat and she has been mortified and shied away. Polly LOVES her cuddles when we’re relaxing at home, but when it’s training time she absolutely does not want to be touched. Me trying to pet her when she did something right in training made her not want to do the thing again so that she could avoid the touch. I’m sure we’ve all had our own human versions of that scenario!

So what about your dog that stays an arm length + a hand away when you recall them? By any chance have you always just called them back at the end of the walk to put their lead back on? I see that so often on the beach, the dogs come over when called but stay just out of reach. They have figured out that the lead is always added after the recall cue, and that means that the fun is over. How can you flip that around? Think back to Flashy, he loves being let free again. Call them over a few times a walk (but don’t overkill it, a few times is enough), either just take hold of their collar for a moment then let them go again, or stick their lead on for a minute and let them go again. That way the recall doesn’t mean that the fun is over.

I have created a download which you can print out and write down what your dog finds reinforcing and punishing. There probably will be differences at home and when out and about so there’s a box for each. Watch your dog, see what they enjoy doing because that will probably be their reinforcers, and what they aren’t keen on will most likely be punishers. Here’s an example of one I made for Flash.

Flash’s Rewards and Punishments

Now it’s your turn!

It’s good to be creative and really watch your dog’s to see what they really love and don’t. Let me know how you get on!

Why positive reinforcement isn’t what you think it is…

The words reinforcement and punishment are thrown around a lot in dog training, but do you really know what they mean and how to make use of them?

Dog trainers often make a big deal of calling themselves “Positive Reinforcement Based Trainers” and I get it, they want to make the point that they train in kind ways; but after you read this post, I think you’ll understand why that title doesn’t actually mean much at all. Bare with me…

closeup photo of brown dachshund

“What do you mean Gemma? Reinforcement = good and punishment = bad, right?”

Sorry, it just isn’t that simple! I’m not going to go too technical, but I’m going to give you some stuff to think about.

We often think of positive reinforcement as giving our dogs food in return for performing behaviours, this could be from their dinner to bits of chopped up steak, so is it all positive reinforcement? Here’s the thing, it’s not up to us!

Positive reinforcement is the addition of a stimulus, in order to increase behaviour.

School of canine science/ b.f. skinner

Let’s have a think about that definition. “The addition of a stimulus”, that could mean giving our dogs a snack, or a ball, “in order to increase behaviour”, now that’s where we lose the choice of what is positive reinforcement or not, it’s up to our dogs. If you are teaching your dog to sit with blueberries, but they don’t sit more than they did before following 20 blueberries, then they haven’t been positively reinforced. This is definitely something to watch out for in training, just because the treat is being swallowed doesn’t mean it’s having a reinforcement effect.

So is positive reinforcement always kind?

I think you know where I’m going now. Let’s go back to that definition- addition of a stimulus which increases behaviour. *Don’t do this- this is purely an example* What if your dog bites you, and you hit your dog, and it bites you again? Yep! You have positively reinforced the biting by hitting. *Please don’t hit your dog*. Keep scrolling to find out how you can make positive reinforcement work for you.

dalmatian sitting white surface

We want to be kind to our dogs, and do good training! So what can we do?

We can still use positive reinforcement! We just need to make sure that our dogs are the ones deciding what is reinforcing and what isn’t.

How can you tell? Do they do the behaviour you’re teaching more or not? If not, we’ll need to find something else that works.

For food treats I like to do a treat tournament/ buffet. I get a load of different types of treats- sausages, cheese, blueberries, JR pate, frankfurters, chicken etc and I pick 2 at a time. I ask my dog to sit and give them one of the treats, repeat and give them the other, then again and this time I give them the choice. The one they choose moves on to the next round with a different treat until they have chosen their favourite out of all of them. That will give you a pretty good idea of what treats they may find reinforcing and you can use those favourites for the really important stuff, like recall. But bare in mind that just like us, some days they’ll have different tastes to other days. One day I’m hankering for a pizza and the next a curry, so make sure what you’re offering that day is what they’re hankering….

What about stuff that isn’t food?

As you should now know, positive reinforcement doesn’t have to mean food, so how do you figure out what is reinforcing to your dog? Watch them! What do they often choose to do? Do they love swimming, sniffing or running? You can use those as rewards too! Check out this video of me and Reef.

Reef loves running and pottering around, so I ask him for a recall and his reinforcement for recalling is getting to go play again. I know it’s working as positive reinforcement because he always came back when I called on that walk, just to get to go play again. You could use anything your dog loves here, recall and let them run into the sea, recall then let them loose to go play with their friend. You don’t need to use so much food in training when you can use the things they love doing in the environment.

So that’s why I don’t label myself a Positive Reinforcement Trainer. Yes I use training methods that align with my ethics, there’s just so much more to the labels than we give them credit for. I hope you’ve learnt a bit from this blog and have gotten some inspiration on how to tell what your dog really does find reinforcing.

Got any questions? Let me know!