Thursday, 17 February 2022


Learning and memory is what makes each of us, and each of our dogs, a unique individual. Synaptic connectivity is the essence of learning and memory. It is a result of external and internal stimuli acting on the genes that create the proteins which make up our neurological system.


Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior Vol. 2, No. 1. 2008

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York: Penguin Books.


Shaping by successive approximations is such a powerful tool. Dogs become a partner in the learning process. Shaping provides very mild amounts of frustration as the dog attempts to identify the behaviour that earns the reinforcer. Done correctly and mindfully, this can help build a dog’s coping skills and promote confidence.



Dogs are the oldest domesticated species. Dogs that live in our households have a very high degree of vulnerability and dependency. They depend on us for food, shelter, and medical care. They depend on us for survival.


Our dogs try their best to fit in with human society, having to navigate our ambiguous, and often conflicting demands.


We are responsible for our dogs’ lives from beginning to end, and this means that we will have an immense causal influence on the quality that their life ultimately has.


Dogs don’t have a say in choosing their caregiver but the person(s) they end up with will have a profound influence on their life. Co-operation with humans and learning from humans are facilitated by a high degree of social attentiveness.


Bonds between dogs and humans are selective, intense, and will vary in quality. It is important that we bear in mind the spectrum of positive duties that this relationship engenders, including the duty to live up to the trust that dogs place in us.




We often talk about building resilience in our dogs but what is it and how can we do it?


The dictionary description is that resilience is the ability to adjust or recover from adversity, major life changes or to recover from illness or a crisis.


Resilience can prevent trauma; help overcome it or create healing from psychological or physical trauma.

It is not just about early experiences although we can try to give our puppies the very best start in life. The amount of resilience a dog has is influenced by his genetic makeup, early exposures, and the current situation. Resilience can be damaged by life experiences. All dogs need resilience to cope with life but dogs who have experienced trauma need it even more. Resilience comes from the inside.


Resilience requires:

• a dog to feel safe – avoid dogs being overwhelmed in situations. If they become overwhelmed, remove them from the situation. Find out what the triggers are and try to avoid as many of them as you can while we build confidence. Try to walk in quieter places if your dog is worried by other dogs or people.


• a dog to have social support – this can be a human or another dog. This doesn’t mean simply hugging and reassuring a dog when he is fearful. It means being there and responding to his needs, being trustworthy, predictable and fun.


• a dog to be able to make choices – use positive reinforcement and find ways to give your dog choices in their life. If a dog does not want to engage in training or an activity and walks away, let him! Dogs need to be able to say no. Use the consent test to see if he wants physical touch and affection.


• a dog to feel more confident – use scentwork.


The more control a dog feels he has over his own environment and the ability to be able to communicate his needs, the easier he will find it to make better decisions and the more resilient he will be. Every single dog has the ability to become resilient.


Remember the 5 C’s

Calm, Connection, Choices, Consistency = Confidence


Tiira K. (2019). Resilience In Dogs? Lessons From Other Species. Veterinary medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 10, 159–168.


Dogs, depending on their life stage, breed or mix, and personality, will have different needs for exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation. A puppy or young adult will usually be more “busier” than an older dog. If we look at the evolution of the dog, selection has been primarily for behaviours such as hunting, guarding or companionship to humans. While individuals within a breed category can vary, a dog bred for hunting (such as an English Setter) or for herding (such as a Border Collie) will often be more physically active than dogs bred purely for companionship (such as a Pug or Shih Tzu).

We have selectively bred various breeds of dog to have the physical ability and energy required to spend the day working. It is not surprising then that when these dogs are left home alone all day, we start to see unwanted behaviours.

Dogs are sentient beings with behavioural and emotional needs as well as their basic physical needs. These needs cannot be put on hold or ignored just because we don’t have the time on a daily basis. Dogs can become bored or frustrated when they lack stimulation. Equally dogs can become stressed when they do not have enough to do or enough social interaction.

Just like people, dogs are individuals with different energy levels, interests, and physical abilities. Dogs need both mental stimulation and physical exercise.

We often talk about breed specific behaviours and the need to ensure dogs have their behavioural, physical, cognitive, and emotional needs met. Breed specific behaviours are hard-wired and dogs need to be able to express their natural behaviours to be happy and healthy. But what does that mean? We need to think of safe and manageable ways to allow our dogs to use their natural breed instincts.


We know that dogs need different types of exercise and stimulation and that each individual dog will be different in terms of what works for him. Think of your dog’s likes and dislikes and his energy level. What does your dog like to do?




We frequently hear dogs labelled as hyperactive or that a dog is displaying over the top behaviours at times. These dogs may be over or highly aroused.


Arousal, simply put, is the dog’s level of excitement and emotional control (or rather the lack of it). A highly aroused dog will be very excited, with increased heartrate and respiration and dilated pupils. He will have little or no impulse control. He may become mouthy, vocalise, jump up and even grab clothing or hands and he will find it difficult to settle. A highly aroused dog’s ability to use the thinking part of his brain is reduced and leads the dog to experience stress. Over arousal or hyper arousal can even lead dogs to become reactive to other dogs.


There is a common misconception that the best way to manage hyperactive dogs is to try to physically tire them out. For some working breeds, they will need more exercise than other breeds but if we regularly engage in activities that cause our dog to become highly excited and over aroused, every day for long periods, he will have high levels of stress hormones in his bloodstream, even though he is enjoying these activities. Over arousal is not necessarily just linked to negative events. It occurs with positive events too. We often see this in dogs who play long daily repetitive games of fetch.


If we attend a music concert, watch, or participate in an exciting game or other exciting activities, our arousal levels go up with our excitement during that time. I know how tired I become after attending a music concert! Even happy exciting events create a physiological stress response in humans AND dogs.


Many dogs enjoy a game of fetch, playing with a flirt pole, agility, chasing around with other dogs and there is nothing wrong with playing these games (as long as the dog does not have any physical issues or is experiencing pain) but we should limit how frequently and how long they play these games.


The human end of the lead

Dogs are expected to tolerate so much unwanted behaviour from humans and other dogs these days! Society has high expectations of our dogs and their behaviour. However, our dogs are entitled to have preferences about who they socialise with, and when and where yet suddenly they are expected to behave as polite citizens and “put up with” unwanted behaviour from others (humans and other dogs).

When we have a dog that displays unwanted behaviours, especially out on walks it can affect us as well as our dog. We can also become reactive. Our breathing may become faster as our heart rate increases, we may tighten our grip on the lead, pull it in short – after all, we know what is coming! We may start to dread walks and feel totally helpless, judged, embarrassed and ashamed of how our dog behaves. These feelings will no doubt affect how we feel about our dog and the relationship between us.

While there is no “quick fix” for reactivity, there IS hope and we can be the beginning of that change.

Stress affects every part of our bodies including the cardiovascular system, nervous system, respiration, digestion, endocrine system, muscles, and even our reproductive system. Emotional contagion, the mirroring of emotional or arousal states between individuals, is commonly seen among species living together. Not only does emotional contagion occur within a species, but it has also been shown to occur between species, for example between dogs and humans. Short-term stress appears to be contagious between dogs and their caregivers.

As humans, we tend to focus on what could go wrong and what did go wrong. There is a reason for this - the human brain has a faster response to negative things, quickly transferring to our long-term memory much faster than positives. How often do we remember one negative comment about us and quickly forget a number of positive comments?

By changing our response to our dog’s reactivity, we can help our dogs change their behaviour. While we may not be the cause of our dogs emotional state, very often we do contribute to it.