Companion Animal Myths

Did you know?

1) That dogs do not try and dominate you to become leader of the pack?

2) That rabbits are not happy being held upside down and “hypnotised”?

3) That horses do not “join up” out of respect for their trainer?

If you didn’t then read on.


Dominating dogs.

The theory that a dog will dominate their owner to become ‘leader of the pack” has been around now for many years. It states that you have to make sure your dog knows that you are the boss or they may become badly behaved. But do they? Do they lie on the fireside mat secretly plotting ways to take over the household?

Well of course they don’t! I can assure you that your lovely family pet is not trying to take over your life. This “dominance theory” approach is a myth and has been well documented scientifically as such even by the researchers who unintentionally helped to create the myth in the first place.

So why is this theory so prevalent in today’s culture? Why do we continue to believe that a dog strives to be the “leader of the pack” when the scientific evidence says otherwise? Well it all began many years ago when scientists were studying wolves in captivity. They noticed that the stronger and fiercer wolves used aggressive behaviour to gain access to food, mates and sleeping areas and that this formed a hierarchy within the pack. However, when more studies were carried out on wolves in the wild it was clear that this hierarchy was a product of captive living and they didn’t behave like this at all. In fact wild wolves show very little aggression towards each other, are much more co-operative and live in close-knit family groups. But this revelation came too late for our domestic dogs. The belief that dogs evolved directly from wolves and constantly strive to become dominant spread rapidly and is still being circulated by the misinformed even today.

You see dogs didn’t evolve directly from wolves at all. They evolved from a common wolf like ancestor and have changed drastically since becoming domesticated thousands of years ago. For one thing dogs really enjoy being with humans and wolves will do anything they can to stay away. It is also very unlikely that dogs have the ability to plot such complicated behaviour unlike us with our large brains that can think forwards and backwards in time and enables us to read and write, discus philosophy and play Candy Crush saga.

Dogs can, of course, learn very quickly what works for them and display some very resourceful behaviour when trying to gain the things they want. But they are competing for resources and not some mythical job position as a pack leader. So you can breathe a huge sigh of relief and enjoy your dog as a family member safe in the knowledge that your dog is not laying on the mat plotting your downfall.

For some really interesting further information on this click on this link


 Trancing Rabbits.

Rabbits can be put into a trance like hypnotic state when they are placed onto their backs. This method is commonly used when clipping nails and checking teeth. But is the rabbit really being hypnotised and is it in a relaxed state? Scientific studies suggest that it is not. Rabbit trancing or to give the correct term “tonic immobility” is a fear-driven state that has evolved as a defence against predators. The rabbit fools the predator into thinking it is dead by stating perfectly still. As it is lying there its heart rate increases and hormones are released to prepare the rabbit for a flight or fight response. As soon as the predator releases its grip the rabbit will spring into life in an attempt to escape. Studies have also shown that after release from this “trance” rabbits will groom excessively and show more hiding behaviour which are all signs of a stressed state suggesting that trancing may not be a very pleasant experience for your pet bunny.

There are much kinder ways to train a rabbit into happily having its nails clipped or its teeth looked at. By taking time to train your rabbit with tasty treats it will soon be happily allowing you to touch its feet and look into its mouth. For more rabbit welfare information and how to clicker train your bunny follow these links.


 Horse whispering.

Just how does horse whispering work? Why does a horse turn and follow you after you have actively chased and shooed it away using a technique known as “join up” that was popularised worldwide by Monty Roberts the famous horse whisperer? Well it used to be thought that this technique allowed the “whisperer” to mimic the natural behaviour of horses by appealing to their natural instincts and herd mentality and by developing a rapport between horse and trainer. However, new studies have cast doubt on these claims by cleverly using remote control cars to achieve exactly the same response. So what’s really going on? Well it’s all to do with pressure release otherwise known as negative reinforcement (removing an unpleasant experience to encourage wanted behaviour). The join up technique involves the trainer using aggressive movement and noise to drive the horse around the perimeter of a pen. The trainer gradually reduces the noise and movement as the horse begins to approach. The trainer, therefore, reinforces (rewards) the horse by discontinuing the aggressive approach and the horse sticks by the trainer because this is the safest place to be. It learns that by following the trainer it is no longer subjected to fear and stress. So not really whispering at all as it has a scientific explanation and is simply down to how animals learn. Now you know how it works you can choose whether to use this technique or a kinder approach such as positively reinforcing the behaviours you do want to see by rewarding them.

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previous post: Safety around dogs for deliverymen. next post: Acquiring a new Pet and how to introduce them to children and other pets.

Safety around dogs for deliverymen.

The image of a postman running out of a garden gate with a dog hanging on to the seat of his pants has been the inspiration for many cartoons and jokes over the years. However, in the cold light of day being confronted by an aggressive looking dog is not a joke and causes huge distress to the postman, the dog’s owner and to the dog itself. With higher density housing, more dogs and more deliveries this continues to be a serious problem and needs to be addressed.

So what is it with deliverymen and dogs and what can we do to reduce the risks?

Deliverymen through a dogs ears, eyes and nose.

Dogs will usually bark at strangers who sound, look, and smell unfamiliar coming to their home and this is normal dog behaviour. They may see the intruder as a threat, warn others of their approach and may try and physically get rid of them. It is often what owners expect as it helps to safeguard their family and property. However, unless a dog has already learned to trust someone he or she will not be able to tell the difference between a deliveryman and someone more sinister. Therefore, it is important that we teach our dogs that deliverymen are actually really nice and good things happen when they arrive.

Shouting at your dog or use punishing techniques will only serve to increase the negative emotions your dog may be feeling and may intensify aggressive behaviour.

Changing your dogs mind about deliverymen.

As they arrive (listen out for the van or the crunch on the driveway) and before your dog reacts say something like “post” and throw some really tasty treats or a favourite toy onto the floor. Then leave the dog and collect your mail before the postman has time to reach the letterbox. If your dog is barking as you come in don’t react and stay calm.
Gradually using small steps allow the postman to get nearer and nearer to the house and continue to throw treats or the toy onto the floor.

At the same time begin to work with your dog’s reaction to the noise of the letterbox. Begin by gently touching the letterbox and throwing some treats or a favourite toy in the opposite direction. Repeat this a few times daily until your dog begins to expect a reward every time you touch the letterbox. You can now add the word “post” as you throw the treats or the toy. The next stage is to open the letterbox and shut it quietly and then throw the treats or the toy as you say “post”. Once your dog is expecting a reward as you open the letterbox you can begin to make a slightly louder sound and once your dog is happy at this stage make a slightly louder one and so on and so forth. Eventually the noise of the letterbox will indicate that something fun will appear at a certain place. This helps your dog to associate the noise of the letterbox with a really positive experience and when you say “post” great things happen. If at any stage your dog reacts to the letterbox by barking then go back a few stages.

It is now time to post some letters so ask someone to stand at the other side of the door and post a very small letter as you play the “post” game on the other side. Gradually over days and weeks the letters can get bigger and you can add more of them. Then if your dog is calm allow your postman to actually post the letters.

Once your dog is now more relaxed around the noise of the van, the crunching on the driveway and the letters coming through the post-box you can meet and greet the postman. Take your dog for a short walk along the road as your postman arrives and walk back in together and offer a few tasty treats to your dog as you are doing this whilst your dog is calm. Repeat this a few times and if your dog is relaxed with this (nice open mouth and lollopy tongue rather than closed mouth, lip licking, head turned away, shaking, panting, ears flat, body posture stiff or growling) then you can ask your postman to throw a few treats onto the ground and eventually he or she will be able to offer one.

Once your dog has stopped responding to the letters arriving and has begun to look for treats or a toy you can now reduce the amount of treats given or begin to use a handful of their own food instead. And then after a few more days you can reduce the times you give the treats to every other day and after a few weeks to just a few times weekly.

Now you are already thinking blimey that’s going to take a long time and yes it does and this is why the promise of a quick fix, which often makes the situation much worse in the long run, is so tempting. But there is another short-term solution and whilst it won’t change your dog’s mind about how it is feeling towards unfamiliar folk coming up to your house it may give you more time to work on the issues and reduce the risk for your deliveryman and that is:


  • Put up an outside letter box
  • Make sure you have clear notices NOT to enter as you have a dog.
    Make sure your dog is NOT allowed free unsupervised access to yards and gardens.
    Talk to your postman and delivery companies and explain that you have a dog and where to safely put the parcels when you are not in.
  • Make sure your dog is placed into a secure room with something nice to do if you have to open the door to sign for a parcel.
    Keep calm and don’t get cross. I know it’s a really human response to want to shout ”SHUT UP” but ask yourself does it work, does shouting stop your dog from barking the next time and the answer will be “No”.
  • If you feel you need more help with your dog and how it is feeling towards unfamiliar people coming to your house then seek advice from a qualified dog behaviourist such as a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) or a clinical behaviourist (CCAB) via referral from your vet.

Tips for deliverymen:

  • Learn as much as you can about dog body language and how to respond: A good place to start is to take a look at some of the links approved here:
  • Keep a bag of different doggy treats with you and throw them onto the floor rather than approaching the dog directly.
  • Do not stare or speak directly at the dog or try to approach.
  • Talk to the owner about how they can help you and their dog feel safe.
  • Ask the company you work for to gather more information regarding dog ownership in the homes you are delivering to. Perhaps a signed agreement that the owners make sure you are kept safe would be a useful strategy.
  • There are many professional dog behavioural organisations such as the where individuals may be willing to offer guidance on dog behaviour that could be included within risk assessment courses.

Meanwhile, keep safe and let’s get on with changing our dog’s minds about how they view deliverymen so no more ripped backsides.

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Is your dog trying to dominate your world?

Have you ever been told that your dog’s behavioural problem behaviour is due to it trying to “dominate “you? Have you read or seen on television that your dog is behaving badly because it wants to take over as “Alpha “male?

Or told that your dog is defying you to become “leader of the pack”? If the answer is yes then you have to ask yourself are you being given the correct advice. The answer to this is quite simply no you are not. Your dog is not trying to dominate your world; it never has or ever will do. There is no such job description within a group of domestic dogs as “the Dominant Dog, the Alpha Male or Leader of the Pack”. Surprised?

As a certificated clinical animal behaviourist (CCAB) and a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) I am hearing more and more from well meaning dog owners that they are worried that their dog is trying to take over this “leader” role and showing problem behaviour as a result. They hear this from celebrated dog trainers on popular television programmes and by reading their respective best selling books so it’s no surprise that the myth of the Alpha male has now circulated widely around the USA and in the UK.

This “dominance” theory relating to dogs living in groups has been in circulation for many years and qualified behaviourists throughout the globe have begun to move away from this as it became clear that domestic dog groups simply do not operate in this way.

The “dominance” theory originally stemmed from wolf behaviour in captivity where unrelated wolves are kept together in small areas. Certain wolves in these groups were observed to be showing behaviour that looked as if there was a hierarchy in place. However, research on wild wolves suggests that wolf packs are not rigidly controlled by a single domineering male. A wild pack usually has an alpha pair but most of the rest of the pack is that pair’s offspring. That means the lead male never fought for dominance but merely reproduced. This “father” wolf does not always lead during hunts or in anything else for that matter. The term “alpha” is no longer used because what it implies is not accurate.

Domestic dogs as we all know live in houses with humans and have done so for 15,000 years, and have evolved as scavengers, not hunters. So it is not legitimate to compare dogs with wolves and wolf packs. The evolutionary pressure on dogs was that the least shy animals were the most successful in ransacking human refuse. Today’s free-roaming dogs live in small, less cohesive groups rather than packs and are often alone. They compete with each other for resources but not for the top position of the pack.

To illustrate this more clearly I will describe a common situation that occurs regularly when I visit households with several dogs and humans living together. It will become obvious very quickly that the owners have been watching the many dog behaviour programmes seen on the television and will tell me that they know who there “dominant” dog is. So I will nod sagely and ask which one that is and the conversation usually goes a bit like this:

“Well Lardy the Labrador is the Alpha male because when he’s eating his dinner he won’t let any of the other dogs or my family anywhere near him. Sometimes he growls and goes to snap at them and they keep away.” They stop and think for a while and then continue. “Unless it’s a ball and then Shep the Collie is the boss because he won’t allow any of the other dogs in the house or any other dog in the world for that matter go anywhere near him when he has the ball”. Then the husband might come in at this stage and point out that “When Baby the Pomeranian is sitting on your lap dear she is the boss because she tries to bite me if I try and sit next to you”. At which point I refer back to the original question and ask “So which one is leading your pack again?” And the confusion sets in as to which one is actually leader of the pack and a fierce debate ensues. Of course the answer is none of them are. They are simply defending the resources they are most interested in. Just like any group of humans that find themselves placed together they all have different wants, needs, strengths and weakness’s and they all behave differently to achieve a feeling of contentment. Some dogs are greedier than others so will try hard to find and eat more food. Other dogs need to chase things and will challenge other dogs to make sure they can keep on chasing things. Owners are often viewed as highly prized resources as they are well trained feeding machines, comfy cushions, door openers and they know where the lead is kept. There are dogs that want the lot and are often described as “Leaders” because it looks as if they in control of everything. But that is because they are in control of all the resources and not because they want to “lead the pack”.

So does it matter which words we use to describe this resource holding behaviour? Well yes it does because of the way so called “dominance “problems are being solved by the perpetuators of this belief. If, for instance, you are told your dog is trying to dominate you because it barks and lunges towards other dogs that are approaching, you might be advised to put in place a long list of rules and regulations that “show” your dog who the boss is. These might include you eating before your dog, ignoring your dog for five minutes when you come in, not allowing it onto chairs or walking through doors first. However, this only teaches your dog that you are in control of food resources, your own personal space, your settee and the door way. It doesn’t address the problem you dog may have with other dogs. You might then be advised that when another dog approaches to use techniques such as the alpha roll (where your dog is rolled onto its back, a submissive position) or to grab the back of its neck with a firm “Grrrr” or to use a pressure halter and force your dogs head away from the approaching dog. There are also those that advocate the use of shaking containers filled with stones, pet corrector cans that give off a loud ear splitting blast and water/citronella sprays that deliver a shot of water or lemon smelling liquid into your dogs face amongst many other similar suggestions. Some well known celebrity “behaviourists” use of a number of punishment devices and out dated correction techniques that are simply not advised in today’s more enlightened society. Some devices such as the Electric Shock collar have already been banned in Scotland and Wales.

However, what are you really teaching your dog? What if your dog is not barking and lunging at other dogs because it wants to lead the pack. What if it is nervous of the other dog’s intentions so makes sure it tells the other dog not to come too close”? You can’t convince your dog not to be scared of another dog if it gets punished every time it sees one.

What if your dog has learned that all approaching dogs means that it suddenly feels pain as the lead is tightened, a can of stones is shaken, it hears a loud ear splitting sound or receives a spray of stinging liquid in the eye. Or worse still it feels the pain of an electric shock. Just because you the owner has the ability to imagine what might happen next doesn’t mean your dog can. It may never understand that the owner is cross and that bad things happen because of what it might do in a few seconds time. It only learns that when another dog approaches its not a very nice experience so tries to stop it happening by the only way it knows how. My advice to owners if they are unsure of whether to use a certain correction device is “would you use it your children?”

There are some dogs that do try and assert their strengths and challenge other dogs to show how big and strong they are but not because they are trying to “lead the pack” but for a number of other different reasons which might include guarding their ball, their owners, their personal space or they may be doing it because it feels good and thus self rewarding. There are certainly behavioural modification programmes that we can put in place to make sure that our dogs are not challenging us over ownership of certain resources and to stop reinforced self rewarding behaviour but the dogs are not challenging us to reach the mythical “Alpha” position.

To copy the techniques directly from some of these television programmes may by detrimental to the welfare of your dog so before you jump onto the “dominant” bandwagon think about all the authentic reasons why your dog might be showing these behaviours because it won’t be due to it wanting to dominate your world and keep away from anyone who says they know just the way to deal with dominating behaviour alpha males and pack leaders.

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Why does my dog pull on the lead and how can I stop this?

Owners are often pulled along at great speed at the end of a lead when out walking resulting in a miserable and frustrating experience. A pulling dog and a cross owner also increases tension and may cause the dog to become overly reactive towards other dogs and their owners.

Why do dogs pull on the lead?

If you are a dog then going for walks is generally exciting, fun and part of what being a dog is all about. You get to meet others, sniff out rabbits, chase balls, send and read pee-mails, roll about in cowpats and splash about in muddy puddles.

If you are a dog, pulling on the lead does NOT mean you are striving to be a pack leader by walking in front of your owner. It simply means that you have learned that if you pull you get to go forwards.

What can I do to stop my dog pulling?

If pulling works and the dog gets to go forwards then we can work on the notion that we should only allow the dog forwards when it is not pulling.  In other words teach the dog that not pulling on the lead means they get to go forwards.

How do you achieve that?

It is actually relatively uncomplicated but takes great timing skills and a lot of patience so please don’t expect a quick fix. Start by making a commitment to yourself that from now on you won’t allow your dog to pull you forwards. If you give up after a few sessions because you feel it’s taking too long and you are late for work then all you have achieved is to teach the dog that if it pulls for long enough it gets to go forwards again.

  • Begin by going for short walks in quiet areas where there are few distractions and take some really tasty treats with you. Stand still, remain quiet, and wait until your dog had stopped pulling and when the lead is loose walk forwards again. Of course your dog will pull again so keep on repeating this many times until your dog learns that pulling the lead tight does not achieve anything but not pulling means you get to go forwards. At this point you are rewarding the dog for not pulling by allowing it to move forwards.
  • You will need a long length of lead and do not wrap it around your wrist or keep it overly short as pulling on a lead tends to make the dog pull away from you. Remain calm and relaxed and do not keep pulling your dog back (known as checking) as all your dog will learn is that to go forwards it has to pull and be pulled back. Make sure you are giving your dog lots of alternative exercise during this period.
  • After a few sessions your dog will learn that the best way to go forwards is not to pull. To begin with it will wander all over the place on the end of its long loose lead and that is fine during this early stage as long as you keep safely away from roads.
  • To teach a “close” once your dog is walking without pulling, offer a treat when it is close by you and repeat the word “close”. You can also clicker train your dog at this stage and click and reward for remaining by your side.

This is my preferred way of teaching a dog not to pull and once taught is long-lasting. Enjoy your walk!

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Parents – Kids and Dogs

Important points on how to keep dogs and kids safe around each other

Does your dog enjoy being around children? In their presence does it wiggle its bottom, have a loose smiley mouth, lollopy tongue, does it run up to and happily interact with and more importantly does it go back for more? If so what fantastic news you are well and truly blessed because unfortunately not all dogs do enjoy the experience especially if they have not been exposed to such creatures during their early puppyhood however much we want and expect it of them.

Children as much as we love them are inconsistent, unpredictable, pinchy, pully & pokey, loud and screechy, often smelly, dribbley, in your face and just don’t act like the normal humans our dogs are used to BC (before children). So for those parents with dogs that tolerate, stand still, stiffen, raise a paw, look or move away, show the whites of their eyes, raise lips to display teeth, flatten their ears, grumble, growl, snap or generally look a bit worried this is mainly for you…

  1. Do not allow children to hug dogs, any dog. Children commonly get bitten around the facial area so keep this important and often very cute part away from the sharp end. Hugs can hurt and restrict the dog from escape and although Granny may love them Fido will not. The same goes for kissing with all the added hygiene issues to consider. It’s also unwise to kiss the dog.
  2. Do not allow children to lie, ride or sit on dogs. Obviously this is going to hurt the dog but also the child when it gets shaken off, rolled on or snapped at and of course your whole world will fall apart when, after you have ignored the very final demand from your veterinary practice for extensive spinal surgery, the bailiffs arrive to take away your 78 inch Curved Smart 3D UHD 4K LED TV with a wireless sub woofer.
  3. Do not allow children to snatch, grab, take or kick away something the dog is eating or playing with. If the dog has something the child wants make sure you can distract the dog away and swap it for something else.Your dog is going to have a different relationship with your child than it does with you and if every time your son appears and tries to play “football” by kicking away the ball that your dog is happily chewing away at don’t be surprised if all of a sudden Fido begins to growl and initiates a manoeuvre that Suarez would be proud of.
  4. Let sleeping dogs lie” wherever they are. This idiom is saying don’t do it, avoid conflict and has come about for a jolly good reason. Don’t even step over your dog instead teach them that when you say “excuse me doggy” it means that you are going to walk past just so he won‘t be startled and is able to predict what will happen next. Just good manners on your part really.
  5. Allow your dog to move away and give him permission and space to do so. In fact encourage and reward him for moving away if the approach of a stumbling, bumbling and slightly manic toddler is proving too much. Granny is good at this and will quickly whisk herself away to make a nice cup of tea or leap onto a passing bus having suddenly remembered a very important bunion appointment. Granddad always has his shed to retire to so offer Fido his own hideaway and follow Granny’s toddler toodle oo tactics and you won’t go far wrong.
  6. If your child still needs a babysitter to look after them when you want time out then they still need you to watch out for them around dogs. You wouldn’t leave a huge chocolate cake on a low lying coffee table, an unsaved piece of original work on your computer that has taken your seven months to complete or the remote control for the 78 inch Curved Smart 3D UHD 4K LED TV with a wireless sub woofer alone with your small children so don’t leave them alone with your precious dog you just don’t know what your children might do.

Any worries get in touch with one of these: Clinical Animal Behaviourists

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