New year – new possibilities!

Well, the festive season is well and truly over. The decorations are down, the daily routine is back to normal and biscuit tin is looking empty. It is easy to feel blue in January, but just think – there is a whole year of untapped potential ahead of you!  January is the traditional time to take stock and make changes for the better and it can be a cathartic exercise.


Often over the Christmas season the household is in flux, there are guests staying and whole family outings embarked upon. It may be that these highlighted issues your pet has, that in normal everyday life you can work around. It is so easy to just ‘manage’ a problem rather than to try to address its root causes, and before you know it you are jumping through hoops to avoid difficult scenarios and ensure your dog or cat are happy.


But there is nothing like a tactless relative to point out to you your pet’s shortcomings, or for a crowded house to push your cat’s stress levels sky high. The potential for your pet to show you up is endless! Maybe your dog is afraid of children, nervous of crowds, or scared of fireworks. They could jump up, steal food, or be a destructive force when on their own. Or it could be your cat who struggled, weeing in the bath, ambushing visitors or refusing to come out from under the bed!


In the vast majority of cases there are steps you can take to help your pet with problems like these. By identifying what your pet is struggling with and why, a treatment plan can be worked out and put in place.


This will result in a happier pet and who knows – maybe Christmas 2018 will pass off without a hitch!


Remember, remember, the fifth of November! What you can do to help your dog if they are scared of fireworks

Fear of fireworks is a very common problem that many dogs have. Fireworks displays are so large and loud, and continue for such a long time that it is unsurprising that a lot of dogs find them very alarming, if not out-right terrifying!

Dogs which are puppies over November and December, and are therefore exposed to fireworks during their sensitive period, are much less likely to have problems with them later in life. A dog’s sensitive period is a developmental phase which lasts until they are around 14 weeks of age. During this time they are like little sponges, learning what is ‘normal’ in life and not to be scared of. If a stimulus is not encountered during this time, then they are much more likely to show a fearful response to it when they meet it in adulthood.

The fearful reaction shown can vary from dashing about the house, scrabbling in corners and under furniture, staying very still whilst trembling, panting, seeking your company excessively, and barking to name but a few.

So what to do now?

With Guy Fawkes night only a couple of weeks away you may feel that it is too late to do anything about it, but there are some really useful steps you can take to make things easier for your dog.

Contact all your local venues who may be hosting a display and find out when they are planning to do so. This will enable you to be prepared on the day.

Create a ‘safe haven’ for your dog. This should ideally be in a room that they already choose to retreat to when stressed. It should be a space that is well sound and light insulated, and as den-like as possible. Internal spaces such as understairs cupboards can be useful, or behind large pieces of furniture, such as the sofa, or under a bed. Your dog should be able to access the safe haven whenever they feel scared (so a cupboard must always be left propped open) and it should have a cushion or blanket in from an existing resting place to make it as familiar as possible. Dog crates can be useful to use as they can be covered over with blankets to muffle sound.

The safe haven should be created as far in advance as possible and your dog should be encouraged (but not forced) to explore it for short periods every day. This can be done by putting tasty treats inside for them to find. Food puzzle toys can be great for this as they take a while for the dog to use.

Now is also the time to speak to your vet about how they can help. They may feel that medication would be beneficial, and this is best discussed in advance in case they need to check over your pet first to ensure it is safe for them to take it.

There are other products, such as Adaptil, which can help reduce anxiety. Adaptil is a synthetic form of a canine pheromone that mother dogs produce to make their puppies feel more secure. This is available as a plug-in, a spray, or a collar, and is best started in advance.

What to do on the night?

When the day of the display arrives, ensure that your dog has had a really good walk during the day, as they will settle better if they are physically tired. Give them a large dinner before sunset, and any medication prescribed by the vet as instructed.

Ensure that your dog can access their safe haven, close all the curtains, and put on the TV or radio as a distraction.

Try to keep to your normal routine as dogs are very good at picking up on subtle signs of anxiety in their owners, and so it can be easy to unsettle them further by our own apprehension!

If your dog is settled and calm then don’t keep reassuring them or giving them cuddles and this may alert them to the fact that something is wrong. However if the display has started and your dog seeks reassurance from you, then please do give it. There is a lot of advice saying that reassurance will reinforce the behaviour which is true, but during the actual fireworks display is not the right time to be training your dog, that should happen at another time. If given in a calm manner, and not to excess, reassurance is important in easing a dog’s distress.

What to do to next?

Once firework season has passed, it is time to start a training programme with your dog to lessen their fearful reaction to fireworks. This is a process that takes time and patience and so it is never too early in the year to begin!

It is best to seek professional guidance as every dog is different, but broadly speaking you want to teach your dog that the sound of fireworks is not something to be scared of, and may actually be a positive thing!

This is done through a process called ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’, and involves exposing your dog to fireworks noise at such a low volume that they are aware of it but not scared, and linking it to something positive such as play or treats. This is the time when you should not reassure your dog when they are exposed to firework noise, but reward calm and relaxed body postures.

So good luck to all those owners who are looking to fireworks night with apprehension, you are not alone!

Back to school! How changes in routine can affect our canine companions

Back to School Blog photo

In my household, as in many others, today is met with a mixture of trepidation and excitement, the kids are back to school! Suddenly the house is quiet and peaceful, and it’s possible to concentrate on tasks uninterrupted……

This change in routine doesn’t go unnoticed by your furry canine family member either; dogs are very attuned to household comings and goings, and quickly learn all our habits especially those that may indicate a walk, food or play is on the cards!

However changes in routine, whether due to the academic year, a period of ill health necessitating time at home, parental leave on the arrival of a new baby or any other reason, can be hard for dogs to adjust to. It is sadly a common problem that once things go back to ‘normal’ that our canine companions struggle to cope with the reduction in closeness. It can be hard for us as owners to understand why, having spent the first 5 years of their life being able to manage on their own for four hours a day for example, they now are vocal or destructive when left! It can be immensely frustrating, and can seem as though they are being simply naughty or difficult, however these behaviours are driven by distress.

Dogs are wonderful companions due to the unique bond that they form with humans. Their emotional dependence on us make them highly rewarding pets to have and means that they will choose to spend time with us, are eager to please (most of the time!) and can be a real source of comfort. However this can be a double edged sword, and the very dependence that makes them such a rewarding animal to live with, can leave them struggling when on their own.

Some individuals quickly become accustomed to periods of closeness, such as the school holidays, when our routines are altered and the house is full of people coming and going with plenty of outings and interactions. They don’t realise that this is a temporary state of affairs, and that things will revert back all too soon.

This is when you can run into separation problems. Not all dogs display their distress in the same way, some will be very vocal, barking and/or howling, which is often reported to you by neighbours…. Others may be destructive, chewing on items of your clothing, or furniture, and some dogs may toilet indoors despite being reliably housetrained. Some may simply be very restless and this last group of dogs can easily go unnoticed as there is nothing to show for it. It is only when a video recording is made remotely that you can see their continuous pacing and restlessness.

It is very upsetting to find that your pet is struggling to cope, but there are some simple steps that you can take to help them adjust. The first thing to do is to ensure that your dog hasn’t developed a medical condition which may be making them less resilient. If you have any concerns regarding the general health of your dog, then your vets should be the first port of call. Issues such as joint pain, a tummy upset or itchy skin can all be much harder to cope with when they’re on their own and so can lead to signs of separation distress.

If your dog seems otherwise well then my advice would be to:

          Never tell your dog off when you return to find destruction/soiling. It can be very frustrating to discover the scene of devastation but try to remain as calm and collected as possible! Fear of being told off by the person they are so desperate to see, creates increased anxiety and confusion in dogs as they are not only distressed by your absence but also worried about your return, as they fear they may be punished.

          Ensure your dog is well fed and exercised before you leave. This will make them more likely to relax whilst your away, so try to give them a really good session of off lead exercise before you go.

          Give them a puzzle treat as you leave the house. Toys such as the Classic Kong, or K9 Connectables toys are great for filling with food such as peanut butter or squeezy cheese and biscuits. This not only gives them something enjoyable to do when you’re out but means that you leaving becomes more of a positive thing in their mind.

          Remove triggers such as the post being delivered or the sound of your voice on the answerphone. Some dogs are fine until something increases their arousal and then it is hard to calm back down. Post deliveries are a common trigger and so consider getting a post box away from the front door so that your dog isn’t disturbed. The sound of your voice on the answerphone can also disturb your dog so if possible silence it so that your dog can’t hear your voice.

          Ignore your dog for 20 minutes before you leave to make the contrast between you being home and then away less marked. Try not to have elaborate farewell partings, keep it brief and to the point.

          Don’t ignore your dog on your return but wait for them to have all four feet on the floor before giving them a calm greeting!

If your dog is very distressed, or if you have tried the above suggestions but there has been no improvement then seek professional advice. Separation problems can have a huge impact on a dog’s wellbeing, and helping them to cope with time alone improves things for everyone!

The power of PLAY!

website-photos-march-17-_wright-behaviour-62I think one of the most underutilised tools in changing an unwanted behaviour is play! So often the focus is only on improving an owner’s control over their dog and developing consistency. However what mustn’t be lost is the fun and quality of the pet-owner relationship, after all, that is why most of us choose to have a pet in the first place!


Dogs are one of the few species who will continue to play into adulthood, and it can be an invaluable bonding opportunity for dog and owner. Play engenders trust and positive emotions within the relationship, and this then has positive knock-on effects on training. If a dog trusts and enjoys spending time with its owner then they will be far more likely to want to follow direction from them.


So what game to play?! Above all be guided by your dog. Different dogs enjoy different games; some love chasing toys, retrieving toys, tug games, sniffing games or problem solving games. Variety is the spice of life so don’t play the same game every day, and keep animated. With tug games, contrary to popular belief, you as the owner don’t always have to “win” – let your dog have the toy sometimes and other times you get it (that said, seek professional advice before playing tug games with dogs that can appear possessive over items). Play is usually punctuated with pauses, and eye contact between dog and owner, and when playing it is the game that is important to the dog, rather than “ownership” of the toy.


When it comes to dogs playing with other dogs, again not all of them play in the same way. Some are more physical players with shoulder barging and tumbling eg Labradors, others like chasing and darting in and out with very little physical contact eg Collies, other go for full body contact play with pinning and mouthing eg great danes & staffies, you get the pure chasers eg lurchers, and the more cautious players who are often smaller breeds eg shih tzus.


If your dog has had some bad experiences playing with other dogs, try to rebuild their confidence by initially only letting them off lead to play with dogs with a similar style. A cautious player or a chaser may find playing with a physical Labrador for example very difficult and overwhelming. As an owner you need to be prepared to act as referee during games and if you think that one party is no longer enjoying the game, both dogs ought to be called back to their owners for a treat before letting them go and play again.


So go and have fun with your dog! Build play into your routine in the same way as you do their walk. You don’t need to devote a lot of time to it, just 5 minutes here and there could make the world of difference to your relationship!


Guilty as charged?!

Guilty Nutmeg

An emotion that most owners would be fairly certain that their dog feels is guilt. Just look at that face! It would be easy to assume that a) she knows that she has done something wrong, and b) that she’s very sorry!


As a matter of fact the photo is staged and she hadn’t done anything wrong (although destruction was her forte for the first six months of her life……).


According the Collins English Dictionary “Guilt” is defined as


 remorse or self-reproach caused by feeling that one is responsible for a wrong or offence”


It is, of course, impossible to know precisely what thought processes go on in a dog’s head, but it is all too easy to assume that dogs are capable of very complex human emotions.


Can a dog truly feel remorse? I think that it is unlikely that a dog can remember an action that it performed an hour ago and wish they hadn’t done it. Alexandra Horowitz in 2009 performed an experiment where dogs were left alone in a room with a treat and either allowed to eat it or not, but in both cases the owner was told the dog had eaten the treat. It was found that the majority of owners would think that their dogs looked “guilty” whether or not they’d really eaten it – what the dog was reacting to was the owner’s response and body language, not to a feeling of remorse.


What we often interpret as “looking guilty” (ears back, averted gaze, low posture, tail tucked under) is actually appeasement behaviour. Dogs are very good at reading human body language and if we are looking tense or cross then they show these signs to try to diffuse the situation. They will even do this if they don’t know what they’re supposed to have done – which is the case with Nutmeg in my photo!


They can’t learn any lessons at that stage as they won’t associate any punishment given with the misdemeanour, unless they are discovered in the process of the deed. Then even if they are, punishment doesn’t address what is driving the behaviour. This may be anxiety, boredom, fear or any number of emotions, all of which can often be exacerbated by, what seems to the dog, to be random punishment.


In the case of separation problems where a dog may be destructive, if they are told off when the crime scene is discovered, then next time they are left not only will they be worried about being alone, they will also be worried about their owners response when they return – the dog wants their owner to come back but is worried they may be cross like last time! These conflicting emotions may in themselves cause the dog to feel anxious, and to chew to make themselves feel better, and so the cycle continues…..


So next time you see that guilty look, remember that your dog is only trying to stop you being cross, and probably can’t even remember why they misbehaved in the first place!


What was my dog telling me in this photo?! The subtleties of doggy body language….

Website photos March 17 _Wright Behaviour (69)

Dogs are social creatures and although they don’t have a spoken language, they have a wealth of subtle cues that they use to communicate with.

As humans most people are aware of the extremes; ears forward and wagging tail = happy, teeth showing and growling = angry, but are blissfully unaware of the points in between! This is nobodies fault, but if you start looking out for the more subtle signs then you’ll be amazed at what you pick up on.

In this picture of me and my dog Nutmeg, you can see that her ears are back and she is trying to lick my face. She is showing signs of being mildly anxious and confused as to what I want from her – having our photos taken is not part of our normal daily routine! Licking faces is a form of appeasement, you often see it in puppies licking older dogs’ faces. In this situation we had been outside trying to get some reasonable photographs and she didn’t know what I wanted her to do! She was starting to feel stressed and it was time to stop taking photos.

There has been a useful schematic put together to illustrate what is called “The ladder of aggression”. It shows the different behaviours that a dog will show when they are stressed, starting from behaviours that are intended to diffuse a situation where they only feel mildly anxious, up to overtly aggressive behaviours such as biting.

ladder of aggression

The behaviours higher up the ladder (biting, snapping and growling) are obvious enough for us to pick up on, but what we want to do is to realise how stressed a dog is feeling before they have to resort to these. A dog showing these behaviours is the equivalent of us yelling “PLEASE MAKE THIS SITUATION STOP!!”, and often before they reach that point they will have been exhibiting the signs lower down, but they just haven’t been “heard”.

Starting at the bottom of the ladder, a sign such as yawning (when you wouldn’t expect them to be particularly tired) is very easy to miss, as is frequent blinking. Turning their head away is another subtle sign, but one often seen when dogs are having an over-enthusiastic hug from a child for example.

Getting up into the red zone, one of the last signals that a dog will show before resorting to obvious aggression is to stiffen up, or freeze. This is again easy to miss because it appears so passive, but if you notice it in a dog, often coupled with staring eyes (often the whites of their eyes will be visible around the edges) then this is a signal that the dog is extremely stressed and that something needs to change to prevent an escalation.

In some  situations, such as between aggressive dogs for example, they will go through these stages in only seconds. Other dogs may stop showing the subtle signs of stress at all, if they have found over time that it is never noticed, and jump straight up the ladder.

In most cases though, by just being more aware of what to look out for, you can pick up on when your dog is feeling a bit uncomfortable in a situation and so do something about it.

This is especially important when dogs are around children, whether you feel your dog is used to them or not. Some dogs are stressed even though they will tolerate a lot, and it is through their self control that any escalation is prevented.

Nutmeg is probably not super-model material, but she is a good communicator!


Spring has sprung – making the most of dog walks!


At last! It feels as though Spring has arrived, the days are longer and milder, flowers are appearing and walking the dog isn’t the chore it was a month ago!

There are so many benefits to a good dog walk; providing mental stimulation, and physically tiring them out are two that immediately spring to mind. However it is also a really good opportunity to improve your relationship with your dog, which can help in other areas of behaviour.

Ensure that you speak positively to your dog at frequent points throughout the walk, as often the only spoken words are those telling dogs to “leave” items, to come away from something, or to go on the lead.

When they are off the lead and busy nosing about in the undergrowth it is easy to just let them get on with it. However it can really help with recall (getting them to come back to you) if every so often you call them back just for a fuss and a treat, before sending them away again. Otherwise it can seem to your dog, accurately enough, that you only ever call them back when you are going to put them on the lead, and that isn’t very motivating!

When you are walking along, dogs will periodically look up at you, just to “check-in”. Make sure you are aware of it, and acknowledge it with praise, so that they are rewarded for paying attention to you. If they are constantly ignored, albeit unintentionally, then they will check-in less often and so you may find levels of obedience suffer.

If you only have time for a short walk, you can make it more interesting by occasionally scattering a few biscuit kibbles in the grass or plants as you walk along, and encouraging them to find them. This is fun and stimulating for your dog, and again rewards them for paying attention to you.

Occasionally there is only time for a quick walk on the lead, and you may feel that it’s hardly worth doing, but actually there is a whole world out there that we as humans are completely unaware of! Dogs have an incredible sense of smell, and so sniffing all the lamp-posts and street corners is their equivalent of Facebook! Try not to rush them along, but give them plenty of time to sniff and take in all that information. It may not be physically tiring for them but it’s a mental work out, which is just as valuable!

Many dogs are uncomfortable meeting others when they are on the lead. This is very common, as they feel trapped and realise they have no way of getting out of a situation. If you want to let your dog approach another on its lead, then always ask the owner first, but often it’s best to stick to off lead interactions.

If your dog encounters another, on or off lead, and you are not sure how they will react but they are currently not behaving aggressively, then try not to speak or interfere at all – just watch. So often we can inadvertently make things worse by calling our dog away, or tugging on the lead, and that can add to the tension and spark off an incident.

Above all get out there and enjoy sharing a lovely walk with your dog!


A bone of contention!

Many people feel that they ought to be able to take an item from their dog or its bowl, with no resistance.
I commonly hear that people have been advised to remove food from their puppy’ s bowl to “train” the puppy to accept this, and so owners carry out this advice with perfectly good intentions.
Sadly this will actually teach a puppy the exact opposite – that an owner may randomly take away a valued resource (food) at any moment and so the food bowl must be protected!
Much better advice is to never take food from a puppy’s bowl, but rather add to it. As you walk past drop in an extra kibble, or tasty treat, and your dog will start to associate you being near its bowl as a positive thing. You won’t be a threatening presence and there will be no reason for them to feel defensive.
Being able to take items from your dog is an important capability, but it should be taught in a positive way. This involves teaching a “drop” command. This can be done when your puppy has a toy in its mouth, hold up another toy in one hand and a treat in the other. As they are dropping their toy say “Drop” and give them the treat and praise. They can then have your toy and when they have gone off with it, pick up the toy your dog dropped. Over time your dog will learn that the command “Drop” happens when they relinquish something, and that it is a happy event. Don’t forcibly remove items from your puppy’s mouth as it may make them feel threatened, and less likely to let go!
If your dog is already aggressive around their food bowl, or items they value, don’t start training without talking to a behaviourist first. Give your dog plenty of space when eating and remove all contentious toys, until you’ve received advice specific to you and your dog.

A vet and a behaviourist?

You do behaviour? I thought you were a vet?!

It used to be that animal behaviour was not the preserve of veterinary surgeons – vets dealt with the body and it was up to others to deal with the mind.

However in reality there is no clear distinction between mind and body, they are inextricably linked. How do you know that your animal is in pain? They can’t speak, you can tell by watching their behaviour. They become withdrawn, they stay in bed, they may be reluctant to be touched and you recognise that change in behaviour as being due to pain. In reality vets have always been reliant on interpreting behaviour to reach diagnoses. Thankfully now the importance of behaviour, as a reflection of mental state, is being appreciated, and increasingly vets are taking a role in this critical part of an animal’s welfare.

The privilege of having veterinary training as well as a behavioural qualification is that it enables you to look at the whole picture. Life isn’t simple and often an unwanted behaviour isn’t due to only one factor. There may be multiple elements to consider – changes in household, underlying temperament, past experience, as well as concurrent medical conditions such as osteoarthritis or diabetes. Addressing any one factor in isolation may not be enough to help with the problem, but consider the whole picture and you are in with a chance.

So yes, I am a vet and a behaviourist. Unwanted behaviours can have a real impact on the quality of life of a pet and their owner. Sadly many pets are rehomed, or even euthanised, due to behavioural problems, and so if this can be prevented it is a role I am proud to have.