Going Through the Dog Flap

Miniature Daschund on old man's lap

Smudge loves a cuddle

He yelps when going through the dog flap, but no, the yelping isn’t due to pain. Not only has the vet thoroughly checked little Smudge, but they have another identical dog flap in another door and he jumps through that happily.

Smudge lives with two other Miniature Daschunds – Ginny who is blind and fourteen-year-old Herbie who has just one eye and is deaf. Smudge, at only four, is the youngster.

The three beautifully behaved and friendly little dogs live with a couple who are well into their eighties.

The two issues I am helping them with is Smudge’s ‘refusal’ to go through the dog flap and his addiction to having toys thrown for him.

They have had dogs all sixty years of their married life and can’t remember having had similar problems with any of their other dogs. ‘Old-school’ methods aren’t working very well for Smudge who is a lot more nervous than the other two. Being told off really scares him.

The couple could soon see, as I demonstrated, just how modern reward-based methods provide us with the most efficient and kindest tools to use – and in this case, the fastest also.

Minitaure daschund with his shadow

Smudge – me and my shadow

Although the little dogs get treats, they are never earned. When they are asked to do something, it’s not rewarded. ‘Good Dog’ is thought to be enough. Smudge won’t come when he’s called and it’s not hard to see why. Not only is he not rewarded with something he values, but most times he’s called it is to go into the garden where the only way back indoors is through that dreaded dog flap, so in effect he is being called and then punished.

What has made him yelp in the past is that, to make him move, the lady has blocked his retreat with her foot and with no option but to go on through he cries in fear as he does so.

Firstly I had him repeatedly coming to me in the room where we sat. When I called him I let him know that he would always be rewarded with something tiny and tasty. He was becoming motivated.

Then we went to the dog flap.

I tied it securely open, looping string around the flap and then over the door handle. Asking the lady to stand well back so he had no fear associated with her, I shut the door with Smudge the other side, looking at me through the hole.

“Smudge – COME”.

I threw the food through the hole onto the floor in front of him. He ate it. After several repetitions, I called him and placed the food on the step of the flap itself. He ate it. Soon I was calling him in through the flap.

Miniature Daschund on her back for a tummy tickle

Ginny on her back for a tummy tickle

It took a while for him to go back out again, but by playing a game whereby I kept calling him through from one side to the other he was jumping through willingly and soon joined by Ginny. Twice he even knocked into the flap itself, but it didn’t panic him.

The next step was to call him through and for the lady call him back to her side. It was a little difficult to train her to use a sufficiently bright and encouraging voice but he was soon jumping through the dog flap for her too!

So, for this week my instructions are for the couple to simply leave the flap open all the time and the door shut. Smudge should then get very used to going through the hole.

When I go back in a week’s time I will lower the flap so it’s half-open by lengthening the string.

The obsessing over thrown toys should simple if the people are consistent. Smudge needs to go cold turkey. We lifted all the toys. The gentleman, unfortunately, has a degree of dementia and he simply forgets he shouldn’t be throwing.

They can sometimes initiate the game themselves but for no more than about five throws in succession so as not to feed the habit, and then put the toy away again.

Being unable to constantly ‘feed his toy-chasing addiction’ will leave a vacuum in Smudge’s life that they will fill by having a supply of Kongs to give him, ready wiped inside with a little paste or peanut butter – but of course not for throwing! This should keep him busy whilst also helping to keep his stress levels down.

Ten days later: Smudge is a happy dog! He now no longer avoids going into the garden because of the knowledge he’ll have to brave the dog flap if he wants to come back in! He was taking himself off to another room for much of the day rather than remaining with the others and he’s not done that since I left. After a week of the flap being tied open, I went back and played games with food and coming through the now closed flap. It seems the banging is what scares him, so I muffled it with Bluetak. It’s five days later and I have just spoken to the lady. He now comes through fine – still giving it a few nudges first.  We are counting the nudges. It took about fifteen before he would come through five days ago and now it’s down to about five. Soon he will be charging through I’m sure. It is surprising how this one thing was affecting the whole of the dear little dog’s life.

Really Bites Out of the Blue?

Last week three-year-old Cocker Spaniel Pete had been booked in to be putCocker Spaniel's behaviour had resulted in an appointment to have him put to sleep, now cancelled to sleep.

Fortunately the lady phoned me first. Her dog had bitten her quite badly and it wasn’t the first time. She told me the many time he bites out of the blue – for no reason at all.

I suggested that she asked her vet to give Pete a thorough check including bloods and a physical examination to rule out pain and any other condition that could make him have a short fuse. Unfortunately the vet refused, saying he could see the dog was fine and then gave confusing and outdated behaviour advice.

Pete was jumping at me and grabbing my sleeves as I walked in the door. He does the same with the lady. Yet – if she steps on him by mistake, tries to touch his feet or, as she did once, tripped and fell by him, he bites her.

Should not respect for personal space go both ways?

All the bites and near-bites she listed for me can actually be explained. Most were around resources of some sort and the others around Pete’s not wanting to be touched or moved. There is a strong suggestion that at least a couple of those could involve pain of some sort.

Positive reward-based methods aren’t just some modern fad but based on sound scientific research described in all the up-to-date literature, yet still some people hang on to the old notions.

I would agree in principle that the lady should take control of her dog and be ‘in charge’, but that doesn’t mean acting like a ‘dominant Alpha’ which would undoubtedly make things far worse.  In fact, guarding behaviour often starts when people take the puppy’s food away to show ‘who’s boss’. Why do they do that! If he thinks you’re about to steal his food, wouldn’t it actually cause food guarding?

Leadership as in good parenting means building a bond of understanding and mutual respect, whereby the owner is the provider, the protector and the main decision-maker. All this is done kindly using praise and rewards, being motivational so that Pete is willing and cooperative.

I demonstrated the power of food while I was there, showing the lady how to use a clicker and chicken to get Pete eagerly working for her. What a gorgeous dog.

Nearly all conflict between owners and dogs is so unnecessary because dogs so love to please if they are rewarded and appreciated – just like ourselves.  This isn’t bribery.  At the end of a consultation when I’m paid, have they have bribed me to do my job? No. I willingly and happily do my work for them, knowing I then receive my earned reward – payment.

Unless Pete is vet-checked properly we can’t rule out anything physical and invisible, but all the same it usually is very much a relationship issue too when a dog bites out of the blue. It would be a tragedy if Pete’s life were to be ended when with consistent, kind boundaries and getting him to earn much of his food in return for cooperation and learning things, the lady could slowly gain confidence in him.

It will take time.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Pete, which is why I don’t share all the exact details of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).


Little Dogs and Too Much Barking

Poodle sisters Squirrel and Teddy

Squirrel and Teddy

20-month old Poodles Squirrel and Teddy were joined a couple of months ago by little Westie/Bichon cross Lily who is now 5 months old.

Their family runs a children’s nursery. As our meeting progressed, they kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this is just the same as we would do with the children. Why didn’t we think of that’?

Instead, they had been reading books and stuff on the internet. With so much conflicting information it’s not surprising that some of it was a bit unwise – stuff to do with dominance and trying to stop behaviours they DON’T want, rather than positive reinforcement for behaviours that they DO want.

Too much barking

The problem manifests as much too much barking. The Poodles were not too bad until Lily joined them. Lily barks and reacts to everything. Little sounds outside, birds in trees, animals on TV, other dogs and nearly everything when out on walks, and in the middle of the night the sound of one of the cats walking over the floorboards outside the room.


All three dogs charge down the stairs barking, they charge out into the garden barking, they suddenly rush around the house barking at a sound. Teddy barked persistently at me when I came, obviously fearful. The two Poodles had a little spat as a result of built-up stress. We worked out a strategy for Teddy’s lady owner to take control of the situation and then we tackled his fear using food.

There are quite a few ways that the barking opportunities can be reduced through simple management and then they need to approach the problem differently. If more doors are kept shut the dogs can’t charge around the house like a noisy doggy whirlwind. They agreed that their usual ‘Be Quiet’, ‘Shh’ and getting cross simply haven’t worked. In fact, saying ‘Shh’ while the dogs are actually barking is probably labelling the noise with ‘Shh’, in effect telling them to bark and not to be quiet! ‘Shh’ needs to label NO barking for a long time before it can be effectively used to mean ‘be quiet’.

Each time the dogs start barking they need reassurance that there is nothing to be alarmed about because the owners take charge of the situation.

Using food

too much barking


The humans are missing big opportunties by not using food.  Jean Donaldson in The Culture Clash says this:

‘Exploit the most potent motivator in animal training. If you have puritanical misgivings about food as a reinforcer, get over them and fast. He has to eat anyway. ….it is like saying, “Yeah, but if your employer pays you for working, won’t you always expect it?” ….. Suffice to say that you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you deprive yourself of food training and expect to compete with the rest of the environment using your personal charm only. (Food training) enhances your bond by associating you with one of the most potent reinforcers on the planet. The alternative to training with positive reinforcement is training with aversives (punishment). Choose and stop agonizing”.

So now the family will be concentrating on reinforcing the behaviour that they want and on dealing with unruliness, and Lily and Teddy’s fears in the same sort of way they they would children in their care.

Challenging Puppy can be Like Putty in our Hands

LabGSDSeventeen-week-old Poppy, a Labrador German Shepherd cross, is a very good puppy – just being a puppy! For instance, what puppy wouldn’t chase fluffy slippers (furry animals perhaps)?

I so love working with a challenging puppy and the magic of using positive methods – waiting for the moment she does what I want and immediately rewarding, whilst ignoring (giving zero feedback) the stuff I don’t want.

Walking nicely

Poppy is currently walked on a heavy chain lead attached to her collar (pet shop’s advice), because she grabs and chews through leads. She may go on strike, rolling about on her back or jump up to grab the lead. She will shake it and she won’t let go. Her walking isn’t great, but this is because she really has not been taught what to do. Being held on a tight lead teaches her nothing.

Getting a puppy to walk nicely is so easy if positive reinforcement is used – along with patience.

I put a Perfect Fit harness on her and attached a 6′ lead to it – with a section of very very lightweight chain at the bottom to protect my lead. I attached the lead to a ring on the front of the harness.

Positive reinforcement

To start with she jumped, grabbed and got excited. I ignored the whole thing and waited. Eventually the lead fell briefly from her mouth and I rewarded her immediately. Timing is crucial. I carried on ignoring jumping up and lead grabbing completely whilst immediately rewarding every release of the lead. Then we started to walk. I continually rewarded every instance of good walking whilst ignoring everything else. I waited. I encouraged her. Loose lead = reward. Tight lead = nothing.

In no more than ten minutes the so-called challenging puppy had lost interest in grabbing the lead and was walking beautifully around the house on a loose lead following me. I don’t require her to ‘heel’. We’re not doing competition work.

This principal works with everything though of course some behaviours can’t be ignored if dangerous or destructive. When this is the case bomb-proof recall is needed so instead a negative ‘no’ or ‘leave it’, we have a positive ‘come here and do this instead/give that to me’ followed by reward.


Puppies can be exasperating and we feel in order to discipline them we need to scold or punish when the opposite is so much more effective and in line with the principals of learning theory. Just as with a toddler, we avoid a lot of trouble by keeping certain things out of puppy’s range – rubbish bins, furry slippers, socks, flowing dressing gowns etc. It’s not for very long.

In their quest to do the right things, Poppy’s people have tried to sort through a mix of conflicting, old-fashioned mis-information from people they meet ‘who know all about dogs’ and from the internet.

They have done well with Poppy so far. She is house trained, she is very bright and she is brave and friendly. She is chilled with being left alone. Now is the time however to scotch habits that won’t be good when she becomes a large dog. Jumping up at people is one. Using her mouth and teeth, and barking to get attention are others. Finally, bad leash manners would be a proper battle when she got bigger.