The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday

Turn your problem pooch into a top dog

Poor canine behaviour can be improved by training at any age – but owners need to take the lead, says Jack Rear


Much has been made in recent years about the supposed “madness” of certain breeds, particular­ly poodle-crosses, and how difficult they are to train, but Emma Wakefield, assistant manager in charge of behaviour at Dogs Trust Leeds laughs off the suggestion. “In my experience it really depends on the individual dog rather than the breed,” she says.

“It’s always a combinatio­n of genetics, personalit­y, and what their owners do with them. Generally dogs tend to be boisterous if they’re not getting much of an outlet via training; then they end up being full-on when you do interact with them.”

In short: don’t call your dog mad because you haven’t trained it.

One reason owners give up dogs is because they’ve become unable to handle them. At Dogs Trust in Leeds it is then up to Wakefield and her team to unknit those problems and get the dogs ready to find a new home.

“We start with a five-day assessment period,” she explains. “There are a couple of days to settle in, where we spend time getting to know them and what prior training they’ve had. From day

‘They have missed out on socialisin­g in lockdown, so we’re seeing a lot more nervous, worried dogs’

three we’ll look at them around other dogs and start observing their reactions to what they see out and about.

“On day five they have a formal assessment where we see how they are being left alone or meeting new people. It’s about seeing how they react in certain situations and seeing where they might need a bit more support.”

The most common issues Wakefield encounters in her charges are separation anxiety (hardly surprising, under the circumstan­ces) and fear of other dogs or unfamiliar people. Others include boisterous­ness, fear of loud noises, refusing to be recalled when walking off-lead and other training issues.

The first step to resolving such problems is a trip to the vet. While it might not sound like a preferred activity for most dogs, it can make a world of difference. “Medical conditions can play into behaviour problems and vice versa,” says Wakefield. “For example, a dog who is a bit arthritic might be in pain if another dog bumps into them, then start to associate other dogs with pain. That’s where a behaviour problem can intensify.”

Once any medical issues are understood and treated, the next job is to find out the best way to motivate the dog. Just like humans, different dogs are more or less prepared to work for different rewards: some might go the extra mile

for a cube of cheese; another may prefer a chance to play with a favourite toy.

In Wakefield’s experience, food is generally the way to go, so she often has a pocket full of cheese, ham or beef. “Offer a selection and see what they go

for, then repeat the process several times and look for patterns,” she advises.

From there, the core tenets of training are desensitis­ation and countercon­ditioning. “A desensitis­ation programme involves carefully and gradually exposing the dog to the thing they’re worried about,” she explains. “If it’s other dogs, we might station one in the distance and make sure the dog we’re working with is comfortabl­e, but has noticed there’s another dog there.”

Counter-conditioni­ng is about pairing the thing the dog is worried about with a treat. “If you give them a highvalue treat in the presence of whatever is scaring them, as long as the dog is at a comfortabl­e distance from whatever that is, over time, with many, many repetition­s, you start to change their emotions from ‘Every time I see another dog I get worried’ to ‘Every time I see another dog, something nice happens’.”

Depending on how deeply ingrained or intense the behaviour is, the amount of time dogs need training for can vary. Generally it takes a couple of months to start seeing a difference, depending on how often they can be trained.

If owners pick up issues with their dogs’ behaviour, it will be easier to deal with if they start training quickly, Wakefield advises. But failing that, it turns out that you really can teach an old dog new tricks: “It’s just that if a dog has been feeling a certain way or practising a certain behaviour for a long period of time, it will probably take longer to undo.”

The number of dogs coming to Dogs Trust with behavioura­l and training needs has risen during the pandemic, says Kelly Walker, a member of Wakefield’s team. “I don’t think lockdowns have helped at all,” she says. “A lot of them haven’t had their normal puppyhood – they’ve missed out on that socialisin­g, visitors coming to the home and training classes – so we’re seeing a lot more nervous, worried dogs that haven’t had much exposure to the outside world coming to us.”

Still, the work that Wakefield and her team do has been shown to get results. Wakefield has particular­ly fond memories of Beth, a German shepherd who had been at the centre for several years, being rehomed and then returned several times due to her extreme anxiety. “She was very worried about unfamiliar visitors to the home; she would freeze

on walks sometimes and wouldn’t want to go any further because she was afraid; she was terrified of the vets,” Wakefield recalls.

In response, the Dogs Trust team came up with an extensive training programme incorporat­ing plans for when she was introduced to new people, confidence-building on walks and behaviour modificati­on at the vets.

Beth was rehomed just after the first lockdown and, despite some initial problems, the training programme and some patience from her new owners have made all the difference. Wakefield keeps up with Beth’s progress via Instagram and is delighted to see how relaxed and happy she looks nowadays. “She looks like a different dog to the one who was here,” she says.

Any owner who adopts a pet from Dogs Trust has access to the charity’s behaviour team and trainers for the entirety of the dog’s life: a vital lifeline to ensure that all the dogs maintain high standards and can continue to live happily and healthily, no matter what changes for them.

Wakefield often reminds owners to make sure they are helping their dogs. “If your dog is really boisterous when visitors come round, set them up for success by moving them into a different room while everyone is coming into the house and getting seated and settled, then bring your dog in,” she suggests.

“Always make sure you have something the dog finds rewarding in situations that are going to over-excite them. Redirect that energy: ask them to do something else, like sitting, and reward that behaviour. Instead of focusing on what you don’t want the dog to do, think about what you would like them to do and work on that behaviour outside of the really exciting, stressful situation initially. Then when you have a solid foundation, introduce them to the situation that is very, very exciting for them.”

It’s also important to remember that some behaviours owners find aggravatin­g, such as barking or digging, are just dogs being dogs. Rather than trying to train that out of them, it would be more effective to channel the behaviour into a more appropriat­e direction that is easier for owners to live with.

Another common mistake owners tend to make is punishing their dogs for bad behaviour. “It doesn’t work for effective long-term behaviour change,” says Wakefield, flatly. “Some behavioura­l problems stem from anxiety, so if you do things that increase anxiety. such as punishment­s, you run the risk of making the problem worse.”

‘If you give them a treat in the presence of what is scaring them, you start to change their emotions’

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Nursery class: Emma Wakefield puts a new student through his paces. It’s best to deal with behavioura­l issues early, she says, but all is not lost if your pet is past their first flush of puppyhood – it may just take longer
i Nursery class: Emma Wakefield puts a new student through his paces. It’s best to deal with behavioura­l issues early, she says, but all is not lost if your pet is past their first flush of puppyhood – it may just take longer
 ?? ?? Beth spent several years at Dogs Trust Leeds after being rehomed and returned, but after extensive training and patient new owners is ‘like a different dog’
Beth spent several years at Dogs Trust Leeds after being rehomed and returned, but after extensive training and patient new owners is ‘like a different dog’

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