Canine behaviourist and psychologist
Working with my rescue dogs in animal assisted interventions in schools and colleges.
Working with young adults who have autism, ADHD, anxiety, and other non-typical neurodevelopmental disorders.
As we are all still dealing with the global pandemic, the anticipated rise in dogs ‘not being socialized’, and subsequent behavioural issues and dogs being relinquished to shelters has risen. But can we attribute this to the pandemic or are we using this as a convenient excuse to justify our own shortcomings. I can’t recall us ever not being allowed out of the house to exercise and walk the dog during all of the lockdown periods. So, why do I hear so often that dogs are not socialized due to lockdown? You don’t have to go to groups or busy areas to socialize your dog, there are plenty of opportunities to socialize your dog whilst adhering to any government restrictions.
If your dog misses out on the critical socialization period, you can’t just ‘get it back’ at a later date. Missing out on key socialization may impact on your dogs behaviour and welfare, for their lifetime. Dog guardians are then faced with the prospect of commiting time and finances to treat their dogs behaviours, some of which may have to be managed for the lifetime of the dog. Many families cannot or will not do this and sadly the dogs are relinquished or even euthanized due to being incorrectly labeled as ‘aggressive’ or having undesirable behaviours.
As a behaviourist I can’t help but wonder if as an industry we did enough to support vulnerable families with dogs during the pandemic. The pandemic has created a generation of dogs that may have poor socialization skills and this may have a much wider and longer term impact on future dog generations, including health, increased euthanization rates and poor breeding programs. In some cases these dogs many of whom have long term behavioural issues that require lifelong management have been bred for profit, during lockdown. So, the impact of poor socialization during Covid may take several generations and a greater focus on moral and ethical breeding before we begin to see cases reduce.
Covid 19 has undoubtedly led to an increase in relinquishments and poor socialization related behaviours however, we have also contributed to this rise. Unethical impulse buying of puppies to keep the family company during lockdown, and their subsequent relinquishment because the family are back in work, or they didn’t realize the care needed for a puppy. Constant bombardment and scaremongering from the media and social networks during the pandemic led many dog guardians to stay indoors and be frightened of taking their dogs outside, missing out on that critical socializing time period. As much as my article has highlighted our own shortcomings, I do believe we can learn from these experiences and be better prepared to care for the long term welfare of our dogs in the event of future protracted lockdown periods.
Angus is a rescue dog from Cyprus who was left to die on the streets and when rescued weighed less than 17kg. As a result of his poor start to life Angus has underdeveloped muscles on his back legs. Despite his poor start to life Angus has a strong connection with people and shows none of the psychological symptoms that some dogs who have had similar experiences may show when treated so poorly by humans. Angus has been with our family for three years and has been working with me in schools and colleges for the last two years. I am a canine behaviourist and psychologist and I work with Angus and my other dogs in schools and colleges. I have a particular interest in the science of safety and the role that our autonomic nervous systems play in processing our emotions. My transition to this form of work started when we did some voluntary work in a local nursing home and I had the opportunity to observe the joy and relief that Angus brought to the residents.
I have many fond memories of our visits to the nursing home and all of them were significant for the residents and staff that we spent time with. One particular meeting stands out to me and encapsulates the power of connectivity and positive reciprocity that dogs can bring to our lives. As we were walking through a corridor we walked past a resident who was sat relaxing in his chair. I think about this connection frequently and for me it is one of the most powerful examples of the lifelong positive memories that sharing our lives with dogs can bring to us.
Alone, far from home with a lifetime of memories. I sit here alone invisible to many, deep in my thoughts. Oh how I wish I was a young boy again, back in the emerald isles on the farm with my father. Such happy memories that I still remember after all of these years. Suddenly, I’m taken back closer to those times when I feel the familiar soft and wiry coat and the sound of a gently nuzzling dog. I open my eyes and I’m home back on the farm with my father on the emerald Isles. This gentle soul, who came over and nuzzled me, the same dog that my father and I had all of those years ago. I’m back with my father walking across the fields and through the meadows. I recall how my father wrapped the dogs feet in cloth to protect them from the frost. I lift my head, open my eyes and smile and I see those eyes, so gentle, so kind. Those soft, kind eyes that recognised the light in my soul and connected me with my life’s memories.
Anxiety and in particular social anxiety is sadly in my experience very common amongst students in secondary school education. If you are anxious you cannot learn and yet in the national educational curriculum little significance is put on this creeping epidemic. National focus in the UK like in many other countries is on results and not on the social and emotional development of the students. There is strong scientific data notably Blair & Razza, 2007 ; Elliott & Dweck, 1988; and McClelland et al., 2007 to hypothesise that, Self-regulation or the ability to regulate one’s emotions has been shown robustly to predict academic achievement over and above other child characteristics such as intelligence. I work in some amazing schools whose principals and staff provide caring, sensitive and understanding support for those students who are experiencing anxiety. These staff inspire me and give their all to help and support their students.
Struggling to process their emotions, being shutdown, withdrawn, feeling lost and abandoned are common experiences that many students who suffer from anxiety may encounter. When in such an emotional crisis engaging and connecting with people is so frightening, who should they trust and will they judge me? This is a short verse I wrote after me and Angus shared the experiences of a young student who was processing an emotional crisis.
Surrounded by noise which I can’t comprehend, I feel lost and without a friend. I’m worried that people will judge me and think that I’m just naughty. What I really need most is a friend that I can hug close, feel safe and connected with and share my innermost thoughts. I know people are trying to help me me, but sometimes people scare me, they just don’t get me. Playing with his ball happy and content, I notice Angus, smiling at me and I wonder, what would it take for me to feel such wonder. Suddenly there is a commotion, Angus has lost his ball and I see the look of sadness in his eyes. I’m shutdown and withdrawn how can I help him? From within me I feel the rise of empathy, should I wait or intervene, I can see Angus getting anxious and I know what that may mean. I fight through my foggy feelings of disconnection and move to retrieve Angus’s ball, the look on Angus’s face, those eyes they say it all, they have rescued me from my inner turmoil.
This behaviour initiated a connection between the student, Angus and me and through working together sensitively and compassionately the student began the transition from being withdrawn and disconnected to socially engaged and connected to others. I met the student again later that same day and they had drawn a picture of Angus which they gave to me. I found this so humbling and emotional and it made me pause and consider what a significant impact Angus had had on this student in such a short space of time. I feel privileged to have shared this experience with another.
Children learn and retain more about subjects that they have an emotional investment in and in our classroom work Angus has supported many students back into the classroom. To support these students and observe their self-confidence and self-efficacy growing in the classrooms really is inspirational. Students who, due to anxiety have been unable to participate in classroom learning have returned to the classroom with the support of Angus.
Not only does Angus’s presence support the student but it has a positive impact on the class, encouraging attendance, increasing learning, supporting positive connectivity and engagement throughout the lessons. When Angus walks through school there is a buzz of energy students call out to him and staff hug him, many say it’s the highlight of their week. There is a serious side to the work that we do and all of the skills that the students learn are transitional to the classroom and outside of school. One of the tools I use to to help the students transition these skills are desk cards, which the students use whilst in class as visual reminders of the key skills.
These slides of Angus have a dual purpose with the written content supporting emotional regulation. The images are centred on Angus’s eyes and they draw students in to help them remember those moments when they worked with Angus. Feelings of self-reciprocity are developed and the ability to recount those feelings is supported by these slides, in-between and after our sessions have concluded.
I’m going to finish this article with one of my favourite recent memories of an occasion when Angus helped a primary student who was suffering from an emotional crisis. and trapped in my inner world, I’ve got to get out. The need to survive takes me outside. Alone in my thoughts. Nobody who understands I’m in a state of shutdown, I can’t comprehend. Through the corner of my eyes I see a friend who, he understands me. He doesn’t judge me. He smiles at me and asks no favours. He is my fuzzy faced Angel .
Resource guarding is one of the sets of behaviours that can often carries a certain amount of stigma with it. Aggression of any type is considered in today’s society as not acceptable under the majority of circumstances, yet we put an incredible amount of pressure on our dogs to conform to our own individual cultural and moral influences and standards. Resource guarding behaviours can develop into what could be considered as aggressive behaviours and as such people often feel embarrassed, frustrated, ashamed or to self-conscious to seek the early intervention treatment that is required for this behaviour. If we consider the evolution of dogs, resource guarding would have been a natural and necessary behaviour in order to survive, but surely not necessary for domesticated dogs? Behaviours can be influenced by many factors including, genetics, breed, early life experiences, personality, learning and cognitive styles. Resource guarding is not in my experience more prevalent in rescue dogs and I have three rescue dogs myself. Two of whom were starved and whom you may consider to be at higher risk of displaying guarding behaviours however, they do not. The third a Cocker Spaniel called Ralph was brought from a breeder by his original family and had a good start to life however, he developed an extremely high level of space and people guarding to the level that unfortunately escalated to biting his human guardians. I have worked with many dogs who have presented with resource guarding types of behaviour and in the majority of these cases a combination of early intervention measures, good environmental management, understanding the behaviour and a bespoke treatment program have provided positive results. Resource guarding can develop at any age, in any dogs whether they are from a breeder or a rescue, it does not distinguish between purebreds and mixed breeds.
Growling, stiffening, staring and tensing of the body, showing of teeth, snarling, barking, whale eye, lunging and even biting are all behaviours that are commonly associated with resource guarding and when you observe them can be extremely worrying. In your dogs eyes these are all perfectly natural and reasonable behaviours designed to communicate “Back off” and if you don’t back off I’m going to escalate to the next level. This is much the same as we may interact with somebody who was threatening us, we would start with a low level response and if that didn’t work we may escalate to the next level. Dogs can guard anything and some of the most common types are food, object, location, owner, or a combination of these. There are lots of methods that you can use to help prevent any guarding behaviour however, taking their food away whilst they are eating to ‘test’ the dog is in my opinion a totally unreasonable behaviour and one which would be more likely to encourage the behaviour then reduce it. Imagine you had sat down for your tea and as you were enjoying it somebody came up, pushed passed you and took your meal away, frustration and confusion, leading to emotions such as anger or fear developing. And then this continued every time you had a meal, every day. If I thought that everytime I had food somebody would come and take it I would naturally be on my guard at meal times and this may also develop into other areas, exactly the same as your dog may feel and respond. Resource guarding is not exclusive to dogs and in my work with vulnerable children in schools I have observed children getting upset when they have to share working with the dog, walking away, isolating, pacing, elevated breathing, showing hostility to others and verbally pleading to keep hold of the dog. These children may have never had access on their own to such a wonderfully stimulating engagement as with a dog and so for them this is a perfectly natural response similar to how your dog may respond who has resource guarding behaviours. But we don’t give up on the children and label them untreatable, and so we shouldn’t blame and give up on our dogs.
It’s not in uncommon to find that dogs with these behaviours may also show a higher tendency to be uncomfortable with certain kinds of body handling and sensitive to touch. Many of the dogs that I have worked with have shown symptoms such as submissive urination, shyness or lack of self-confidence, which gives you some idea of both the physical and psychological impact the behaviour has on your dog. Ralph my rescue Cocker Spaniel came into my care through a rescue that I worked with and to be honest I don’t think anybody who had previously met Ralph ever thought that he would be re-homed, and his future looked very bleak. Ralph is a healthy two year old male Cocker Spaniel and has no underlying medical conditions which may have influenced his behaviour. In Ralphs case stability, trust and security were needed, he needed to have a home where he was safe and with someone who understood him, his behaviours and whom he could develop trust and a bond with. Ralph wasn’t born with resource guarding behaviours which developed when he was approximately 12 months of age. So, how did a fit and healthy pedigree dog such as Ralph suddenly develop these behaviours?
Boredom, lack of guardian understanding, breed inexperience, poor training and lack of mental stimulation are all factors that contributed to Ralphs guarding behaviours and could have been treated and managed better with early intervention. If you think that your dog is showing signs of resource guarding it’s important to seek immediate support from a behaviourist. Feelings of failure, embarrassment and frustration are common for dog guardians whose dogs show these behaviours and many people may wish to deal with it themselves for fear of being labelled a ‘poor dog guardian’ Resource guarding behaviours do not just go away, it’s not something that your dog will grow out of, it is in fact the very opposite. A common scenario is the dog that guards their food bowl and anytime that you walk near them whilst eating they growl at you, so you back off. From your dogs perspective this is exactly the response from you that they were looking for, creating and maintaining space between the guarded bowl and you. If as in this case your dogs behaviour strategy is successful then each repetition of the behaviour will reinforce it, and so your dog will naturally continue with the behaviour. The function of your dogs behaviour is to keep you, a potential threat to their resource ( food) away from them. All organisms including humans and dogs are biologically set up to repeat behaviours that provide positive outcomes and not repeat those that don’t, so if growling at you works when you approach the bowl, then that behaviour will continue to do so the behaviour is reinforced each time that they do it.
So, your dog growls at you when you approach their food bowl what do you do? The most common responses to this question are “Stand my ground”,”move away” or ‘I’m going to show them who’s the boss and walk closer and take their food away”. As a strategy for treating guarding behaviours all of these responses will reinforce and in the case of ‘showing them who’s boss’ escalate guarding behaviours. The most effective immediate measure if you discover that your dog is guarding is to give them space, avoid direct eye contact and back off. If you walk into your bedroom and your dog is on the bed where they are not allowed and they growl at you as you approach them, leave them and walk away, do not challenge them. Don’t say anything to them, don’t shout at them or show anger in your face just turn around and walk away. This is not a sign of weakness or defeat but a common sense approach to ensure the safety of both you and your dog. If your dog is guarding items that are safe then I would adopt the same strategy to begin with however, there may be circumstances where your dog has an item which is dangerous and you need to retrieve it from them. Remain calm, don’t shout or chase your dog and use a high level trade off to safely retrieve the guarded item. This is why early intervention is so important for a positive prognosis, you could very well be reinforcing the behaviours that you are concerned about and putting your dog and family at unnecessary risk. The bored Springer Spaniel who hoarded batteries, socks and shoes as this was the only way he could get any engagement with his guardian, resulted in the dog biting its guardian whom had taken the approach of challenging the dog when he had taken a shoe. “The dog has plenty of space to roam around the garden and has other dogs to play with” was in the guardians view sufficient activity for a young and healthy Springer Spaniel. This dog has with careful treatment and management reduced its guarding behaviours to the level that he has now settled into a fantastic and forever family home.
Dogs like humans are susceptible to behavioural changes throughout their lives, ageing, illness, change of environment and diet can all play a significant factor in the development of new behaviours. Whether you are rescuing a dog from kennels or purchasing a puppy you should all integrate some basic guarding prevention techniques into your new family members daily routine. These techniques are also a great form of mental enrichment for your dog. Drop it, leave and wait are three good exercises to begin with. I live in a multi dog household and management of the environment is key to maintaining a harmonious group, and this should also be applied to single dog households. Ensure you don’t leave food out, children’s toys or any other items on the floor or within reach of your dog, have a clean floor policy. Stop unsupervised access to high risk areas such as the bedroom or furniture. Chew or toy exchanges, food bowl bonuses, bone sharing, bite inhibition training, situational awareness on walks to avoid having to retrieve items from your dogs mouth are all techniques that could work as part of your dogs training program. I am a big fan of mental enrichment and a good mental enrichment and physical enrichment program will also help reduce the probability of your dog developing any guarding behaviours. Grazing style feeding or just leaving a bowl of food down for your dog to graze at throughout the day is a common method for delivering food. However, its a method that I do not recommend as it may lead to your dog guarding the food or feeding areas, it is also not great for your dogs digestion or bowel movements. If you have a dog that resource guards do not panic, there is help and support out there for you and I would recommend that you seek immediate help in the first instance from your vet to make sure their are no pain related issues and then a behaviourist, who will work with you and your dog. The sooner the intervention and barring any medical issues the better the prognosis in the majority of cases, the behaviour will not just go away. I am not aware of any specific data that records the number of dogs that have been diagnosed with resource guarding behaviours within the UK and any data would in my opinion not represent a true reflection due to the stigma attached to the behaviour and reporting it. From my own perspective I have had the pleasure of living with many dogs throughout my life and only two have shown resource guarding behaviours, one mild and one serious, and both of those dogs have gone onto live wonderful and enriching lives within a family environment.
This morning I had the pleasure of observing a wonderful male Bullfinch in the garden busily hunting for food for his young family. I’m fortunate enough to live in an area where I am surrounded by nature however, there is something special for me when I see a Bullfinch. Both males and females are magnificent birds, once driven to near extinction by humans but happily can now be seen in many places throughout the UK all year around. You may wonder why a dog behaviourist and psychologist is writing about this subject, but for me there is a direct link between dogs and the wider natural world that we live in. I grew up in the seventies an era before computers and mobile telephones, a time when play was outdoors and we used our imagination, curiosity and creativity to embrace our environment. I would do anything to avoid coming into the house especially during the long school summer holidays.
Interacting with a dog is for many children and those of us that live in cities and urbanisations an important link to nature and gives us the opportunity to exercise our senses. Touch is an important aspect for communication and there is research to suggest that adult primates become more aggressive when touch is not used, touch is also an important way of making up. Think about a handshake or a comforting embrace and how important these are to our own communication repertoire. In the present climate many of us are finding it challenging to be unable to visit our loved ones and embrace them. Calming touches with your dog increase the oxytocin levels in both you and your dog, helping to improve mood levels and promote relaxation. When you touch your dog you are using many skills including observation, concentration and focus without which a mutual touch, may become non-mutual. These are important skills and ones which as a child I was encouraged to develop by my parents. As a child in the seventies I lived in a mid sized town in a terraced council house, with no immediate access to natural wild areas to explore. However I remember fondly playing in the garden in the dirt observing earwigs and ants and other wonderful insects playing out their lives in a kind of natural soap opera. As I grew older I began to explore further afield and I remember playing in a local river looking for stickleback fish, frogs and birds such as herons and jays. I even went for long bicycle rides to the local forest with my sister, such was the draw to nature even traditional sibling rivalries were put to the side, for the opportunity to spend some time outdoors.
I was fortunate to be brought up around dogs and my parents had many different breeds from mixed rescue breeds, Afghan hounds to Chow Chows and I still fondly remember the dog in the picture above, Zak our purple tongued Chow Chow. Dogs create so many happy memories even at a very early age that last a lifetime. Giving children the opportunity to work or live with dogs at an early age will develop a life lasting respect for animals and the environment and form a social lubricant blueprint for their developing personality. Technology has introduced many positive developments into society and computers and mobile telephones are the most commonly used. These forms of technology allow us to contact our loved ones, provide easy access to research material and allow businesses to operate efficiently. But what they don’t do is provide the user with the type of sensory stimulation that working with a dog or observing wildlife does. Can computers and technology create the same type of memories that I have of a carefree and inquisitive boy who was encouraged by his parents to explore wildlife? When we buy cars we are asked if we would like to purchase entertainment systems to keep the children happy, what’s wrong with looking out of the window? Watching the landscapes change, different types of wildlife only found in specific locations and how suburbia blends into rural landscape. Looking out of the window is a great way to develop your focus, attention, creativity and imagination, and although an entertainment system is easy it will erode those wonderful senses that we have. To take a walk seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching costs nothing.
In my former role as a Police Officer I took part in an advanced driving course and one of the training methods we used was to give a full running commentary of what we observed, heard and anticipated, often at high speed and it was exhausting. I use this method when working with clients and their dogs who are developing their own environmental awareness skills and although tiring to begin with it develops your sensory skills to a high level. Technology can help us connect with nature by providing a vicarious view of it which can be shared, and I have used images of dogs and other animals myself on presentations to help reduce stress and anxiety amongst groups of students. But there is a difference between sitting in front of a computer and looking at pictures of animals and nature and getting out there and it shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to getting out there. Richard Louv in his book ‘Last child in the Woods’ highlights how our reduced time in nature can impact our children’s health. “As the nature deficit grows, another body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health” There is nothing quite as uplifting as sitting and watching groups of dogs play and as well as sharpening up your observation, attention and focus skills it is a great way to develop your understanding of dog behaviour. I have a bird hide at the bottom of my garden where I can sit and be amongst all of the wild birds whilst they feed. Its amazing to watch the different behaviours that the birds display from the gregarious goldfinches to the shy woodpecker and despite the bustling activity I find it extremely relaxing, a place of solitude, inspiration, healing and amazement at how wonderful nature is.
Touch is an important element of sensory function development that me and Angus work on with our students. A student asked me recently if they could touch Angus, they had never touched a dog before. This student is a quiet and polite student who has very low self-esteem and self-confidence and finds it very challenging to talk amongst groups of other students. Yet, such was the natural instinct and desire to touch Angus, he felt confident to ask to touch him. This type of work provides a bridge into the care and understanding of other sentient beings for many of my students, giving them an emotionally invested and meaningful relationship which optimizes their learning. This understanding develops into a wider understanding of the natural world that surrounds us, that every animal is important, feels love, sadness, pain and cares for their young just like we do. We are a society dependant on technology its part of our culture, and even at a personal use level many of us could not imagine a world without it. Relying on technology alone to educate and entertain is dulling our natural senses, stifling our creativity and widening the gap between ourselves and the amazing natural world.
August 2018 at Gatwick airport was the beginning of a very special journey for our first rescue dog from Cyprus. This image is the moment that we first met Angus at the airport on that very special day and for me this image is so powerful, portraying feelings of safety, security, love, compassion and joy. I have thousands of pictures of my dogs which are all special to me but this one has a very special significance for Angus and his family.
I am often asked what special training Angus has had to fulfil his role as school dog and emotional support dog, and how he got into that line of work. It’s fair to say that Angus does indeed earn his own bone money. You could say that we are a natural partnership who are both sensitive to the emotional needs of others. Angus is my canine emotional regulatory partner and provides a natural ability to regulate the emotions of those he comes into contact with, and I am his human counterpart. Angus has the most amazing eyes which people are drawn to and one of the natural consequences of that is an increase in oxytocin levels, which make us feel all soft and warm. And of course this flows both ways so whilst you are feeling soft and warm so is Angus. I am a Canine Behaviourist and Psychologist with a particular interest in canine and human emotions and how we use them to communicate. You do not speak dog and your dog does not speak human so how is it that you get along so well? If you have ever sat in the company of other people who do not share a common language you will understand that it can be challenging, but not so with a dog. I’m a great believer in keeping behaviours natural so aside from some desensitization work at new venues Angus is encouraged to just be himself.
In 2018 a very dear friend of mine invited me and Angus to visit a local residential care home, to provide emotional support for the residents and staff . This was something that we had never done before and I must admit I found my own emotions needed constant regulation. The joy of bringing a smile to a face was jolted by discovering that a resident we had befriended last week had sadly passed away. The staff that work at this home and all others are very special people who I developed a huge admiration and respect for, and we are forever thankful for being given this opportunity. I’m going to let me dear friend describe her thoughts on Angus’s visits. “Angus’ visits to the nursing home were always a joy. He is such a gentle soul and as such brought a calmness. Residents could fuss him or he would lean over the bed to them. His presence had such a powerful and positive impact on resident’s mental health & wellbeing. He was able to help them to smile, laugh and also reminisce and chat about family pets of their own. Some residents have few or no visitors. Many residents are forced to rehome beloved pets when they enter the residential care system. Imagine the state of grief at having to sacrifice one’s independence, home and an animal you consider to be one of the family. Angus brought love to people. He greeted everyone with his gorgeous eyes shining and his tail wagging. Resident’s looked forward to his visits and spoke about it for days afterwards, asking when he was visiting again. Considering the most dreadful experiences Angus must have seen and lived through before coming to the UK, it is hard not to wonder if his forgiveness and empathy with people is felt by him and he reaches out to those who need him” (J Collingham: 2020). I found the experience of being part of such positive interactions life changing and so powerful . Nothing compares to the pure emotion, connectivity, empathy and love I experienced during our visits. It’s exhilarating and exhausting at the same time and whilst Angus just took it all in, I found myself needing quiet cuddles with Angus throughout the day.
Whilst working at St Joseph’s we were thrilled to be invited to work with a learner at the fabulous Landau training and enterprise centre in Stoke on Trent. This was the beginning of Angus’s journey working with vulnerable young adults and children and one which really influenced my decision to focus our work in this area. I am often asked if Angus is a PAT dog and although Angus of course does love cuddles, he is not a PAT dog. Angus provides bespoke emotional support and training for individual learners. Some of the key areas that Angus works in are developing social and cognitive skills, developing positive social cohesion, and developing emotional crisis intervention strategies for individual learners. I am a strong advocate of PAT dogs and they provide an amazing service to many vulnerable children and adults within our communities, many of the schools that I work in with Angus also have a PAT dog and this combination of PAT dog and Angus works very well. The Landau centre is an amazing place to visit and the staff and learners are all so positive and Angus really looks forward to his visits. Angus has made such an impact with our key learners self confidence that they have now gone onto work with two of my other dogs, a truly wonderful achievement. The development of the learner has been a privilege to observe and be part of and we are now looking to arrange work experience working alongside Angus and me in other schools. “Adam and his wonderful dogs are fantastic in working with vulnerable children, young people and adults. His participatory model of working ensures that he meets the needs of his customers and achieves positive outcomes. Words are not needed as his actions, active listening and the skilled use of his dogs is all that is needed. it is fantastic and refreshing to observe” (S Bradshaw: 2019)
One of the key components of our work is developing the learners self confidence and we do this by developing their ability to influence others through their own behavior. Sometimes the act of talking in front of others can be intimidating particularly if you have low self confidence. I often consider that to much talk can be confusing even if we share the same language so, imagine how confusing it can be for a dog. You don’t need to talk to influence others including your dog, vocalization is a very small part of our communication repertoire. I will never forget the look on one of my learners faces when by changing their own behaviour they influenced Angus to sit without saying a word, these moments are life changing for the individual learner and are the first step to developing their own self-confidence and esteem. A lot of the learners that I work with have autism, PTSD or are disengaged and have no sense of being. Many of them find it extremely challenging to meet new people and the thought of meeting me and Angus and working with us must initially have been a very challenging time for many of my learners. This is where Angus really does make a difference, dog’s have the ability to break down social barriers and in Angus’s case he has a fantastic ability to connect with the learners. Meeting me on my own may not have been possible, but having Angus with me enables the learners to connect with another sentient being, to care and love without the fear of being rejected or judged. ” Hi Adam I would like to let you know that my daughter says that she really enjoys working with you because you are easy to talk to and a good listener. She says that she can trust you and she feels safe when working with you. When working with the dogs she says you make her feel confident and that she’s doing a good job. She is also happy and excited to be working with you and the dogs on Fridays. I have to say that my daughter does not typically build relationships very quickly or easily, due to her autism, but I could see from the first time you met her that you got a response from her, because you had the dog with you, and made her feel good about her way with the dog. She really enjoys working with you and the dogs. Thank you for all you have done for her in such a short space of time” ( Anon:2019)
Whilst working at the Landau Training and Enterprise centre we were invited to work alongside a very talented colleague of mine with students at Wenlock School in Dudley. The opportunity to work alongside a very talented therapist with individual students is a real privilege and has allowed me to develop my own understanding of working with vulnerable persons, and how the development of human and dogs emotions run so parallel. Early life experiences whether through lack of appropriate care or abuse can be detrimental to the development of areas of the human brain that help us manage stress and anxiety and I believe that this is the same for dogs. Angus was abandoned on the streets of Cyprus and left to his own fate, starving and unloved until he was rescued by some truly amazing people. A story that sadly many of the students that I work with can personally relate to .The students that I work with understand and connect with Angus’s story and this is what makes a very special bond between them, unconditional love and the ability to begin to develop relationships with another sentient being without the risk of many of the difficulties of forming relationships with humans. One of the key success for Angus is his ability to work with students who have attachment disorders or are completely disengaged in the school environment. A continued inspiration for me is the joy and happiness of a student who was disengaged within the school environment, when he has a session with Angus. It’s amazing to observe how the student responds to Angus and how through bespoke exercises, engagement, confidence, happiness and joy develop. These are priceless moments, the first steps to help shape the students future, give them hope that they are indeed special and can achieve their own goals. “My son loves the work you and Angus do with him and it makes such a difference to the start of his week. I think your amazing and just wanted to say a big thank you” ( Anon:2020)
The next stage in Angus story was to begin working with students in a local academy initially on a one to one basis. Students with many of the same challenges that my other students have, but in a different environment. Ormiston Meridian Academy is an amazing school and the dedication of the teachers and staff is for me always inspiring. One to one training sessions went very well with similar results to my other students. Engagement, self- confidence, self- belief, social skills and communication were all areas that we worked together with the students. Some of the students really struggle in a classroom environment and this can escalate into an emotional crisis. The results of the emotional crisis could potentially include the student being removed from the class or even school and the disruption to other students and staff. I really enjoyed the one to one sessions and it gives the students the opportunity to develop a relationship with Angus, who would soon be supporting them in the classrooms. Having this opportunity to build a personal relationship with the school dog is crucial and allows the student and Angus to emotionally tune into each other in their own personal way which is mutually beneficial. The next stage was for Angus to work in the classrooms with the students and the aim of this was twofold . Firstly, to provide emotional support for the student, helping them self regulate and manage emotional crisis within the classroom, and to reduce the impact and disruption to other students and staff. Angus has been warmly received within the classroom and the overall feelings are very positive with increased attention, focus, concentration and engagement from all students .The other positive side to this is a reduction in disruptive interruptions by students increasing workflow and productivity within the classroom.
In the classroom Angus sits with the student, myself and a teaching assistant and we start with the positioning and contact between Angus and the student. Many students like to loop Angus’s lead through their hand whilst working, providing a safe attachment and link to security and emotional regulation. I liken this to being on a drip in hospital only this time it’s not intrusive and provides the student with a constant flow of emotional support. The emotional drip can be self regulated by the student from holding the lead when the student is feeling calm and relaxed to touching Angus when a higher dosage is needed. Some students are unaware of how their behaviour can influence others however, having the responsibility to care for Angus allows them to observe how Angus responds to their behaviour. A common example is the student who is caring for Angus who may be easily drawn into getting involved in disruptive behaviour within the classroom that has been initiated by other students. Any change in emotional energy by the student is fed to Angus through the lead and this will generally be observed with a change in Angus’s body position. From a relaxed and sleeping Angus, to Angus waking up and looking around towards the source of disruption. The student who is caring for Angus already has a good relationship with him and they recognise that if they raise their voices or energy levels he will become anxious, and so by focusing on Angus’s needs they make a conscious decision to not get involved in disruptive behaviour. We also have bespoke self- regulation methods for the students to help them recognise and manage emotional crisis’s, which include gentle brushing, breathing exercises, touch exercises which are all tailored for the individual student. This aspect of Angus’s work has been extremely successful and we are starting to see a reduction in classroom interruptions, classroom and school expulsions and higher levels of attendance. Classroom productivity levels are increasing and the classroom is a positive and place to be. A senior mathematics Teacher recently commented that when Angus was in the classroom he had had the best lesson that he had ever taught, a truly wonderful recommendation.” My daughter has been working with Adam, Angus and Chester for the past few months due to a range of emotional issues that both us as parents and her school pastoral team couldn’t seem to help with. In the time which she has been working with Adam and the dogs I have not only seen her confidence grow but also a change in her mental health. She has developed a range of coping strategies which she is able to use in a wide variety of situations and is now more settled within the school environment. My daughter looks forward to her sessions with Angus & Chester and for us as a family the benefit she is getting is invaluable. Thank you to Adam but also especially Angus & Chester” (Anon:2020)
From the very first time we met Angus he has been loving, extremely tactile and sensitive to his own and other emotions, a really wonderful dog. Thrown out on the streets to die he has with the support of many wonderful people found a new life in which he is loved and cared for. Early life experiences could understandably have shaped Angus to avoid humans for fear of rejection, but he has used those experiences to form an understanding and empathic bond with the students that he works with. Being part of this journey is such a privilege for me and I have never felt such euphoria as I do when Angus and a student make a connection for the first time. A buzz in the stomach rises through my body into my head and a feeling of immense joy, peace and togetherness washes over me. One of my new students told me recently that he had never cuddled a dog before and I have to admit this made me quite sad. The student is a kind and polite young man with low self confidence and it took a lot of courage for him to say that to me. Watching the student cuddle Angus was a moment that for me embodies what life is all about, respecting all life, empathy, understanding, sharing and recognising and embracing our emotions.
During a training session with one of my students the other day we observed that their dog was displaying a pattern of paw raises whilst we were working with them. This developed into a really interesting discussion about why dogs raise their paws and what purpose does it serve. Observing a dog can generate so much positive discussion and really help to engage the student. This led me to consider some of my own experiences of observing this behaviour. I must admit I’m not a fan of training a dog to paw raise in return for access to food or other reinforcing activity. Yes it’s a bit of fun and may look cute, but what purpose does it serve? Your dog already has a wonderful and natural ability to communicate with paw raises and we shouldn’t really need to muddy the waters by adding additional and unnatural paw raises for our own benefit.
When Ralph first came to live with us I observed that when I reinforced Ralph for a sit he would raise his right paw but when my partner did the same sit exercise Ralph would raise his left paw to her. I found it fascinating that Ralph could process the different emotions he was feeling about both of us and display a behaviour commensurate to his emotional state so rapidly. The right side of ours and our dogs body is controlled by the left side of the brain and the left side of the body by the right side of the brain, this is known as lateralization. The right side of our brain may be associated with negative emotions, like fear, anger or danger, the left side with positive feelings, like love, a sense of attachment, and feelings of safety and calm. Twelve months on and we do the same exercise and if Ralph does raise a paw to either me or my partner it is predominantly the right one. Knowing Ralph as I do know, it makes the alternate use of his paws when we first starting working with him understandable, he was very wary of strangers but was strongly attached to me. Your dog can also convey emotional states such as curiosity and anxiety, through paw raises and my young Spaniel Chester often uses paw raises when in new areas or in response to an unfamiliar noise or dog. I have two German Wirehaired Pointers who often point when they are curious and focusing on movement in the hedges, deciding what course of action to take next.
Dogs use their paws for many tasks such as holding onto a ball, pointing at prey or holding onto prey and you can discover if your dog has a left/right preference by observing which paw they use to hold items such as Kong’s. As you can see from the image of Angus above he is holding onto the toy using his left paw and he predominantly uses his left paw to grip and secure items. Another method you can use is to observe which foot your dog uses to step off with, do they lead with their right or left foot? You will need to do plenty of observations over a period of time before coming to any conclusions and in some cases you may find that your dog is bilateral using both paws equally. The use of the paw to communicate emotions will vary between individual dogs and within my own group of dogs three of the four use the paw in this manner, Anton being the only one that doesn’t. if your dog doesn’t do it it doesn’t mean that that they have no emotions or live in some kind of dog utopia. This is really interesting for me as Anton is the most timid of all of my dogs and can be wary of strangers and new environments, yet doesn’t use his paws to convey his emotions. He does however, show other behaviours that signify his emotional state so maybe his genetic code for this behavior has switched off as it was superfluous to his needs in his past life, culture and environment.
There is a lot of advice about the meaning of paw raises that you can find on the web but this can sometimes be confusing and misleading. Every dog is different and the behaviours that they do display will vary in degree and so we shouldn’t cover a repertoire of paw behaviours with one description or function. As with any type of behaviour you need to consider the context that it is displayed in and a left paw raise to signal negative emotions alone should not be construed as your dog is having a panic attack. If your dog does raise its left paw to signal some type of negative emotion consider the environment around you, could this be unsettling your dog? New places, meeting strange people, other dogs, sudden noises could all trigger a negative emotional response. You can also use the paw raise to measure how effectively you are communicating with your dog and the level of trust you have between each other. On the flip side observe any positive paw raises and note down the environmental conditions these were observed, could you use these same positive conditions and environment to train your dog in?
This is only a short insight into this fascinating topic and I hope that it encourage readers to observe their dogs behaviour closely and increase their understanding and knowledge. I get really excited when I work with students who observe behaviours such as this, and ask me, “What does that mean”? It opens up so many interesting areas to explore. The students that I work with now, will be dog guardians themselves one day and having the opportunity to develop their knowledge and understanding at this stage in their lives is one that I am extremely proud of. Early engagement with students and dogs greatly increases the welfare of the dogs and students, encourages positive social cohesion and develops social and cognitive skills. I work with some fantastic students who are so positively engaged with dog behaviour, and I am comforted to know that as I grow older there will be other like minded people out there caring for dogs with knowledge, compassion, trust and understanding.
Colin Groves wrote “Humans have undergone a reduction in environmental awareness parallel to domestic species and for exactly the same reason” Security has cost us a certain dulling of the senses, explaining that brain changes have caused in humans the decline of environmental appreciation” I can include myself in those of us that seem preoccupied […]
Colin Groves wrote “Humans have undergone a reduction in environmental awareness parallel to domestic species and for exactly the same reason” Security has cost us a certain dulling of the senses, explaining that brain changes have caused in humans the decline of environmental appreciation” I can include myself in those of us that seem preoccupied with our mobile phones, although I draw the line at using it whilst out with the dogs. How easy is it to walk from one point to another with your head buried in your phone and miss everything that’s going on around you. I remember as a child I used to enjoy looking out of the car window as my dad drove the car, appreciating the sites, sounds and smells. Nowadays we have television sets in cars for children to watch, blissfully unaware of the landscape and environment passing them by. During my service as a Police Officer I completed a six week advanced driving course, where we had to commentate on everything the environment presented and may present to us, as we hurtled along the road. This is extremely hard work and takes high levels of concentration and coordination. But, should it really be that hard?Have we become so safe in our environment that we just ignore it? I sometimes find myself feeling slightly uneasy if I leave my phone at home or in the car when I go into a shop. It’s like my umbilical cord, connecting me to life. Back in our cave dwelling days not paying attention to our environment would reduce our life expectancy considerably. The environment is all encompassing, powerful and influences our behaviour continuously every second of every day, yet we pay little attention to it.
The environment is such an important factor in behaviour but if you or your dog don’t fit in you are made to feel inadequate and odd, but are you really? I work with children who find it hard to learn in a school environment, dogs that have been told to leave puppy classes because they are disruptive, and they are all ostracised and made to feel as though something is wrong with them. If we or our dogs don’t confirm to what many perceive as mainstream or normal then we are labelled as different and in many cases suffer through lack of understanding. Who decides what is mainstream or normal? How can we manage the environment for our dogs if many of us struggle to notice what is going on around us? This feeling of safety has dulled some of our own natural and instinctive behaviours and what about our dogs?
When you go out for a walk next time mentally note to yourself details through the walk highlighting such things as the weather, is it raining, light conditions, temperature, mood of your dog, body positions, responsiveness, noises, traffic levels etc. Mentally note everything that is going on around you and how it is influencing you and your dog. This will be hard work and you will be flooded with information to decipher, you will be mentally tired. For the first week just focus on noticing what is going on around you. This will not only improve your own cognitive function but will develop a strong and trusting relationship between you and your dog. For the second week start to introduce what if’s, what am I going to do if a dog walks around the corner, or a lorry drives by? This exercise is particularly good for dogs who are sensitive to the environment such as other dogs and of course should be part of a comprehensive treatment program. Understanding and knowledge promotes better welfare.
Angus came to us in 2018 from Cyprus through the wonderful charity Rehoming Cyprus Pointers and has for the last twelve months worked with me in schools and colleagues. Autism, BPD, dissociation from self, trauma, PTSD from abuse and anxiety are some of the areas that we currently work within. Working with Angus is an amazing experience and despite his terrible start to to life he has a wonderful ability to connect with students. I have studied a lot of empirical and anecdotal evidence supporting the benefits of dogs within school environments however, none of this prepared me for the positive emotional impact of observing the impact Angus has with the students and staff for myself and sharing it with others.
I don’t have any children and did not have any experience of working with children or students before Angus joined our family group. Had I been asked to work in this area before Angus joined us I would have been terrified, lacking confidence and self- belief and unable to bridge the social gap between me and the students on my own. If I walk along a school corridor without Angus I am generally unnoticed by the students, but if I have Angus with me then we are like a social magnet, with groups of students wanting to touch him, and ask questions about him. Last week we began our classroom intervention work and the initial results were very positive. The student that I worked with remained engaged, completed more work and to a higher standard than previously achieved without Angus. It was also noticeable that the social cohesion of the class was enhanced and it was a happy environment to be in, commensurate to regulating the emotions of the students and thus reducing the impact of individual emotional crisis.
Every sessions that we have with the students highlights interactions between them and Angus that generate new behaviours from both student and Angus and form a continual learning pathway for all involved. This week we were working with a new student whom Angus had not met before and we observed a fascinating behaviour from Angus. The student and Angus were sat on the floor together engaging in play activities when Angus broke off, walked across to the other side of the room. He picked up his collapsible water bowl (emptying the contents onto the carpet), brought it across to the student and dropped it close to the student. At no point during any of the student sessions have we used this bowl for any exercises, and student shave never dispensed water in it to Angus . Angus had been drinking from this same bowl in its original location prior to the student coming into the room. So, why did he choose to pick his bowl up and move it closer to the student? Scientifically speaking this behaviour may be a one off, has not been measured and I can provide no data to support my theory. However, this should not detract from its powerful significance for all that observed it. If moving the bowl closer to the student provided no benefit to Angus then surely he wouldn’t have done it? The student was new to Angus and perhaps Angus recognised that when he left the student they became anxious? Bringing the water bowl closer allowed Angus to still drink but, stay closer to the student, regulating their emotions.
One of the students said to me yesterday “We are all animals, and we should not harm any other animals” This is such a positive statement to make from a young child who battles with their own challenges, yet still has time to consider how we human animals engage with non-human animals” In schools and colleagues teachers and staff work extremely hard to juggle the demands of the class, individual children, government and business objectives, but in my opinion cannot possibly manage the volume of young students who are dealing with emotional crisis’s in their lives. For a student who is disassociated and lacks self awareness walking with Angus can mean so much. So, from the streets of Cyprus, discarded like a piece of rubbish, emaciated and left to die Angus is bringing hope and happiness to the students and staff that we work with.