It’s crazy not to train in a safe, controlled environment!

Feb 12, 2017 |

For any animal to respond to given sign stimuli it must be behaviourally significant, and the discrimination in this test must be meaningful to warrant measurable behaviour response… (Shettleworth, 2010).

What this means for dog training is this: If a handler that has her dog restrained does not react to her dog’s unwanted behaviour (such as lunging, barking, jumping, etc.) the dog actually learns from this: Hmmm, I acted this way, thinks the dog, and she didn’t do anything! If the dog handler combines not reacting to her dog’s unwanted behaviour (and not allowing for self-rewarding) with rewards for good behaviour, the unwanted behaviour will eventually be extinguished and replaced with the happy alternative. As dog trainers, we must control the environment and how our dogs react in it.


The dog’s process of gathering information, attention, filtering, detection, discrimination or recognition is properly transformed into a meaningful neural signal – an effect on behaviour through a conscious decision, sign stimulus or in the case of social communication, that is a releaser. A dog’s sampling of the environment for significant stimuli – called scanning – is how he learns to do the things that bring you to dog training classes for help. I want to help you with your dog’s trial and error learning process so that you can better structure, influence, direct and support your dog to do the things that you prefer.

We might be reluctant to apply these principals to our Rovers and Betties, since we recall emotions of our own experiences of not been able to achieve something. But our emotions are hugely different from our dogs’. We are not as good at adapting to our environment as our dogs are; our survival mechanisms are nowhere as sharp as theirs, and adjusting to a situation is what survival instincts dictate.

For instance, a loving and caring new dog owner might be terrified of  putting a dog in a crate, perhaps, associating it with a jail cell that they’d hate to end up in themselves. Dogs, on the other hand, might just see it as a safe haven, shelter, their own property and a corner where their peace and quiet is unconditional. In this case, they can easily be conditioned to love being in one or going into it on a cue. Being restrained does not affect a dogs’ self-identification and therefore will not distress or upset the animal when used adequately, sensibly and responsibly.

Goal orientation guides dogs through their lives. So, the question for you as your dog’s handler is, what goal will be achieved with the right management? If your dog is destructive, for instance, examine his goal. It really isn’t to tear up the settee – it’s to burn off excess energy. So, if you burn off the excess energy before leaving your dog home alone AND block the dog being in the living room unattended, the behaviour will stop. The problems in caring for “difficult or troublesome” dogs is not with them but fully with us. We need to be in control of their immediate environment to guide them to act in a positive manner.

So, why do we need a controlled environment (CE) when dog training? Because it is simply THE ONLY CONDITION that makes it all possible. Plain and simple. There is no success in dog training without it.

There may be different ways to accomplish this – hence different training techniques by different trainers -but, a controlled environment is the basis of all solid training.

Let me explain. A rescue dog bites. So reward-based methods are applied to teach the dog to accept the objects of its aggression and / or perform certain actions in his presence (conditioning & counter-conditioning or Incompatibles – Diverted Behaviours – principles). All this works like a dream… until one day the dog bites a child or another passer-by because he has not achieved a 100% reliability / trust threshold. So, what happens next? The dog is PTS and every party involved is upset as a result of the incident (I’m inclined less and less to call it an accident and, instead, criminal neglect). I cannot over-emphasize the importance of a controlled environment in ALL circumstance, be the risks small, very small, or unpredictable. In 30 + years of working with dogs I can confidently say that I have seen it all. Things do go wrong and happen out of the blue.

And, I am not just talking about biting. Consider the puppy that jumps on a child who falls back and bruises his head. The puppy has been getting away with jumping on others and so does not distinguish between jumping on a child and an adult. Such cases cost tens of thousands to resolve and rarely have happy endings, even if they don’t make it to court.

Consider the dog that is allowed to eat anything it finds on the ground. One day this dog picks up that dooms-day object / substance that is not going to come out without an operation. If the dog and owner is “lucky,” the dog will live to eat something else off the ground and perhaps next time, may not survive.

Consider the dog that gets away with not coming back immediately when called.  One day, the dog gets hit by a car.  “At least I know he died doing what he loved best” is the worst and most tragic excuse for allowing such behaviour.

Controlled environment studies allow scientists to eliminate or at least reduce the uncontrollable influences of external, variable environmental parameters on their test objects. A controlled environment provides the perfect opportunity to determine and change whatever outside influence may affect the objects of their research. Dogs put in a similar lifestyle learn from the successes of their actions without having an opportunity to experiment or behave in the way that would displease the owner and society. This can, and should be applied to every dog and not just in his young age but throughout his entire life!

Dogs vary in their performance / command bank / reliability and vocabulary. But each one CAN live a safe and long life. As long as we learn to control the environment we bring them up in. Would you let your child walk across the busy road without holding your hand? Not till they are old enough, and self-composed to the point where you can trust them. Well, dogs never reach this point.

Training Tips

The snacker

Your pup would pounce on a piece of cheese given a chance to do it? There’s an easy and quick way to remedy this. Leash your dog with a housetraining line. Hold it in one hand, while with the other hand you place a treat on a plate in the middle of the room. When your pup attempts to pick it up, tighten the line so that he can’t reach it.

Your trainee will go for it again. How many times? Depends on the tenacity of the dog but not many. The “world record” in my practice belongs to a Golden Retriever who tried to get to a tennis ball 14 times in a row without any respect for the line that held him back. But then even he had enough. Why? He learnt to pause and think. With a bit of work he learned to not chase joggers, and not to snatch carry-bags of picnickers in parks and open spaces.

The jumper

I’m working with a young Labrador who is a determined “jumper”- no person goes passed him without taking a set of his paw-prints with them. How cute – most say. But, I do not find it cute. He has been walking with a lunging rein (long leash) attached to him for two walks per week that we get to walk him, and guess what? In just two weeks, he believes that the park visitors are off limits.(I also have to add that the abundance of training stimuli together with the dog’s ability to react at his own will, such as being on a loose lead or in a free-run in a paddock, etc. is an absolute must.)

The un-socialised

A Japanese Akita girl used to dislike dogs and would take a shot at a passing pooch just for the sake of it. Over the years of not been taking out regularly or socialised this habit got stronger and she became even more difficult to take out than ever before. End of career? Nothing wrong with those old habits, is my opinion. But there’s always room for new ones. So after a few weeks in a muzzle and on the lead the dog learnt to accept the others around her, both dogs and humans alike. Two years later and she mixes well with 30 dogs at a time and would occasionally tell off an overly-annoying or over-sexed dog, but who wouldn’t? I am with her on this. No muzzle used any more, and no damage done in years!

The destroyer

Says the owner, “Oh, I love this dog and would do anything for him. He’s destroyed my house though, as he seems to have such a strong separation anxiety!” Please do not confuse this so-called anxiety with the actual neurological disorder that would require serious medical attention. Fortunately, such anxiety is extremely rare. How do I handle such a dog? When such a dog is living with me, he is properly physically and mentally stimulated and closely supervised spending the unsupervised times in his crate in the living room. The result is he will play when being played with, chills when we have human company, and sleeps when left alone. .

The chaser

“Oh, this will be interesting!” says the owner of a rather boisterous Airedale when she drops him off to stay with me. She had just noticed the cat in my house. “He chases cats, and, I think, would kill one given half the chance”. Well, no such luck at my house. The dog was thus tethered for a few days to start with, and now happily lazes on the couch with my cat, as he has reached that point where chasing the cat just isn’t happening, however hard he tries.

The aggressive

“I wouldn’t leave my boy with your children alone” says one owner of a boisterous Rottie. Wow, genius! Who would? I love that dog, and he’s done terrifically, but after trying to attack the world around him for about 18 months of his previous life, he’s just a bit too much pre-determined to do whatever is still not covered with training. No, we practice safety at all times and rotate when dogs and children are allowed to visit.

The bed wetter

One family I know has a dog that constantly wets their marital bed and chews up the bedroom. I think you already know the answer to his one. Restrict the dog’s access (by just shutting off the door) and then expand the boundaries gradually, leaving some permanent “off limits” rules and zones. Always think one step ahead and act in preventative manner rather than by catching up with the waves of destruction caused by your unruly hound.

Proactive training works and is the safest way to go. After all, once a child has been bitten, you can only be reactive, and then it’s too late. No but’s and no if’s.


Do I live under a glass cupola? I do not! I have spent hours, thousands of pounds and lots of nerves proofing the barriers to make my sphere – my environment – as safe as possible. Does this mean I am safe? No, of course not. And this is what can cause us grief at times. I can only control my end of things. Case in point. A year ago one of our dogs was brutally attacked and killed by an uncontrolled rescue dog. The owner in charge of him ignored the advice to replace the collar, to train or socialize his dog and to keep it under control. He approached me when I wasn’t prepared for him.

The owner gave up his dog up that very day, so he caused not one, but two deaths that day. I held both dogs in my arms later on that day upon their deaths. This is what truly makes my blood boil and saddens me deeply: Having an aggressive dog is never a crime – letting that dog act on it certainly is! I deal with such dogs all the time, and most make it. All it takes is the owner who commits to the dog and wishes to learn. That one didn’t, and what killed those dogs was the lack of a controlled environment.

Anyhow, you’d want to talk about lure-training, shaping using dog clicker or capturing behaviours to widen your dog’s vocabulary to the point when it amazes your friends. And this is all the happy side of dog training. The actual training! Exciting, challenging and incredibly rich and filled with content. I love doing it, but would never set off on a wobbly platform. So, create an environment where your dog would benefit from any additional improvement, be it training (learning, conditioning, reinforcement) or habituation. Either way the dog will be improving, and soon begin to surprise you by the skills you planted flourishing and giving fruits of your labour. But doing it please make sure you do it on a solid foundation of proper management of a controlled environment.

Here’s another model of how things should be between you and your dog: if you are investing in it’s good manners and long happy life, make sure the voluntary repertoire / forced behaviours combo always sum up to a solid 100% what you are after. The more your dog volunteers to get it right and please you with it’s progress, the less help you will need to give it. Learn how to mark good behaviours, encourage and trigger happy responses and stimulate positive emotional responses in our dogs. In other words, train them!


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