Be more dog. A few simple secrets to better understanding & training your spaniel

Do you speak Dog? I know, I know, odd question to ask… But bear with me.

A few days ago, as we finished our little training session, I wondered how much my perception of training has changed over the years. Once upon a time training a pup a few basic commands felt, well, basic… Nothing much. Treats, gestures, cues – job done! 

But as the years passed by and the volume of digested books, studies, courses and experiences settled in my brain, I realised a simple thing – training a dog – and especially COMMUNICATING your idea to the dog effectively – is far from simple, rrrrrrreally far from simple.

More often than not (and here I am talking about regular pup parents like you and me, not professional trainers) getting a pup from A to Z feels like a three step process: the treats and lure, the results and the added cue or gesture or both. Creatively speaking, we see training as Malevich’s Black Square. 

For a typical dog, on the other hand, our efforts are likely to resemble something painted by Dali…

The smell. The dog smells all the distrastive, often invisitable to us, thing around him. He also knows that you have treats in your pocket. He knows what sort of treats they are. He smells your emotions. 

The taste. It makes the brain happy. And the pleasure should be immediate otherwise there’s no point. 

The sight. He watches you most intensly than you’d dare to know. For a dog, it’s not such a cue -> a treat link. It’s also everything in between (it’s known as bridging if you want to be clever). The position of your body, your hand, your eyes, facial expression, any movement you might make, the spot where the treat is placed and received. All these matter to him and will be remembered carefully because  he needs to remember exactly what, when and how gets him the treat.

The sound. Dogs are a creatures of a few words. They like it simple. The first word is to get attention. The second one is to determine an action. High pitched sounds can mean excitement or alarm. Longer (stretched like legato in music, think “staaaay” or “gooood boooy”) words are to slow down, calm, stay still, relax… 

The emotions. Happiness, fear, excitement, stress – all these emotions cause a burst of different hormones that will have an effect on the pup’s ability to concentrate, learn and remember. 

What does it all mean?

For me, communicating an idea to a dog successfully involves a few simple but important points…

… only train when you feel happy, relaxed and well (otherwise the dog will sniff out our own hormones, especially stress hormones – and will mimic them)

… only train when a dog is happy to be trained – he is rested, happy, adventurous, excited and eager to learn

… keep the duration of training based on your dog’s abilities. Do not let him get tired or bored. Think how you’d feel if you were made to sit through a two hour lecture – even if it’s really interesting in the beginning, the brain often gives up on living after an hour unless there’s a break

… watch your own body language – record your sessions if necessary

… use the right tone of your voice depending on what you want to achieve and, please, do not get into the “machine gun”mode saying to your dog “sit, sit, sit, sit” or “come, come, come, come” on repeat. One word – long pause – another word if needed. Otherwise your pup will just hear “comecomecomecomecoooooome” the same way we hear “yap-yap-yap-yap” – it’s just another meaningless and slighly irritating noise…

… choose treats wisely. You don’t need to have a whole bag of high value treats! Mix them up! I use kibble, but if we need high value or more attention, add a few tiny pieces of cooked chicken breast and mix them all up. The kibble get a bit of an extra “flavour”. Everyone is happy

… be precise. Reward within 1-2 seconds with easy-to-swallow tiny treats, with precise action, at precise spot and accompanied by specific word and specific praise. Eventually the praise will (or almost will) replace the treat teasing the pleasure center in the brain with a sound alone. 

Simple? Yes, once you know the why’s and how-to’s. Now all you need to do is to remember these points while putting them into action. And that’s when things suddenly get as complicated as learning and practising a foreign language. It takes an effort but suddenly and eventually everything falls into place.

Image credit: Salvador Dali. Feather Equilibrium. 1947

study shows effects of different types of music on dogs / music to help anxious dogs relax / Perfect cocker spaniel (C) Dog blog about English cocker spaniels, dog behaviour, diet, nutrition, health, puppy tips (C) Natalia Ashton

The sound of music. Study shows, our pooches have their preferences too.

I came across a curious study the other day and wanted to share it here. I have mentioned the effect of music on my pups in the past, so it was interesting to see some research into the subject.

The work was conducted in 2020 and examined several previous studied that involved dogs of various breeds and age groups placed in different environments.

The first interesting bit of the study for me was the possible difference between breeds and their physical characteristics suggesting that dogs with pointy ears might perceive any music sounds differently compared to dogs with floppy ears. Which, of course, makes sense, but not something I’d think of immediately.

The second discovery was about the type of music. Several studies showed that dogs preferred classical music to rock or pop music. The dogs exposed to the classical music began acting more calm, seemed more relaxed and less prone to barking, and their heart rate appeared reduced.

On the other hand, rock music increased excitement, became more vocal and showed increased in stress hormone levels.

Does it mean, we could use some soft classical music as another way to reduce anxiety and stress in our dogs? Absolutely. Just bear in mind that you may need to change your play list every 5-7 days to maintain the positive effects.

I guess it’s time for a drink and some Chopin now.

Is dog flea treatment poisoning rivers? Pros and cons of using anti-flea spot on treatments on dogs (C) Perfect cocker spaniel dog blog

Is your dog’s flea treatment really poisoning the rivers?

I am a dog person, so it’s only natural that I read dog magazines more than news paper articles. As a result I was blissfully aware of a research that was published in Science of the Total Environment magazine. The study suggested potential link between dog’s flea treatments and water toxicity in British rivers. Sadly, one of the dog’s magazines picked on it as a “lets fuel a controversy chat” subject. Worse, the news papers decided to join in and, as it often happens, created a pile of misinformation.

“Toxic flea treatments contaminate rivers!”

“Stop using flea treatments on your dogs!”

“Vets are overdosing our dogs! Use these natural alternatives instead!”

said the papers.

“I never use chemicals on my dog…”

“These chemicals are bad. I won’t inflict them on my dog…”

“Only use them when you can see fleas…”

“I would never use wormers or flea treatments on my dog ever…”

said “the majority” the “caring owners” interviewed by the magazine.

The noise of these articles became so overwhelming. At no point any of the journalists consulted professionals, veterinarians or allowed dog owners who did use the treatment to speak up. Most of them did not ever read the study by referred to a news paper articled that was the first one to come out! So I made a cup of tea and decided to have a chat with you here.

I found the study. Read it. Finished the tea and summed up the facts to help you digest the information with clarity and precision before setting into the panic mode.

First of all, the study did not say that it was the dog flea treatment that poisoned the rivers. It suggested potential role of the treatments in pesticide contamination. The firm “it’s the flea treatment” and “potential role” are two very different meanings that would require more research and carefully controlled studies for becoming a definite statement.

It is not new that any kind of pesticide is toxic to aquatic life. That’s why they put it on every leaflet that comes with the product!

The 98% of samples taken from the rivers indicated the presence of fipronil and some also showed imidacloprid (66%). It was fiproles (fipronil, fipronil sulfone, fipronil sulfide) that exceeded the toxic limit in most samples. The levels of imidacloprid “did not pose risk in most rivers”, took two years to detect, were below toxic in 13 out of 7 sites (and the sites that contained more only exceeded the limit by 3.3 ng/l (31.7 ng/l vs 35 ng/l as identified toxicity limit)

The study concluded “a high environmental risk to aquatic ecosystems from fiproles, and a moderate risk from imidacloprid”.

Before jumping into flea treatments, it is important to note that fipronil is an active agent found in ant baits, cockroach poisons, rootworms and several other treatments that are habitually used by households. The concentration varies by the amount use is often exceeds anything you’d ever put on your dog making it toxic to dogs and not just aquatic life. That’s why they put it on a leaflet too!

At no point it was clearly established and confirmed that the fipronil in rivers came from the flea treatments and not common ant baits or household pest treatments that casually got flushed down the toilet or drain (which is still a common practice).

The papers also referred to veterinary approved products containing fipronil. I checked them. These include Fipnil, Frontline, FIPROtec, Johnson’s 4fleas dual action and a few others. All of those products are sold over the counter – not through vets who issue prescription and can control the quality and frequency of the treatment.

The leaflet and protocol for anything prescribe by a vet “takes into consideration individual veterinary diagnosis and on the local epidemiological situation”. This is for those “experts” who expressed their scepticism at veterinary knowledge or expertise.

Every prescription-based flea treatment product comes with instructions that clearly specify that a dog “must not be bathed for at least two days after treatment” or “should not be allowed to swim in surface waters for 4 days after treatment”

There is no natural alternative on the market scientifically proven to be effective against fleas – or any other parasites that can be prevented by a veterinary spot-on product.

More over, most natural alternatives contain at least one ingredients known to be toxic to dogs. Even though it may not kill your dog straight away, it is likely to lead to a reaction when used regularly. Additionally, as none really deter fleas or other parasites, they can leave your dog exposed to those “bugs and worms” as well as several diseases transmitted by fleas, ticks and other creatures. Some of those diseases are fatal.

Anyone suggesting that you should only use a product when you actually see fleas or worms is a nincompoop. The sign of a parasite on your dog means that dog has already been exposed to disease, your house and your family (especially children and elderly) are at risk, any dogs and people you come across unknowingly become exposed to the disease, and any form of decontamination and parasitic treatment you will have to use is likely to take weeks and months and be much more toxic for your dog and the environment.

If you still believe that fleas are nothing serious, bear in mind that fleas are still one of the two main causes of dermatitis, itchiness and serious skin issues (which many owners mistake for food allergy these days), they can cause iron deficiency anaemia in your dog, they can infect your dog with tapeworms, in unlucky circumstances they can also pass a life-threatening disease to you.

Besides the fleas, most veterinary-prescribed products also protect your dog from ear mites, sarcoptic mange and decodicosis (the number one cause of allergy-like dermatitis in your dog – again, not food allergy!), lice, heartworm, lungworm, roundworm and a whole group of gastrointestinal nematodes.

So if you have any doubts, filter the information and talk to your vet – the person who spent years learning and practicing the art of keeping your dog well. Not a journalist, shop assistant, and most definitely not some fella on Facebook because he “sounds friendly”. It will be safer for your dog, your sanity – and indeed, British rivers and aquatic life.