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 difference between dog training with e-collars and positive / negative reinforcement techniques / via Perfect cocker spaniel dog blog / all about English cocker spaniels, puppy tips, grooming, diet, training, breed information (C) Natalia Ashton

No pain, no gain? New study begs to differ

When I was five, I got really interested in physics – and electricity, in particular. My dad had a degree in it and could make or fix anything from a mesmerising microelectronic plate to a car. Naturally, one day I asked him what the electricity was exactly. He explained that there are loads and loads of tiny “bubbles” called electrons and protons that run through a copper wire and create energy for tv, radio and other things around the house. This sounded solid enough. The only missing part was the actual electrons. I really wanted to see them… In a way a kid wants to meet gnomes or some other mystical creatures.

So one cosy winter evening I pinched a pair of scissors and used them to quietly un-do a few screws on a lamp switch. Somehow I thought that the switch was the destination where all the electrons and protons would meet up and sit around swinging their tiny legs and having a chat.

Sadly, the reality was a bit of a shock, a combination of initial disappointment and an actual crisp painful hissing ache that left me crying. But nothing a chocolate wouldn’t fix. I forgot about the incident quickly and filed the story in the back of my mind for future reference.

Never in a million years I would imagine that one day I’d link it to an e-collar! I’ve learnt about them pretty late in life. In 2010, to be precise. Some woman in the neighbourhood used one to stop her dog barking. The collar was recommended by the dog’s vet. Until then I was completely unaware that some people use aversive devices to train their dogs. E-collars, citronella collars, collars that cause physical pain… the list went on. It felt so wrong and made me wonder what these people would be like if they experienced the pain and shock of such a device themselves just like I did when I played with that lamp! Alas, the collars are still around despite campaigns, legislations and previous studies that show their negative impact on dog’s emotional and physical health.

Before we move on, allow me to explain how these collars work.

Imagine you visit a foreign country and don’t speak the language. You are excited and looking forward to the experience. You have no idea what people are saying to you, it’s just noise. You want to find a place to eat, but you can’t read the signs or ask for directions.

You pop into the first place that looks good. As soon as you walk in, the person inside jumps at you out of nowhere and punches you in the face. As far as you are concerned, you’ve done nothing wrong! You are stressed out, in pain and still hungry! Your brain struggles to understand anything because the stress naturally stops it from processing any new information efficiently. So you try another place and the same thing happens… and again… and again… Eventually you get it right, book a table and order a meal. But you are in pain and frightened. You can hardly remember how you got here and why. You swallow the food because stress affects your digestion, so you can’t really taste anything that well. For the rest of your life you remember this day as a nightmare and do your absolute best to prevent it from happening again. You suppress the memory and never return to the area unless you are made to. This is how an e-collar works.

But what if it was a different scenario? You walk in, a person appears with a smile, maybe gives you a hug (people hug a lot in my native country, especially if you are a lost foreigner) and even offers you a snack (people do this a lot where I am from), then tries to show you directions… If you get it wrong again and walk into another place by mistake, you meet another person who comes out with a smile and does his best to help…

For the rest of that day and beyond you will not only remember the place where you ended up having your meal and everything you ordered, but you will be able to recall everyone you met on your way, what they did and maybe even their names. You are also likely to return to this place because you felt so good and made some wonderful memories!

This is what dog trainers call “positive reinforcement” – a type of training that involves praise and rewards whenever something (even the tiniest thing) is a step in the right direction towards the goal. There is no pain or stress involved here, only love, endorphins, oxytocin and a handful of biscuits!

Imagine how delighted I was to see another research that compared the use of e-collars and positive reward-based method for training dogs. Conducted by Daniel Mills, Lucy China and Jonathan Cooper, the study included 63 dogs that were split into three groups and trained recall and “sit” with the use of e-collars and training techniques (including both positive and negative reinforcement) (e-collar), same training techniques but no e-collars (control 1), and positive reinforcement (or rewards-based) coaching (control 2). Each group was trained for 150 minutes over 5 days in total.

The study clearly demonstrated that even though all groups achieved results, it was the “Positive reward” group that not only succeeded but also developed higher long-term response to the cue without unnecessary suffering and risks to the dog’s well-being associated with the use of aversive devices.

Now, all we need is to get them banned for good.


Image credit: robot dog by Kittipong Jirasukhanont via

How much training is too much for your dog? How often and how long should you train your cocker spaniel for? Puppy training tips? Training mistakes and how to make training sessions most effective / Perfect cocker spaniel (C) dog blog / English cocker spaniel guide to the breed, grooming, diet, nutrition, puppy tips / Natalia Ashton, canine dog nutritionist & pet nutrition coach

How often should you train your dog?

A couple of weeks ago I talked about a few points of training a cocker spaniel and was absolutely thrilled when so many of you replied, shared your thoughts and asked questions.

One of the most popular requests was about the frequency and length of training, so I thought I’d talk about it today. As I’ve always trained my dogs myself I got to experience quite a few views about the process.

Years ago, when I first got into dog life, the training practices were very different compared to today’s ones. The former were almost military-like, very strict, very precise, more focused on the results and the owner. The dog was there to achieve and perform no matter what and the ones who didn’t were regarded as useless. I never really got too much into that and trained my first boy to suit our life and have fun more than anything else. To be fair, he was a poodle, one of the most intelligent breeds. He never needed much work as everything was learnt and remembered based on a few little lessons (and his own canine experiences).

These days it’s all about positive training. A wonderful way to ensure that the dog does not only learn something, but feels like a happy confident genius and builds a strong lasting bond with his parent/trainer.

But what about the duration of the training? When is the best time to start? Where is the perfect place to do it? When is the ideal point to stop? It can be confusing.

To get your brain buzzing I’ll start with a wonderful and very straight-to-the-point quote by Heini Hediger, a Swiss biologist and the “father of zoo biology”…

“Good training is a disciplined play”

In other words and in my opinion, a training is only successful if it is fun and leaves you and your dog feeling liberated, joyful and content about achievements, however little they may be.

I think that training a dog should also be perceived as a work out (for the brain, in our case, but still… the mighty grey and white lamp of fat has feelings, too). Imagine, you decide to strength train. You have two options – do a series of exercises based on your personal goals, every day, for a short period of time, consistently. Or you go to the gym once or twice a week and absolutely kill yourself there for hours, performing every workout routine known to man, to “compensate” for all the days in between.

If you choose the first option, you are likely to achieve fantastic results because you will pay attention to every muscle group in your body, you will not overwhelm your immune system (every physical activity depletes the body from essential nutrients that must be replaced for proper recovery and rejuvenation) and you will not experience the aches and tiredness that make you collapse.

On the other hand, spending a few hours at a time will most definitely leave you exhausted for days, give you a stinking cold (because that’s how your immune system is likely to respond to your efforts) and probably put you off working out in a week or two.

Same with dog training. Do it in short regular bubbles – and it will be a fun way to keep moving forward. Keep it to one or two long sessions a week – and see your dog feeling tired, frustrated and possibly reactive as a result.

So my ideal training is a consistent daily routine made up of a few quick sessions based on individual dogs and their personal abilities and needs.

We have a bunch of tricks and cues to practice or learn, but never really schedule or time our exact lessons. Each little “burst” takes about 5-15 minutes depending on our location and time of the day. We train in whilst boiling a kettle or during advert breaks on TV to practice “sit”, “down”, “stay”, “fetch”, “paw” etc… Or learning to “wait” for the food or food toys to be prepared and served. We train during our walks to perfect “heel”, recall, “stop”, “stay”, “paw”, standing on objects, “look”, listen”, “let’s go”… the list goes on…

At home we learn new tricks in the afternoon or play “find food”, “leave”, obstacles, brain games, not barking (work in progress, but we are slowly getting there) in the garden or house. Whenever the boys run to me from the garden I use a recall cue and treats. Currently, I am also teaching boys to take turns while we train, so ensure that one is happy to calmly wait on a sofa or “mat” while I am busy with the other one. I don’t like separating them during training times, let alone keep one crated, so this is our way to be together always.

It is also very important to always keep an eye on the dogs’ body language and facial expressions to make sure that they are enjoying the process. Stress isn’t a great helper when you train because it literally blocks the brain from getting the messages or remembering anything. That is why any sign of over-excitement (which can happen in 5 minutes or 20 minutes, depending on the type of exercise, timing and location), annoyance, boredom or tiredness is a signal to stop, ask for a much-loved and well-known cue and conclude the session with a treat and a calm cuddle.

One more point to bear in mind is to never train when you are not feeling your best. You may try to fool yourself, but the dogs will always pick on your emotions and physical state and react to it.

And what if you are trying to train a puppy? I’ve got it covered in my Perfect cocker spaniel book. Each chapter in the Practice sessions comes with puppy training tips based on his age and needs. I just thought I’d mention it in case you’re new here.


Photo credit: image by Tumisu from Pixabay