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Broadening the mind in Barcelona – AGM 2016

This year’s AGM was hosted in Barcelona, and we welcomed both members and non-members to the event. It was four days of speakers and activities, including salsa dancing classes, wine tasting, and a celebration dinner on Saturday night. A huge thanks to Nuria and her team from Canidos for hosting the event.

A taster of the Saturday and Sunday talks will hopefully give those unable to attend a flavour of what went on. These are a personal interpretation of the talks, not direct from the speakers themselves.

The AGM will be held in Durham in the United Kingdom next year – more information about booking will be coming soon!

Speakers at the AGM

Speakers at the AGM.


Cris Carles – How to persuade owners

Cris started the Saturday morning reflecting on the lifestyle changes that humans have introduced into the modern dog’s life. In the past many dogs were bred for a purpose and had distinct jobs, as well as greater freedom to roam. We are now busier, more stressed and live life at a faster pace. Dogs haven’t had time to keep up with all this change, and struggle to cope with it. There is also an excess of information available to owners now, especially online, which can lead to confusion.

Cris highlighted how easy it can be to become complacent and lose heart when fighting for animal welfare, and how easy it can be to judge people who are doing things we may not agree we. She reminded everyone that we are not born with the information we currently possess, and that most owners love their dogs and act with good intentions. She provided useful tips when working with owners to support and motivate them:

  • Be honest and empathetic – we’ve all made mistakes with our dogs, and showing vulnerability helps owners relate.

  • Remember that while getting angry with people for doing the wrong things may make you feel better, it ultimately doesn’t help the dog if the owner feels alienated and judged.

  • Use positive reinforcement with people too! People often see their animals as an extension of themselves which means criticisms can feel very personal.

  • Help owners visualise how good it will be when the problem is resolved. Having a goal and sense of what needs to be achieved can be hugely beneficial.

  • Use a friendly tone of voice and be mindful of body language.

Cris also spoke about the concept of ‘Sei Tai’ (properly ordered body) which was developed by Haruchika Noguchi. According to this idea there are ‘Taiheki’ types that people may fall into, or be a combination of, which include the Vertical, Lateral, Frontal, Rotatory and Central. Using this concept can help you read people and their body language, and assess what kind of behavioural approach is going to work best with them.

Winkie Spiers - It’s a dog’s life

Winkie spoke about what ‘a dog’s life’ should look like, without our human expectations and desires interfering with what a dog would naturally choose to do. She talked about how we can allow our dogs to live a more natural existence, often using the street dogs she has observed on her travels as a reference point.

  • Dogs need to sleep for around 14-18 hours per day, so as this is around 66% of their life, it should be made as comfortable as possible. They should have lots of space (not in crates), different beds and places to choose from and be near things that smell of us.

  • Food should be good quality and varied. Dogs should have opportunities for natural eating, which involves scavenging, licking and chewing for around an hour per day and they should have access to plenty of clean water.

  • Dogs should have companionship and good social attachments to both people and other dogs. They need to feel safe.

Winkie shared some recent findings that came out of an analysis of client reported problems across one year. These were new clients and Winkie documented the issues they had as well as their desired outcomes, breaking it down into puppies, adolescents and adult dogs. Clients showed little interest in tricks or commands – instead the focus was on the lifestyle of the dog and how to improve issues at home, such as inter-dog problems (often reported in adolescence).

Winkie also discussed the common causes of behavioural problems, which included crating, fear, being alone, being misunderstood, boredom, pain and illness, too much adrenalin, and owner demands and stress levels.

Anne Lill Kvam – Learned helplessness in dogs

Learned helplessness is a condition in which a person or animal suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.

It is often caused when you have no control over your own life or situation, and when others have complete control over what you can or can’t do. The state of learned helplessness has a physical impact on the brain, and leads to withdrawal from social contact, reduced cognitive skill and memory loss, a lack of motivation and exhaustion.

This phenomenon can occur in many animals, including humans. Anne Lill highlighted that in humans it would be seen as an illness in need of treatment (as it leads to depression and anxiety), yet in the dog world it is often used as a training method – by removing options and destroying curiosity, you create an animal that is very compliant (and also likely to be highly stressed and unhappy).

Dogs that aren’t in a state of learned helplessness:

  • Are naturally curious and keen to explore

  • Are active

  • Are good as finding solutions in different situations

  • Do things that are innately rewarding, rather than because a human tells them to

Often when dogs show curiosity, such as exploring an object or going in a different direction on a walk, our instinct is to stop them. Curiosity is a sign of good mental health, so when we create negative consequences as a response to curiosity (such as a ‘no’, spray of water, a smack or harsh tone) we can destroy a dog’s confidence.

When a puppy is born it immediately starts finding solutions and learning to cope (by finding food, seeking comfort etc.). A newborn puppy is encouraged to do this, but as they get older we start interfering with their development. A lot of puppy training is focused on control, limiting freedom and access (crates are designed to extinguish curiosity and exploration) and teaching puppies to rely on humans and ask for permission before making any decisions. This teaches them to give up – nothing is allowed anyway, so why bother?

In shelters dogs have very restricted lives, so the danger of them entering a state of learned helplessness is high, especially without appropriate stimulation. The solution to this is often to take the dog on more frequent walks, however this misses other important needs – social contact, mental stimulation and the ability to make choices.

Dogs’ natural obedience can work against them as it allows us to control them so easily. Many dogs have little control over their lives – they must sit before they do anything, they have to wait before they are allowed to eat their food or they are trained to make eye contact with their owner on request. Often their body language is ignored, especially when it comes to physical contact – people frequently touch and hold dogs when they are not comfortable, teaching them that they don’t even have a say over their own bodies.

Anne Lill emphasised that dogs don’t become depressed or anxious because they’re weak, want attention or are naturally submissive. It is mainly because we have such control over their lives. The modern dog often has very little freedom, so we need to work as hard as possible to give them back some control where we can – choosing different food, being allowed to explore on walks, not using commands all the time and encouraging natural curiosity is a great place to start.

Monica Diaz – Rescue galgos and podencos: a new beginning

Monica is passionate about galgos and podencos in Spain. She discussed the journey that many of these dogs take – from tools to pets, from chasing machines to couch potatoes and from hell to life.

It is estimated that there are 100,000 galgos and podencos abandoned each year in Spain, and around 75,000 of them suffer a violent death which can include hanging, being dumped in plastic bags or beatings. The dogs are used in Spain for hunting, competing and betting. The dogs must win in order to survive, otherwise they disposed of.

The process for the many rescue organisations is similar – first they must locate the dogs and catch them (often difficult), then their physical state is assessed. An available foster home is sought, and ideally the foster home then receives the galgo or podenco.

Most galgos have suffered abuse and have never lived in a home, so it can be a big shock for them. Monica discussed some key considerations when these dogs enter a home for the first time. The most important thing is that they are able to develop a bond and find a secure reference point (often the human) who can guide them and build their confidence. This can take a long time, so people must have empathy, patience and an acceptance that there will always be limitations when a dog has experienced trauma. Confidence is built in the home and outside, but always at the dog’s pace. Sniffing, searching and exploration should be encouraged.

The most crucial thing is to accept the dogs as they are and respect the things that are difficult for them, including their past. Monica shared some lovely stories and images of dogs she has owned and worked with, and encouraged everyone to consider a galgo or podenco in the future.

Julia Robertson – How physical pain impacts on dog behaviour

Julia runs the Galen therapy centre in the United Kingdom, which is a specialist canine centre for the treatment of dogs with chronic pain, using manual, hands on therapy. It helps manage the symptoms of problems such as arthritis, and the aim is to relieve pain but to always give a dog choice when it comes to treatment. The centre works with adaptive change in the body, which is a result of what a dog will do to cope with injury and illness.

Julia spoke about how difficult chronic pain is to diagnose, and how insidious it can be. Chronic pain can develop and grow very slowly, which means it often enters our lives and becomes part of our lives, and can begin to define and shape us.

Dogs are masters at appearing to adapt and people often say they just ‘get on with it’, therefore underestimating the fact that dogs cannot hide the impact of pain from their behaviour. Treating chronic pain can have huge benefits, such as preventing unnecessary euthanasia, the prevention of accidents, reducing or removing some pain induced aggression issues, improving quality of life and preventing other connected conditions.

In order to get a sense of what pain might be like in dogs, Julia discussed how humans express muscle pain. Our posture changes, we alter what and how we do things, we groan and we find it difficult to get comfortable.

In dogs, there can be a number of indicators of chronic muscle pain, including:

  • Chewing parts of their body or licking their feet

  • Kicking spasms or suddenly stopping and looking around

  • Defecating/urinating positional issues

  • Not being able to chew, being resistant to chewing or chewing incessantly

  • Dry nose (Julia commented that all the dogs she has seen with this have had neck issues)

  • Postural changes

  • Rolling on a toy or stretching excessively

  • How they shake

  • Not liking being groomed over specific areas

  • Obsessive behaviours such as tail chasing

Julia believes that you should always look to address the cause of a problem, rather than just treating symptoms. She referenced advice often given, such as bad tasting sprays to stop licking and buster collars to stop tail chasing, and the danger of just covering up or redirecting a serious underlying issue.

Playfulness and ‘cheekiness’ are often signs of good health – if you feel unwell and sore, you won’t do ‘that extra playful thing’ just for the fun of it. The play bow can also be a good sign as it is a big movement to perform and psychologically important for dogs to be able to do comfortably. Julia also mentioned the huge benefit that scent work can provide. It puts dogs into their most natural movement and body position – they naturally extend their necks, stretch their bodies gently and it slows them down.

There were three top tips for dealing with muscle issues in dogs:

  • Avoid repetitive physical actions (such as ball play, jumping out of cars, certain dog sports)

  • Take care with surfaces (slippery floors can be hugely damaging)

  • Get proper treatment for accidents and injuries (just resting isn’t often enough – the muscles need to be looked at as well)

Marcos Ibanez – Work and team building with dogs

Marcos currently lives with 17 dogs and spoke about the way he manages this. A number of the dogs came to him with behavioural issues, so careful management is important. He finds that many rescue dogs who have had bad experiences with people are helped by the other dogs, as they give them more confidence.

Marcos touched on the early evolution of dogs, and the extraordinary abilities that wolves possess when it comes to cooperation. This tendency was useful for early dogs as well, as it allowed them to develop a strong relationship with people. As dogs began to be selected by humans to perform specific tasks, this altered some of their behaviour.

Marcos classed the modern dog into three categories:

  • Show dogs, who are selected and bred primarily based on how they look

  • Working dogs who fulfil a specific function, usually related to their original breed purpose

  • Pet dogs, who now exist to live in the family home purely as companions

The category a dog falls into can have a strong impact on its behaviour. Some breeds may also be naturally inclined to live in a pack situation over others.

Marcos identified a number of benefits for dogs living in a pack situation, which included health, social skills, collaboration, communication, self-control and space management. He also recommended that space and choices were important elements of living harmoniously within a pack.


Anne Lill Kvam – To reward or not reward? That is the question

Why do we reward? What does it mean? Is it truly altruistic? What gives me the right to reward you (and therefore shape your behaviour)? Anne Lill discussed rewards in dog training and raised thoughts and questions regarding their use. She outlined various things often used as rewards (food, toys, touch, life rewards), and emphasised that treats are generally a guaranteed success. If a dog is reluctant to take treats, further investigation should occur, as it is relatively unnatural for an animal to regularly refuse food. She discussed the key difference between a highly focused dog and a highly aroused one – some dogs will only work for toys (rather than food) because they are too wound up and stressed.

A lot of people feel that dogs don’t have strong preferences when it comes to food, however given a choice most dogs will be very discerning. It’s great to offer a variety of options, and find out what your dog really finds rewarding.

Anne Lill also talked about behaviour chains, which involves a series of associations that leads to a change in behaviour and expectations. It is important to understand what you are rewarding – often people end up rewarding behaviour they were trying to avoid. Jumping up is a typical example. Dogs tend to receive inconsistent feedback for this behaviour – sometimes it is encouraged, or encouraged when they are puppies, or they are pushed away which can be rewarding to them. If you react in a dramatic way to something you don’t want your dog to do, chances are they will repeat that behaviour! Timing is everything.

Jesus Rosales – Constructional interactions between humans and other animals

Dr Jesús Rosales-Ruiz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Behaviour Analysis at the University of North Texas. He spoke about constructional interactions between humans and animals. He began by showing the big increase in the number of papers on animal welfare since the early 90s – mainly fuelled by the livestock industry (due to the fact that better welfare results in better produce and is therefore more profitable for large companies). Research into pet animal welfare, however, is a fairly neglected area. The concept of animal welfare is evolving all the time, and the more we discover about animals’ rich and complex emotional lives, the more we must question the way we treat them. Improvements in animal welfare can be evaluated by asking two key questions – are the animals healthy and do they have what they want?

A lot of the ideas Jesús discussed stemmed from a conviction that ‘the organism is always right’. This essentially means that whatever the organism is doing in that moment is exactly what they should be doing. Behaviour is not ‘abnormal’ or ‘wrong’; they cannot help but behave that way based on their history, the behaviour available to them, the environment and their circumstances. If we approach behaviour with the assumption that the organism is always right, then something else is responsible for any problematic behaviour. Rather than using labels (‘this dog is aggressive’) we need to understand why the behaviour is occurring in the first place.

Jesús outlined the difference between a constructional and pathological approach to behaviour (and argued that a constructional approach will ultimately be more successful):

  • Pathological: orientation that considers the problem in terms of a pathology which is to be eliminated regardless of how it was established, developed or is maintained.

  • Constructional: orientation whose solution to problems is the construction of repertoires (or their reinstatement or transfer to new situations rather than the elimination of repertoires).

A pathological approach may aim to extinguish or punish a behaviour, whereas a constructional approach may work to find a different behaviour in the organism’s repertoire to reinforce instead. The constructional approach is used in a number of fields, with both humans and animals, and Goldiamond’s original paper can be found here for those interested.

Virginia Millares – Creating harmony between dogs

Virginia is a dog trainer working in Spain, and also runs her own kennel. She has developed a way of working which means dogs coming to stay are not kept in cages and are supported to live successfully with one another.

Key elements of the protocol she uses when introducing dogs include:

  • Understanding that first impressions are crucial (if the initial meeting between two dogs goes badly, it is very difficult to go back and try again)

  • Recognising that a lot of issues dogs may have are linked to owners feeling worried about what might happen or being over-controlling of their dog

  • Developing a plan which makes owners feel more confident

Owners may have different aims when they get in touch, including an interest in socialising their dog, behaviour problems, boarding their dog in kennels while away, looking to adopt a dog or managing better at dog parks.

The more information gained in advance before introducing dogs the better. While an owner’s perception can differ from what’s sometimes happening, this early information is very useful.

Virginia uses familiar mentor dogs to help other dogs who need to gain more confidence or better social skills. The advantage of involving these mentors is that they are used to meeting a variety of dogs, they are good communicators and she can read them better as she knows them.

It is essential that the environment supports interactions, with plenty of space and enrichment. If the dogs have things to explore and smell, it will help them relax rather than being completely focused on the other dog. Ideally the location will be fenced for safety so the dogs can be off lead. Importantly, the humans should be relaxed and act naturally, rather than staring at the dogs and adding tension.

Karen Webb - Your dog’s largest organ

Karen discussed the dog’s largest organ – the skin. She outlined how important the skin is for a functioning body, identifying it as a body guard, raincoat, sponge, manufacturing plant, thermostat and switchboard! The skin provides a protective barrier, helps to regulate temperature and consists of three major layers – the epidermis, dermis and subcutis.

There are in excess of 160 suggested skin complaints that dogs can experience, and these can be due to a number of factors:

  • Allergies

  • Parasites

  • Infections

  • Nutrition

  • Auto immune diseases (can be caused by vaccinations)

  • Hypothyroidism

  • Metabolic problems

  • Hormonal imbalance

  • Skin cancers

  • Stress

A lot of recommendations to deal with skin problems don't address the core issue. Advice such as putting a buster collar on, bandaging the area and prescribing medication such as ACP (acepromazine), anti-inflammatories and steroids deals purely with the symptoms, but won’t get to the bottom of what is actually happening.

The impact of stress on the skin is fairly overlooked, and little information exists about it. Karen discussed the impact of cortisol (the stress hormone released from the adrenal cortex) on the body, and how essential it is for dogs to have recovery periods after experiencing a stressful event. She also outlined some of the causes of stress, including

boredom, lack of physical or mental stimulation, being left alone, being crated, being picked on by another dog, teased by children, physical punishment or yelling, noise, training and being controlled all the time.

So what can we do to deal with skin issues and stress? Firstly, visit the vet and if you’re struggling to get answers, it never hurts to get a second opinion. Prevention is better than cure, so it’s so important to look at the big picture and your dog’s daily life. Ways to improve life for your dog and reduce stress include mental stimulation, treat searches, enriched environments, loose lead walks, exploring new places, giving choices, quality sleep, nice things to chew, good nutrition, spending quality time together and always allowing for 10 minutes of calm time after each activity that you do with your dog.

Karen also discussed the potential benefits of Zoopharmacognosy, which refers to the process by which animals self-medicate and naturally forage plants and their essential oils, algae, clay and other natural minerals. As a Full Practitioner of Applied Zoopharmacognosy, she has worked with a number of dogs to support them while dealing with skin issues.

Pennie Clayton – An introduction to canine Bowen therapy

Pennie introduced everyone to Bowen therapy, which was originally developed for humans by Tom Bowen in Australia. It can be used on people, dogs and horses and is a hands on, non-manipulative and gentle therapy, which is safe for everybody.

Bowen involves rolling type movements over specific areas of the body at eyeball pressure. Working with thumbs and fingers prevents too much pressure being put on the body, particularly if the body is tense or dehydrated. The aim of Bowen is not to treat specific conditions or diagnose, but help reduce pain and tension. It is characterised by regular breaks, which allows the body to relax during treatment. Less is more, and Bowen therapy is not harsh, manipulative or ‘busy’.

A dog may need Bowen to help with joint problems, injuries, mobility issues, phobias, rehab, boosting wellbeing and stress. The most important facet of Bowen for dogs is that they need to be given a choice – they can stop the treatment if they need to. The work is delivered slowly which allows the dog to evaluate what is going on. Vet permission is needed prior to treatment, and Pennie talked about the importance and benefits of working with the dog’s vet, as any concerns can be referred back to them.

When treating dogs it is important to look for a number of things, including monitoring calming signals, respiration and changes in breathing, restlessness, allowing time to process the treatments or stopping treatment when the dog has had enough.

It’s important to think about the consequences of what we ask dogs to do. Dogs are often pushed beyond a normal range of movement, and asked to compete or do excessive exercise. Moderation is key!

Attendees at the AGM

Join us next year!

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