Target training

I spend a lot of time target training, looking at how a dog’s focus can get shifted from one thing to another. By considering this more general view of targeting it can be seen as a fundamental part of dog behaviour and training, more basic than most techniques which are essentially just a trick. Target training as it is commonly understood in the dog world is about teaching the dog to target something, anything, with its nose or perhaps foot. It is a very versatile trick and is common in clicker training as a starter exercise because it can be quite easy to understand when to click, helping co-ordination of click then treat, and gives a quick encouraging result. Different targets can easily be incorporated in the training. I remember one of my more extravagant purchases at Crufts one year being an Alley-oop, a freestanding, self-righting, target stick. Getting a dog to nudge your hand is a widely used training challenge, it being such a straightforward target to present and helps the dog orient to the handler. However, the conditioned skill isn’t necessarily going to work when confronted with the natural thrill of an exciting target.

The target training I use now is less mechanical, hopefully addresses something more fundamental and universal in the dog/handler relationship, and is closely linked to a retrieve although could also be seen as a dog on it’s bed. I’m trying to describe something incredibly simple, looking for the generic code, which is also endlessly able to elaborate and become more complex. Seeing the similarity between different targets enables us to practise training that can switch from one to another and include all of them. Targets are then multitudinous and various. To give a more identifiable form to this abstract idea the target could be a tennis ball, but could also be a bus or a squirrel. Anything the dog focuses on is potentially the target and being able to switch from one target to another, and deal with the target in different ways is all part of the training challenge.

The simplest arrangement of these targets is perhaps then a dog, a handler and a toy. The training challenge is then to be able to play through a number of patterns with these three in different orders. For example, with the toy being held by the handler can the dog chase, can the dog lie down? Now throw the toy to one side, can the handler still get the dog to chase or lie down, without being distracted by the toy? Then is it possible to direct the dog to chase the toy, and then get a down? And finally with the dog holding the toy will the handler be chased? These are the games to be playing with target training, and are only using simple options, chase or down, with the choice of handler or toy. From simple routines great complexity can be built, generating a wide variety of skills.

Bouba, Kiki and the ladder of aggression

It sounds like I’m writing a children’s story or perhaps it’s a progressive rock band. But no, this is more thoughts from the body language talk and I’d like to expand on the idea of the “ladder of aggression”. I want to try to get across the idea that the body language and interactions are deeply ingrained patterns within us all, although we generally have to stop our thinking and thoughts obscuring the view in order to appreciate it. Labelling these actions and then having to know about prior learning and context is missing the point. Children have a more intimate understanding of this than adults. They move around and feel these forces and rhythms more intuitively than most. Generally we compound problems by training a dog to think about what it should do, we would be better served getting out of the way and letting them feel right. But I’m not advocating a laissez-faire approach, blindly hoping for the best, although sometimes that can help. It’s to gradually build confidence in a step-by-step manner, showing the dog a way of getting stronger and more resilient.

Meet Kiki and Bouba. These are two characters that are easily identifiable. There is a direct correspondence between the sound of their name and their shape. I could go even further and describe how they act and move. You’d know which was warm and liked to curl up on the sofa, and it wouldn’t be difficult to think that one likes ice-skating and gets frustrated putting on a jumper. Stereotypes for sure, but one is more appealing to touch. This was a well-known psychological experiment looking at how we can attach abstract thoughts to shapes in a consistent way. I want to try to describe body language in a similar way, shifting through sensations with descriptions to help bring a feeling to mind. Kiki is sharp and electric whereas Bouba is soft and magnetic.

Now before you think I’m making a gross error by “typing” a dog, and say that it’s impossible to cast such a net over all the types of dog. I’m not. So bear with me while we take a look at the ladder of aggression.

I don’t think this is how things work and I believe there is a reason that the experts are confused on interpretation. The misunderstandings then create as much of a problem and this is why, despite our best efforts with puppy classes, positive training, and educated owners, we still have problems with dogs.

First of all I want you to imagine that this ladder is not an escalation to aggression. In your mind turn it into circular train track…

An image that is rich in symbolism, the circle of life, everything goes around and comes around. Just like in the yin yang of the Taijiquan, there is no black or white, it’s both. When we look at the linear narrative of the ladder we don’t appreciate how the top joins to the bottom, in a missing link that needs to be connected. And that there are pairs of each, two sides of a ladder supporting each single rung. There are two rails around this circle and the ladder of aggression also has the opposite side. A companion to each of the behaviours, ones that aren’t simply seen as problematic, a complementary equivalent to each action on the list. For example stiffening occurs before a waiting dog is released, not very aggressive, just positive explosive energy. I don’t want to get stuck on the list that the ladder presents because I don’t think the rungs chosen are necessarily relevant, but as another example I would say that biting is central to a dog’s being and is pleasurable, delightful, joyous for a dog. The more a dog loves to bite the more stable and well adjusted the overall composure. We should celebrate our dogs biting.

Now coming back to Bouba and Kiki, I hope I don’t have to remind you which one is which. They are not dogs, they are not simple characters, but they can give shape to the now circular ladder. Imagine one side of the ladder being Kiki, and the other Bouba. Sharp spikey Kiki combines with soft smooth Bouba. I don’t want to suggest that Kiki is bad, no its vigorous action is necessary for getting things done. Bouba would be still sat on the sofa without Kika. Kika can bring gusto and enthusiasm, but without Bouba to help soften things get broken in the whirl.

So instead of a ladder I’m suggesting we could think of a wheel, or train tracks running in a circle. The character of each “rung” can be either soft or sharp. We should be able to move around the circle and have the dog cope with all of the sequence, essentially soften all those fear tinged rungs on the ladder of aggression. When fear is strong then the inner intensity pushes out past the softened exterior.

The problem then becomes how to shift and move around the circle. The dog gets stuck on acting out of fear. Seeing this pattern as a ladder then exacerbates the stuckness. By backing down the ladder instead of being able to soften any part of the sequence the patterns don’t move through to “relax”. It becomes like a rusted mechanism that jams, and then releases in a sudden burst. Without tipping over the top into soften and relax the dog has to wait until the next opportunity. A soft dog is inclined to release this panic in a phobic reaction, a panic without a target. The work that a dog will do when in the grip of a phobia is immense, and everything is about shifting through to the calmer side of the circle. Blaming it all on the outer environment gives the dog a way of releasing all the pressure we inadvertently apply and, with increasingly sophisticated training, block up. A harder dog is going to find a focus for its energy, and by constantly stepping back from the ladder they will have to look elsewhere. Everything looks great for ages, but then the rage comes to the surface as an explosion, perhaps triggered by just the right dog shape or even a uniform, just to release the building tension that never got to be expressed.

All of the sharp spikes should be softened and relaxed. Movement, barking and biting all help. We see the zoomies as a funny thing to watch, but it’s releasing fear out into the world. Much better to let the zooming dog run to us and jump up, then becoming a safe place to go. We should encourage a dog to lick its lips then praise and feed to help soften. Growling can be pushed into barking, getting the dog to breathe instead of stiffen. Shift biting into a softened mawing and grabbing of our hands. We can help the dog soften all these spikes, and show it how to apply the vigorous action in the right place too. The intensity when used productively is a useful force. Aggression when applied correctly is determination and power.

Image credits

“Kiki and Bouba” comes from

“Ladder of aggression” comes from



I’ve recently been made aware of a new trend in some dog training circles regarding the idea of consent. Perhaps the trending topic of #MeToo has had something to do with this and it has spilled into the area of dog behaviour. The idea is that we have to be watchful and mindful of our impact on the dog. As such it is a worthy aim and of course I agree, however the emphasis is put on reading the dog’s state of mind and trying to react in a way that doesn’t put any strain on the dog. Again, so much is great advice that it becomes more and more difficult to disagree, however instead of making the cues more subtle, requiring greater expertise to understand I think a better approach would be to empower the dog.

Consent training involves pushing at the dogs at a level that doesn’t upset them and then rewarding them with a treat for accepting. To me this seems dangerous. A biscuit for staying silent feels really uncomfortable. Either rewards or punishment aiming at docility can be a problem. The dog will feel out of control, the handler starts to think they’re in control. The balance is out of sync and it can grow into a buried volcano, simmering beneath the surface, waiting to erupt. A soft dog will find expression in panic without a target, a strong dog will find a target and we’re left wondering were it comes from.

The goal for me is to give the control to the dog. Instead of becoming more sensitive I want to play at being insensitive. That way the dog can feel power and say so. I don’t want the dog to be a mute, without a voice to say “stop”, I want the dog to assert itself. Now obviously, in sensitive situations like this a clumsy approach could result in injury. The dog feeling pressured can react and bite without meaning to harm. The challenge is to show the dog how to react without biting, to express its discomfort without getting in trouble. The assertive reaction then gets the dog what it wants even with the clumsiest handling. The human who doesn’t understand doesn’t have to be shown how to understand the intricacies of dog language. Everyone’s happy.


Teaching a dog to stay while the handler circles around has some very similar components to the hide’n’seek game. Initially easiest to use the lead it teaches the dog how to feel composed even when it wants to rush forward. In the hide’n’seek exercise the dog is held while the handler disappears away and hides. The feeling of restraint or compression then leads to a rush of energy as the lead is dropped and the dog can race away. This advancing wave of energy then carries the dog to the handler where it can bite a toy and be praised and applauded in its softening.

In the stay exercise this wave of energy is like an advancing and receding wave on the beach, as the handler circles around and then returns the energy rises and falls while the dog remains composed in its place. And like the waves reaching up the beach where you can choose to ride one of those waves and use the energy to come ashore, so can you get the dog to race towards you, leaving the stay to come running to a toy or some food. The preparation for this surge then becomes a useful signal that prompts an eagerness to respond. Following NDT convention I generally use the word “ready” which triggers this alert and watchful state. It can be channelled through more and more enthusiasm, but needs to also be released at the right time. When releasing an arrow from a bow you put tension in the string but you wouldn’t be able to hold that moment for too long, you would need to let fly, and so it is with the dog. The tension of the “ready” moment has to be released at the right time.

Stay on a rock

The rhythm of the exercise helps the dog know whats coming next, the circles are patterns that can be predicted and understood. Each repetition can then include some variation, increasing or decreasing the distance away. I tend to find there is an easy and natural spacing about which closer and further distances are then both more difficult. Stay while orbiting closer to the dog is paving the way for the visit to the cafe, where you might want to step over the dog on the way back to the counter to choose another slice of cake. You don’t always want the dog to move under pressure from passing feet. The larger orbits are turning the game back to hide’n’seek, and you could easily include hiding a toy out on the perimeter, in readiness for a long distance retrieve.

Union of opposites

There are many opposites in NDT that are used in conjunction. A major theme being about discovering the unity of opposites. It’s like viewing the directions to the Natural Dog School and thinking you can approach either from the east, coming through Botley village, and turn left into Brook Lane, or perhaps arriving from the west, driving through Hedge End, passing Sparshatts garage and then turn right into Brook Lane. The two sides will both bring you to the field, you can use either to find the entrance to the school, but they originate from different places.

This can be used with approaching the exercises in NDT too. There are different ways to tackle the skills, which although sometimes seem contradictory, will bring you to the same place. It can sometimes feel awkward accommodating these contradictions but the combination of both extremes brings about a centred and balanced union. The bark for example can be elicited using hunger and desire, coaxing and cajoling, which then brings forth the bark, or by focusing on the pressure and block, the scary hand or admonishing finger. The two approaches are needed to give the right result, balancing the forces so the dog is centred in the middle. It allows an easy cross-over, an intersection, like a motorway junction, giving an obvious connection to another direction. Pressure turns to release, and a problem can be resolved.

The dog’s Dojo

The Natural Dog School was called a school because of my love of learning, and I wanted to create a space for dogs and handlers to do just that. Everything within is a parallel to the world without and can be used to recreate life’s challenges to be met in a safe and secure environment. Creating the challenge is also exploring and pulling apart the essence of the problem, where it can be examined and played through, finding out what lies at the heart of the issue. Understanding and development then comes through this study of the crucial elements.

In the world of Japanese martial arts they practise in a space called a dojo. Literally meaning “place of the way”, this is also what I aim for at the Natural Dog School. It is a place where you can study the natural way that dogs will work, and mastering the forms and exercises at the dojo is then giving you the skills to take out into the world. Martial arts also practise skills in a role play manner, with your training partner or uke bringing their energy to the encounter, a counterbalance or foil against which to rehearse. This is the way Natural Dog Training works, by becoming the energy against which the dog practises its response, moving together, uniting, creating a bond that is stronger than anything outside. The dojo then expands to include everywhere, it is not restricted by the boundary of any designated place. The world becomes your classroom.

The Crucible

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training” – Archilochos… or possibly Bruce Lee…

Training is like using a crucible. It allows you to experiment and heat things up, adding energy but keeping things separate and contained. The crucible is a barrier to the things outside, and inside the energy can be processed and create something new. It separates what goes on outside, essentially the things which are outside our control, with everything inside the barrier, within the crucible. Practising capturing and working with the energy internally is the goal of the training, and prepares the way for dealing with the world outside. If the aim of training is to teach the dog to stop chasing bikes, then we need the same force inside the crucible which can then be processed. The extent of the system can be drawn up anywhere, but essentially the simple system to parallel everything outside is contained between handler and dog. Between the two we can have a parallel with anything outside, which then offers the opportunity to practise the skills required. Part of the challenge is then building the same feeling between dog and owner inside the crucible, to that between dog and bike on the outside. When the same intensity is created internally, everything outside is superfluous, and the reaction inside can be directed and controlled as required. The external problem becomes transformed and solved, through working on a parallel system.

Top tip… “keep it in the pan”

The Art of Dog Training

“It is the writer’s firm conviction that the training of a dog is not so much a matter of rule, as of art. Some people will fail utterly even when trying to accomplish a result in exact accordance with the best rules known. Others will somehow succeed splendidly even though they may proceed in apparently direct opposition to all the accepted standards of practice.” – Horace Lytle

This is from a dog training book written in the 1920’s and although training has undoubtedly changed over the years this remains as true now as it was then. If anything the increasingly scientific approach to most dog training has caused an even greater rift between the two extremes, indirectly fuelling the rise in many of the problems seen today, with phobias and aggression still occurring in dogs that have been to the recommended puppy training classes and received all the certificates.

The art of dog training is where I now concentrate my studies, looking to create a relationship based on cooperation and trust, using exercises to develop these skills without resorting to behaviourism rules. It pays to be rewarding, but rewards are not going to tackle phobias and aggression. The emotional bedrock can only be reached through developing rapport and strengthening the connection, allowing then the problems at the core to soften.

If you have problems with your dog that haven’t been resolved even though you’ve been to class and followed all the usual recommendations you might be ready to study the art of dog training.



One of the best games to play with your dog is hide’n’seek. It gives your dog a chance to run to you with all its drive and enthusiasm. The energy gets a clear channel through which to flow and the destination couldn’t be bettered. Will your dog run to you with all its passion? Or is something better calling?