The Great Egg Race

Contact should be a secret between a horse and his rider. – Nuno Olivera

Many years ago there was a TV program called “The Great Egg Race” in which teams of crazy inventors were given Heath Robinson-like challenges to complete with a minimum of resources. It’s spiritual successor was found in Scrapheap Challenge, but the initial design brief, and the reason the first program got its name, was about transporting an egg in a rubber band powered car without it breaking. A similar team-building game is sometimes run in school workshops called the “Egg drop challenge”, where you’re tasked with creating a protective system for an egg to give it a chance of surviving a drop from a great height, using just sellotape and drinking straws.

The reason all this came to mind was through watching owners holding their dog’s lead. Now most of the training literature available on-line talks about what the dog has to learn, what equipment to use or not use, with a few comments about how to hold the lead. The horse world does encompass a different descriptive approach, which I think then gets closer to what I want to convey. They talk about softness and lightness, there is an emphasis on the feel rather than the concept.

It is well understood that a lot of “something” passes down the lead, but it’s generally seen as a bad thing. It’s also common to see a dramatic change in a dog’s behaviour from being held on lead by one handler, then passed to another, or even when tied up to a secure post rather than the lead held in hand. There must be a purely physical difference in the way the lead is held that the dog perceives and reacts to, a quality to which they respond, something that feels like confidence or anxiety. Would it be then possible to describe how that feeling is created? What is it about the physical connection that is so descriptive and communicative to the dog? I’m inclined to use this connection as much as possible, trying to enhance the positive messages that get passed along, then removing the medium but keeping the message, using my version of what in horse training is called “descent de mains” or a lowering of the aides. By establishing first the right feeling the lead can disappear, as the hand is lowered leaving only the weight of the lead in the hand.

Trying to explain this is what brought about the memories of the Great Egg Race. It occurred to me watching a dog held on the lead that we move too late and try to stop a dog’s surge of energy out of context. It would be like trying to transport an egg in an ill fitting Tupperware container. The resulting omelette is a demonstration of Newton’s First Law – things want to keep on doing what they’re doing even when they get pulled on their lead. The best techniques for transporting the eggs involved some cushioning and support. Egg boxes do exactly this, supporting fairly securely, with a bit of give and flexibility too. I think the dog feels secure being held securely.

The direction of support matters too, with vertical support being more secure and horizontal pressure becoming more of an over-the-edge plunge. This is directly linked to how gravity and hunger work together. Gravity is all in the up/down direction, everything up/down is then about balance. The hunger component is essentially left/right, forwards/backwards. It can also be up/down but to be experienced purely it needs teasing apart from gravity. These directions of forces and their interplay is the pure essence of what a dog experiences. Holding a dog using the lead pressure perfectly poised in opposition to gravity is the way to over ride the random fluctuations in hunger, the pull to the side. Over time the cumulative effect of the ever present constant in our world – gravity, will outweigh all the different feelings from forces in all other directions. Once the feeling has been created the lead pressure can then be switched to the opposite, joining gravity with downward pressure by dropping the assisting force. This then allows the dog to perform without the aid of support, and experience the full effect of self-collection.

Disrhythmic Training

This is training that takes a pattern and breaks it on purpose. It often creates confusion which is perfect for generating and establishing new creative responses. Obviously the clashing, jarring asymmetry isn’t a comfortable feeling and needs to be used to find a new pathway. However the new pathway eventually takes precedence and accommodates the unpredictable. This can be thought of as an interpretation of living in the immediate moment, using the now as the foundation instead of past experiences or future hopes.

In practice I used this recently to bump a dog out of time when he was hooked up and fussing. It’s a great way to calm separation anxiety problems, where dogs use cues and triggers as a pattern for worry. This dog was hooked up and barking, and it was safe to let him continue. The disrhythmic training is simply to go and feed him every now and then, not in any context whatsoever, whether he’s barking or not, just whenever. The food can be fed with effort and straining on the dogs part to build energy. As the situation developed the dog began to attend to the new rhythm, and instead of being anxious and unsure became calmer and more focused.

In another example of disrhythm I took a dogs expectations and played it out over a longer time frame. This is a dog that’s rhythm is far more rapid than our own natural oscillation, so the pairing and syncing is generally haphazard, like trying to hit the button on a stop watch to give a row of zeroes. The trick here was to initially sync up with the high speed rhythm, getting up to speed with the fast pace, then delaying and stretching the rhythm to keep the dog guessing. The expectation of phase shift, from one thing to another, became more entrained. The dog was able to hold and delay instead of tumble through it’s own independent sequence.

One final example is the simple shift from stroking in a slow continual rhythmic pattern and then breaking that up into something more unpredictable. Putting in a pause, then starting again, chopping up the smoothness with taps and touches that can be slightly out of the blue, but expected too. Like tapping someone on the shoulder to get their attention, the slight surprise and arrhythmic interruption can jump start the dog into play so be ready for action.

The biggest and most spectacular demonstration of this shift from rhythm to disrhythm, the collapse into chaos from order, is the Icelandic “Viking clap” seen at football matches. The crowd are unable to accommodate the changing rhythm and collapse into a random cacophony of individual claps instead of the thunderous united single clap. The reverse is found when an impatient crowd unites and starts clapping in rhythm and synchrony to express their displeasure. The phase change is a collapse or emergence of a rhythm.

Highwayman’s Hitch

A great way to work through many exercises is using a long line. One of the things I often then do, especially because I have two dogs, is use the line to hold a dog in place, tying them to a tree or bench. Out in the training field it’s easy to leave tethers all set up and ready to be used. I’ve sunk earth anchors under the turf for quick and easy places to tie dogs. Out in the woods though it’s better to have an easy knot that can quickly be untied and for that I use the Highwayman’s Hitch. It’s design means that you can pull the free end and easily undo the knot without having to untangle yourself from the tree. It’s not the stongest of knots, but holds Scout pretty effectively and he’s yet to discover the way to untie it. Horses apparently can be quick to learn how to pull on the free end, so much for having a clever collie.

This is how you tie this hitch. Make a loop in the line and pass it around the tree. Through the loop pull another loop made with the dog’s end of the line, and then through that pull a loop with the free end. Adjust it all slightly, pulling the knot tight up to the tree. Although it holds under most conditions it seems to come loose with repetitive tugging, gradually undoing the loops. For that reason I only use it for temporary, non-critical and supervised tethers. Because I have a flat line I try to make sure the releasing loop is flat too, that way it doesn’t jam when you pull it free.

Sometimes the challenge of training a dog is simply about making it easy to practise. The easier it is to practise the better the result. The highwayman’s hitch makes it really easy to practise. Being able to tie the dog up without fiddling around with extra equipment, clipping and unclipping leads, is a great help in teaching lots of the exercises, and having a quick release makes for a seamless transition to movement. Just a pull on the free end and the dog is able to run around on the line.

Stick or Twist

My dog Scout is a Twist sort of dog. If he were playing Pontoon he would definitely Twist. If he were on 16 he’d twist. He’d probably twist on 17. On 18, yes he would twist. If he were on 19… TWIST! Even on 20, TWIST!. Because you can never have too much. In fact because you can never have too much, he just loves to have a bit more, he’d probably twist on 21. No I know. You can’t have another card, Scout. But he’d twist anyway. He’s so excited by the potential for more, he’d want another and another, dropping his original hand in the process. The old adage of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush means nothing to him. In fact there are some more bushes around the corner so we should probably go see those too. Today I thought we should work on “stick”.

I realise it’s not a good idea to play with sticks. Thrown sticks are dangerous for dogs, so here’s your veterinary health warning. DON’T PLAY WITH STICKS. But to hell with the advice. I don’t know a better way to teach Scout “stick” than with a stick. So out in the woods we get ourselves ready, and armed with a bunch of sticks we are prepared for battle. The game we play is to stick with the right thing, and not fall for twisting. We start with a racing release, giving him a chance to run at full speed and fly at a nice bite tug. It’s a safe grab, taking it mid-air, and the toy reminds me of those hapless pigeons being pummelled by a peregrine falcon. He’s wildly excited with his catch and wants to show it off, but the temptation to twist is already there. I throw a stick. He doesn’t fall for it, sticking with his toy. STICK! I throw another, trying to tempt him again. STICK! No matter how I throw the sticks he won’t budge on his toy. Good boy, for a twisting fool he’s sticking well. The dealer’s out and he wins the round.

In a variation on this game we find the best place in the woods, generally the deepest darkest wooded part, the home of squirrels and deer and bears. Well probably not bears, not in our woods, but it’s a pretty awesome place and there are bound to be bushes with two more birds in. Those bushes are usually worth way more than other bushes. It’s very important to check them all, just to be sure. As the urge builds to run and find more, to seek out what can’t be seen, as his need surges we rush into a down and stay. Off goes another stick, can he stay put?… STICK! He’s holding steady with another volley sent into the bushes. STICK! and then get ready to run. The culmination to weathering the stick storm is to turn that desire towards me and the bite tug. Ready… GO! And back to practising the peregrine pounce, the fastest most agile hunter in the woods today, flying towards me, twisting through the trees to strike the toy.



It’s no surprise to say that Life presents us with things that we know are going to happen, and things that surprise us. We try to arrange our world so that we can smoothly negotiate the unforeseen events of the future and provide a cushion against the unknowable, so that surprises are less surprising and shocks are absorbed into the status quo.

Living is being able to predict what’s coming and to react and counter any disturbance. When it’s cold we put on a coat, we drink when we’re thirsty, our body is continually sensing itself and adjusting to keep stable, like a thermostat in a centrally heated house, measuring the temperature and burning fuel when required. After being caught out in the past we then try to prevent it catching us out again in the future. We gather food to preempt oncoming hunger, we build shelter for comfort in a storm, and we arrange our world so that we are prepared. The gap between what we want and how things are is filled with our behaviour. We are not simply stimulus response machines, action and perception are coupled together.

Here it comes!

We look for patterns to successfully predict the events of the future. The weather forecast can tell us whether to wear a hat or pack the umbrella. Economic predictions persuade us to buy or sell, tell us how to play the market game for greater benefit and future security. Superstitious causes can be attributed to any unforeseen surprises, especially when they are not very welcome. It can help us feel more in control if we blame bad luck and cross our fingers to hope for good.

Anticipation is a process of imaginative speculation of the future, the expectation of an event. To a certain extent it is preparation for a likely surprise, moving to a state of readiness. By using patterns and predictions and expecting surprises we can then adapt our responses and prepare ourselves to deal with them. Whether it’s looking forward to a sunny day, or dreading a visit to the dentist, there are different ways to deal with the upcoming surprise and of course different surprises too. The anticipation can be pleasurable or bring anxiety, depending on how the impending surprise is viewed, and even if you don’t know what’s coming, it’s coming this way, and it’s coming for you!


Dogs are experts at anticipation. From predicting dinner time, to knowing when we’re going for a walk, they can guess what’s coming up with great skill. Their talent for prediction can also be a problem when they guess where to chase the bike, or that fireworks are going to be let off. A phobia can be seen as a prediction gone astray with an over zealous response to a threat that doesn’t really materialise.

Look out!

From the very first moment we are trying to make sure we know what’s going on and what’s going to happen. It’s not necessarily possible and we are confronted with the limits of our predictions early on when we find ourselves falling and then suddenly hit the ground. The sensation of falling, where no forces are acting on us, when there is no contact, is the precursor to a surprise. Our most primal fear is the fear of falling. The opposite is to feel safe and secure, terra firma beneath our feet, grounded and stable.

Without the surprising jolt of the end of the fall however flying can be an intensely pleasurable, if not ecstatic feeling (the root meaning of ecstatic is “unstable”). The sensation of weightlessness is a continual falling. Astronauts aren’t immune to gravity, they’re falling so fast to the earth they’re circling around it over and over again, like whirling dancers or a murmuration of starlings, forgetting that the fall has an end, suspended in time and space.

Fight or flight are the typical responses of fear. Prepare for the crash and the fear can be assuaged. A parachutist learns to absorb the impact, to tuck and roll. To soften and relax into the sudden impact lengthens the shock and reduces its sting, so the drunkard can fall off the cart without breaking a bone. Time gets stretched and the sharp acceleration becomes cushioned and dampened.

It’s gonna get you!

So we can either face the oncoming world with fear or we can embrace it with enthusiasm, and this applies to the anticipation of both good and bad events. Sometimes called “eustress”, a good stress is defined not by the situation itself but by our reaction to it. Dealing with the future requires a bit of knowledge from the past, the past informs the future, let’s you know what to expect. But being stuck with the past can limit potential for the future, the past repeats again and again, and it’s not the now that’s experienced, just the past as it was. Coping with the past though, so that it doesn’t become stuck on a never-ending loop and isn’t feared, means the future can be seen as limitless, an opportunity, it could be anything. Problems are solutions waiting to happen. Fear turns to pleasure as the future no longer threatens us with the same past pattern.

Using the past to predict the future leaves us open to even more surprise, in that the unpredictable is just that, and despite our best efforts we can’t know what is actually coming around the corner. We want our dogs to demonstrate a bold and fearless approach to the world, and a steadiness that shows they can deal with their experiences without losing composure. A resolute response can be encouraged and supported by practising the foundation skills of Natural Dog Training.

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.