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?

The Core Exercises

The “Core Exercises” were introduced by Kevin Behan as a way to systematise Natural Dog Training and help handlers focus on a set of skills to practise with their dogs. Initially four exercises; the bark, push, supple and bite – to which was added collection, make five “Core Exercises”. The aim is to be able to practise these “no matter what”. Mastering these exercises may need other challenges to help open the pipework, such as fasting, stalking, balance disruption, and soft mouth mawing.


“Speak” or bark for a biscuit, sometimes starting with a lick of the lips, sitting, stamping foot, snorting, or just exaggerated breathing. Like the big bad wolf, with a huff, and a puff, can your dog bark? The bark, the bite and jumping up are closely linked, so look for crossovers between all three.


Pushing, or striving for food. First ask, will your dog take food? Then follow food? Jumping up too, then push in for food? The effort required for overcoming resistance in all the challenges of NDT.


With slow, smooth strokes, the supple into a down and rollover, pushing the shoulders into the ground. The supple core exercise is the softest of the five and gets the dog to feel sensual rather than sensitised to touch. Use handling of the dog’s neck and top-line, right down to the rear and encourage a softening, curving, curling tactile indulgence.


The hunt is agreeing on what to bite. To bite a toy and then carry it about is emotionally grounding, training the dog to hold on to a good feeling. Can you get your dog to bite what you want him to bite? Will your dog carry the toy around with a swagger, looking for admiration and a touch?


The opposite to pushing in some respects, collection steadies a dog, turning movement energy into potential energy. The potential for movement, but contained and gathered, mainly in the rear. Power and control. The steadiness is resisting the stimulating effects of prey-like movements, watch but don’t run, look don’t touch.

Instill stillness

Today our dogs seem to be more reactive and sensitive to the things that are going on around them. And because there is so much to see and hear they are constantly on the go, buzzing without rest, unable to stop themselves. We have to strive to create calmness, the turbulent environment rarely affords more than moments of respite, and those are fleeting, with the upcoming onset of chaos anticipated with more movement and preparation.

Stillness becomes a habit if we work at it. Progressively presenting an environment that can be watched and ignored. Allowing the sensitivity to flourish in the right context, the action and excitement in the thrill of the game outside. Instilling the habit of stillness occurs at all the other times. The easiest methods, although can be difficult to follow, are simply to use a crate or pen, and a securely tethered lead.

Gradually stillness can extend, like a swimming pool without anyone splashing around, the calmness and inaction can settle things down. As the reaction to things gets swallowed by the quiet, the sensitivity gets tuned to the moment of release, when you are then able to move to the dog, to open the door of the crate, to unclip the lead, to engage the dog with the thrill of movement, the chance to open up and channel the enthusiasm in the right way.

Star Wars Day

On this Star Wars day I thought I’d give you my top 3 villains for channeling into scary-person.

Ok first one is a bit green, although I found this photo of her in B&W. Scores highly with brandishing broom and has got great “claw hands”, it’s the wicked witch.

Second, and my personal favourite, the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Now he scores well with big net for a shovel substitute, and has also gone for a sickle as well as pretty good claw hand. His speciality though is the soften and draw, luring in with Treacle tart and ice cream, free today! Nightmares guaranteed, but is overwhelmed by the children too.

Then there’s the dark shadow himself, Darth Vader. An excellent claw hand with the force choke, and happy to wield a light saber. His main strength though is in the breathy soundtrack, an excellent skill to practise when summoning up an evil character.

Lord Voldermort almost made the cut, but chose to wave a wand instead of a much bigger stick. Clearly not played with either of my two…

May the 4th be with you!


I’m intrigued as to the possibility of some sort of catalogue of NDT hand movements and gestures. There are a plenty of websites suggesting possible signals to use but are mainly a human communication for the dog to learn, like a convention or agreed symbol rather than a sign that carries with it an inherent meaning. I haven’t found anything remotely like a universal lexicon, one that intuitively indicates something to the dog. Looking back to the past I found a few early collections of hand gestures as human body language from the 17thC. These provide a useful variety of shapes, but I think I’m looking at a range that encompasses direction and intensity or rigidity.

One of the most graphic hand shapes I see used in NDT is the claw hand. As an expression and projection of energy from the handler it can be aimed in different directions. As the intensity varies the hand shape shifts from the floppy mitten feel, through the quiver of prey in the “bird hand”, to the rigid, hard shaped claw.

In its mildest form and focused upwards it can be seen as the cup that catches anything falling from above. The dog is naturally drawn to see what’s contained within, and by clasping food inside it can become a softened form of claw, safely projecting energy up towards the sky like shining a torch into the air.

This is in contrast to the opposite direction, the claw facing down. The focus of intent is then to the floor, and to whatever is down there. Shine a torch on the floor and the light seems brighter than when shone at the sky. The downward facing claw hand encourages the dog to find the point to which the claw is drawn. If there is a toy there it can become the mid-point, somewhere to go to, something to bite. The searching spotlight can also be felt by the dog to be directed at their feet, a pressure that might need escaping.

The reversed claw turned away from the dog becomes safer energy and is linked to the old adage of “letting the dog sniff the back of your hand”. The safer claw can also become part of the “bird hand” routine, with food inside that is drawn to the dog when collection is maintained. By keeping calm in a relaxed stance the claw hand can be made to turn and deliver the contents.

The claw in its purest form focuses and projects energy straight at the dog. Like the Jedi choke of Darth Vader it can be remote pressure using “the force” or can be used up close in contact as the equivalent of another dogs jaws. The clasping grasping grip targeting the flanks or jowls is a chance to wrestle and soft mouth. The claw spotlight can then be turned to shift the charge from the hand to the toy, a more suitable target for a crushing grip.

Winning is contact with the handler

At the end of the agility course the dog has scurried and climbed, weaved and tunnelled, jumped and run all the way back to the handler. The excitement of hunting down the handler needs absorbing into contact of some sort. Initially, the enthusiasm to run and chase culminates in biting the prey. Being prey-like draws the hunter in, creates the challenge to chase and bite. Our movements around the course build that thrill, directing the hunt in and around the obstacles, hopefully in the right order, demanding and frustrating the hunter with increasing complexity as they become more proficient. But the hunt ends, the prey can no longer escape, and the win is not found in a rosette or shield. Winning is in the connection with the prey, contact with the handler.

Many years ago, at Cranleigh Agility Show I ran my super-fast super-sharp dog “Boo”. It was one of his first ever shows, and he was a liability in public. He came to me instead of going to the vet for “the last visit”. He had a police record for biting too many people: kids on bikes, postal workers, anything that moved quickly. His owners were lost, not knowing how to proceed. He was too fast, too sharp, too much trouble. Puppy classes and clicker training failed them, he would still bite in a panic. So I thought I’d save him, and took him home instead of letting him go anywhere else. He was a collie, and I’d had collies before. How hard could it be?

At the time, before discovering Natural Dog Training, I channelled his enthusiasm into plenty of crazy work. Chasing games, agility, clicker training, super quick obedience. I thought he needed to be trained better, more effectively, I needed more control. But he would still bite the wrong thing at the wrong time. I didn’t realise I was creating more of a charge, electrically fizzing energy that needed to find a lightning rod. I failed to soften and soothe his nerves, failed to create a magnetic feel and continued to super-charge his sparkiness. It wasn’t that I wanted a bite hazard, I just didn’t know any better. I worked hard at everything people tell you to do but was pushing the wrong boulder up the wrong hill. People still get it hopelessly wrong, they still give all the same advice, and there are plenty of dogs like Boo who suffer. Dogs that find the lightning rod when it’s not expected, that bite “out of the blue”, a culmination of stress piled on through well-intentioned training.

At Cranleigh Agility Show I knew I needed to keep Boo safe, to save him from the excitement of everyone milling around. Therefore we’d been working on a recall, a super fast recall, one that would work anywhere. I’d also seen how other people often lose their dogs to other distractions even though they had taught a recall, failing to fasten a lead in time, and in agility the dog couldn’t wear a collar. So we took our recall to another level, super safe control, a jumping recall, safe into my arms. Boo had practised this, and we were ready. A round of nerve-wracking agility, guiding the little exocet around the course, then super safe control, jumping up to be caught, whisked away from biting the judge (which apparently doesn’t help your chances). Everything was planned and under control.

Except the excitement was over-whelming. The show was like practice sessions with the volume turned up, and Boo could feel the thrill. I don’t really remember the agility. It was probably fast and accurate, in fact we might still have a trophy to pick up, one that’s gathering dust unclaimed in the Cranleigh club vault. All I remember is him jumping up into my arms and biting me. It wasn’t a serious bite, just a bite. He was excited and he bit me. Of course he did. And of course it should have made me stop doing what I was doing, but we carried on, back to the training, back to what everyone else was doing. I didn’t figure it out for many years. Sorry Boo. But I remembered.

The challenge as I see it now, is to be able to soften the dogs after they get super excited. Channelling into a bite, but not directly. The game to be enjoyed is one of “stay with me, play with me” on the finish line. Pushing in for contact, softened with food and touch. How much can the dog handle? How much energy can this connection carry before it is then taken to a toy? The final grab is then projected to a bite toy which can be paraded around and applauded. Winning is contact with the handler.