Kamal and I talk about proactive socialization for lockdown, life, and longevity — including how to tailor socialization to the dog in front of you, and why socialization isn't a one-size-fits-all process.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we'll be talking to Kamal Fernandez.
Kamal is an internationally renowned dog trainer and seminar instructor, Championship Obedience Judge, Crufts competitor, and the head trainer and owner of East London Dog Training. He has over 30 years of practical dog training experience, based on a combination of science and hands-on work that have led him to establish a reputation for positive training and to champion reward-based methods all over the world.
Kamal has made a study of psychology and began his career as a police officer working with young offenders. This has shaped his training philosophy and helped him craft a style that gets the best from his students — human and canine alike.
Author of the book Pathway to Positivity, he's successfully used reward-based methods in a wide variety of dog sports, including obedience, agility, protection sports and canine freestyle. His training specialty revolves around using play and games to create motivation and control.
Hi Kamal, welcome back to the podcast!
Kamal Fernandez: Thank you very much for having me and asking me back. It's been a few years, so it's nice to be back and to be asked again.
Melissa Breau: Excited to catch up and to chat. To start us out, can you refresh everybody's memories and share a little about the dogs that you share your life with and what you do with them?
Kamal Fernandez: My numbers have snuck up to double figures. I have a lot of dogs. I have twelve dogs, actually, so I do a range of sports ranging from agility, IGP, obedience primarily. I have older dogs that are retired now, and Sugar, who seems to go through life sitting on our sofa and on the beds. That's her primary vocation. But I'm very lucky that I have the time and the energy and the inclination to have more than one dog. I'm very, very fortunate. I know that not everybody has that. Some people even struggle to have one dog. I have multiple and it's nice. I probably have ADHD or something, because I have a very short attention span, so having lots of dogs keeps me very busy.
Melissa Breau: Fair enough. When I messaged you and asked you if you wanted to come on and what you wanted to talk about, you said, "Proactive socialization for lockdown, life, and longevity." Why was that something you wanted to chat about?
Kamal Fernandez: The reason being, I think it's really relevant now, socialization. Obviously, globally, there's a pandemic, and I think it's something that has been very much on people's minds about socializing their dogs. I think it's something that isn't talked about enough, and there are so many myths and misdemeanors about socialization and the history of socialization.
I would say a lot of the stuff I'm probably going to talk about is anecdotal, but that said, from watching dogs and watching the culture of dog ownership, how we have changed the relationship that we have with dogs, and therefore their needs and how they're perceived in society, and that brings us into how they are socialized.
Melissa Breau: So what IS proactive socialization?
Kamal Fernandez: My premise of socialization is … just a little bit of a walk down memory lane, so to speak. I've been training dogs for a little while, and as this is my craft, and one I'm very, very passionate about, the timeline of how we used to socialize dogs and what we do now has very much evolved and changed over time.
If we go back even further than that, we can see that our relationship with dogs has greatly changed from at one point dogs were basically a tool for us, that was the original relationship with them, and then it evolved to a tool/more a commodity, then it evolved into more a companion, and then it evolved into a family member, and now it's become your fur kid/surrogate child.
So the evolution of our relationship with our dogs hasn't necessarily aligned with the way in which they are perceived. Certainly in the U.K. there's been a huge shift between how we used to socialize our dogs to how somebody like Ian Dunbar, who was a real advocate of socialization and people actively socializing their dogs, how that's now the pros and cons of that in what we're seeing now, which is a lot of reactive behavior, fearful behavior, dogs with lacking social skills.
So really my thinking about socialization has evolved from dog ownership as an individual and seeing people with dogs, and dealing with lots of problem dogs, and very much the rise in dogs that are reactive and are, for lack of a better term, lacking or poor in social skills.
As a dog owner when I first owned a dog some thirty-plus years ago, socialization wasn't a done thing. What you would do is you would get a dog, and if you had a dog, a lot of dogs were let out the door in the morning and they'd turn up in the evening, and they'd have a great old time in the local community. It was very much the done thing.
Our dog used to bolt out the front door, hence why I got into dog training, and she used to come back several hours later because we couldn't catch her. But largely that's not something I advocate or advise anybody else to do. What she had was really good dog skills, because she was mixing with other dogs in our locality. The fallout for that is that we had dogs that were loose and uncontrollable.
So the rules in the U.K. have become much more stringent. In the '90s we had a real issue with dangerous dogs, and specifically bull breeds and specifically pit bulls. There was this huge influx of media and imagery that was telling people about the uncontrollable dogs and these dangerous dogs that needed to be imprisoned and put to sleep and got rid of from society, which obviously now I think we know better, but that's a whole other conversation.
But as a result of that, there was a shift in the belief that we needed to … there were obviously several prominent people within our industry that were really advocating socialization. So there had become the shift of you needed to have a dog that was a great citizen and loved everything and loved everybody and was socialized. There was this huge thing of socialize your dog and puppy parties very much prevalent within the U.K. Definitely I'd be confident enough to say that's happened globally as well. Certainly in other countries that I've traveled to there's this same pattern that occurred.
When people started to socialize their dogs, they did it with the best intentions, but probably not a lot of knowledge about dog behavior, dog body language, reading calming signals and information that the dog was giving us, and how to strategically socialize our dogs in a way that created the end goal, which for me, as an individual dog owner, is I want a well-adjusted family pet. I want a really balanced dog with good social skills that can navigate through life, keeping itself and others safe. That's really crucial.
The thing to say about my own specific dogs is I don't just have sports-bred dogs from breeders bought to do a job. I have rescue dogs and rehomed dogs. I have the weird and wonderful dogs. I do that because not only am I a dog lover, but because I like dogs, full stop. I don't just like Border Collies or Malinois. I have dogs because I love all dogs. They are my passion. Therefore it gives you a different spectrum of socializing different breeds and what's necessary for them.
What then happened as an individual is I started to evaluate the way in which I socialize my dogs and how I perceive socialization. I was never an advocate of getting my dog and letting it meet a hundred people or letting it meet an infinite amount of dogs. My end goal for my dogs, as I say, is to create a well-adjusted family pet, with a balanced dog first and foremost, but also to create indifference.
I want my dog to be indifferent to things. I want them to be indifferent to people. I want them to be indifferent to other dogs. I want them to be indifferent to objects and to noises and to things and to environments. I want them to be largely nonplussed about all those situations that they are eventually going to come across in their life.
Because of the dogs that I had, I set about creating that within them. I'd say I'm a naturally confident person, and I knew with the dogs that I had initially … the first dog I ever owned had major behavioral issues, but they were largely trained behavioral issues. They were things that we caused because of our lack of experience.
Initially she had some fearful behavior, but I have to say that all dissipated over time. It was an instinctive thing that I did initially where I never really responded when she showed any extreme reaction to things, whether it be fear or excitement. I was very neutral to the whole thing, and it was something that I started to realize would be a technique that I could employ with my other dogs, my subsequent dogs, and advise people to do.
I think that we have a disconnect when it comes to dogs. Say, for example, children. I constantly reference my own life experiences to make it more human to people about my opinion and more relatable. The two big things in my life that have steered my opinion about socialization was being a police officer, and the other aspect is being a parent. Two big life-impacting events in my own personal journey.
Being a parent has really raised my awareness of the importance of effective socialization or proactive socialization. My daughter is being socialized constantly. She is being exposed to experiences, but in a very controlled, structured manner to create the exact learning experience that we want for her.
The end goal is obviously to have a well-adjusted person. Hopefully that's what she grows up to be, with self-confidence, and as a woman she's confident in herself and she's aware of her own personal being, and to think in a certain manner about everything from consent to how she engages with other people.
We are mindful of the way in which we talk to her, how we engage with her, how we interact with her, and how we socialize her. She goes to several things in her little hectic social life. She mixes with her peers at school, and there's adult supervision within that interaction. She goes to ballet, and there's again another adult supervising the kids and there's a controlled number of people. She goes to swimming. That's where she's with myself or with Lois, and we engage with her by the means of an instructor giving us information. The events that she has in her day are very specific — or in her week, I should say — are very specific to create an experience for her.
The reason that we wanted her to do swimming is obviously not from a lifesaving point of view, but because it was something that would not only help her long-term, but to give her confidence of doing something that was slightly stressful initially for her personally, but the way in which the class was structured was the information was broken down into layers. Each week they'd give us a piece of information, and she was exposed, to be truthful, to little bits of things that she wasn't confident on. Over time and strategic choices and decisions on the part of the instructor, and the way that it's formatted, she's now uber-confident. I wrote a blog about her journey, the first time I took her to swimming, how brilliantly laid out it was, like the absolute epitome of a great lesson and great teaching.
So that was one thing we wanted her to do. The other thing was something like ballet, for example. We don't go in there with her. She does that with a level of independence. She's taking direction from an instructor. We wanted her to do something semi-creative and something that encouraged her because she has an introvert aspect to her personality. She's quite sensitive in certain things. She doesn't relish being the center of attention or people looking at her, which her mom is a very similar personality trait.
Recognizing that within my daughter, we made a decision to say we're going to expose her to something that's creative and that's going to encourage her to be a bit more flamboyant, and something that she can do with a group of kids, again in a controlled setting.
The reason why I talk about those specific decisions is because those are decisions that I would have with my dogs. If I had a dog with a certain temperament and a certain ilk, I would be actively seeking out experiences and lessons for that dog to have that's going to create the end goal.
To bring this back to my own dogs, my Boxer, for example, I knew that that dog particularly, or that breed, could be predisposed to aggression. I don't mean that all Boxers have bad temperaments, not at all, and certainly he doesn't, but dogs of that ilk have that edge about them. That's the only way I can describe it, an edge which largely they're a guarding breed, they're meant to be a little bit aloof, a little bit suspicious, and their body language can be provocative when they engage with other dogs because they're very strong. They have a crumpled face and a still neck and he has a tail, which is very stiff.
As a proactive part of his socialization, I made sure I exposed him to lots of different breeds of different types, small dogs, big dogs, hairy dogs, which I would do with all my dogs anyway. But I also made a point when he was younger to socialize him with other male dogs so he understood maleness, for want of a better term. He then didn't develop, hopefully, over time, really strong aggressive behavior. And I'll talk specifically about him and the impact of testosterone and how that can play a part in socialization.
It's really important that we parallel how society is becoming much more understanding of children and how to talk to them in a way that builds confidence and doesn't put stuff, for want of a better term, on them. We're thinking about the way in which we talk to our children. We're talking about the old adage of "Kids should be seen and not heard" is definitely not the case now, I think, in modern society, which is great.
And it's the same with dogs. We need to be thinking about being proactive, as opposed to letting them out the front door, so to speak, and hoping for the best. Does that make sense?
Melissa Breau: Yeah, yeah. It's about having a plan, looking at the dog in front of you, and figuring out how to balance out their natural tendencies.
Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely. The thing I would say is one of the best reactions you can have is no reaction. Denise wrote a brilliant blog about "It will always be fine." Susan Clothier references as well about remaining very neutral when the dog has an outburst or an adverse reaction and just very nonchalant about the whole thing. That's something that I definitely subscribe to.
I think that socialization is a very challenging part of dog ownership and something that is almost a feat of training in itself. No different to bringing up a child to have good social skills and manners and be self-confident and outgoing, but also balance between being polite but not being likely to be subservient. All those nuances of how we want people to behave, or certainly how I would want my daughter to be.
Melissa Breau: Taking that, I know you talked a little bit about your goal in there. Do you want to recap that, a couple of sentences, to firm it up for folks? The goal, the way I'm understanding it, is you're looking for a neutral reaction, right?
Kamal Fernandez: My end goal with all my dogs is to create a well-adjusted family pet with a balanced temperament. I also want them to show indifference to anything and everything within their life, unless I specifically raise their awareness or create arousal attached to that item or thing or that event or that experience. I want my dog to respond to a person like he would a coffee table, like, "Big deal," and just keep on moving, as opposed to going, "Oh, it's a person. I'm super-excited, I'm super-apprehensive, I'm super-anxious, I'm super-this." I want the dog to be like, "Oh yeah, human beings, they exist in the world. I'm nonplussed about them. I'm not fearful of them, I'm not excited by them. I've seen one, seen them all."
Melissa Breau: I like that. Within that, obviously there's a lot of tailoring happening there. Do you have a general framework, things that you always do, or things that you never do, or scaffolding you hang all the other pieces off of when you're approaching socialization?
Kamal Fernandez: Definitely. I make a concerted effort to socialize my dogs. Again, I manufacture the situations with as many types of dogs that I can. For example, a hairy dog that has hair over its eyes, a dog with a squashed face — even though I have a Boxer, I can never pronounce brachycephalic — a pointy dog, a black dog, a fast-moving dog, because we absolutely know that every breed of dog has its own dialect and culture within it.
How a German Shepherd would say hello to another German Shepherd would be to roughhouse and shoulder barge and grab each other. That would be their "Hello, how are you." If a German Shepherd did that to a Shetland Sheepdog, the Sheltie would probably have an absolute breakdown, certainly the ones in the U.K., because they're not like your American Shelties. I'm probably going to get vilified for bad mouthing Shelties.
The thing to take onboard is to make a concerted effort to mix your dog with lots of different types of dogs. This is coming back to sports-specific. Sports dog trainers are really lapse on this part of socialization in that we have a high access to Border Collies, so I'm going to mix my Border Collie puppy with lots of other Border Collies. Fantastic, that's great. Unless you live your life permanently at a dog show, a dog trial, you are kind of limited because you're going to meet a Boxer, you're going to meet a Pug, you're going to meet a Flatcoat, you're going to meet a Retriever, you're going to meet a Corso, you're going to meet a Whippet. But people don't make an effort to find or engineer the dog meeting that type of dog.
What I do is I'm not all "okay Kumbaya — just let them run around and interact..." I use a traffic light system. First red light, no interaction. Dog observes from afar and I observe the other dog's body language and I observe my dog's body language. I take a little thermostat of where is the dog. I take a little temperature of both dogs' feelings at that moment in time. I then make a decision based on that initial assessment of do I let them have an interaction, and the interaction would be brief, so brief interaction, count of ten, call the dog back to me, reassess, check the temperature of the room again, and then I can decide whether I want to let the dogs off the lead or have more interaction.
That strategic process allows the dog to have a neutral experience, or at least ideally a positive experience. When I say positive, positive does not have to mean they meet, they romp around, they become best buddies. A positive experience is he sees the Boxer, or my Boxer sees the Shar-pei, he acknowledges it, he air scents, he looks back to me, he shrugs his shoulders. That's a brilliant experience for my dog to have.
Positive experience doesn't have to be they romp around, they become besties. If anything, in certain dogs that's counterproductive because you build in arousal paired with other dogs. They see other dogs, they get super-excited. When you walk up at a dog show, you're not only creating arousal because of the sport, but you're creating arousal because of the other dogs, and then you're getting into a whole load of drama.
Melissa Breau: Those dogs who bark and lunge just as much from a frustrated desire to greet.
Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely, yeah.
Melissa Breau: From that framework, how do you … I know you talked us through the example of your daughter earlier, but when you're looking at a dog specifically, how are you going to tailor and adapt things to make sure that what you're planning out is really about "training the dog in front of you"?
Kamal Fernandez: The thing to say about dog training — and the more dogs you have, the more you learn this — is every single dog is an individual. That sounds such a cliché and it really does reiterate the mantra "Train the dog that's in front of you." It's really important to take the dog as an individual when you're approaching socialization.
I don't have a set protocol. Not all my dogs are going to meet 101 dogs and have a great time with them. Some dogs, that might be relevant. For example, I have a foster dog with me at the moment, a Labrador. She was a dog that trained with me in one of my puppy classes, and unfortunately the owner's circumstances have meant that the dog is going to be rehomed. Hopefully, fingers crossed, they're going to have their first introduction this week with one of my students.
But the dog has really strong fear reactions to other dogs. She's a Labrador, and you can imagine Labradors are absolute gullets. She will not take food when she sees another dog that she doesn't know. You imagine for a breed like that, and that type of dog, how extreme and how apprehensive she is in that situation. With her, I'm working on confidence around other dogs, but the ironic thing is with her, because I've had her at my home before for training when she was a lot younger, she knows all my dogs, and amongst other dogs she's absolutely great. It's if one solitary dog turns up.
Now there is a possibility that she had an untoward experience when she was younger. It wasn't that she got attacked or anything. It could just simply be that when she was having her season or hormonal, some dogs invaded her personal space intrusively, and that has left a very impressionable mark on her being.
To give you an example of the impact it has on her, not only does she instantly shut down, or she won't take food or she didn't take food — we were starting to build confidence around that — she also, if one of my other dogs wander around or brush her, she'll scream like they've attacked her. So a really strong reaction, which again, when I had her as a puppy, she didn't show that reaction. So I suspect that what's happened is her owners … she's not had any attacks, which is what it looks like. I simply think that she's quite sensitive. She's got a sensitive streak, and I think what's happened is dogs have just invaded her personal space and been too intrusive with her, which has made her fearful, which has made a dog that is probably a little bit hypersensitive anyway and brought that out.
Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing. With a dog like that, I would be much more … again, look at the dog. You don't have to have an interaction. And especially when the hormonal stage kicks in, I very much retract my dogs from socialization because of that reason.
For example, another one of my dogs, Hottie, she is now coming up 10 months, so she hasn't had a season. So imminently I'll start to look for little telltale signs that things like spook-barking, things like a little bit of resource guarding, things like adolescence kicks in, all those things allude to her hormones changing and her possibly having a season. When that happens and I see that, I won't let her meet any male dogs that she hasn't met before, because I don't want a male dog to be overboard and over-sexualized with her, which could potentially worry her and concern her and cause a long-term problem. Does that make sense?
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. You mentioned that she was the type of dog who maybe had a hypersensitive streak. I know in your book you talk a little bit about some of your other dogs, and one of them had a tendency to chase that you thought was going to be really pronounced, and some of those things. How do you evaluate that? How do you determine this dog has this quality, so that's the thing I want to set up against?
Kamal Fernandez: Some dogs you can tell by genetics. A lot of my dogs are from breeders and I know their genetics, so I've got a heads up. My Malinois I know is more than likely to have a predisposition to behavior that could be reactive, I'm going to say. For example, she's probably going to be motion-sensitive. She's possibly going to be possibly lead-reactive, if I'm not careful. She'll have a low threshold to frustration, meaning she'll get frustrated very quickly, if that's another dog or a person.
She, in particular, is by far the most social, people-obsessed dog I've ever owned. That was something I didn't expect with a Malinois. My other two were very good with people, but they were largely indifferent. They were quite aloof. But they were very solid, their temperaments were impeccable, but they just weren't really people dogs, other than me. So that was something that I wasn't expecting with her — her level of obsession with people. As I discussed, that ,combined with her breed characteristics of grabbing things with her mouth, that was something I really had to put on the priority list.
A massive part of her training to work through her people obsession was having her around people and people told implicitly, "Don't talk to her, don't engage with her, don't look at her," and her learning to basically ignore them. I didn't do a lot of feeding or alternative behaviors. I basically bored her. I just stood around, had the people at a distance, there were situations where I would reward her for focus. I would engage with her and work on focus exercises. But I also want her to go through life and see people and find them like, "Oh, whatever."
So I did a lot of where we'd just sit and there'd be a person on another chair, which is where social distancing when she was younger would have been fantastic. It would have been brilliant for her. But I'd have people 2 or 3 meters away just doing their own thing and I'd have her on a lead and settling on a bench and she would be ignoring them, and that would be the game. That would be the exercise that we would do. Or walking adjacent to a person. No dog, just a person. I also did parallel walking next to people, so she learned just to essentially not receive reinforcement from them.
I did a lot of work on her recall, a lot of work on focus, and now she's excellent. She's still very social. A big thing with her was not to have hthem reinforce as she jumped up to them. So it was always feet on the floor with her specifically. Things like that helped her become, or she's becoming, a really lovely dog.
I knew that specifically not only from a domestic point of view would it be problematic to have a dog that's that aroused by people. Also for the sport I want to do with her. I want to do IGP with this dog, and just the prospect of a person, which is going to spike her arousal, and a biting object, those two things with that particular dog, literally, arousal that means no thinking, no brain, nothing. For a positive trainer, that's a level of arousal that she cannot function in, where she's so aroused, and if you were to correct her, she's going to get in conflict because she's got a sensitivity about her. It would just be an absolute drama.
So I broke it down into pieces where I worked on what I would call anti-people training, and then I did a lot of work on the biting and control around the biting. I did a lot of anti-sleeve training, where I take the sleeve out for a walk with the dogs and I get them to ignore it. All that sort of stuff. When I first had a bite-work session, I did it with food, so I didn't bring the bite sleeve into it. All those layers were thought out because I knew what her nemesis is, which is people. So with her, her primary socialization objective was anti-people. I've had dogs that were very dog-obsessed, so again, same principal. I trained them to be indifferent to dogs.
Genetics can give you an indication of what you're going to get. You know a Border Collie is going to probably want to chase. You know that a Malinois is probably going to want to bite things or have things in their mouth. You know that a Terrier is probably going to want to hunt and may be reactive because of their instinctive side to bite things that come back at them.
Breed characteristics can give you an inkling of what you're going to get, but the big thing is sometimes dogs will throw you a curveball. For example, I wasn't expecting Jungle to be people-obsessed. That's not generally a Malinois thing. They can be apprehensive of people, a lot of them, or indifferent or aloof. Those were the things I was expecting, not a case of "I love people like a Golden Retriever loves people."
Melissa Breau: Thinking about that, is there a process you're going through constantly as you're training where you're checking for stuff like that? You obviously went in with the assumption that she was going to use her mouth a lot, and she was going to be a certain type of dog, and then she wound up loving people. How do you catch that early enough on that you're not hurting your own end purposes?
Kamal Fernandez: With her, it was prominent from the second she came in the house. She was 8 weeks old. I brought her in the house, she saw Neave, she launched herself on Neave, grabbed Neave's clothing, and started tugging. It was, like, 8 weeks old. And I was like, "Oh, OK." I will say, Neave is very dog-savvy, obviously, as you can imagine. She's got perfect skills for a kid. She was neutral, didn't react and get excited, and I just went and peeled the puppy off, because I didn't expect that strong a reaction from her. I knew she would be excited, but as she walked in the house, she saw a human and went "bam" and got obsessed.
If I showed the extreme contrast, when I brought Hottie in, she was only a couple of months younger than her. Hottie went up to Neave, she sat next to Neave, like an old dog that sat perfectly, sat and waited patiently for her to interact with her, and that was it. And then she curled up and lied with her. That was Hottie's interaction with her. Which again I was expecting Hottie to be a bit more because Hottie's mother is very gregarious and loves people, so I was expecting more of that. But actually Hottie was like, "OK, human, great, fine, I'll sit next to you," but was largely indifferent.
With those two dogs, it was very prominent what they were going to do. Sometimes you can't always see until you put the dog in a situation where you expose them to people and expose them to dogs.
Again, if I'm talking about proactive socialization, I always assume my dog is going to be concerned about the situation. I assume my puppy is going to be concerned about people. I assume my dog is going to be concerned about dogs. Therefore I am proactive about the way in which I expose them to them, so it's very controlled. No one talks to the puppy, nobody touches the puppy, if the puppy wants to come up to you, great.
Some puppies you go, "This puppy is going to be fine." My gut instinct says that this puppy is going to be fine, and everything about its being says the dog is going to be social. But I always act as if the dog's not. I act as if the dog is going to be worried, and I say to people, "Don't talk to the dog unless it comes up to you."
The same with dogs. I always assume my puppy is going to be worried about the other dog, and I assume the dog is going to be worried about my puppy. Therefore I take proactive steps of chaperoning the first interaction, showing the other dogs I know the other dog, and even then I make that hidden assumption he might not like this particular puppy. So I have the puppy on a lead, I have a little bit of distance, I assess the puppy, I do it in a controlled manner so that I'm not taking an unplanned risk, because things could still go wrong. You could have a puppy, a dog, that something untoward happens. But if you can be proactive and err on the side of caution, you should hopefully protect them from anything going wrong.
Now the thing to say about being cautious — caution shouldn't be based from anxiety. It should be from awareness. So when I do this with a puppy, I'm not anxious about what's going to happen. I'm just aware. I'm aware of the other dog, I'm respectful of the dog's distance, I take time, I don't force the process. That isn't based from anxiety, and that's the thing to clarify to people. I think sometimes people get anxious about that experience, and that can create a problem long-term. I'm not anxious. I'm just aware. I'm aware of the situation, I'm aware of the environment, I'm aware that my other dog can move away if it wants to, I'm aware of the dog turning away and giving avoidance behavior or giving avoidance information or displacement or whatever the case may be. I'm constantly checking in with both dogs, and that's something that will hopefully cause the experience to go in a way that's beneficial.
Melissa Breau: I've seen some conversations lately that have given me some pause, focused specifically around when to "train" something versus just managing it so the dog isn't exposed to whatever the antecedent is that causes the undesired behavior, just giving the dog a chance to mature a bit. Can you talk a little bit about what kind of behaviors, or how you decide when a behavior is something you should work on, when it's something you should just manage, and when it's something you just let the dog grow out of it?
Kamal Fernandez: The short of that, all those three things are options. They're viable. There's things that you're going to absolutely have to train against or train your dogs through, there's things that you're going to absolutely manage, and there's things that you're going to totally ignore because they'll dissipate.
What dictates that for me is the effect it has on society and other people, and also I look at me, I look at the dog, and I look at society. I think Denise wrote a great blog or Facebook post about everybody has a say in this process. The deciding factors would be is that appropriate for the dog, is it appropriate for me, is it appropriate for society. All of those are valid.
Things that I would manage, and management, as I said, strongly I tell people on a regular basis just manage the dog's behavior, because sometimes the end doesn't justify the means. Noise sensitivity is a great one to discuss on this. If I have a dog that doesn't like a particular, very specific sound, and I can avoid or manage that dog's … or I'm going to ignore it … I'm going to give you a great example.
My little dog Sugar doesn't like the frying pan. If the frying pan goes on, she always leaves the room. I could easily un-train that. I could do some counter-conditioning or desensitization, but in truth, I'm not going to even bother because it's not something that makes the dog so grossly unhappy that it affects her in general. It isn't making her unsafe, or she's not in harm's way. She's not affecting anybody else if she takes herself off to another room. All that happens if she's in the room and she can't get away, she'll shake for a second, I open another door, I let her go in the bedroom, she takes herself in there, happy days, everybody's happy.
If I was to train her, I'd have to, to a degree, expose her to that thing that causes her concern. Why would I do that when the dog has a great option for keeping herself out of the frying pan's way. I can carry on using the frying pan or the the grill, if it's the grill now or the fan goes on above our cooker, she gets antsy about it because she's now paired that with the frying pan. So that would be an example of when I go "The end doesn't justify the means." Yes, she has a little bit of a meltdown over it, a minimal run, she's not really happy, but she takes herself off into the other room; she's happy, we call her back, we give her a treat, she'll go off, she'll take a treat, she'll scuttle back off again, no problem. That's one example.
If the behavior she chose was so problematic, let's say that the frying pan came on and she wanted to redirect and bite out of fear other people in the house. That would be something I would have to deal with because now the problem is becoming unsafe. It's becoming dangerous for her or for somebody else. We're coming back to the dog, me, and society, so I would have to do something about that. I could manage it. I could put the dog in the crate. I could never use the frying pan again. That's another option. But I could also train against it. I could do some work with teaching an incompatible behavior, go to your bed, there is many options that are appropriate. The severity of her behavior would dictate the choice. As I say, all of those three things are interchangeable.
Talking specifically about socialization, when this will be absolutely come to the fore is during adolescence and when your dog is going through a hormonal stage. Because often a lot of the stuff dogs do during their adolescence will come and it will go. Your dog's little strange reaction to spooking at barking will come and it will go. You making an issue of it can make it ten times worse.
To give you another little bit of an anecdote about that, all my female Border Collies I own now are all related to one particular dog. They're all her daughters. About three months before her first season … she's got an excellent temperament, really gregarious, very social, very outgoing, loves everything, loves everyone, not trained to be indifferent, but she's bombproof for a dog.
Three months before her season, she spook-barked on a walk that we went every single day of her life. There's a gap in-between there's some trees along the way as you go in the entrance and there's a large gap looking up in the hills, and she spook-barked in this gap. There was nothing there, there was nobody there, there was nothing I could see. She might have seen a leaf drop. She stopped, spook-barked at this thing, and all my dogs ignored her, I made a note to self, "That's a bit strange for her," didn't react, moved on.
You could have put a pin in the calendar — three months to the day, she came in season. All of her daughters exhibit the same trait. They will randomly spook-bark, and within three to four months, they'll come in season. So that's something that I wouldn't bother training against. I'd just make a little note to self, because again it's one of those things that will come and it will go, and once they've had their season and their hormones have settled down, nothing comes of it.
That's a really common thing for dogs to show fear-based behavior, or male dogs often get in a little scuffle, and that's a classic point of where lead reactivity or reactive behavior or dog aggression is trained and caused. When dogs enter adolescence, the dog gets into a little scuffle, as dogs often do. It's normally a nothing incidence where there's lots of teeth clattering and hair flying, but actually nothing comes of it.
But what happens within the relationship of the dog and the person has a level of trauma. They see their dog being attacked, or they see their dog attacking another dog and then they get verbal abuse from the owner. Now PTSD sets in. Next time they see a dog that looks similar, they tense up the lead. Next thing you know, you've got lead reactivity. It's very common in those instances to train things in that can last a dog's lifetime.
So in regards to things like aggression, fear, it's not great. We don't want our dogs to be fearful. We don't want our dogs to be aggressive. We don't want our dogs to snap at another dog. Of course we don't. But we also have to, again coming back to our disconnect between dogs and the relationship, that's what dogs do. Dogs do that. It's normal. Most dogs do it and then they don't do it, and they may never do it again. Lots of dogs. And sometimes dogs do it when it's absolutely appropriate, and sometimes dogs do it when it's absolutely not appropriate. All of the above is going to happen.
But the thing to say is if you hang on to that stuff, you're going to put anxiety on that dog and you're going to create issues that are going to potentially last a lifetime. So it's really important that you enter adolescence with the right headspace, knowing that it's going to be some troubled waters, to stick with your game plan, not expose the dog to trigger situations, i.e., for example, my male adolescent dog doesn't meet male adolescents that he doesn't know, my female dog doesn't meet male dogs, or I would be mindful of who she mixed with or the experiences she has when she becomes hormonal.
For example, with my female dogs, when they start to get a bit hormonal, I don't take them to environments where it could be too noisy or chaotic, because very quickly they could develop noise sensitivity or problems because they're sensitive anyway. They're sensitive to sound because of their hormones. If they go into an indoor riding school that they've never been before, they hear a bang, you could have a problem very quickly. So it's just being a little bit vigilant about these things and making sure that you're again being proactive about it.
Melissa Breau: I know from the book that you approach socialization as a lifelong process. Can you talk about how your approach changes as the dog matures, if it does? We talked a bunch about adolescence and stuff like that, so I'd love to ...
Kamal Fernandez: The primary point of socialization should be within naught to 3 years old, when you put all your hard work in. That's when you're going to probably see all the ups and downs. You're going to pull your hair out and have to get a glass of wine and drown your sorrows. But after that point it should get easier.
But you also have to be mindful that with some dogs and some behavioral traits you want to keep vigilant about it. For example, bringing it back again to my own dogs, my Boxer, Punch, when he was in adolescence, he got really challenging. He had some real extreme dog aggression issues and ones I had to really work through. And then he had a hormone spike and I had problems with him and my other dog. There was a whole series. I talk about this in Pathway to Positivity. Now he's excellent with other dogs. But I don't take it for granted that he is what he is, and I need to be respectful of who he is. I also need to intermittently reinforce him when he doesn't show inappropriate behavior towards another dog.
Whereas my other dogs, my Collies definitely, I would be absolutely flabbergasted if they showed reaction to another dog, full stop. In most situations I'd be absolutely flabbergasted. But Punch, if he is a gentleman around another dog, I always acknowledge it, "Good boy," and give him some reinforcement in some way, shape, or form. So again, behavior needs to be reinforced to be maintained, or it's more likely to be rehearsed or repeated, and that's something that should be applicable to socialization.
The other aspect is the reinforcement doesn't necessarily have to be food and treats or food and toys. It could be for your apprehensive dog that when they show good social skills and they show a level of confidence, the other dog disappears or you move away as a reinforcer. So think about what reinforcement is to that particular dog.
With Punch specifically, if he behaves really great, my role is I just remove him from that situation. His reinforcement would be I move further away or I can feed him. So it's really important that you know what the dog would find reinforcing in that situation. For the apprehensive dog, it's move away from the other dog. It's also being vigilant, especially with dogs that have had a negative experience that you are constantly monitoring throughout their whole life that you're checking in, because good training, good socialization, remedial socialization I should say, will put bubble wrap over a cracks, but the crack will always be there to a degree, and unless you keep rechecking the bubble wrap to make sure that it's solid, and intermittently patching up and doing a bit of MIT on it, it could quite easily reemerge if you're not cautious.
My German Spitz, for example, Sonic, when I first got him, I brought him as a rehomed dog. He was very nervous with people and dogs and things. Again, I approached his socialization as I do with all my dogs, and now he's a super-gregarious, outgoing, you wouldn't notice at all that he has apprehension issues or he's fearful. But I am also mindful that he doesn't always want to say hello to people.
The thing is he attracts people's attention because he's cute and he's furry, but sometimes he doesn't want to say hello to them. So if he lets me know within his being, and they want to say hello to him and he doesn't look happy about it, I just go, "Oh no." I might say, "Give him a tidbit," or I just say, "No, he's busy," or whatever the case may be. I honor the fact that sometimes, although you'd never notice — I defy anybody to say the dog had an apprehension issue or was nervous around people — but it's because he puts his trust in me that I keep him safe as well. That's another important facet of socialization.
Melissa Breau: To open a whole other can of worms, you tease it there at the end, but what role does relationship play in socialization? How does having a good relationship with your dog and practically socializing them, how do those things work together and can be mutually beneficial?
Kamal Fernandez: To me, the two things are the same. Effective proactive socialization is a series of events that leads to the dog that you want to own — an outgoing, confident, well-adjusted family pet with a balanced disposition and outlook.
That is dependent on you as an owner/caregiver/guardian exposing the dog to situations that are positive. Just to reiterate, that doesn't mean frolicking along grasping best buddies. That means, "I didn't get approached by another dog," "The dog didn't come up into my personal space," "The dog didn't bite me," "The dog looked away from me." That's all great experiences. The more I can rehearse that with my dog where it has positive experiences, the more they're going to trust in me.
I suppose you can argue that's anthropomorphizing dog behavior, but they're going to be conditioned that they are safe with me, they are being conditioned that they have positive experiences with me, which is going to enhance our relationship, and they also are learning that I'm in control of the environment. I can make that dog disappear. I can make that dog move further away from you. I can make that dog do a down. I can control that person not touching you. What then happens is you create so much confidence in the experiences the dog has with you specifically that that very much affirms that trust/all that gushy stuff that we talk about with dog training and dog ownership.
Melissa Breau: Looking at all of this, there's a lot of "Here's what you should do" type stuff in there and a lot of really awesome advice in there. On the flip side of that, I think a lot of times when we talk about this stuff, people can end up feeling guilty. They feel like they didn't do it "right," or they failed their dog. Because their dog is showing reactivity or their dog is showing fear, it's something they did wrong. Can you share your thoughts on that?
Kamal Fernandez: Absolutely. The thing to say about dog ownership is it's not straightforward. It's not a linear state of progression. It is ups and downs. I can tell you now, every single dog I own, I've had a moment where I've gone, "Oh my God, what have I done with this dog?" It might be from a training point of view, it might be from an ownership point of view.
Again, Punch is a great dog to talk about with this. I genuinely at one point was like, I've committed myself to I've got to train this dog positively, whatever that is. Let's not even get into that discussion. But I was committed to training him under the banner of reinforcement-based dog training, and when he was a raging, hormonal Boxer that wanted to get into fistfights with everything with four legs, I was really challenged as to what I was going to do with him, because I was really conflicted. There was nobody. It was just my stuff. I put on my shoulders that I needed to do it this way and I was committed to it.
In truth, I discuss it very openly. I suppose you could say I used a punisher with him. I raised my voice and made a lot of noise and stomped my feet, and I was really conflicted. I felt very guilty about that because I was like, oh, I've failed. I had committed to having this relationship where it was all positive, and I felt an immense amount of guilt. But you learn to take the lesson from the experience, and even your dogs that are reactive, there is a lesson to be gleaned from that, in that the dog … and I know this is cliché and corny, but you get the dog that you need, not necessarily the one that you want. The amount of students that I've had that had "problem" dogs that come to me and they've opened up a whole new world of dog training, FDSA and all the great things out there, because of the problem dog. And often, if they had a nice, sweet, amenable dog, they would never have found this fantastic world that we move in.
So the thing about feeling guilty is the guilt isn't going to serve you. You can look at it as I made a mistake, what can I learn from that mistake, how do I move forward from that mistake or that error, and also reframe that in your mind. It wasn't a mistake. It was a learning experience. I've had a learning experience with every single dog I've ever owned, in sports and domestically, things that I could do better, and the life lessons to do better with each subsequent dog.
You often find, and I hope this doesn't come across as judgmental, but often you'll find with behavioral stuff, it will be definitely our stuff. It will absolutely be our stuff that we inadvertently, unintentionally put on our dogs, because that's the very dynamic of what the human/canine relationship is. That's exactly what it's supposed to be. We are meant to be intertwined with them. That's why they all happened a gazillion years ago when the one random wolf turned up and scavenged around and now fast-track to a Pug with tutu on and sunglasses. That's why it worked. That's why we don't have these issues with cats in the same ways. Cats barely give you the time of day, bless them.
The contrast is don't feel guilty about it because that's exactly how it's meant to happen. We are meant to have this deep-rooted emotional connection with these animals. And for me, that's why I do it, because I'm working to create that with each dog. The tradeoff is that sometimes they're so in tune with me that sometimes some of my stuff is going to come out on their shoulders. But you know what, the alternative is I'd have a detached, no connection with the animal, and that, for me, wouldn't be what I would want from it.
The thing to say about reframing it is that we want our dogs to be connected with us on that deep level. That means the tradeoff is that they are going to feel and appreciate our emotional changes when we're anxious. Of course they are. But the thing to say is that often it's a reflection of who we are and what we are, and there's something to be said for taking it as an opportunity to go, you know what, to help my dog, I need to help myself, and if I can build my dog's confidence up, I'm going to build my confidence up.
Again, save the conversation for another day, when I've worked very closely with people that have had dogs that have had really big behavior problems, when you strip it back, there's some really deep personal stuff that is within that conversation and the dynamic of the issue. And actually by helping the dog, they open this door to helping themselves.
Some of this stuff goes way, way back, which to me is the blessing and the curse of why we own dogs. It's for those people that feel that they have failed the dog, done badly, and are listening to this podcast, you are here for that very reason. The dog brought you to this moment. Hear the words that I'm saying and take those words and realize that it's happening exactly how it's meant to. Don't beat yourself up about it, because that doesn't serve you. Take the lesson. How can I help this dog gain confidence? How can I help this dog gain better social skills? Who can I reference? Who are my mentors to help me through that?
Again, FDSA is getting bigger and bigger. We now have a pet entity to it, we have a sports entity to it, so there's so many experts in their chosen fields, from dog aggression to resource guarding to recall to prancy heeling to flyball. We have every single type of dog trainer available. You have stumbled along this podcast for that very reason, because of the dog that you feel guilty about. So don't feel guilty. Feel grateful.
Melissa Breau: I like that. Last question — the one I tend to end on with everybody these days, which is what is something that you have learned or something that you have been reminded of recently when it comes to training?
Kamal Fernandez: It's very much "Train the dog that's in front of you," and I'm very much in the process of that at the moment. Just to give people insight, I have two puppies out of the same litter and it was unintentional. I didn't mean to keep one. One came back from a home. I homed him and he came back. The owner didn't get on with him. And I also have Jungle, my Malinois. So I have three young dogs, younger than 18 months old, and you could not get three more different characters if you tried.
Every time I train one of them, it reminds me "Train the dog in front of you," because if I try to ask something of one that the other can do or can't do, or vice versa, inevitably I fail, and they have, I'm going to say, a bad session. It isn't a bad session. It's a reminder to say "Train the dog in front of you."
Every time I pick one of them up, even siblings, like the two siblings, one's male, one's female, they're very different personalities in so many ways. And yet Hottie, who I've had since the day she was born, she's very much into me and very much my dog, but with her work, we have some things that we really need to work on to be stronger. Yet her brother, one of the reasons that he was rehomed is because the owner couldn't get a connection with him. We are developing a relationship, yet his working ability is absolutely phenomenal.
But for me, I want both. I have a great domestic relationship with Hottie, I adore her, but our working relationship needs more developing. With Reset, my working relationship is absolutely fantastic, but our domestic relationship is the one we need to work on to get a real connection. There's little moments where I get it with him, like on our walk tonight he was very independent. The feedback it was described was very independent and didn't need the owner, and he's now looking to me and connecting with me, which is so reinforcing. And Hottie, who is very much my dog, funny enough I had a great session with her today where she really engaged with me and was playing brilliantly and she had great engagement and she was pushing me to interact with her.
It's because I had this conversation with myself earlier in the week, actually last night with a friend of mine, and we were discussing both of the dogs and we were having the "Train the dog in front of you" conversation. And I went out today, totally not planned, spontaneously, and it really affirmed me: Train the dog in front of you.
Melissa Breau: I like that. Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Kamal!
Kamal Fernandez: My pleasure. Lovely to talk to you as always, Melissa. Thank you very much for having me, and I wish you all the best.
Melissa Breau: Thank you, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in!
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