Hendrix is absolutely not a bad dog. A sweet-faced black cockapoo, he is a beloved family pet and devoted to his owners. But in a sense, that’s the problem. He gets so anxious if left alone that he once chewed a door frame right through to the plaster, and has gouged floorboards. Left in the car once for a few minutes while his owner nipped to the shop, he shredded a seatbelt.
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His owner, Naz Karim, a 45-year-old software developer from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, now works from home full-time, which has helped. But the minute he or his wife and two teenage children pick up their keys to leave the house, Hendrix starts getting nervous.
“He panics at the first sign that someone’s going to go out. He’ll start to follow us round,” Karim sighs. “If we lock him in a room, he will try to get through the door. If there’s anything to hand like a towel or a bed, he will tear that up. He even broke a window in the front door one time.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, lockdown suited Hendrix. “He was getting more walks than before and he loves us all being home. He seems to like being in the middle of a pack,” Karim says. Though the family recently got a second dog, hoping that having canine company would soothe nine-year-old Hendrix, it doesn’t appear to have worked. Recently when something spooked him on a walk, Hendrix ran off; he was found hours later in a stranger’s garden with an injured leg. Three months’ enforced rest and a £5,000 vet’s bill later, his torn ligament has healed but not his nerves.
Cockapoos, a cross between a poodle and a cocker spaniel, are now Britain’s second most popular dog, eclipsed only by the Instagram-friendly French bulldog. Fluffy and affectionate, they appeal to families wanting playmates for children. But the mix of poodle intelligence and bouncy spaniel energy makes for energetic dogs needing lots of exercise and mental stimulation. Karim and his wife have argued about whether Hendrix might fare better living with a retired couple, at home with him all the time. But the family don’t want to give him up; they just want him to be happy.
For too many British dogs, happiness lately seems elusive. Six in 10 vets surveyed by the welfare charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) for its annual Paw report on pet wellbeing reported a rise in canine behavioural problems – most commonly jumping up, barking and whining, or showing distress when left – in the last two years, along with a more worrying rise in dogs growling, snapping, biting or showing other signs of fear. Even President Joe Biden’s two-year-old German shepherd, Commander, recently left the White House under a cloud after allegedly biting his master’s bodyguards, with aides blaming a “stressful” environment in the corridors of power; Boris Johnson’s rescue terrier Dilyn, notorious for humping officials’ legs, might sympathise. Nine out of 10 pet groomers, kennel owners and doggy daycare staff surveyed by the Pet Industry Federation say they are seeing more unruly behaviour from their furry clients, while the National Farmers’ Union warns of a rise in out-of-control pets chasing sheep. Dr Samantha Gaines, from the RSPCA, warned MPs in September that we probably haven’t seen the worst of it, with some bad habits only likely to emerge over the age of two and a half.
Dogs behaving badly are, of course, not new. A short YouTube clip of a black labrador chasing deer across Richmond Park in London – hotly pursued by his helpless owner, shouting “Jesus Christ, Fenton!” – went wildly viral in 2011 precisely because so many owners identified with his mortification. At the more dangerous end of the spectrum, recent alarm over a number of vicious attacks by American XL bully dogs mirrors the 1990s scare over pitbulls, which originally prompted the Dangerous Dogs Act. But lately, something new seems to be upsetting the delicate canine equilibrium.
The rush to get a lockdown puppy – for company, or just because someone was home all day to train it – saw Britain’s canine population surge from around nine million to more than 12 million between 2019 and 2021, with unusually high numbers of inexperienced first-time owners taking the plunge.
With demand vastly outstripping supply, some ended up buying dogs sight unseen from breeders operating in dubious conditions, or adopting stray street dogs from abroad. Almost one in five pandemic puppy buyers, according to a 2020 survey by the Kennel Club, confessed to not having thought the whole thing through, and 18% weren’t sure what they would do when they returned to work. Others realised too late that boisterous puppies quickly tire of watching home-working owners sit at a computer for eight hours.
Meanwhile, Covid restrictions meant many dogs missed out on critical opportunities for socialisation, or being introduced to potential stressors – ranging from toddlers to other canines – while still young enough to adapt. Three years on, what were once naughty but lovable pups are now fully grown dogs in whom jumping up, barking and nipping are no longer remotely cute.
But older dogs, too, faced unsettling changes to their routines, with families that had once been out all day now home around the clock, plus rising tensions in the park thanks to all the new pups on the block. Given how finely attuned they are to human emotions, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised our dogs are as stressed as we are.
All this has led to a booming market in taming troubled mutts, from trainers offering classes that teach the basic commands to celebrity dog behaviourists, with price tags to match. (One-to-one coaching from Graeme Hall, star presenter of Channel 5’s hit series Dogs Behaving Badly, starts from £875, according to his website – or would, if he wasn’t currently too busy filming to accept clients.) Those cash-rich but time-poor owners with more than £2,000 to spare can even pack their pets off for a couple of months’ training to “dog boarding schools”. For those on tighter budgets, self-styled dog whisperers promising to work miracles overnight if you just buy their book, video or subscribe to their channel are all over YouTube and Instagram; there are even dog reiki practitioners, promising to soothe your hound’s inner turmoil with healing hands.
It’s all a far cry from Barbara Woodhouse, the former horse trainer who was 70 when her 1980 TV show Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way taught a nation to take no nonsense from its pets. Just as parenting practices have evolved since the 80s, the domineering Woodhouse way has been discredited by a new generation of behaviour experts and emotionally literate owners – or as some call themselves, parents – keen to understand how their dogs think and feel. But could we humans unwittingly be part of the problem?
Last year, the rescue charity Dogs Trust became so worried about the number of dogs being given up for rehoming because of behaviour problems that it founded an advice line for owners aimed at nipping trouble in the bud. The most common calls, says behaviour support manager Katy Errock, involve reactivity – barking, growling and lunging at other dogs or people – but separation anxiety, resource guarding (growling or snapping if asked to drop a toy or food) and attention-seeking behaviour such as barking whenever an owner goes on Zoom also feature. Callers are often “very distressed”, she says, and willing to try anything: some have rearranged their entire lives around their dogs. But in many working homes, that isn’t always possible.
“What dogs now have to adapt to in our lives has changed. There’s a lot of people working, having busy lifestyles, maybe feeling a bit guilty about leaving the dog at home all day,” Errock says. So we compensate by taking pets with us wherever possible – to the office, to cafes and hotels, or even more exotic novelties like canine-friendly cinema screenings – without realising that our idea of quality time isn’t necessarily theirs. “A dog might well be bored sat in a cafe. Traditionally, you would have people go on a two-hour walk then go to a quiet pub and the dog falls asleep under the table – that’s very different from going out for brunch.” For a playful pooch, sitting quietly in a restaurant full of other dogs might be frustrating; a nervous one might find it stressful.
Unrealistic expectations fuelled by Instagram or TikTok #doggos don’t necessarily help either, she says, while Googling for advice can be a minefield. Anyone in Britain can call themselves a dog behaviourist – there’s no single official qualification or register, though the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) list of approved practitioners is seen as the gold standard – and bad ones can make an already fearful dog more aggressive. Apart from checking its accredited list, to find a reputable behaviourist the ABTC’s Jane Williams recommends avoiding anyone who talks in Woodhousean terms about establishing your dominance as leader of the pack, who advocates “aversive” methods to punish the dog into compliance, like yanking on its lead, shouting or frightening it, or who doesn’t insist on a vet checkup first to eliminate any underlying medical issues.
Dr Sarah Heath is a specialist in veterinary behaviour medicine and fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons who has spent 31 years treating troubled pets referred by other vets. Unlike the YouTube gurus peddling quick fixes, Heath operates more like a therapist, exploring the emotional, mental and physical health factors underpinning a dog’s behaviour. “The most important message is understanding the underlying reasons for the behaviour they’re showing,” she explains between patients at her Cheshire clinic. Behaviour can be a sign of illness – undiagnosed pain can make the sweetest dog snappy, hence the need for a veterinary checkup – but can also be a learned reaction, or response to the dog’s environment. And just as stress can exacerbate human illnesses, she argues that dogs’ mental and physical health are closely entwined. “Reactivity, barking, chewing, behaving in a certain way when you’re separated – there’s no one cause for any of these things. If you just approach it from the sign and you want to get rid of the sign but you haven’t understood why it’s there, you might be using a totally inappropriate response.”
Over the years, Heath has noticed the relationship between dogs and what she calls their “caregivers” change. (“Owner” is the correct legal term, she says, but implies dogs are tools for our use; she doesn’t use “parent” because dogs are dogs, not babies.) “Things have moved on. We talk a great deal more about emotional health in human animals and we recognise that things that were acceptable once aren’t now.” Though she does see overstressed cats and the occasional rabbit or parrot, her caseload is mostly canine and the most common complaint is what she calls “confrontational” behaviour, on the grounds that snarling and barking can indicate fear or frustration, not just aggression. “There are more dogs in the population now, and just as with humans, we have a potentially emotionally compromised generation – there’s an impact of the pandemic for dogs, too,” Heath says firmly. Instead of asking why so many dogs are behaving badly, she suggests, “maybe what we should be asking is: what’s the emotional state of this generation of puppies? And their emotional resilience is not as good.”
The first canine casualty of lockdown, Heath thinks, was sleep. “Dogs need 14 to 18 hours of sleep, and puppies need up to 20 hours. The problem with the pandemic generation is they didn’t get anything like enough sleep, because humans were with them all the time.” That may have been especially true in households with bored children stuck at home all day, and research by Dr Rowena Packer for the Royal Veterinary College suggests pandemic puppy buyers were more likely than their 2019 counterparts to share their homes with children under 10. They were also more likely to have been bought to keep children company, while almost half of owners admitted getting a dog to improve their own mental health, compared with 38% pre-Covid. As comforting as cuddling a dog undoubtedly is, being played with to the point of sleep deprivation can risk puppies growing up overstimulated and hyper.
And while popular posts on Instagram and TikTok portray dogs leaning into their owners and licking them as signs that your dog really loves you, in dog language these can sometimes be signs of worry or concern, says Heath. If owners respond by hugging and kissing them back, an already anxious dog may interpret that as meaning their human is worried, too, reinforcing the anxiety. “Seeking close proximity to another dog is a sign of concern and lack of security and feeling anxious in dog language, whereas cuddling up on the sofa in human language means you feel very comfortable with them.” So how do you show love in a dog-appropriate way? “Be socially available. If two dogs were in a very happy relationship they’d sit on separate sofas watching the same TV programme. They like to be around one another but not necessarily physically touching.” My four-year-old labrador Rudy is snoring obliviously 6ft away as I take notes on this phone conversation, which makes me feel slightly better about his mental health. But still, Heath makes me think about the impact of the last few years on his canine psyche.
Rudy was only a few months old when lockdown started, and after months of leaping off narrow paths into hedges whenever we saw anyone approaching, not unreasonably concluded that strangers were scary. For months after the 2-metre social distancing rule was relaxed, he would bark at other walkers; when friends started coming to the house again he would growl and back away, grumbling suspiciously under his breath for hours. Hefty bribery with cheap cocktail sausages eventually persuaded him that proximity is a good thing and he’s now a sweet-natured dog who loves people, but he’s still occasionally fearful of bigger male dogs – unfortunately sometimes with good reason – which is why I’m struck by something else Heath says. Just as humans are said to grow up with either an optimistic or pessimistic bias depending on whether early experiences teach them to see the world as a benign or scary place, Heath argues dogs are biased towards being either engaged, trusting and friendly – or protective, constantly vigilant against perceived threats. When pandemic owners did the responsible thing, retreating from human contact, were we unwittingly conditioning our dogs to see the world as a frightening place, to be greeted with hackles up? And if so, can the lesson be unlearned?
Rory Cellan-Jones has been chatting away to me in his kitchen for 10 minutes when a famous face finally slinks behind his chair. It’s #SophiefromRomania, the dog he and his economist wife Diane Coyle adopted via an overseas charity after their beloved collie cross died. Sophie became an overnight social media star when the couple began chronicling her slow but heartwarming progress on X (formerly Twitter). Initially so petrified that she hid behind the sofa and refused to come out, it was a month before she would even venture into the garden, let alone consent to be stroked. But gradually she has learned to play with her owners and let them scratch her ears. Hers is a redemption story, an irresistible tale of a dog coming back from the brink, yet Sophie remains a work in progress. I end up meeting Cellan-Jones, a former BBC correspondent, and Sophie’s behaviourist, Si Wooler, over Zoom, because she still barks furiously at strangers in the house. Her owner has yet to be able to take her for a walk since she arrived in December 2022.
“I am impatient, partly because a walk with the dog was my morning routine. I’ve got Parkinson’s, and exercise is really important,” says Cellan-Jones, who admits Wooler has been as much his therapist as Sophie’s, teaching him to accept setbacks and trust in the process. After weeks of slowly getting used to a harness, Sophie is almost ready for the outside world, Wooler says. But for now she’s observing it through a stairgate installed at the front door, which lets her experience the unfamiliar sights, smells and sounds of a quiet London street from a comfortable distance.
Born after lockdown lifted, Sophie is nonetheless an extreme example of an unsocialised dog, which makes her an intriguing litmus test for pandemic puppy owners. Raised in a barn in Romania by the father of the vet who found her abandoned by the roadside as a tiny puppy, she had never lived in a house or been introduced to other humans. Having seen her only on video playing with her trusted owner, Cellan-Jones admits ruefully that he and Coyle were “completely unprepared” for a dog too nervous to venture beyond two rooms of the house for the first six months. Having since progressed to the hall, she still won’t tackle the stairs.
“She had very little experience of anything outside a very small circle of people, and that means she was effectively what we call neophobic – frightened of anything new,” says Wooler, who offered to help after his partner saw Cellan-Jones’s tweets. After initially tempting her out from behind the sofa with cubes of cheese and meat, the breakthrough came when Cellan-Jones and Coyle went on holiday and Wooler moved in to look after Sophie. “We had two weeks of nonstop attention, which brought out the play in her,” Wooler recalls. “It then became obvious that play was the route into her, building her confidence and her trust in me.” Once trust was established, he could start gently introducing her to new experiences, trying simultaneously to create positive associations with things she likes – including games and belly rubs. Everything happens in baby steps, and if she isn’t comfortable, they back off.
Though Sophie is now used to her owners, she barks in alarm at their visiting grandchildren, which can be frightening. But Wooler insists it’s not a bad thing; a fearful dog that isn’t allowed to warn people off in this way has few options but to snap. “One of my mantras is: growling is good. Growling says, ‘I’m not comfortable with this situation.’ So the really important thing is not to punish the behaviour because it’s not voluntary. They don’t choose to be afraid of something – they just are.”
Similarly, Wooler isn’t trying to stop Sophie jumping up at her owners yet because “that’s her expression of joy”; it can be fixed later, as her confidence grows. “My message is to fix the problem, not the symptom. The crucial thing is to understand whether they’re upset or not,” he says. With an anxious dog like Sophie, he’ll seek to change their emotional response to triggers by pairing the fear-inducing experience with something desirable, to create happier associations. For a confident dog trying to get what it wants – by barking for attention, say – rewarding obedience might be more appropriate. Either way, Wooler is firmly against punishing dogs; he advocates positive rewards for behaviour you want and withholding rewards for behaviour you don’t, and his chief advice with nervous dogs is to take your time. “Go at their pace. Don’t try to push anything. If you play your cards right and you just accept what their limitations are, that will get better over time. And you can encourage it with chicken and cheese.” In Sophie’s case, he’s optimistic about her prospects: “Fear isn’t a linear thing – you don’t know how long it’s going to take and how far you’re going to get. But Sophie’s looking really bright in terms of her progress. I think it’s really, really positive.”
Yet undoubtedly, the process requires saintly patience. Entertaining friends at home is difficult, Cellan-Jones admits, and while his social media posts are upbeat he wants would-be rescuers of strays to be realistic about what’s involved. “I’ve got very down about it at various stages, which I’ve tried not to let show,” he says. “I wouldn’t ever want to give her back, but there have been times when I’ve thought: ‘God this dog is having such a difficult effect on our lives that we’re not getting the reward.’ Luckily, thanks largely to Si, she’s incredibly lovable.” But not everyone has the time, patience or experience to do what he and Coyle have done.
During lockdown, when demand for puppies far outstripped breeder supply, interest in rehoming rescue dogs soared: Battersea Dogs & Cats Home saw a 53% rise in applications in the spring of 2020. But with British rescue centres becoming more exacting about matching pets to new owners with the right experience to care for them, interest in adopting from overseas has soared. Eight per cent of British pet dogs now come from abroad, compared with 4% in 2020, according to the PDSA’s Paw report, with Romania the leading source. While they can make very rewarding pets, Adam Levy, south-east head of operations for Dogs Trust, says they’re currently seeing increasing numbers of overseas rescue dogs being handed in to shelters. He stresses he isn’t criticising charities who bring them into the country, but owners shouldn’t underestimate what they’re getting into. “You are taking a dog from an environment where we often think, ‘It’s dreadful, a dog on the streets’, but if a dog is born to that and you pick them up and put them in a van and drive them thousands of miles to someone’s house, that’s very frightening for them. Absolutely people’s hearts are in the right place when they’re doing this, but they don’t always appreciate what they’re taking on.” These dogs are, however, just the tip of the iceberg.
Before Covid, says Levy, the charity was getting about 2,500 calls a month from people considering giving up their dogs. By last year, it was closer to 4,500 a month, fuelled by a combination of rising dog numbers, financial stress on owners and behavioural problems.
“We’ve always seen dogs with behavioural issues, but we are categorically now seeing more than ever, and we’re also seeing more underlying health problems,” he says. “During the pandemic, we were flooded with illegally imported dogs bred by unscrupulous breeders in dreadful conditions to take advantage of high prices. People wanted a dog, they weren’t necessarily mindful of where the dog was coming from, and these dogs weren’t socialised or cared for – they were just churned out in large numbers to make money.” Nor did some impulsive new owners do their homework. “Too many people get dogs by going on appearance rather than considering what the dog was bred for; what will it need? People were suddenly getting huskies – they’re bred for doing 40 miles a day pulling a sledge over snow. It’s not a dog that wants to sit around doing nothing.”
All dogs with behavioural problems are put through retraining before being rehomed by Dogs Trust, he says, but that means longer stays in kennels and only intensifies the pressure on space. With around a third of dogs entering British shelters estimated to have been given up because of their behaviour, rescue charities are increasingly focusing on prevention not cure.
In a sunny church hall in Leatherhead, deep in the Surrey commuter belt, dog trainers Angus Healy and Dan Boatright are unpacking the tools of their trade. There is a floor cleaning spray, because accidents invariably happen; a tube of squeezy cheese spread, for which the class apparently goes wild; and last but not least, Barry, a stuffed toy terrier. Barry serves as a pretend dog for puppies to practise their social skills on, and I am just scoffing at the idea that any self-respecting hound will fall for that when Boatright clips a lead on and tows him across the floor towards Jaeger, the supremely chilled three-month-old Italian cane corso who is this morning’s star pupil. Jaeger immediately starts barking; a minute later, he is lovingly licking Barry’s nylon nose. Puppies, it turns out, fall for an awful lot.
This is Dog School, a national network of classes aimed at teaching owners to get it right from the start. “We felt by running the classes we’d be able to get in there early,” says Gemma Cullen, team leader for west London and Surrey. Set up by Dogs Trust in 2015, Dog School offers standard new puppy training but also more specialist sessions for older dogs who missed out on the basics, reactive dogs, and rescues needing ongoing help to settle in new homes. Costs can be subsidised for owners on low incomes, and no dog is deemed too old to learn. “We use positive reward-based training to motivate the dogs and teach them that when they’re doing something right they get rewarded. It doesn’t matter how old they are,” Cullen says. Older dogs may take a little longer to get the hang of it, but the principles remain universal. (Healy’s favourite tip for getting them to walk obediently at heel is smearing cheese spread on a wooden spoon, letting the dog lick it, and then holding the spoon where you want them to walk).
Jaeger’s owner, 52-year-old Daz Salmon, is an experienced bulldog owner but has brought his new puppy to class because he’s keen to get it right with a powerful dog that could weigh 100kg when fully grown. Conscious of the controversy around the American XL bully, for which mastiff breeds like his could be mistaken by passersby, he’s keen to point out that Jaeger came from a responsible breeder who vets buyers to ensure they want these dogs for the right reasons. (In Salmon’s case, he says it’s because he has three sons with special needs, and wanted a breed that would be protective of them but calm). The energy in the room certainly rises after the laid-back Jaeger pads out on his giant paws to make way for an adolescent class featuring Tiggy, a one-year-old flying ball of cockapoo enthusiasm, and Sadie, a five-month-old black labrador-collie cross. Amid the yapping and jumping, Tiggy turns out to be a star at coming back when called and Sadie – initially nonplussed at the very idea of lying down – is soon walking beautifully beside her owner. Both trot out of class heaped with praise.
For struggling owners who can’t reach a class, the charity recently added a helpline run by Katy Errock. For nervous or reactive dogs, her advice is to avoid busy times in the park and distract them when other dogs are around. “Get them nose to the ground, get them sniffing, take them to places where there’s lots of smells, so maybe grassy areas. Give them interaction and things to do.” Keep enough distance between your dog and others for it to be comfortable, she says, and then reward lavishly with treats or games – whatever your dog prefers – for staying calm. “If you see a dog and they don’t bark, reward that behaviour while they’re quiet, because that’s what you want to see.”
Multitasking by answering emails on a dog walk may not be a good idea either, she points out: “When you go on a walk, think of it as going on an adventure with your dog. The number of people I see walking the dog and they’re texting, not interacting. When all of a sudden you do want your dog’s attention they’re thinking: ‘Well, you’ve ignored me …’” Owners of attention-seeking dogs, meanwhile, need to be careful they’re not inadvertently rewarding demanding behaviour. “It can be as simple as every time you answer the phone or go on a Teams call they start barking, so you give them a treat to keep them quiet,” she says. “And then the dog thinks, ‘Right, I want a treat’, so they’ll make a fuss whenever you are on the phone. You’re actually training a dog all the time, because they spend all day watching us.” For working breeds, whose bad habits may be linked to boredom or restlessness, she suggests wearing them out with mental games such as sniffing for treats, using a puzzle feeder – where the dog has to figure out how to extract the food – or learning skills like dog agility. With separation anxiety, the goal is to gradually get the dog used to being alone, starting with being out of sight for very short periods.
But ultimately, says Errock, there are no magical short cuts: “It’s about time and patience and repeating things and building good foundations. That’s not so popular on social media because it takes time, but it’s really important if you’re trying to change behaviour.”
As many a despairing dog owner will know, “trying” may be the operative word. Not every dog can be magically fixed, veterinary behaviour specialist Sarah Heath admits: vets may sometimes face difficult decisions in cases where behaviour is seriously damaging the dog’s own quality of life. And even the eternally positive Si Wooler, Sophie’s behaviour consultant, says it remains unclear exactly how much of the damage done by the dog’s early experiences is reversible.
But if Sophie can learn to trust one new human, he reasons, she can learn to trust others, and hopefully may begin extrapolating from that to trust people more generally. “There’s a big unknown question around dogs who are hugely undersocialised and have missed that developmental period: is that fixable? But Sophie’s at least a sample of one that suggests progress can be made.”
A few days after this conversation, Cellan-Jones posts a video on X of the latest breakthrough: lured by treats, Sophie will now put both paws tentatively on the bottom of the stairs. One step, apparently, at a time.