What can Florence and the Machine teach us about dog training?

So far in this series, I have already written about lions, the M4 metro and tattoos. Now it’s time for Florence and the Machine, because accidentally, they can teach us a lot about classical conditioning.

For starters, I will briefly summarise what classical conditioning is: basically classical conditioning means that we (nearly) always have an emotional attachment to stuff – whether it is an object, an activity or a word – we call it the emotional response.

  • For example, if my driving instructor was nice, I am likely to have positive emotions when I think about driving or when I get into the car.
  • Or if every time our partner says “we need to talk”, an uncomfortable conversation follows, we will feel stressed hearing those words in other contexts too.

A typical dog training example is the clicker – it doesn’t mean anything to the dog, but if a the click is always followed by a delicious treat, the dog will be excited by the sound of the clicker and probably also by the clicker itself. Or, if the dog was once run over by a cyclist, they may react with fear to cyclists afterwards.

In training, we usually want to change how the dog reacts to certain stimuli – dogs, men, vehicles, fireworks… And behaviour can only change permanently if the emotional response to the stimulus in question has changed as well.

This is where counter-conditioning comes in: we try to associate something that was foretelling a bad thing, with something good, in order to change the dog’s reaction to it. So for example, each time a cyclist appears, we always give our dog a handful of their favorite treats.

It’s very easy to give up on counter conditioning because it often seems like it “doesn’t work”. It’s partly because there are specific conditions that need to be fulfilled for counter-conditioning to be effective. But – in my opinion – the biggest problem is that we tend to greatly underestimate the power of conditioning, and therefore we also underestimate how difficult counter-conditioning is.

Finally, this is where poor Florence and the Machine comes in.
Florence and the Machine was one of my favourite artists. They had just released a new album last spring, and I listened to them a lot in May and June, when it becoming increasingly clear that Leus had a tumor and wasn’t going to get better. Needless to say, I haven’t been able to listen to this album at all since we put her to sleep. But my negative emotional response immediately generalised to all of Florence and the Machine’s work.

For a very long time I couldn’t listen to them at all, Florence’s voice made me want to cry. Only after about three quarters of a year that I was able to bring myself to try to listen to a song of theirs from time to time. Right now this is still all that I can do: I listen to one of their songs and then switch to another artist. But I still can’t listen to last year’s album at all

And this is the power of classical conditioning, and this is why counter-conditioning is so incredibly difficult. An emotional response, once conditioned, remains very strong – both in us, and in our dogs.

Obviously counter-conditioning is not the only tool we have in behavior therapy, but it’s a very important part of it. And unfortunately it’s not an easy, simple or quick process at all. Let’s be patient with our dogs (and ourselves).

What is play and what isn’t between dogs?

How can you recognize play?

  • role switching – it’s not just one dog who chases/gets chased and so on
  • micro pauses – from time to time dogs will stop for a second, that’s when we often see play bows as a way of asking if play should continue
  • self-handicapping – a fast dog won’t run at full speed, so that the other dog can “get them”; a large dog plays carefully with a small dog
  • activity shifts – the dogs are capable of pausing play on their own; they go sniff, pee etc.; sometimes they re-initiate play, sometime they don’t

Pay attention to the body language too:

  • “inefficient” movements (like round, hoppy gallop)
  • softness: in the face (blinking, open eyes) and in the whole body
  • exaggerated expressions (like the play face), for example extremely wide open mouth, “funny” grimaces
Healthy play


Dogs can easily get overaroused during play, especially when they are young. And once the arousal level is too high, misunderstandings and aggressive communication come into play.

The simplest method to avoid this problem is recalling your dog play from time to time, even for a couple of seconds. Give them a treat and – if everything is fine – release them back.
This way you can avoid overarousal and teach a useful skill at the same time: that it pays off to come when called even if they’re playing

Playful body language as a way of diffusing tension

Trauma informed behavior consulting – a case study

Today I have a very special client story, it reads almost like a fairy tale. My client, after losing her previous dog, slowly started looking for a new companion. She said she had the time and the patience, and also she lives in a house with a garden, so she decided to give a dog a chance who would be difficult to adopt.

The lucky dog turned out to be Szörp, a foxi mix about 2 years old, who was abused as a puppy and then spent 1.5 years in a shelter. Many dogs who people believe come from an abusive background were not actually, but Szörp showed the trauma. He was afraid of hands (hhe liked petting at his own pace, but would back down at the empty hands that you would show as “no more treats here”) and was terrified of leashes.

His owner wrote to me:

“leash is the biggest problem, he could barely be leashed in the shelter, but ever since he got here, he is terrified of it, pees in at sight, gets tense and has even snapped at me. He’s scared after every attempt, even of me.”

The first time we counter-conditioned him to a lead – I wanted to get a baseline – after about 2 minutes, when he didn’t show many signs of stress other than backing up and basically being cautious, he started shaking. This strong, bodily reaction also suggested that he was not “just” fearful and insecure, but had re-experienced trauma.

We needed to come up with a treatment following the general principles of trauma informed therapy:
  • Take care of any existing health issues (treat/manage symptoms).
  • Have knowledge, understanding and empathy for the traumatic experience.
  • Have low expectations and be prepared to lower them.
  • Have patience and focus on your animal’s feelings, not actions. Trauma treatment is not training.
  • Create a safe environment, one that is consistent and predictable. Be a companion, not a captor.
  • Prevent re-traumatization. Build trust and resilience by providing choice and control.
The most important part of the therapy was that Anna was infinitely patient with Szörp, not forcing him to step out of his comfort zone too quickly, and most importatnly not aiming for taking him out for walks as soon as possible.

During our work together we focused on just a few things:

  • environmental enrichment
  • over time play in the garden became possible
  • positive social interactions with people (only as much as Szörp wanted)
  •  “consent test” for petting, every time (petting for 3-5 seconds, then pause and see if he asks for more)
  • very gentle counter-conditioning to the leash, in the garden where there is more space
  • conditioning a safe space
  • since Szörp seemed to like dogs, Anna arranged for her to meet a calm, older dog in the garden with whom he was happy to spend time

In Szörp’s case, the box training turned out to be incredibly useful as it allowed Anna to travel to Pécs with Szörp at Christmas, even though it was still impossible to put him on a lead. He was brought in the car in a box and in Pécs they were also in a house with a garden, where he had a great time.

I didn’t hear from them for a while after Christmas, but in February I got the fantastic news: Szörp was not only doing well in general, but also going for walks. Despite the fact that we didn’t put much emphasis on counter-conditioning, as he got more confident and overall, Anna bought a leash from a different material (which doesn’t rustle or rattle), and they were able to use it

Anna wrote to me:

And then the big word, the leash!

We have been going for a walk every day for a week! I changed the leash in Pécs to an organza leash, so it doesn’t rattle when hhe pulls (he doesn’t pull, he walks really well, he sniffs, makes friends, we are learning eye contact, we are going slowly, but I have no doubt he will get it quickly, as was the case with almost everything so far).

The point is that he has become an incredibly cute, cuddly, social dog, I am touched by his development every day. Oh, and of course he also has started to test the limits: he’s stolen socks, he’s gotten into our food and he’s also stolen his greyhound friend’s food (he lifted the top off a bucket), it was hard to keep a straight face 😀

Congratulations to Anna and Szörp and I look forward to working with them again!

Read more:

trauma in animals

fear/anxiety/phobia in dogs

Buy responsibly

It might come as a surprise but often it’s not the abused rescue dogs who are the most difficult to work with, but the purebred ones. The worst combination: a dog from a backyard breeder (often working line) or from a puppy mill + owners who were told by their vet not to take their dog anywhere before the first vaccine.

These dogs have completely missed out on their socialization period, which can result in several problems:

  • everything around them is either incredibly exciting or super scary for them,
  • they overstimulate easily,
  • and they haven’t learned how to calm down on their won.

Many behaviour problems such as reactivity, barking indoors or pulling on the leash start here and it can be hard to treat them, because we need to teach them emotional self-regulation and behavioural flexibility first.

Continue reading “Buy responsibly”

Fear / anxiety / phobia

We can often hear a dogs described as “very fearful”. But before we start working, it’s crucial to clarify what is actually the problem and in what contexts is it present. The label of “fearfulness” actually covers 3 different problems, requiring different types of treatment protocols:

  • fear/fear reactions
  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • phobia/panic disorder

Continue reading “Fear / anxiety / phobia”