Begin at the Beginning

‘We’ve tried everything. Nothing works!’
By Emma Judson

Boy, if I had a quid for every time someone said this to me, I’d be writing this from a luxury yacht somewhere sunny, where the sea sparkles an impossible blue… where was I again…?

Ah yes. No you haven’t.


When people tell me they’ve tried everything, the truth of the matter is, in fact, that they have tried many things, but:

7. Inconsistently
6. Incorrect technique
5. Not anywhere near for long enough
4. With wildly inaccurate expectations
3. Without understanding what drives the behaviour
2. Without understanding why this method works

And – drum roll please…

1. They’re NEVER starting at the beginning. They are always starting in the middle, or even in some cases, near the end.

To quote Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

I realise this sounds totally obvious, but this really is the case. It is why so many attempts at training and behaviour modification fail. Even if you get your technique right, you are consistent, you understand what is driving the behaviour you don’t like, and why your method work – if you start in the middle it just won’t work!

The reason this happens is that people don’t realise where the beginning actually is.

Let’s use a dog pulling on the lead on a walk as an example. They believe that ‘on a walk’ is the beginning of the problem, so start there.

For walk, read: ‘achieve a set distance, loop, or route, of between 30 minutes to an hour’. Immediately this will fail. They try it several times, each time it fails. ‘Ugh, that method doesn’t work’.

But ‘on a walk’ isn’t the start of the process at all. A walk is pretty near the end!

Let’s look at what a walk entails for your dog. A successful, happy, fun walk, that is beneficial to you both.

Your dog must:

  • Be responsive to you
  • Walk on a loose lead
  • Be able to ignore distractions
  • Be confident with traffic, people, and other animals around
  • Be free from pain or discomfort
  • Be familiar with the lead, collar and harness, and not associate them with pain or discomfort
  • Capable of perceiving reward (taking a treat and enjoying it, or playing with a toy and enjoying that)

Most dogs who are a pain in the backside to walk, are so because they are having an issue with one or more of those requirements.

On top of this, many have now habitually associated walks with a set of behaviours that make them not-fun. Some dogs will start actively looking for things to react to the moment you set out; some will be anticipating pain the moment the kit goes on; some will have switched off their ears the second you open the front door, determined to drag you round the route as fast as possible.

The beginning in this example, is at home, in an environment where the dog can listen to you; is responsive; can accept a treat or a game with a toy, and genuinely find that reinforcing, so that you can teach them where they ought to walk in relation to you.

If there is a chance that the dog is in pain, then the beginning is at the vets for a pain medication trial, or a referral to a physio to see what the problem is. Once that pain or fear of pain is resolved, then the next step is in the house, teaching the dog to walk beside you.

Once you have a dog who can listen to you and can walk beside you, then you can venture past the front door, and work on engagement out the front of the house. Only when your dog can listen and respond to you there, should you move away from the front door. If they can’t listen there, why on earth would they be any better half a mile away?

Walking nicely on the lead through a variety of environments while remaining attentive to the human, actually requires quite a lot of training, and lots of positive association between owner and dog. This is Doggy University Masters Degree level stuff, not Puppy Playschool!

The same approach can be applied to all manner of training and behaviour issues. Identify where the beginning actually is.

If your dog is worried about visitors ringing the bell/knocking the door and entering the house, then the beginning is:

NOT greeting visitors at the front door!

The beginning is probably allowing the dog (on a lead) to see an already seated visitor, who is not looking at them or speaking to them, on the far side of the living room, while the owner feeds a few treats. The dog can be in another room with someone while the visitor enters, the visitor is let in without them ringing the bell/knocking the door, and moves to leave only after the dog has been removed from the room. Or perhaps it is getting a new doorbell and pairing that with treats in the dog’s bed until the bell becomes a cue to ‘go to your bed’. At the same time, avoid anyone ringing the bell and have the dog in another room whenever the door is answered. For some dogs, both these techniques can be deployed, to change the meaning of the bell cue AND counter condition to ‘stranger in the house’.

If your dog hates the car, the beginning is not the fast lane of the M6. If your dog is scared of the groomers, then an hour of pampering at Fluff n Wuff is not where you start.

It isn’t just that we struggle to identify where the beginning is, although that can be difficult in some cases. It is also that, honestly, it can be very boring. It isn’t what we want to be doing. It requires more effort and thought, and takes more time.

Sometimes we feel we are not in a position to start at the beginning. As an example, I can’t put my lurcher in the car. He is over-aroused by the environment as the car has to be at the front of the house. This is not an issue for his walks, as we exit via the back and avoid that area. So, I cannot begin with him working calmly around the outside of the car. My starting point would be – build a driveway or move house!

However sometimes that feeling isn’t really accurate. If you’re training a dog for a client, and they believe you should be doing this outside the house, it is your job to tell them that’s not where you begin.

If you are a dog walker offering training – ditto. You must begin at the beginning, or you cannot offer that service. It is then their choice to hire you to do it properly, or not hire you.

Sometimes, we have just built up mental blocks about why we can’t start at the beginning, or we’ve got stuck on having to begin somewhere in the middle. I wish I knew the answer to that. All I can suggest is be honest with yourself and open to alternatives. Perhaps ask a friend to double check your thinking and help you plan!

This, of course, leads me on to why quick fix aversive solutions to simply ‘stop’ behaviours we don’t want are so very seductive and, of course, very easy to make sexy, attractive social media video content, but that is a subject for another day!

A final thought – your dog’s training and behaviour can be thought of as a building. Are you putting up a rock solid building with secure foundation? Or is it a wibbly wobbly shaky house of cards, thrown up on sand, in an earthquake zone?