Chill !

Beanie and Biggles each have two distinct little brains. There’s the normal doggy brain that knows how to behave well, do all sorts of sports and tricks and listen to mum and dad. Then there’s the hunting brain that knows how to track, chase and kill….and of course make lots and lots of noise in the process.

The doggy brains are easy to work with. But those hunting brains have us stumped and it’s restricting life for all of us. One by one, sports that we all enjoy so much fall by the wayside as they fall prey to those little hunting brains. Typically it’s a case of leaving before being asked to leave, or before the dogs do themselves an injury!

Over the years we’ve discovered that their hunting brain is oblivious to us. If during an onlead walk (is there any other kind?) they pick up a scent they both go into a frenzy of baying, lunging and pulling. Experts advise that we simply stand still and refuse to move until the dog calms down. The theory being that as going forward is the thing the dog wants most in all the world then it’s easy to very heavily reward the behaviour that you want – calmness. After spending a great deal of my life rooted to the spot with a little beagle that’s only getting louder and more frustrated by the minute I figured there must be a flaw in the theory. In actual fact they are capable of responding to us in this mode. We can get them to briefly sit in exchange for being allowed to move forward. But we haven’t managed to progress much further than that. Asking for calmness, quiet or even a minute reduction in excitement levels, seems to be a step to far for those little hunting brains.

The other day Paul wrote about the tuggy game that Heather Smith had prescribed to help teach the dogs self-control. Both Beanie and Biggles found it very easy to switch between calm and excitement and that got us wondering if the game was the route towards controlling those little hunting brains.

Yesterday we took the game forward a little by associating it with lure coursing – something guaranteed to switch off the doggy brains and put the hunting brains firmly in control. We had done this a little bit previously to get things warmed up, but this time the focus of the game was chasing the lure. We used a lunge whip with Mr Raccoon tied to the end of it. Boy was that fun – there was much yelping, baying and squealing:





Beanie is by far the fastest and most athletic chaser, but it was Biggles that always managed to catch the lure quickest. No matter how erratically I tried to move the lure he’d quickly figure out what route it was going to take and would lie in wait and pounce.



Every time they caught the lure we’d have a high energy game of tuggy



before telling them to release the toy and chill.

Both calmed down instantly and sat as good as gold waiting for the instruction to begin the chase again. In fact, in just one session we even got to the point where we could put them in a ‘sit-wait’ and start the lure moving. They were intently focused on the lure but didn’t give chase until told to.

We thought we’d cracked it. Lets fact it, it’s only a small step between this and being able to calm the dogs when they pick up a scent. We went to the park with Mr Racoon on a lunge line and the dogs in harness. Taking one dog at a time, the plan was for paul to slowly drag Mr Racoon across the ground. I’d let the dog, still attached to me, run after it. Then on command we’d stop and get them to ‘chill’. We took it in very tiny steps so that it progressed almost seamlessly from the game we’d played in the garden yesterday. It was a complete and utter disaster!!! They simply could not calm down no matter what we tried.

We certainly provided a superb spectacle though. Picture the scene: Biggles tied to a tree in the middle of the park baying his head off (and actually pruning branches of the tree with his teeth he was so frustrated) ; Paul running around the tree dragging a lunge whip with a toy racoon attached; Beanie in hot pursuit baying her head off followed by me getting increasingly more ratty with Paul as things descended further and further into chaos.

We did get a better insight into what was going on though. We discovered that if we let the dogs catch the lure and play a game of tuggy it was very easy to get them to sit nice and calmly waiting for the next chase. In fact, as in the garden yesterday we could even get them to wait for a release command even when the lure was moving. They can’t calm down if the ‘hunt’ isn’t allowed to go to conclusion.

We’ve thought long and hard about this. Tuggy is in fact a very calming activity for a Beagle. It might be fun, but it’s a release of pent up energy. Seeing a small fury thing flying past releases a whole bunch of ‘chase’ hormones and chemicals into their blood stream. A chase goes some way to blotting up those chemicals, but it takes either a very long chase or a ‘kill’ (tuggy) to get them out of the system thus allowing a calm, balanced state to resume.

I think the main thing we have to do is make sure that in all situations where we don’t want their hunting instincts kicking in we have to work very hard at keeping them calm and focused on us. So stop them going into hunt mode. They can do plenty of lure coursing and drag hunting to satisfy their instincts but it’ll be strictly under our control. For canicross I think we need to stay well away from parkruns and stimulating group runs (relaxed runs with calm dogs will be fine). We want them to learn that a run is a relaxed thing. Once they get that we can teach some commands and enter the odd race.

And for the situations where that fails we’ll work on the tuggy game so when the frenzied baying starts we can whip out a tuggy and use that to get them calmed down. I think we also need to work on getting them to respond to us when in a frenzy. We’ll never get them to calm down from this state but if we can get them to respond to a ‘wait’ command it gives us a chance to intervene.

A few more piccies of the fun in the garden yesterday.





10 Replies to “Chill !”

  1. Laura

    Ah yes the joys of beagle ownership!

    I can highly recommend Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed and Susan Garrett’s Shaping Success for some great tips and ideas on how to work with dogs in highly distracting and stimulating environments. Sounds like you are on the right track tho – the key is to build it up slowly from the back yard to places that turn the dogs mental.

  2. Susan Post author

    This is where standard dog training techniques fall flat with Beagles – “the key is to build it up slowly from the back yard to places that turn the dogs mental”. It doesn’t work like that with a Beagle (or not mine anyway LOL). When they aren’t in ‘hunt mode’ they can work well with all sorts of distractions – as good as any collie. So yes, gradually teaching them to work with distractions is great and works a treat. But it does nothing to solve the problem which is the Beagle’s tendency to forget everything it’s ever learnt at the drop of a hat.

    When they are in ‘hunt mode’ you can’t do a thing with them. There is no gradual ramp up from one to the other. It’s like flipping a switch – on / off. And it can switch on any time, any place – even in the back yard! All it takes is a scent to blow in on a gust of wind.

    Getting them fat, lethargic and dull seems to be the best way to decrease the liklihood of them ‘switching’ but is that fair on the Beagle? Engaging in hunt-like activities does hone the senses but they positively thrive on it. Those that own/breed working beagles maintain that a beagle shouldn’t be kept as a pet for this reason. And I kind of see where they’re coming from. But I think they are worth the effort. But it is a HUGE effort to satisfy all their needs and keep them and us safe and sane.

  3. Anonymous

    Susan, do the pups get much in the way of structured walks? ie. Having to walk quietly and calmly to heel to get somewhere, before being allowed the “freedom” to just go Beagling. Then walking quietly and calmly back again. The majority of Murphy’s walks are now like this and I have found that it helps to keep him in a much calmer state of mind. If you don’t already, it might be an idea to add a short structured walk to the daily routine, maybe going right back to basics and walking each dog individually at first. I suspect your biggest hurdle is probably the fact that they egg each other on.

    As for the standing still and waiting for them to calm down – I realised pretty quick that it was never going to happen like that during a full on scenting frenzy. I use a slightly different method of “loose leash” training, where I’d abruptly turn around and walk several paces in the opposite direction making sure Murphy is walking with me and not still pulling in the original direction. I then turn back, pause briefly, give a “quiet” command (which I guess is my version of your “chill” command), before setting away again. If the behaviour continues (which it usually does), I repeat as many times as is necessary. I think the turning is just enough to momentarily snap the dog out of “hunt mode” making them a little more receptive to commands. I would find that each time we tried to move forward it would be a fraction less frenzied. It has taken an awful long time for Murphy to totally get it and even now, if it’s a REALLY interesting scent, it can still take 5 or 6 attempts before we can move forward without the hysterics. A nightmare if you’re trying to get from A to B but far better than standing still with a hysterical, frustrated Beagle on the end of a leash.

    Maybe the above would work hand in hand with the self control training you’re trying.

  4. Susan Post author

    Hi Anon!

    They get structured walks every day. Mostly the dogs are really good. Until something ‘flicks the switch’. If you knew where it was likely to happen it wouldn’t matter as you could avoid it. It doesn’t happen that often. But the problem is you don’t which is what makes it so limiting. If it’s just us we can contain the problem – go another way for example. But it makes it difficult to go to sports etc with others. Other people can’t be expected to tolerate the antics of the beagle owner! LOL

    We have tried the turning the other way in the past. Turning away shuts them up immediately, but as soon as you turn back the intensity goes up further. In the past we made our lives misery trying to make this work. We ended up with a bigger problem, stressed dogs, stressed us and no life. I’m not sure the solution is to get them to suppress their instincts – that’s a bit like us suppressing the fight/flight response – a big cause of stress. I think this is the working beagle breeders point – it’s not fair to suppress such strong instincts. If you can do it fairly easily (we could with our girl to be fair) then it’s not that strong a drive so no harm is done. If we can get this lure/tuggy/calm game working the way we hope it will be a huge help. That provides a release that leads to calm as opposed to suppressing.

    Walks are manageable though. Mostly we’re able to take a different route if they start up and avoid the situation that way. Hill walking (which we love) isn’t really doable as the scents in the air keep Biggles crazy constantly. We do it now and again but not as much as we’d like. Also where it’s a pain is that all the doggy sports we do start out great and end up with us just doing them on our own. We can keep the dogs calm if we’re in control of the environment, but the lengths you have to go to means you can’t interact normally with others. Classes, competitions and so on always end up with us having to leave because the environment doesn’t allow us to keep the dogs calm. Either people get annoyed by how anal we are or we do things their way and we start to have behaviour problems. We could do so much more if we could just find that OFF switch!

    Most people think our dogs are really calm and well behaved but they don’t realise the lengths we have to go to in order to keep them that way. That’s what I want to change.

  5. Susan Post author

    Anon – you’re comments and suggestions have helped us to find a solution!

    As I explained, we’d tried extensively in the past to both stand still or go the opposite way when Biggles picks up a scent and goes into a frenzy. It just made matters worse.

    We think we understand why. In order to survive a wild dog/wolf must be very motivated to hunt and find food, and just as ‘fight or flight’ chemicals are released in our bodies at times of danger, dogs also get a flood of ‘hunt/chase’ chemicals when they sense prey. A fast moving animal, scent etc releases a flood of these chemicals. The dog feels compelled to give chase and if we stop him then it causes a great deal of stress (hence the increased frenzy).

    In nature, a scent or the sight of a fast moving fury thing would result in a chase-kill-eat sequence and those activities mop up the ‘hunt/chase’ chemicals and leave the dog relaxed and balanced.

    Our idea was to teach the dog that he could relieve the urge to track/chase through tuggy (which simulates the kill). And we still plan to work on this.

    Tuggy hasn’t been practiced enough yet. On today’s walk we came across some fresh horse tracks and Biggles went into overdrive. We decided to try using chase (i.e. running) to provide a release. But instead of running in the direction of the scent we turned and sprinted in the opposite direction. A real flat out sprint that really relaxed biggles (and knackered us!). But it worked. Every time he opened his gob to bay we sprinted the opposite way until he relaxed then back towards the scent with him interacting with us. It’ll be easier when we’ve got the tuggy as I don’t fancy turning and sprinting umpteen times when we’re on our way back down a mountain. But in the meantime we have something we can work with.

  6. Sara

    That’s excellent, Susan! Sounds like you’ve hit the nail firmly on the head.

    Sorry, I hadn’t intended to be anonymous in my previous post (although you may have guessed it was me). I had to make the post three times as my internet connection kept dropping out and I forgot to add my name to the third attempt.

    You are so right when you say Beagles are hard work but they are so totally worth it!

  7. Sara

    How are those JML Crazy Critters baring up, by the way? They look great fun! Not sure they’d last long with our Destructo Beagle!

  8. Susan Post author

    They’re brilliant. That’s what we use for all of our tuggy and chase games. They scrunch up nice and small so easy to keep in a pocket for ’emergencies’. We only use them for interactive play – the beaglets would soon rip them apart if left to ‘kill’ them. But for tuggy they last better than anything else.

  9. Paul

    Yep they make great tuggies, but the squeakers aren’t up to much. Beanie killed the head squeakers in all our critters with a single well-placed chomp. The tail squeakers are still (just) working though!

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