An Interview with the Dog Expert

Dr. Mugford is a prolific author, educator and animal welfare advocate. As Britain’s leading animal psychologist and a pioneer in behavioral therapy, his career has led to him to speak on behalf of animal welfare across the world through to training the Queen’s corgis.


Words by Carina Borralho 

Originally appeared on Country Life.

In 1979 he founded The Animal Behaviour Centre in Surrey, a referral service for veterinary surgeons and their clients with problem pets. More than 80,000 pets have benefitted from the Centre’s services to date. That same year, he founded The Company of Animals brand where he invented and developed a range of products that have revolutionized the way people train their pets. The HALTI® head collar and Pet Corrector® auditory training tool are among his exemplary products frequently copied by competitors but unmatched in quality or effectiveness.

Dr. Mugford is also a Dogs for the Disabled patron, Cancer & Bio-detection Dogs Trustee and 2005’s Blue Cross Welfare Award recipient. Proud to maintain a link with his Devonshire farming heritage, he resides at Ruxbury Farm where he personally cares for a herd of 70 purebred South Devon cattle, 100 sheep, horses, llamas and of course dogs!

We recently sat down with him to ask a few questions on the relationship between man and dog.

Q1:         You speak highly of the human-animal interaction. Do you think animals are linked to a healthy human existence? What about vice versa? Psychologically etc.

A1:         Human beings have evolved to both cooperate with animals, and too often to compete with them.  The animals which we have domesticated for work (e.g. horses) or to be eaten (cattle, sheep or pigs for example) provide one level of companionship and inspiration to people.  Species that we domesticated to be our companions (and here I am thinking of dogs and cats) have developed especially close and almost intuitive understanding of human beings, whilst we have acquired the same insights into their behaviours, personalities and needs.

So, man’s relationship with nature in general and specifically with domesticated animals is very important, and there are numerous studies showing that people who are kind to animals are also less likely to be involved in abusive or unkind treatment of their family members, specifically of children.  Expressed the other way, people who have had convictions for cruelty to animals have very often the same such convictions for child or partner abuse.

Dealing with the specific issue of health, then of course dog ownership takes people to the outdoors and walking.  Walking the dog brings us into contact with nature but it also exercises the body.  There is ample medical evidence that owning a dog significantly enhances health, to the extent of also increasing life-span.  The consensus of research from several countries emphasises this point, and the reasons are partly due to the benefits of physical exercise but also improved emotional state.  Specifically, dog owners are happier and are less stressed than non-dog owners (or the dog provides them with a coping mechanism which allows them to divert introverted and anxious thoughts from themselves to their external companion: the dog).

Q2:         In your experience, what is the most common behavioural problem you have encountered in house dogs, and what is your advice on how to prevent this type of behaviour?

A2:         Our practice specifically focuses upon serious behavioural problems, and as a practitioner I am best known for working with aggressive or dangerous dogs.  Accordingly, some 83% of all the veterinary referrals of dogs to our practice concern some form of aggression, and top of the list is dogs that are aggressive or fight other dogs.

However, if one asks a random sample of dog owners (and we have recently done this in the 3 countries of UK, Germany and USA), we find that the most common complaint about dogs is that they bark excessively, and then that they pull on the lead.  Aggression or dogs actually biting people rates relatively low on the complaint list of ordinary pet owners.  There is other evidence to show that 90% of dog owners state that they are content with their pet, meaning that only 10% of dog owners are not content.

I would say that overall, a failure to deal with attachment or dependence between dogs and people is of overriding importance: a dog that cannot cope with being left alone for long periods in the absence of human’s.   Combined with ever more frenetic lifestyle in smaller family units, this presents a serious behavioural challenge and welfare problem for dogs.

Q3:         When should people start training their dogs?

A3:         Dogs begin to learn about the world almost from the moment their eyes open in their first week of life.  There is ample evidence that dogs can even developed conditioned responses to sound and other stimuli in utero (i.e. before they are born).  The same is true of human neonates.

Serious learning of the relationship between cause and effect happens much later, but I have demonstrated that from the age of about three weeks, simple responses such as to follow can be encouraged, and in a sense “educated” in dogs.  By the time puppies are weaned at 6-7 weeks of age, they could well have mastered the simple commands of “sit” and “come” and responsiveness to their name or to simple hand gestures.

So, people should start training their dogs from the moment puppies are acquired, but what if it is delayed?  There is very good evidence that old dogs do learn new tricks, and continue to learn albeit with an accumulated amount of confusing and contradictory lessons from the past.  It is just the same in humans.

There is also evidence that dogs which have been raised in an institutional environment, (such as dog meat farms in Asia from where we recently brought a number of dogs to the UK from Korea), and that were not given specific training whilst in their barren cages, these rescued dogs very quickly acquired skills and the signals needed to get along with humans.

Q4:         What about people who have adopted a dog at a later stage of its life. Is there hope for developing the desired behaviour?

A4:         Of course, these dogs have been learning something in their previous lives, and very likely it was to form a positive expectation of humans.  It is clearly desirable that the present owner learns about what the previous owner(s) might have taught this particular dog.

In reality, one can start with a tabula rasa, or start from scratch and teach a dog to fit into your expectations and your lifestyle.  Dogs are fantastically adaptable and quickly pick up on new rules, voices, hand signals and new people in their lives.  Undesirable behaviours can always be modified either by competition from training alternative desired behaviours, or by delivery of well-timed and appropriate penalties.

Q5:         Are there some breeds that are easier to train than others? Can you give examples of difficult breeds, and easy breeds?

A5:         Selection for particular traits such as to “go away” or to herd livestock require specific cognitive abilities in, say, Border Collies which are not found in terriers, nor in “guarding” breeds such as Mastiff’s.  Nevertheless, all dogs have to learn the relationship between cause and effect, stimulus and response, or outcomes from result from performing particular behaviours.  These are universal traits across all dogs, as they are across all people.

Are some breeds more intelligent or more trainable than others?  Yes, that probably is the case, but to identify the trainable versus the untrainable trigger controversy, creating enemies amongst the enthusiasts for the underperforming breeds.  It is a question that is best left unanswered!

Q6:         Country Life readers love exploring our beautiful countryside. What are the best dog breeds for people who like to travel and take their pets along/leave them at home?

A6:         The best dog to be today or in the future is undoubtedly to be small: little dogs ride in cars, on planes, and as they become old and disabled can be carried in bags or on pushchairs.  If you want athleticism, durability and plain resilience in a harsh environment, then you would not choose a little Lhasa Apso nor even a Jack Russell.  People with a big stride that like to walk need a breed to match, such as a German Pointer, a Hungarian Vizsla or a Labrador.  However, their exercise requirements are demanding and they have to be continuously occupied and physically stretched.

Overall, I reckon that the best compromise for living in town, countryside and for travel is the Jack Russell Terrier.   Another is the Welsh Corgi, because both are tough and have a big dog mentality in a small frame.

Q7:         Could you also give us some tips for travelling with dogs?

A7:         Start early!  Dogs quickly become adapted to vehicle travel, even though this was not one of the original criteria against which they were selected from the wolf.  The curious thing is that when travelling, dogs seem to learn the physical layout of the world from within a car just as they would by being out and about on their paws.  For instance, they can use their rehoming instincts just as effectively when taken to distant places by car as by walking.  They learn the visual marks of a particular locality, as also with the sound and I expect also the smell of particular locations.  That is why when we are driving or leaving a highway, the dogs “know” where they are, and get excited at our usual exit.  Clever dogs!

Q8:         What is your favourite breed of dog and why?

A8:         For the last 20 years, I have only had rescue dogs which have come to me from a whole range of unlucky and sometimes awful backgrounds.  Each of these dogs has been loved and given me massive pleasure in return.   On the other hand, I once indulged myself in a pure-bred dog, namely an Irish Setter puppy.  “Apollo” was my third Irish Setter and inspired my second book “Dog Training the Mugford Way”.  Setters have had a bad press, but their cheerful personality works for me.

Aside from Irish Setters, I would say that any of the Bull breeds such as Staffies are pretty good, and their rehabilitation preoccupies much of my time as an Animal Psychologist.  A part of me is inspired by the tale “Jock of the Bushveld”, a dog who combined loyalty, sensitivity but tough when that is what was needed.

Q9:         How was it working with the Queens Corgis?

A9:         The Queen is a very capable dog owner, as she is also a horsewoman, farmer and naturalist.  Her Corgis were usually well behaved in the past, but if one has many dogs in the household (as she once had 8-9 plus others in the family) then statistically one or more of them will be bound to have or is likely to cause problems.  In her case, dogs had occasional fights, usually over little things such as a scrap of food or competition for attention from the Queen.

I was impressed that the Queen has a very good understanding of how dogs think and of their needs.  She was perhaps over-ambitious to have a household with so many dogs together, but numbers are now greatly reduced and she has absolutely no reason to refer to somebody like me for.  She is well ahead of us in her understanding of animals in general, dogs and horses in particular.

Q10:      What advice can you give South African households who have pets that fight?

A10:       The best advice is usually to let the dogs get on with it (if it is dogs that are fighting).  Much the same would apply to cats, because they too need to form a predictable social hierarchy, where each knows where the other “rules”, but in another situation where it might rule.

Competition for food or attention are things to avoid: simply give them their bones, food and fuss when they are apart.   Remember that you as a human are probably the most important resource in their lives, so they are bound to compete for your time and attention.

If matters become bloody and animals have been injured and people bitten trying to separate them, then face the tough question of rehoming one of the fighting varmints.  That is what family and friends are for!  As an alternative approach one of the responsible rehoming charities and see if they can help you find that forever home for one of the pets that are fighting.  It is very likely that in a different setting and perhaps with no other dogs or cats present, your disputed dog or cranky cat will find a better future.


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