Belfast Telegraph

Encouragement, not force, the real key to training nervous dogs

Ahead of the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo, Linda Stewart asks animal behaviour expert Robin Bates, who is exhibiting at the event, for his advice on working with nervous pets

Expert advice: Robin Bates always wanted to work with animals
Expert advice: Robin Bates always wanted to work with animals

Animal behaviourist Robin Bates describes a canine client which was thought by its owners to have OCD. "It just kept staring into the corner. They couldn't understand why," he says.

"Eventually we discovered that a mouse appeared there occasionally. They thought the dog had OCD but actually was watching out for the mouse. Things are not always as complicated as people make it out to be!"

Robin, who owns Robin Bates Dog Training and Education NI, says he always wanted to work with animals, but when he was a teenager the only training methods for dogs were through forcible and painful techniques rather than positive reinforcement.

"There were very few books on the subject," he says. "When I was 30, I joined a dog training club and I trained my own dog and I ended up becoming more and more interested.

"When I started training, everybody was using choke chains, but I went to England and I found there was a better way of training dogs, by using positive reinforcement.

"Then when I was in my late 30s, I started running my own classes and that has just grown nice and steadily since then. I've been working full time at this for more than five years."

Robin now works with trainers Ashleigh Spence and Gregg Morrow in his business which delivers one-to-one sessions with dog owners at home, classes at Cregagh Road, Finaghy and Lisburn, and accredited courses for people who want to work within the dog industry.

Most importantly, his training methods are animal welfare focused. "As a team, it's part of our ethos."

He stresses: "The only way is by reward-based training and positive training. Dogs will learn so much more easily if you treat them kindly and encourage them to do stuff instead of forcing them.

"A lot of the problems are behavioural issues which are usually based around fears and anxieties. The most common problems are when a dog is fearful about being left on its own, fearful of other dogs or fearful of traffic.

"We need to find a way around it, that makes the dog feel more comfortable in the situation. I only push owners in the right direction and support them, but they have to do the work when I leave."

Another issue at the moment is fireworks, which can cause a lot of stress to a dog.

"At this time of year some dogs are quite fearful of fireworks, so we advise people to start training them early instead of waiting for Halloween," Robin says.

"We use YouTube videos of fireworks so that the dog gets used to the noise at low levels and adding some pleasurable experience, such as eating, while it's in the background.

"Then we gradually raise the noise level during the process. If the dog gets fearful at any time, you go back to the start."

Many of the behavioural problems presented to Robin and their solutions can be quite bizarre - such as the supposed dog with OCD. Some dogs may display unusual eating habits and it's often because they are nervous about what they are eating or even where they are eating.

"We get people who are worried about their dog's eating habits, but sometimes if you just change the diet or move the dish to a safer place, that makes all the difference," Robin says.

"The dog may have become anxious about eating its food in a certain place, but it's able to eat in a safer place."

Robin used to work at Mid Antrim Animal Sanctuary where he dealt with rehoming pets and settling them into their new homes - and that opened his eyes to a whole new range of behavioural problems.

"Rehoming a dog can cause it to be anxious and not settle. It gets overwhelmed, it gets anxious and restless," he says.

"People often overcompensate when then they get a rescue dog, maybe giving it extra food, extra walks and lots of attention - but the dog is just delighted to be somewhere it feels safe. The dog has a lot of information to absorb as it settles in. It can take a dog up to eight weeks to settle into a new home - people often forget they have feelings too."

Robin says anyone who has a question about their dog's behaviour should come along to Pet Expo NI and visit their stand.

"There will be three of us here most of the time and we will answer your questions on anything," he says.

For more information, visit or Robin Bates’ Dog Training page on Facebook or Instagram.

To get your tickets to the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo, click here. Tickets will also be available to purchase at the door.

To exhibit and for more information on exhibiting at the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo, click here.

Robin’s advice on preparing your dog for firework season

If you have a dog who is frightened or a puppy who has never encountered fireworks, now is the time to start preparing them.

There are things we can do to start to desensitise them to at least the noises:

● Desensitisation is simply getting the dog used to something they do not like paired with something good.

● Use sounds such as CDs with fireworks recordings or YouTube videos of firework displays.

● Play the recording at a low volume while you are playing with your dog, so the dog is focused on you while ignoring the background noise.

● It doesn't have to be play - it can be while they are eating, training or working through a canine enrichment session.

● Each day, gradually increase the volume. If the volume is too loud and your dog is worried, start again with a low volume.

● Also make sure the speakers are set in different locations so the sound is coming from different directions.

● Young puppies often do not worry about fireworks. However, older and noise sensitive dogs will need as much preparation as you can give to keep Halloween as stress free as possible.

● Start today as this is a gradual process and will take time and patience.

See your pet in print and win expo tickets with our competition

To celebrate the launch of the first ever Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo this November, we’re giving our readers a unique opportunity to showcase their cuddly companion or fluffy friend. If you want to set your animal friend on the path to fame and be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets to the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo, all you have to do is send a picture of your pet and tell us what exactly makes them so special to you. Get your entry in now at