A glimpse inside the secret life of dogs 

Sally and Ronnie. Picture by Fiona Stubbs.

We’re a nation of dog lovers – but how well do we really understand our canine companions? Trainer Sally Bawden helps owners to understand the psychology behind dog behaviours, as Fiona Stubbs discovers.

IT takes a few minutes to navigate the hallway in Sally Bawden’s home and settle down for a chat. Ralph, a nine-month-old red Labrador puppy is barking insistently and, at first glance, quite angrily. 

Yet as I stand still, trying to look casually calm, it’s not difficult to see that the brown eyes looking up at me appear more anxious than aggressive.  Ralph is living with Sally temporarily – he’s afraid of people, other dogs and noises. As she speaks to him in a quiet, soothing voice, accompanied by subtle hand gestures, he gradually stops barking. 

He’s only been with Sally for four days but she already has his trust. He follows her to the kitchen while she makes coffee and becomes agitated again when she briefly leaves the room. Then, as we begin to talk, he falls asleep under the dining table, his head next to our feet. 

Watching on is four-and-a-half-year-old chocolate Labrador Ronnie, whose own challenges as a puppy – after she was bitten by another dog – resulted in Sally becoming a dog trainer. 

Ronnie’s transformation from happy to becoming fearful of other dogs was a wake-up call. “Even though we’d had family dogs in the past, I realised that having a dog can be quite difficult,” says Sally, from Holymoorside. “We went to a conventional puppy class but that couldn’t help me in the way I needed. I became obsessed with finding out about dogs and understanding why they do what they do.

“I took courses, which led to me becoming a certified trainer with the Dog Training College and I realised this was only the start – there was still so much to learn. I continued to study and became fascinated by animal emotions and behaviour. Learning about dogs is an ongoing journey.” 

Sally launched her business, Feel Good Dog Training, and works in person with dogs and their owners in Chesterfield, Matlock and Bakewell and with others online. She specialises in one-to-one coaching sessions and small group sessions, working on outdoor skills such as lead walking, recall, lunging and barking. 

Recently, she began working with small groups – Doggy Social Meet Ups – on Sundays at Chesterfield’s Sorbo Lounge café bar. It’s an informal opportunity for owners to ask questions and seek help, to talk about problems or simply to socialise with their dogs in a café environment. 

Sally’s one-to-one work tends to involve dogs with complex issues. “Often, when people make that step to one-to-one training, they’re at breaking point, struggling and not knowing what to do,” she explains. “During lockdown, there was an increase in first-time dog owners and now, for many, their lifestyle is different to how it was then. People are back at work and school and they haven’t the time to focus on the dog. As far as socialisation is concerned, lockdown probably had an impact on dogs who were puppies then because they weren’t able to mix with others.”

Sally adds: “When I got Ronnie, I had no idea about dog psychology. The way people think about dogs is human-centred and expecting dogs to be able to fit into our human world. It’s about what they can do for us, rather than what we can do for them.”

“You often hear people say, ‘we’ll get a dog and it’ll make us go out for more walks.’ But that’s just a small part of looking after a dog. We focus on walks but sometimes the mental stimulation dogs need is forgotten about. And, even if you’ve had several dogs before, you might still get one that you don’t understand.

“Dogs find it harder to process their emotions than we do. Like us, they’re genetically programmed to keep safe and avoid danger. Dogs are very communicative but we, as humans, often don’t pick up on it. We don’t understand what they are trying to tell us. 

“Effective socialisation isn’t just about putting dogs in different environments. It’s being aware of a dog’s body language to make sure all interactions with people and other dogs are happy and relaxed; that the dog feels in control and able to cope. 

“It’s important that we can read our dog’s body language. If a dog is very stiff with a rigid tail and can’t hear us then it’s over its head, stressed and can’t process its environment. If the body is soft and relaxed, then it’s happy.”

“Play creates a bond and trust.”

Sally continues: “If a dog feels it can’t cope, that’s when problems – such as barking, lunging, growling, and, ultimately, biting – can arise. Dogs don’t want to bite – they give us signals to tell us how they’re feeling. It’s really important to try to work out what the dog is trying to say when it is presenting difficult behaviours, so you can come up with a solution. Even small gestures can tell us a lot. If a dog walks away or turns its head away from us, it means they don’t want to engage and we should respect that.”

There are misunderstandings around training, too, says Sally. “People think of obedience as being the most important thing, but there’s a bigger picture. Training is good because it creates a bond and good communication between you and the dog – and the earlier that begins, the better. 

“It gets the dog’s brain used to learning. Things like impulse control – learning to stay, not jump up, wait their turn, be calm – is more dog teaching than training. Dogs learn through consequences – they discover what behaviours produce a successful outcome for them – which is a reward they like, which could be a tasty treat thrown for them to chase or an exciting game with a favourite toy.” 

Taking time to play is equally important. “Play creates a bond and trust,” says Sally. “The dog feels they can rely on you – and that also helps with training. If you have a close bond, they’re more likely to come back to you, which is important when teaching recall. 

“Play is any sort of activity the dog likes – such as playing with a tug toy or throwing something to chase. Give them lots of outlets to seek – sniffing, searching, exploring, foraging, finding toys. This creates dopamine, which makes them feel good.”

Care when choosing a particular breed is crucial. A Kennel Club study in 2020 found that, in lockdown, 25 per cent of new owners spent less than two hours on research before buying a dog.

“All domestic dogs were originally bred to do certain jobs and serve a purpose,” explains Sally. “Now we generally just want our pet dogs to fit into our human world and this can cause problems if a dog isn’t given the outlet it needs. For example, intelligent Border Collies were bred for herding sheep. So they need plenty of exercise and to have an outlet for herding so they don’t feel the need to herd people or cars. It’s really important to find what motivates your dog so that your training is more effective.

“Before getting a dog, we should consider what the breed was originally bred to do. And, of course, what the breeder is like and what the dog’s parents are like. If the mum is stressed, that’s going to go through to her puppies.”

Helping dogs to feel safe and comfortable starts at home, says Sally. “A lot of dogs can’t ‘switch off’ or get enough sleep. Dogs sleep in short bursts and it’s important to provide calm areas and a choice of where they can sleep. Consider having more than one bed in different parts of the house where they can choose to go – and let them relax without interruption. 

“If you meet a dog’s needs, your needs are going to be met, too – because you’ll have a calm, confident, more well behaved dog.”

Sally makes it sound straightforward, yet many people are clearly struggling with the complexities of dog ownership. “I don’t like to see people struggling,” she says. “I want to get across that dogs have feelings and dog training is about both people and animals feeling safe and confident. Training isn’t just about controlling – it’s about engaging with your dog. It can be slow but also very rewarding.”

As I prepare to leave, Ralph resumes his barking; something is bothering him in the hallway. Sally’s puzzled but spots a fluffy dog bed is partly turned over. She straightens it out and Ralph inspects it slowly and, at first, suspiciously… and then he’s quiet again.

“He’s such a sensitive soul.” Sally sighs. “I will do my best to increase his confidence in this world.” He may well be a work in progress, but I suspect Ralph is a lucky one. He’s in good hands.

Editor’s Note: To find out more about Sally’s work, go to www.feelgooddogtraining.co.uk  Here social media links are: Facebook: @feelgooddogtraining.co.uk  Instagram: feel.gooddog You can contact Sally direct on 07828 123051 or email: sally@feelgooddogtraining.co.uk