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Choosing The Reinforcer

Dog training, Puller dog toy

Reinforcers are an event that increases the likelihood that a specific response or behaviour will occur.

Making Choices

Dogs are making choices all the time, so we need to train our dogs to make the right choices. This is where reinforcement comes in. If you add the right reinforcer at the right time, it will encourage more of the behaviour you want. The reinforcer promotes the value of the choice the dog has made.

Good Choices + The Right Reinforcement = More Good Choices.

For example, you’re out walking and your chase loving dog sees a rabbit. They choose to start pulling on the lead. If they manage to go quicker or even pull the lead out of your hand, their choice to pull gets reinforced by the ability to run after the rabbit. However if you have reinforced looking at you or for walking calmly when they see a rabbit, then they are less likely to pull. This is because they have been reinforced for different behaviour associated with the rabbit, not for pulling.

Importantly, if you don’t reinforce desired behaviour it is unlikely to increase. In the case of unwanted behaviour the dog is often reinforcing themselves. Without you reinforcing the required behaviour instead, the dog will continue to choose to do things you might not want.

Dog training
Your dog’s choices aren’t always the ones you would like.

What Are Reinforcers?

Reinforcers are behaviours rather than objects. The following behaviours are all reinforcers-

  • Running
  • Eating
  • Playing
  • Sniffing
  • Chasing
  • Swimming
  • Chewing

Each individual dog chooses what is reinforcing to them. For example, swimming would not be reinforcing to our collie Milo but chasing most certainly would.

Dog training
Dogs are all individuals when it comes to what they find reinforcing.

Levels Of Reinforcement

Reinforcers do not neccesarily work in every situation. For Milo, eating a small piece of his regular food is enough to reinforce him lying down at home. However faced with that rabbit it is more reinforcing for him to chase it, rather than to stay with me and eat some food.

You therefore need to work out what your dog finds most reinforcing and use those behaviours to strengthen the behaviour you would like in different situations. Thinking about Milo again, it would be pointless me offering him a piece of food in a potential rabbit chase situation. However if I offered him a game of chase with me when he sees that rabbit, I am more likely to be able to get the opportunity to stop him running off. The chase with me would be running after a tug toy or me throwing a Puller dog toy.

Reinforcer Delivery

You can also change the delivery of the chosen reinforcer to change the level of desirability of that reinforcer. This gives you more versatility in different situations and more options to be able to gain the desired behaviour. If I just handed the Puller dog toy to Milo after he sees the rabbit, that would not be as reinforcing to him as me rolling or throwing it. For some dogs, calmly placing some food on the ground would be more reinforcing than you animating it. Alternatively, for Milo, he is reinforced more by me throwing a piece of food for him to run after than me just handing it to him. The Kong Hide N Treat is a great training tool for varying reinforcement delivery.

So once you have identified things that your dog loves to do, you can play around with the delivery of those things to help you with your training.

Examples Of Reinforcer Choices

  • Ask your dog to sit and then reinforce the completed behaviour by releasing the dog to go and swim
  • Cue your dog to wait, then reinforce them for waiting by opening the door and releasing them to go outside
  • Your dog notices a distraction in the distance, reinforce a hesitation to run by scatter feeding
  • After your dog has returned to your recall cue, excitedly play with their favourite toy
  • Ask your dog to stay beside you, then reinforce a positive response by releasing them to go and sniff
Dog training
Once established at home, practice reinforcing desired behaviour out and about

Examples of Reinforcer Choice For Milo

The tractor engine starting used to trigger Milo to run after the tractor, before it even moved. Now the engine starting is a trigger for Milo to run to me! How did I achieve this? Through me making the right reinforcement choices to reward Milo for the behaviour I wanted to see more.

What didn’t work-

  • Feeding a piece of regular food directly to him
  • Scatter feeding
  • Recall
  • Throwing a chew stick
  • Walking in a different direction

These didn’t’t work because they weren’t reinforcing enough to Milo.

What did work-

  • Playing with the Pullers regularly, building his desire for them away from a chase situation. Then starting with the tractor at a distance, rewarding him for not running towards it by throwing a Puller.
  • Throwing one piece of food towards the tractor, then several pieces of higher value food away from the tractor.
  • Throwing the Kong Hide N Treat in the opposite direction to the tractor when the engine started.
  • Gradually moving closer to the tractor and consistently reinforcing Milo’s good choices.

So now when the engine starts, he sees it as fun time with me and not fun time with a tractor wheel!

Positive reinforcement dog training
The power of training with positive reinforcement.

Thank You For Reading

Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved pets. SHOP HERE 

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Ditch The Bowl

Ditching the bowl

5 ways to use your dog’s daily food allowance to create amazing real life benefits, shape great habits and pour value into your relationship instead of the bowl.

What does ditching the bowl mean?

Instead of feeding your dog in a bowl, you use the food in other ways to help you with training and enrichment. You can ditch the bowl with all ages and breeds, including puppies.

Why bother to ditch the bowl?

Food has great value to most dogs and you can use this value to improve your dog’s life. By gaining food by different methods other than from a bowl, they can learn more, learn faster, be mentally stimulated and have a more enriched life.

Contrafreeloading is a term used when dogs prefer food that requires effort to obtain. This means that given the choice, they would rather earn their food than be given it for free and this leaves them happy, mentally fulfilled and much more likely to behave in a positive way. Contrafreeloading is real, it happens with many animals, not just dogs and it’s a desirable behaviour to nurture.

Fussy eaters often eat better when they achieve food via alternative ways to a bowl. They gain more interest in food and consequently they can also become easier to train.

Dogs on limited exercise (such as following injury or surgery) massively benefit from receiving their food via methods other than from a bowl. This is due to being kept occupied for longer periods, plus the contrafreeloading effect helping them to use their brains.

How often should I ditch the bowl?

Water should always be available but the food bowl can be put away as often as suits you.

The answer to this is whatever works for you! Some people never use a bowl but instead use all of the daily food allowance for training and enrichment activities. Others use just part of the food each day for different activities and some ditch the bowl a couple of times a week. There are no exact requirements, so you can fit it in to your individual circumstances and even change it week to week. It is important to be mindful of the ethical considerations of ditching the bowl for your individual dog.

In general though, the more you can do the greater your training results and you should see more of many other benefits too. Dogs that earn their food are often calmer, more content and less likely to display unwanted behaviours.

What if I feed raw food?

You can still ditch the bowl! Whether you use kibble or raw, all dogs can benefit from this approach. Kibble can be easier for training but there are ways around it with raw fed dogs. You can use dried meat, fruit and vegetables, squeeze tubes, feed from a spoon or use a washable pouch and wear gloves.

Five Ways To Ditch The Bowl

1. Training

Dog training is a way of life, not just a 6 week course, so it’s good to get in the habit of using the daily food allowance for rewarding desired behaviour. You can still use higher value food for when your dog needs a greater reward or for specific training sessions.

Day to day, reward your dog with their regular food when they exhibit the behaviour you want to see. Whether that’s calmness, getting off the sofa when asked, not jumping up, ignoring a distraction or staying quiet, whenever the dog does something you like- reinforce it with their food.

2. Scatter Feeding

Really simple but so much more beneficial than feeding from a bowl. Scatter feeding slows down eating time and gets dogs using their nose, which provides mental stimulation and promotes calmer behaviour. Sniffing makes dogs tired!

You can use a snuffle mat indoors, or just literally scatter food on the floor. Outside you can scatter food in short grass to begin with, then once you have a pro sniffer dog try it in longer grass too. Vary the difficulty and always make sure some of the food is easier to find. Observe your dog to make sure they are finding all their food but leave them to search it out themselves.

Scatter feeding can be used on walks and when out on day trips. When our dog was young we used it a lot to reinforce calm behaviour in new environments, including the pub!

Scatter feeding is a simple way to ditch the bowl anywhere.

3. Interactive Toys

There are lots of toys that dispense food slowly and require the dog to make an effort to receive it. Quick, and easy to fill is the Kong Wobbler. The Kong Hide N Treat can be used for training or play and the Westpaw Qwizl can too.

4. Stuffed Toys

Food stuffed toys are a valuable way to encourage calmness. They can occupy your dog with an engaging but calm activity for much longer than it would take to eat the same food from a bowl. You can read all about the value of food stuffed toys, plus our best recipes HERE.

Our favourite toys are the Westpaw Toppl and the Westpaw Tux.

west paw tux puzzle toy, alternative to kongs, stuff able dog toy
Westpaw Tux

5. Slow Feeder Bowls

Ok, so still a bowl but slow feeders extend eating time and provide more of a challenge than standard dog bowls. There are various models available, we particularly like the Slodog and the Lickimat Slomo. They are more of a slow feeder plate than a bowl and they are brilliant for making food platters. Food platters are really valuable for enrichment as they provide your dog with different tastes, textures and smells. Using different food on a platter offers a really enjoyable eating experience for your dog.

Other types of slow feeder for dogs are the Lickimat range. You can mix and match between different types to vary the activity and eating time. You can change these up daily with other slow feeders or activities.

Slow feeder for dogs
Slodog Slow Feeder Plate, perfect for platters.

It is hugely rewarding for dogs to gain their food from ways other than a bowl. Once you get into a different routine of how to feed it is amazing how much enjoyment you will get from ditching the bowl too.

Thank you for reading

Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved pets. SHOP HERE 

Further Reading

You can read more about the ethics of ditching the bowl HERE.

You can read more about contrafreeloading HERE by trainer Nikki from Unleashed Pawtential.

There are some more ideas for ditching the bowl HERE by Lisa from Quibells N Bits.

There is a Facebook group called Beyond The Bowl for other ideas.

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Mighty Middle Game For Dogs

Mighty middle dog training game

Mighty middle is a really useful game that you can play with your dog to help with recall, proximity to you, confidence and focus in distracting environments.

Step One

Have some of your dog’s daily food ready, if you use raw food you can use a squeezable food tube. Alternatively you can use a toy, it is a good idea to have some much loved toys saved just for training. Begin this game indoors at home, in a quiet environment.

Step Two

Stand with your legs apart with your dog in front of you. Use a piece of food to lure them around your leg behind you, into position facing forward between your legs. This is the middle position. Feed in that position.

Step Three

Throw a piece of food away from you to the front. As your dog returns to you, lure them around your leg behind you and back in to middle. Feed in that position. To build value, feed more than just the piece of food you used for the lure.

Step Four

Repeat step three a few times, remember to play the game in both directions.

Step Five

As your dog starts to go between your legs, add the cue word. It can be anything you like but ‘Middle’ works well and football fans often like the cue to be nutmeg!

Step Six

When your dog starts to get the hang of it, use your cue word once they are returning towards you and see if they can return straight to middle without the lure. When they do, CELEBRATE! Reward well and let your dog know how great they are.

I think my celebration could have been a bit more enthusiastic!

Why Play Middle?

It’s a really useful cue to have when out and about, for those dogs who may need a safe space to go in scary situations and for building confidence in new environments. It is also valuable for helping recall as once the dog learns it’s fun and rewarding, it can be used in several situations for safety and to ask your dog to check in with you. Middle can also be helpful in distracting environments, when you need your dog to focus on you and not something else that may get them in to trouble. As well as all these reasons, it’s also great fun! Dogs love it and it’s something children can do with them too.


Once you have established the basics it is a good idea to build duration in the middle position. Then when you’ve mastered middle at home indoors, have a go outside in a familiar outside environment with no distractions. From there you can practice indoors and outdoors with distant distractions, then closer distractions. The ultimate test is having a go outside with those real life challenges that present themselves, such as squirrels, running children or cats!

For those looking to really build on this behaviour, add in some extra cues by asking for a sit or a down after you’ve got middle. You can also try middle on the move- walk forwards slowly with your dog moving with you between your legs.

Middle dog training game

Thank You For Reading

Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved pets. SHOP HERE 

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10 Favourite Kong Recipes To Make Your Dog’s Day

West Paw Toppl, Toppl recipes, Kong recipes

As well as ideas for tasty Kong recipes, we introduce reasons to use stuffable dog toys, alternatives to Kong dog toys and how to make the challenge easier or harder for your individual dog.

Every dog owner has times when they need to keep their dog calmly occupied without them. Stuffable dog toys are an indispensable part of an owner’s tool kit for this reason. It’s also useful to have a selection of Kong recipes to choose from, so you can chop and change. There are a variety of reasons when you may like to utilise a food stuffed toy, including-

  • Canine enrichment, to add variety to your dog’s day.
  • As a slow feeder, to make your dog’s dinner last much longer than feeding from a bowl.
  • To promote calm behaviour.
  • To lower stress levels.
  • As an engaging activity to reduce boredom and keep your dog occupied.
  • For mental stimulation. Working for food occupies the brain and produces feel good hormones.
  • When your dog is injured, recovering from surgery or other times when physical exercise is reduced.
  • To help keep puppies out of mischief, so you can go to the toilet in peace!
Westpaw tux, alternative to Kongs for dogs
The West Paw Tux

Kong Alternatives

As well as the classic Kong, there are other stuffable dog toys available that add variety or offer different challenges. Our favourites are the West Paw Toppl and the West Paw Tux. Both these are really easy to clean and they can also be put in the dishwasher.

The Toppl has soft rounded teeth inside a contoured cavity, these hold treats in place so they take longer to eat. You can also fit a small and a large Toppl together to create a greater challenge for those dogs that need it.

The Tux is a stuffable dog toy, treat toy and play toy all in one. It makes food last much longer and when it’s all gone the Tux can also be used for playtime.

A natural alternative instead of Kong dog toys is to fill a Buffalo Horn.

The West Paw Toppl

How To Vary The Challenge

For some dogs, if they find the activity too difficult they will lose interest or give up altogether. Other dogs need more of a challenge to occupy them because if it’s too easy, they whizz through the food quite quickly.


Easier recipes may include softer food, smellier treats and food served at room temperature. A single Toppl has a larger opening than a Kong, which encourages interaction. They are suitable for-

  • Puppies
  • First timers and in the early days of introducing the activity
  • Dogs that are pessimistic or those who lack determination
  • Nervous dogs
  • Older dogs and poorly dogs soon after illness or surgery
  • Fussy eaters


To make the challenge harder you can mix textures of food, use firmer food, add small pieces of more chewable food or put your recipe in the freezer before feeding. Adding two different sizes of Toppl together creates an enhanced challenge. Harder challenges are suitable for-

  • Dogs who are accustomed to using a Kong, Toppl or Tux
  • Fast eaters
  • Confident dogs that have grit and determination
  • Situations when you need the activity to last longer
  • Times when keeping your dog occupied for longer periods is beneficial for your dog
  • Days when exercise is limited
  • Dogs who need greater mental stimulation
Stuffed Kongs for dogs
Active breeds benefit from mental stimulation to help them relax.

It is advisable that whatever the challenge, your dog is supervised at all times whilst using their stuffed dog toy. As always, introduce new foods gradually and make sure that you are giving activities and recipes suited to your individual dog.

The Best Kong Recipes

There are lots of ways you can fill your dog toys, it is good to have a selection of options. Varying your Kong recipes helps to give your dog an interesting diet and is a great way to provide enrichment in your dog’s life.

Here are our top 10 suggestions for how to fill a Kong, Toppl, Tux or other food filled dog toy.

1. Roasted Sweet Potato, Chicken and Green Beans

Next time you’re cooking a roast dinner, add a couple of whole sweet potatoes in to the oven. Once cooled, mash up with some pieces of roast chicken and chopped green beans. Feed warm for a really tempting activity or freeze for a longer lasting challenge.

2. Mashed Banana With Grated Apple and Blueberries

A naturally sweeter treat packed full of antioxidants and really quick and easy to make. Feed immediately, keep in the fridge for later or freeze for a harder activity.

What do you fill a kong with?
Slice or mash the banana.

3. Squash, Salmon and Broccoli

This one takes a bit more preparation but it’s easier to do if you’re cooking already. Peel, chop and roast a pumpkin or butternut squash. Add in cooked salmon and mashed broccoli heads, or long strips of chopped raw stalk. Feed warm for fussy eaters or freeze if your dog needs it to last longer.

4. Sardines and Grated Carrot

Another quick and easy recipe, useful for when you need to stuff and feed in a rush! Mix a tin of sardines (or mackerel) with some grated raw carrot and off you go. Our dogs like sardines in tomato sauce!

Kong recipe for dogs
One of our favourite quick recipes.

5. Raw Mince and Tripe Sticks

For this recipe you can use any type of mince from a raw dog food company. We like Paleo Ridge for their high welfare, ethically sourced range. Benyfit Natural also offer a good selection made from all British ingredients. For added chew factor, the large opening of the West Paw Toppl is ideal for adding dried tripe sticks, which can stick out of the top or the hole on the side. Tripe is full of health boosting digestive enzymes and probiotics. You can get dried tripe from our Doggy Deli.

6. Soaked Kibble and Fresh Vegetables

If you prefer to feed your dog kibble, soak it in water or fresh meat gravy and add in some chopped carrot, broccoli, courgette or spinach. If prepared with warm water, feed immediately for those needing an easier recipe or freeze for dogs that need a greater challenge.

7. Scrambled Egg and Cottage Cheese

This is a speedy and simple recipe that lots of dogs love. Fill your toy with alternate layers of free range scrambled egg and cottage cheese. The West Paw Tux and Toppl are both easy to layer.

8. Natural Greek Yoghurt, Strawberries and Blueberries

This recipe is a good source of probiotics and natural antioxidants. Just chop the strawberries, bung them in a bowl with the blueberries and yoghurt and fill up your toy. This is a great one to freeze in the summer for a cooling, long lasting treat.

Kong recipe for dogs

9. Pate For Dogs

As well as being versatile enough to chop up for training, our range of Pate makes a great filling for your Toppl and Tux. There is a selection of single proteins, including meat and fish, which can be layered with vegetables or with a different flavour pate for greater variety. The Pate can can be kept in the fridge for up to 3 days. Pate is a really quick, easy recipe for when you are short of time or need a tasty but convenient filling.

10. Raw Mince and Sprats

This is a favourite in our house, the excitement is real! You can use complete raw meat or fish mince, (Paleo Ridge do both) and mix in broken up pieces of dried sprat, with a few whole sprats sticking out of the top. This is a great way to feed your dog their breakfast or dinner and much more enriching and mentally stimulating than feeding from a bowl. It also has minimal preparation, so really quick and easy.

West Paw Toppl, Large Toppl, Small Toppl, Dog slow feeder, alternatives to kongs, Toppl, stuffable dog toy, food dispensing toy
Large West Paw Toppls With Raw Mince & Dried Sprats

Thank You For Reading

I hope you will enjoy sharing some of our Kong recipes with your dog. Let us know your favourites!

Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved pets. SHOP HERE 

Canine enrichment

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DIY Brain Training Game For Dogs

Canine enrichment, brain games for dogs, mental stimulation for dogs

Here’s a great DIY brain training game for dogs that helps build confidence and reduces negative reactions to novel sounds and situations. It is also a great activity to make your dog work for their daily food, which is much more enriching and mentally stimulating than eating from a bowl.

Do you have a dog that reacts to strange noises? Perhaps your dog is sensitive or can be nervous? Would you like to reduce barking in the home? Would you like to help your dog be more confident in new situations? Or are you just looking for a different DIY brain training game that you can easily do at home? This engaging activity can help with all that and more.

Recycling Rummage

Before you start, for this DIY brain training game you will need the following items-

  • Large cardboard box or laundry basket. It should be shallow enough that your dog can reach inside easily.
  • Random clean pieces from your recycling bin- small empty cardboard boxes, different sizes of plastic bottles, cardboard tubes, scrunched up paper, plastic food trays. Obviously nothing sharp, made of glass or potentially toxic from food residue.
  • Additional items for training progression- different materials to make louder and different noises. For example, smooth metal objects such as lids or spoons, popcorn kernels, dried beans, plastic balls.
  • Part of your dog’s usual daily food. This activity can be done with raw food or kibble.
  • Some higher value food- something other than your dog’s usual daily food.

Brain training for dogs

Step One

Drop some food in to the bottom of your empty box and let your dog find it. Throw a piece of food away from the box so your dog moves to get it, then add another piece to the box. Repeat a few times.

Step Two

Add a couple of small, quieter pieces of recycling to the box. Good first items are toilet roll tubes and cardboard fruit trays. Add some food and let your dog search for it.

Step Three

When your dog is happily sticking their head in the box with a couple of items, gradually add more along with some food. Use different sized objects and different materials. This is where you need to adapt the game to the individual dog in front of you. Some need to go slowly, they may need several sessions with just the box or just a couple of quieter additions. Others skip through steps one and two in a couple of minutes and you can add more pieces of recycling quite quickly.

Step Four

Once your dog is readily engaging with the box and you have several cardboard and plastic items in there, some dogs may benefit from making the task more difficult by adding ‘noisier’ objects. Again, do this gradually, one at a time and only add more if your dog is showing no signs of concern. Examples of noisier objects include metal spoons, metal lids, cardboard containers with dried beans inside (taped up) and plastic bottles with popcorn kernels inside (lid on tight).

How do you know your dog is ready for you to make the activity harder?

Look at your dog’s body language. If they are straight in the box with no hesitation, then they should be fairly confident. If your dog is slow to go for the food, leaning backwards, jumpy or leaning forwards and then stepping back, you will need to go more slowly as these are signs that your dog is concerned. Do not be tempted to rush, there is no time limit and the whole point is for your dog to enjoy the experience and gain confidence. Making the task too difficult serves no purpose. Remember that the goal is a happy, confident dog, not how much recycling you can fill your box with!

A couple of minutes doing this game may be enough for some nervous dogs to begin with. More confident dogs can be kept engaged searching for their whole meal hidden amongst the recycling. Adapt your ‘ask’ according to the individual dog. It is usual for it to take several sessions before your dog will happily eat from a full box and this may be spread out over days or even weeks.

Using Higher Value Food

With all but the most confident dogs, it is a good idea to use the occasional piece of higher value food in the box whilst you are introducing this game. This will help keep your dog’s interest searching and also provides a different smell for them to look for. Having higher value food ready also ensures you are prepared, should your dog need some extra help. For example, if the dog isn’t progressing with their confidence despite not making the task harder or if they seem worried by added noise, use some higher value food to reward those small steps of confident moments that you want more of.

Higher value food is whatever your dog particularly enjoys, such as cooked chicken, small pieces of pate or our training treats.

Here you can see our Collie enjoying Recycling Rummage.
He is choosing to search for some kibble rather than eat the free roast pork on the mat beside him.


As an added bonus to building confidence and reducing reactions to strange noises, this game helps to keep dogs mentally content and less likely to engage in unwanted behaviour. How? By something called contrafreeloading, which is a sometimes unexpected phenomenon.

Contrafreeloading is when dogs prefer food that requires effort to obtain. This means that given the choice, they would rather earn their food than be given it for free and this leaves them happy, tired and much more likely to behave in a positive way. How cool is that?!

Thank You For Reading

Natalie Bucklar, BSc (Hons), MSc is the owner of Pawsitive Thinking. We offer a tried and tested portfolio of products to help you with the training, care and enrichment of your much loved pets. SHOP HERE 

Further Reading

Here’s a video of another simple DIY enrichment activity from Niki at Twickenham Dog Services. WATCH.

This blog HERE introduces passive calming activities. Lisa from Quibells N Bits explains how to help your dog decompress and relax.

Nikki from Unleashed Potential talks more about contra freeloading HERE.

Whilst Laura from Constructive Canines writes more about canine enrichment HERE.

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Titre Testing for Dogs

What is titre testing for dogs? Titre testing

What is titre testing and how can it help you optimise the health of your dog?

Titre testing is a simple way to avoid over vaccinating your pet. This article explains about the recommended vaccinations for dogs and why titre testing is an important tool to help you keep your dog happy and healthy.

The Background On Core Vaccinations For Dogs

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) produces vaccination guidelines to provide current scientific advice and best practice vaccination for dogs. The guidelines classify vaccines as either core or non-core; core vaccines are identified as those that give protection against diseases that are life threatening or cause significant rates of disease. Specifically, the core vaccines protect against:

  • Canine distemper virus (CDV)
  • Canine parvovirus-2 (CPV)
  • Canine adenovirus-1 (CAV). 

The WSAVA guidelines are that all dogs should receive the core vaccinations as a puppy, as a yearly booster then following this, every 3 years or more. They state that-

“Vaccines should not be given needlessly. Core vaccines should not be given any more frequently than every three years after the 6- or 12-month booster injection following the puppy series, because the duration of immunity (DOI) is many years and may be up to the lifetime of the pet.”

This statement is contradictory, because if the duration of immunity can be many years or even a lifetime, a yearly booster and then one every three years may still be needlessly vaccinating. This advice is also often taken to mean that we should vaccinate every three years but this is not the case because if the dog is already immune to these three core diseases, re-vaccinating will not add any extra immunity.

What this suggests is that it is advisable to test the immunity of your dog rather than just blindly vaccinating on an arbitrary time scale. Fortunately this can be done quite simply and although it is not offered by all vets, many progressive, modern vets do this by offering something called a titre test. This gives dog owners an important alternative route to routine vaccination, so that they are only administered when needed. 

“The principles of evidence based veterinary medicine should be better practice than simply administering a vaccine booster on the basis that this would be ‘safe and cost less.” WSAVA

So What Is Titre Testing?

Titre tests indicate whether or not your dog has immunity against the tested diseases. Your vet takes a small amount of blood from your dog and it is tested in a laboratory for the amount of antibodies present. A negative test result indicates that the dog has little or no antibodies, so revaccination is recommended. A positive result means further vaccination is pointless because the dog is already immune to the diseases tested for. Titre testing is therefore a really useful tool to see the immunity status of your dog for the core diseases.

Why Bother To Titre Test?

Vaccinating dogs that are already immune is not only futile but it also unnecessarily exposes your dog to the risks and side effects of vaccines. Whilst vaccines do save lives by protecting against potentially fatal diseases, they aren’t without the risk of side effects, some of which can be serious.

Reactions to vaccines are known as adverse events and common problems include:

  • hair loss
  • lethargy
  • fever
  • stiffness
  • loss of appetite
  • sneezing

Moderate reactions include:

  • behaviour changes
  • weight loss
  • swelling
  • lameness
  • abscesses
  • suppressed immune system

The most severe reactions to vaccinations include:

  • seizures
  • organ inflammation
  • cancer
Titre tests for dogs
What is a titre test

What Else Does The Research Say About Vaccine Risks?

Moore et al (2005) found that adverse event risk was up to 38% greater for neutered versus sexually intact dogs and up to 64% greater for dogs approximately 1 to 3 years old versus 2 to 9 months old. The risk also significantly increased as the number of vaccine doses administered per office visit increased; each additional vaccine significantly increased risk of an adverse event by 27% in small dogs under 10kg and 12% in dogs over 10 kg (vaccines commonly contain more than one disease). Moore et al found the clinical signs of a vaccine reaction were-

  • Facial swelling (30.8%)
  • Wheals or urticaria (20.8%)
  • Generalised pruritus (15.3%)
  • Vomiting (10.3%)
  • Localised vaccination site reactions (8%)
  • Systemic signs- fever, lethargy, anorexia (5.5%)
  • Collapse

Valli (2015) reported a low percentage of adverse reactions but events following vaccination included vomiting and diarrhoea, respiratory disorders, anaphylactic shock, loss of consciousness, neurological and autoimmune disorders and death.

Titre tests for dogs
What is a titre test

What Does The UK Veterinary Medicines Directorate Say About Adverse Reactions To Vaccines?

In 2016,  safety reports describing adverse reactions in dogs showed that the vaccines most mentioned were inactivated Leptospira only vaccines. The next most often reported group of vaccines were the core live viral vaccines offering combined protection against distemper, adenovirus and parvovirus. Combined live viral and inactivated bacterial vaccines for protection against distemper, adenovirus, parainfluenza, parvovirus and leptospirosis were the next most often reported vaccine group.

Vaccines accounted for almost half of all authorised medicines mentioned in adverse event reports.

Figure 1: Types of authorised veterinary medicines mentioned in spontaneous animal adverse event reports.
(UK Pharmacovigilance Review by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, 2016)

So whilst we need to protect our dogs against serious diseases by vaccinating, it is important that we do this only when necessary in order to protect our dogs against other health problems. Rather than following a blanket schedule of vaccination, titre testing enables you to only vaccinate dogs that need it. 

Over vaccinating dogs
Titre tests

The Perils Of Outdated Pressure

There are still some vets who advocate yearly vaccinations and others who push the yearly and tri-annual boosters regardless of the evidence to the contrary, many do not even offer titre tests. Another problem is that the labelling on some vaccines has not been updated, so there are vaccine products which still state that the duration of immunity is one year.

Boarding services (kennels & home boarders) are permitted by their licensing conditions to accept titre testing results as proof of immunity, however unfortunately there are still those who disregard this and insist on routine vaccinations too, even though this isn’t always in the best interests of the dog.

The WSAVA say-

“Above all, it must be remembered that even a 3-year license is a minimum DOI for core vaccines and for most core vaccines the true DOI is likely to be considerably longer, if not lifelong, for the majority of vaccine recipients.”

What Can Dog Owners Do? 

To avoid unnecessarily exposing your dog to unneeded vaccines and their potential side effects, you can ask your vet to titre test first. This can be done before both the yearly and tri-annual boosters. If your vet won’t provide this service, phone other local practices and ask if they will.

Click Here For Veterinary Practices Who Offer The Vaccicheck Titre Test (others are available)

When choosing a home boarding or kennelling service, check if they will accept titre test results before booking. There are knowledgeable professionals who appreciate the risks of over vaccination and who will support you in wanting what is best for your dog. The test must be done by a vet, this will provide you with professional proof of immunity and good boarding services will understand this. If a service refuses to accept titre results, these are your choices-

  • Stay with the service and potentially over vaccinate OR
  • Look for an alternative service who will work with you for your dog’s welfare

Local councils can provide a list of licensed dog boarding premises to help you with your search.

Our Recent Experience

We were receiving regular reminders for our dog’s yearly booster from our vet, Milo had received just his puppy vaccinations a year before. The home boarding service we used also wanted him re-vaccinated before he could go again. Despite these demands we were reluctant to blindly vaccinate without checking whether Milo actually needed them first.

Titre testing is not difficult or expensive, our dog happily stuffed his face with cooked chicken whilst our new vet took the blood and Milo didn’t even notice! We had him tested instead of going ahead with the recommended yearly booster and he received a positive result for all three diseases. Titres greater than 1:40 suggest protective immunity, his results were as follows-

Distemper 1:64

Parvovirus 1:640

Canine Adenovirus 1:128

If we hadn’t requested the titre test, Milo would have received a totally pointless booster vaccination and been exposed to the associated short and long term side effects. Instead, he has proven immunity and we have also protected him against the potential harm of over vaccination. We will continue to use titre testing in the future, our vet is happy that it does not need to be done every year, so we will test again in 3 years time.


Titre testing for dogs
Ways to prevent over vaccination in dogs

References/ Further Reading

Schultz, Thiel, Mukhtar, Sharp & Larson. Age and long term protective immunity in dogs and cats. Journal of Comparative Pathology, 2010, Volume 142, S102-S108.

Day, Horzinek, Schultz and Squires. Guidelines for the vaccination of dogs and cats compiled by the vaccination guidelines group (VGG) of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA). Journal of Small Animal Practice • Vol 57 • January 2016.

Moore, Guptill, Ward, Glickman, Faunt Lewis & Glickman. Adverse events diagnosed within three days of vaccine administration in dogs. Journal American Veterinary Medical Association, 2005, 227(7):1102-8.

Meyer, K. Vaccine Associated Adverse Events. Animal Practice, 2001, Volume 31, Issue 3. Pages 493-514.

Valli. Suspected adverse reactions to vaccination in Canadian dogs and cats. Canadian Veterinary Journal, October 2015; 56(10): 1090–1092.

Veterinary Medicines Directorate. Veterinary Pharmacovigilance in the United Kingdom Annual Review 2016.

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