Fred Leow, an AVS (Animal & Veterinary Service) accredited dog trainer, was the first dog trainer we met in Singapore through volunteering at OSCAS (Oasis Second Chance Animal Shelter), where he shared his knowledge and tips on helping to walk dogs that had never walked outside their kennels on a leash. He introduced us to the benefits of using a harness, long leash and positive reinforcement – valuable knowledge that has made a remarkable difference in helping shelter dogs gain confidence in a safe and comfortable way. Fred is a trainer who has evolved or rather “crossed over” through sheer experience working with, observing and understanding dogs to their core. Here’s some insights he shared with us.
LD: How long have you been working with dogs and how did it all begin?
FRED: The first dog I had was a Singapore Special named Lucky when I was a kid living back then in a rural area at Yio Chu Kang Kampong. We moved to a new place at Serangoon Garden and my folks decided to leave Lucky behind. When I finally had a chance I went to visit him after a week, only to find out Lucky was run over by a lorry and died - I was devastated!
I was 11 years old when we adopted our second dog named Jane, a mixed Labrador. I had a great relationship with this gal, she was my soulmate and contributed to a large part of my childhood, unfortunately, she passed on when I was around 15 years old. I eventually got my own dog Snowy, a Jack Russel Terrier, when I was 28 years old and seriously started to train her with “old school” compulsion methods. Snowy was "well trained" with an Electric collar and walked off-leash. She was run over by a car when she ran onto a busy road chasing a soccer ball that came flying over from a nearby school. For some years, I started training many other dogs using confrontational methods. However, now I train with Reward Base Training methods which I have done so with my current dog Rus, a 12-year old JRT. He started competing at the age of 2 years old and attained the highest level of obedience (CDX – Companion Dog Excellence) at the age of 4 years old.
I am what you would call a “cross over trainer” so I have witnessed many dogs trained using confrontational methods where I have seen more harm than good. I switched over to use reward base methods when I started training Rus, and today, this is always my preferred way to train.
LD: How has your training evolved over the years and do you have a particular training approach now?
FRED: As mentioned, Reward Base training will be always my preferred method, having gone through confrontational methods I now know what's best for the dogs.
LD: One thing that has stuck since the first training session you gave to volunteers at the shelter, was that you said to make sure the leash is smiling. Can you explain for the benefit of others what you mean by this?
FRED: Dogs experience a lot of uncertainty especially with an untrained human. Having a tight leash adds more stress, not allowing the dog to feel relaxed and having no option to take flight with a tight leash can cause tons of problems, such as anxiety, frustration, aggression and leash reactivity. With a smiling (loose) leash most of the time during a walk, we aim to keep the dog feeling a sense of freedom even though they are on leash.
LD: What are your preferred accessories for walking a dog and why?
FRED: A harness of any kind is preferred and a slightly longer leash, compared to a collar that can possibly cause potential injuries to the neck and affecting the spine in the long run. Although a very short leash can give a sense of control, in reality, this can be the pitfall as dogs are very much inhibited and so this can cause more problems especially with nervous dogs.
LD:. Is there a common issue you have found you tend to help people with more than others when dealing with dogs? If so, what is it and why do you think this is such a common issue?
FRED: The common issues are always related to people who are influenced by dominance theories in training their dogs and obtaining “knowledge” from a particular TV show that has detrimental influence, especially when it is the MOST popular DOG SHOW on National Geographic channel. Too often people are taught to believe that dogs are constantly striving to be the top position in the family, and because of this incorrect understanding people constantly act on this misunderstood motive of dogs and start using force and intimidation that can cause many more behavioural issues.
LD: For anyone, considering getting a dog, adopting or buying, what are the top 3 things you would say are an absolute must to consider first?
FRED: Above all, 1000 percent heart and soul commitment.
LD: What would be your top 3 tips for helping a dog settle into their new environment?
1. Engage a reward-based trainer that utilises scientifically proven methods.
2. Antecedent arrangement, that is, set up an environment so that the dog feels safe and secure.
3. Proper management of personal time and be prepared to embed the newly adopted dog into your lifestyle. Be proactive to reward desirable behaviours and manage those that are not acceptable by either placing the dog in an environment where the behaviours can be better managed and controlled.
LD: From your experience, what would you say is the one misunderstood behaviour in a dog?
FRED: People expect way too much from dogs, they don’t empathise enough with them and always think dogs are wilful and stubborn when they misbehave. In actual fact, dog’s behaviours are contextual and they display many of such coping behaviours as barking, chewing or defecating etc when they are actually in a state of conflict or anxiety. People need to be able to read and understand their dogs better.
LD: Dogs have become such a big part of our lives and society, where they are expected to tolerate a lot and restricted by many rules (unlike their domesticated cat friends), what do you believe people should be tolerating more in a dog?
FRED: It's all about education, people need to understand that dogs are animals that have special genetic needs such as barking, chasing and even destroying stuff at home. It's only through correct education of people, that then allow our dogs to have a happy and healthy life under our care.
LD: People tend to think their dogs need socialisation (like we humans do) but not all dogs enjoy it. What’s your advice to a person taking their dog to a Dog park for the first time?
FRED: I am not a dog park person, if you have to, you should possess the knowledge on reading a dog’s body language and intervene timely when the need arises. While dogs are having fun, we still need to strive to get the dogs attention back to us, so as to keep the balance / harmony.
LD: You’ve worked with the K9 dogs at SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) and it’s great that retired working dogs can now be adopted into HBDs. Can you give us some tips for a family considering adopting a retired working dog?
FRED:A commitment from the heart is always a pre-requisite before anyone choses to adopt a dog. In the case of an ex-service dog, who has spent many years serving our nation, they truly deserve proper care and maintenance as typically they are at a more senior age. Though trained, they must still be mentally stimulated through human interaction and through positive reinforcement.
Many service dogs strive for lots of human interaction and tactile connections, spending quiet times massaging them is one of the many good ways to build a strong bond. Avoid vigorous activities, walk at their pace, allow them to explore the world with their nose which can really keep them mentally stimulated and content.