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Driving home from work the other evening, I saw what looked to me to be ‘the four ages of dog.’  Glacially-slow temporary traffic lights meant that for once I had the time to watch the parade.

It was a beautiful summer evening, one of the few we’ve had this year in the UK, and it was prime ‘after work but just before dinner’ dog walking time. With two reactive dogs, we learned a long time ago to avoid those peak times but it’s always lovely to see the neighbourhood dogs out enjoying their evening stroll.

The four ages of ‘dog’ 

Alternatively bounding around in circles, chewing its lead and then sitting down and refusing to budge, was a golden Labrador puppy.   Behind them, I saw a young husky towing the beefy-looking chap on the other end of the lead in his wake.

Then there was my neighbour with her cool as a cucumber Pointer who was loping at her side and stopping every now and again to sniff and lift his leg. But then suddenly there was a lump in my throat, because the next dog I saw was a very elderly chocolate Labrador. Unlike the other dogs, he trailed about 10 ft behind his people, who were so deep in conversation that they seemed almost to have forgotten why they were out.

His tongue lolled out of his grey muzzle, his gait bore the tell-tale signs of arthritis and he looked like every step was a decision. When he stopped, sometimes to sniff but other times just it seemed to rest, his people turned and called him on. He’d break into an awkward jog to join them but within seconds they had outpaced him again and he was left watching their backs and then hurrying once again to catch up.

We spend so long teaching our puppies and young dogs to walk to heel – to walk with us.  I think the very least we can do in their dotage is to remain by their sides – just as they did for us.

Red Fox Labrador Annie sitting in a field 'smiling'

Our Annie – 11 years young but still loving her walks

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Annie and Little Bear with their friend Grace

Annie and Little Bear with their friend Grace

Oh my poor neglected blog. Seven whole months on its lonesome, twiddling its pixels in cyber space wondering if this was it, the thing every blog dreads – the last post.

Well, despite my tardiness, TLBDB, now in its fifth year, need not fear, I have no intentions of abandoning it. I have though come to accept that my posts may not be quite so frequent as they once were.

My less frequent updates are due to a couple of factors.  Finding a group of people locally who are all living and working with reactive dogs has been an enormous help, not just for the opportunity to socialise our dogs, but to find support from people who really, genuinely understand the challenges.

Working for myself also means that I now get paid to write. Admittedly, I don’t get paid to write about dogs, but you never say never!

Little Bear and Annie have come such a long way and continue to be a source of joy and hilarity.  They still have issues and we’ve come to realise that when working with fearful dogs, there’s rarely ever a destination, just a better quality of road.

Mini schnauzer Little Bear having a cuddle

Bear deals much better with firework night if he has someone to snuggle with.

“Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” For some unknown reason we’re still celebrating Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt to blow the Houses of Parliament to smithereens 400 years after the fact.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for tradition if it brings a smile to people’s faces, but when you have a dog that’s terrified of loud noises, firework night is traumatic. Picture your dog hunched in a corner, shaking like a leaf and panting so hard you’re afraid he might pass out.

It’s a pitiful sight especially when you’re unable to control the source of their fear. What’s worse is the fact that as the sale of fireworks is unregulated, fireworks ‘night’ now seems to last up to two weeks meaning another assault can come at any time.

Advice 

Lots of dogs are of course frightened of fireworks and social media has been awash with people asking for advice on how to cope with their terrified pets.  On the whole the advice offered is sound: Turn up the TV; try a Thunder-shirt, herbal calmers, hormone collars and diffusers like Adaptil and for those instances where nothing works, a consultation with your vet for a prescribed tranquilliser.

However, there are still those who insist that ignoring your dog is the only way to deal with the situation.  I understand where this thinking may have come from – in positive reinforcement training we often ignore bad behaviour like jumping up for fear of reinforcing it with our attention.  However, YOU CAN’T REINFORCE FEAR! Once your dog is afraid he’s incapable of learning anything so you won’t make it worse by giving him attention.

For pity’s sake, just cuddle your bloody dog! 

So please, if your dog is frightened and wants to be near you – CUDDLE HIM! Distract him, play with him – hell, wrap him in a blanket and feed him roast chicken off a fork if it’ll make him feel better but please, PLEASE do not ignore him.

You didn’t have to be a dog lover to feel your heart break at the news reports of the fire at the Manchester Rescue Centre which killed more than fifty dogs last night.

Two local men broke into the burning complex to kick down doors and rescue as many dogs as they could; locals jammed roads on their way to the scene with food and blankets and overnight more than a million pounds has been raised for the charity.

That the fire was started deliberately is horrifying enough, but what is perhaps even more haunting is the fact that this was the second tragedy to befall these poor dogs, having already been abandoned by the people who they trusted to care for them.

While cute puppies remain commodities to be bought on a whim and discarded when the hard work becomes apparent, there will be little respite for the rescue centres who try so hard to re home these abandoned dogs.

Fifty dogs lost their lives in horrendous circumstances yesterday but 9,000 perfectly re-homeable dogs are killed each year in this country by Pounds and ‘Rescue’ organisations simply because there are no homes for them.

As I watched the pictures of the wonderful people of Manchester lining up to help outside the smouldering Rescue Centre my one consoling thought was that perhaps people might now be moved to show similar compassion and help save the lives of the 25 dogs a day who die silently all for the want of a family to love them.

Seven years ago today my life was tipped upside down by a small, yappy bundle of cuteness. I thought I’d done my homework. I thought I knew dogs, but in hindsight I knew about as much as Jon Snow. I’m still only scratching the surface in terms of my understanding of these acutely intelligent, sensitive creatures so many of us share our lives with. 

As my blog has chronicled, Little Bear hasn’t been the easiest of dogs. He has challenged me emotionally and intellectually from day one and we’ve had our fair share of dark days when I’ve doubted us both. 

I used to often catch myself wondering what life might have been like had he been a different dog. If he’d been born with the laid-back genes of my beloved childhood Springer or had the take-anywhere personality of those dogs who happily lounge under the table at pavement cafes…. But he is not that dog. He will in fact never be that sort of dog, but that’s fine with me.  

I’ve been blessed not just with an amazing companion, but with an incredible teacher.  The irony is of course that in searching for ways to better understand and help him deal with his fears, I’ve had to face down quite a few of my own. So thank you my Little Bear. Thank you for being the funny, sensitive, sweet little soul you are. My life is so much the richer for you. xxx 

And now for some shamelessly cute photographs for no other reason other than the fact that you’re shamelessly cute! 

Two mini schnauzer puppies

Little Bear and his brother.

IMG_1068

Our first picture

Mini schnauzer puppy Little Bear

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear with his teddy

 

 

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear in the garden

Mini schnauzer Little Bear sleeping on the sofa

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear in the autumn leaves

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear looking out to see

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear in witches hat

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear in a hat

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear in the pool

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear laying down

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear sticking out his tongue

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear in the  field

Mini Schnauzer Little Bear in a bandana

Mini Schnauzer dog being carried

Getting your dog quickly away from a scary situation is often the best option

As part of my on-going quest to lead a generally less cluttered life, yesterday we joined a field full of other locals who had risen at dawn to sell our unwanted stuff at a car boot sale. Among the items for sale was a large bag of freshly washed dog toys that I had to smuggle out of the house. 

Dogs are a given at most car boot sales and I mostly gave the toys away to any passing dog that showed an interest. One Jack Russell called Tyler became so excited by his free squeaky that his person bought him four more. A tug rope went to a sweet old yellow Lab called Dylan who pounced on it like an Andrex pup and as we were packing up, I gave the remainder to a lovely lady who ran a rescue centre. 

Scaredy-pup 

The dogs were a natural highlight of the morning, but there was one dog that simply broke my heart. A tiny Yorkshire Terrier, quite recently rescued from a puppy farm. Typically terrified of anything and everything as ex-breeders usually are, play was the last thing on this poor little dog’s mind.

Seeming to take little comfort from her chilled out companion dog, she ducked, cowered and sprawled herself flat on the floor against the tsunami of feet, trolleys and other dogs that surrounded her, her tail so tucked it hugged her belly. 

Chatting to her owners, it was clear that they considered such outings good for her and told me with pride that she’d made good progress over the weeks since they’d adopted her. If this was progress I shivered at the thought of what she had been like before.  

Flooding

Sadly, thanks to a certain unqualified and dangerous celebrity trainer, flooding as a desensitisation technique has resurfaced from the archive where it should have been left to gather dust with choke chains and dominance theory. 

Flooding is a ‘behavioural desensitisation program for treating phobias and fears in which anxiety-producing stimuli are presented at a high intensity and continued until the fear response is diminished.’ (V.Schade, Bonding with your Dog 2009)  The human equivalent would be to lock someone with arachnophobia into a room full of tarantulas in the hope that they’d just ‘get over it.’

Learning 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think being stuck in a room full of spiders would help me overcome my fear of them and it’s pretty much the same for dogs. Studies have shown that when any animal is fearful (and that includes us) the rational, thinking part of the brain is sidelined in favour of the amygdala.

Sometimes called the reptilian brain, the amygdala is responsible for memory, decision-making and emotion. Our amygdala keeps us alive because it’s job is to react to danger, either real or perceived. We can thank this part of our brain for every ‘fight, flight or freeze’ decision we’ve ever made.

In the case of the scared little Yorkshire Terrier, flight and freeze were very much in evidence as she scuttled  around the circumference of her lead, cowered and threw herself on the floor in a freeze before being dragged off again to the next stall. The sad thing about this form of ‘training’ is that dogs are incapable of learning in this state.  The next car boot sale she’s taken to is likely to be just as scary as this one.

The reason for this is that when the amygdala is in charge there’s not a hope in hell of the brain learning anything new. As far as it’s concerned your life is in danger so all other concerns are jettisoned out of the window – survival is the only priority.  If I was stuck in the room with the spiders you’d have a hard time getting me to recall my name let alone asking me to pick up a new skill while I was in there! It’s the same with dogs. 

Systematic desensitisation 

A far kinder form of training is systematic desensitisation. This is the method advocated by reward based trainers and is the one we’ve used to great effect with both Little Bear and Annie – and it’s by no means rocket science!  

Annie’s explosive reaction to a dog a football pitch away has been systematically reduced and eventually extinguished by keeping her below the point where her thinking brain checked out in favour of her amygdala. Gradually over time, using distance from the stimulus (in her case another dog) plus food as rewards she was able to stay calm enough to learn that the other dog was nothing to be afraid of. For the scared little Yorkshire Terrier, standing at the gate of the car boot for just a few minutes might have been learning enough. With the submersion into the throng of the event itself slowly built up over weeks, months and perhaps even years this would have been a far kinder and far more effective method of helping her to overcome her very real fears. 

 

 

Annie the labrador

Annie

At around this time four years ago today I  slipped into a nightmare.  It had all started so well. My planning had been pretty flawless. The only glitch was the harness that hadn’t arrived in time. Never mind I thought, plenty of time to pop out and pick one up in the morning.  Except the next morning would be spent bleary-eyed through lack of sleep and crying, frantically calling Vet’s Surgeries and Rescue Centres as we pounded pavements, tracks and fields searching for the foster dog who, just minutes after arriving had snapped her collar and bolted into the dusk.

Guilt

The guilt I felt was overwhelmed only by the desire to find her. My most important job was to keep her safe but just an hour after meeting me and just minutes after she found the courage to edge her way along the back seat of the car to rest her head tentatively in my lap, she was lost in a strange place, dodging traffic as the sun slipped out of the sky. I’ve never in my life seen a dog look so scared and hope I never do again. (Read the full story here)

Forgiveness 

Annie forgave me far more quickly than I forgave myself.  When we eventually found her two days later exhausted and completely shut down all we cared about was the fact that she was alive and safe. We resolved to give her whatever she needed to recover from her ordeal.  We took it in turns to sleep on the sofa and we abandoned our offices to work off the dining room table that had become her den so that she had company at all times. We respected her wishes and kept our distance, waiting for her to make the first move towards contact.  Two days in she was confident enough to sniff Stu’s feet as he slept on the sofa. Three days in she nuzzled my hand under the table as I worked and I knew we’d be okay.

Joy

Meeting her today, the dog who will now pull to greet strangers in the street if they look like the cuddling type, it’s hard to remember the dog who wouldn’t even make eye contact with us. The dog who would literally cower behind our legs if someone looked at her in the street, or heaven forbid, bend to stroke her. She can still be reactive in the wrong circumstances (she can’t stand German Shepherds or Huskies despite our best efforts), but she’s come so far. We have new challenges today with the recent diagnosis of severe arthritis in both her elbows to match that in her hips and a bladder problem no doubt caused by having too many litters to line the greedy pockets of her previous ‘owners’, but she remains an utter joy to share our life with.

So happy ‘gotcha day’ day our darling Annie May.  Yes, there will be biscuits.  And the even better news?  In two days time we’ll be celebrating ‘gotcha back day’.

xx

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