Archive for March, 2010

In my last post I mentioned Emma Parsons’ book ‘Click to Calm’.  In it she advocates the use of a head collar such as a Gentle Leader or Halti. Now as Little Bear is on the sensitive side, I’ve learned not to change too many things at any one time for fear of unsettling him. But, as he hates his harness with a passion and chokes himself if walked on a collar, I decided it was worth investigating.

After a root around on the internet I called our trusty dog walker Louisa (aka Auntie Lou) to ask for some pro advice and she raved about them. Suitably convinced, I decided to give it a go. 

Now I’m as keen on new things as the next person, but with a day job in marketing I’m also far more cynical than is maybe healthy when it comes to product claims.  ‘Unique patented designed prefered by many leading trainers, vets and behaviourists around the world.’ Hmm….. ‘Results occur in minutes – not weeks.’  Ha – sure they do – are they made by fairies too?

Back at home, I decide that we’ll start with some positive reinforcement.  We get off to a shaky start as LB shoots off at the sound of me opening the packet – then decides that tiny bits of cheddar in return for touching first the packet and then the collar are worth the trade. 

Resigning myself to not being able to return the head collar if it didn’t work due to odour issues, I pop it in his treat bag and give it a shake just to make it extra smelly. This seems to have the desired effect because once I’ve finished fiddling with the adjusters and put it down to read the instruction book again, LB decides to lay with his head on the collar and give it the occasional lick. Good start – and something unheard of with his rather smart but hated harness.

I pop it on and off him a few times that afternoon.  Each time is accompanied by extra nice treats and for the last and longest trial he gets to keep it on for the 3 minutes flat it takes him to polish off a chew. 

After umming and ahhing over whether to work on this for a few days longer before venturing out in it, I decide to give it a go.  If he hates it once we’re out, I can pop him on his collar and build up slowly over the week.

Once out of the front door he decides that he can’t walk a step.  This is his usual reaction to his harness or any type of dog coat.  He becomes super-glued to the floor and refuses to budge until the offending item is removed – or in the case of the harness, he gets a better offer.  

Silent protest over (he decides that playing with his tennis ball is more fun) off we trot on our evening walk.

So this is where I eat my cynics hat.  We walk around the block, through the wood and around the dog field without the lead becoming taught once.  

He pawed at the collar twice within the first 5 minutes of the walk but then left it completely alone. We play ball, practice his recall and then trot home without incident or any tension what-so-ever on the lead. In fact, he seems incredibly calm and totally unphased by it.

Back home he sits as usual to have his lead unclipped and as I slide the head collar off his nose, he gives it what I hope is a lick of approval.

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Strength in numbers

Does your family have a favourite saying?  There might be a few.  Sayings we grow up with and find ourselves repeating parrot fashion years later for no apparent reason? One of the favourite ones I remember hearing a lot growing up was  ‘Well never mind, at least you’re all in the same boat’.

Now this made no sense to me even then.  Before I’d learned to smile and nod politely at platitudes, the teenage me would huff sarcastically and say something like  ‘So, if we were all going to hell in a handbasket it would be okay as long as we had some company?!  Pah!

The idea seemed preposterous and with the same naivety with which I vowed never to eat myself past a size 8, I confined it to the ‘things old ladies say to stop teenagers whining’ box. 

The lure of good food meant I gave up on the size eight thing a long time ago and now it seems I have to admit that there might be some truth in the idea that being in the same boat can, in some circumstances be comforting.

I read Emma Parson’s excellent Click to Calm the other week and was on the verge of tears before page 3 of the introduction.  Here was a dog professional, an obedience trainer by trade who despite doing everything we think of as right in terms of positive puppy raising, found herself having to deal with a fearful, aggressive dog whose behaviour seemed to materialise out of the blue.

Now Little Bear isn’t such a serious case, but the thing that really struck me was how much better I felt reading about Emma’s problems with Ben.  Now that pains me to admit as I’ve never taken pleasure in anyone else’s misfortune, but there was an undenieable sense of relief on reading her story.  Here, at long last was someone else in my boat. 

Inspired by her account of a much calmer, happier Ben, I read the book cover to cover. My plan to use the clicker training methods described in the book with Little Bear however had to be adapted as, surprise, surprise, he’s afraid of the clicker.  Even the soft tone version clicked behind my back and accompanied by a generous portion of still warm roast chicken sent him scurrying upstairs to hide in his bed, after throwing me the ‘how could you?’ look over his shoulder.

So it seems that there is some truth in the old saying after all. There’s solace to be gained from knowing that whatever our dog’s problem, we won’t be the first, nor the last to have to deal with it.

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I’ve obviously reached an age where I have no shame.  I know this because this morning I left the house on my usual morning dog walk wearing a bright yellow flourescent bib bearing the words ‘Dog in training, please ignore’.

I can already hear sniggering, but as I’m past caring I’ll ignore it and offer up my explanation. 

Little Bear is fear aggressive.  He’s not a biter (thank god) but his answer to anything that worries him, dogs, random people, screaming children is to bark.  We have coping strategies thanks to the behaviourist which include squeaky tennis balls and tasty treats used to distract him. 

Walking to the park the other day we met a man walking a spaniel that Little Bear (LB) took an instant dislike to.  I’m not a dog so I can’t offer up a reason for it, but as soon as they came into sight I saw all the signs that LB was getting anxious – once that happens, we have a second or two to distract him. 

Now LB knows the routine and so will look at me for the excuse not to get anxious – out came the ball and we did what we’ve been advised to do which is avoid the other dog and move away quickly.  So there we were, off the path amongst the trees playing with the ball.  Now most normal dog owners, spotting a potential problem would move away quickly. Not this one.  As Little Bear tried desperately to focus on me and the ball game, this ‘gentleman’ decided to let his dog come over for a closer look.

Now imagine you’re really scared of spiders. You see a man with a huge spider walking directly towards. Your mum tells you the spider will soon be gone, you just need to stay calm and ignore it.  So you do what you’re told and then the bloody spider comes and pokes itself in your face!

This is what happened to Little Bear and it was all too much him.  He went nuts, barking, growling and generally getting really upset.  Now most normal dog owners would see this, apologise profusely and give me the space to get my dog away from the situation quickly.  Not this one.  Despite shouting ‘Can you move away please’ he decided to stay where he was to watch the spectacle while shaking his head and muttering ‘Oh my god!’ in a tone dripping with sarcasm and disgust.

If I hadn’t been trying to get LB away quickly I would have had some choice words for this moron, especially as this is the SECOND time this has happened.  Hence the bib that makes me look like a bit of an idiot.

Developing a thick skin

Now having ‘a problem dog’ helps you grow a really thick skin.  Mine’s naturally pretty thin so I’m often amazed at how judgemental and sometimes downright nasty other dog owners can be.  My all time favourite put down is ‘Give him an hour with me and I’ll soon have him sorted out’.  

Amazingly people seem to make this offer with no prior knowledge of the situation or the dog and seem to assume that getting lucky training their golden lab to sit for a treat makes them some sort behaviour expert.

Others offer unsolicited ‘advice’ on what I ‘should’ have done.  “Ah, well if you’d taken him to puppy classes….”  “It’s probably because you didn’t socialise him….” and of course the answer to all my prayers….”Have you tried watching Ceasar Milan?” 

“Yes he went to puppy classes. Yes he was socialised, I took him everywhere with me for months and he met tonnes of dogs. Yes I’ve seen the bloody dog whisperer but TV isn’t the answer you condescending pillock!”

Oh, I think that was my first official blog rant! How liberating! 🙂

My point is that until you’ve had a dog with issues it’s easy to be judgemental and just a little superior if you happen to have a dog who’s pretty well balanced.  I’m not for a minute diminishing the hard work that a lot of dog owners put in to get their dogs, but imagine putting in all that effort and not getting the results? Just like anti-social kids, it’s easy to blame the parents but it’s not always that simple.

Although he’s always been a sensitive little soul, I can pinpoint almost to the day that LB’s behaviour changed and it was right after being attacked as a youngster by a bigger dog. Although he wasn’t physically hurt, he was shaking so hard he could barely walk straight.

Having had a rant at the judgemental idiots  I have to balance the picture.  The real dog people who understand what you’re going through, ask questions and share experiences rather than shove advice at you are worth their weight in gold.  LB has two Westie friends in this camp and a Springer who, when he first met her pinned her to the floor in a half-hearted attempt to be a big dog.

My panic at my bully-boy’s behaviour was met with the enviable calm from her very experienced owner ‘Don’t worry, he’s just being a dog” he said gently.

Of course he is, because that’s all he knows how to be. It’s my job to make sure that he one day gets to be a dog that doesn’t view the world as a scary, intimidating place.  And if I have to walk around in a luminous yellow vest to do that then so be it.

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When I finally decided to get a puppy, part of my research included a book on dog breeds.  I grew up with an energetic Springer Spaniel and love the breed, but I knew that if I wanted to hold down a full time job, I wouldn’t have the time for the long walks that most Springer’s crave. 

I decided on Little Bear’s breed as the book said they needed ‘moderate’ amounts of exercise.  I had no idea what ‘moderate’ meant.  Obviously as a puppy, walks had to be short not to put too much strain on his little joints, but what would moderate mean once he was grown up?

Working on the principle that all dogs are unique, I decided that we’d just have to play it by ear and see what he’d prefer.  I do believe though that most dogs need to get out every day as a bare minimum.

I get cabin fever if I don’t get out of the house every day and I have a demanding day job, a partner, my writing, endless amounts of housework, a social life and two demanding pets to keep me occupied! Dogs have, eating, sleeping, playing and walking which means the latter becomes incredibly important to their mental health as well as their physical health.

So I decided that he’d get a minimum of two walks a day – a morning walk for forty minutes or so where he could let off some steam and charge about off lead and a twenty minute walk on lead in the evening, just to stretch his legs, go to the loo and catch up on who else has been watering the neighbourhood lampposts before settling down for bed.

The touble is Little Bear is not keen on walks after supper.  Put on your dog walking coat anytime after the watershed and he scuttles off the sofa at double speed and lurks under the dining room table, trying to be inconspicuous. 

So I have a dilemma.  Take him anyway and deal with the guilt of one seriously grumpy looking dog who practically sprints around the block in order to get back to his beloved sofa, or leave him be and cope with the hyperactive lunatic that will no doubt wake us, full of way to many unspent beans at 6am. 

 Neither option is much fun. Add in biting winds and sub zero temperatures and I can fully understand why he’s reluctant to go out of an evening.  But, having had him for nearly three years I know that he needs his full quota of exercise and for him that means around 45 minutes every morning and at least 20-30 minutes of an evening – more if we can squeeze it in.

So  I’ve  found a third option.  When work allows, I take a very late lunch and we spend it in the big field playing ball. It’s the better option all round as it gets me away from my desk for at least half an hour, we get to walk in daylight and he gets to burn off way more energy than he would during an on lead walk.  It can also be a busy time at the field so he often gets to meet and play with other dogs which of course he loves. 

Timing wise it also suits his routine as he naturally starts to get restless at around 4 in the afternoon. A late afternoon walk also means that’s he’s properly tired come the evening and can happily snooze on the sofa without interruption.

He’s there right now, sprawled out like a lord, feet and whiskars twitching in time with his dreams. He’ll be there until one of us says ‘bed time’ and then he’ll race up the stairs to the old armchair he’s adopted as his bed.  Who said it was a dogs life?

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Getting a dog was a huge decision for me. I already had a rescue cat and I’d agonised over that decision too. But dogs, being a lot needier than cats, gave me a whole new set of issues to ponder on. Would I cope? Was I prepared for the extra responsibility? What would I do on the odd days that I needed to be away for work? What if they hated each other? Would the cat feel like I was being disloyal? Should I get an adult rescue dog or a puppy? The list of ‘what ifs’ was extensive and I spent months thinking about the implications – both practical and emotional.

I probably sound borderline neurotic, but with hindsight I think my natural tendency to over-think most situations was a blessing. That’s not to say that it fully prepared me for the behavioural challenges I was to face, but it led to some important insights about my beliefs when it comes to our fury friends.

Beliefs are extremely personal. Nobody has the right to tell anyone what to believe, but for me, the simple act of writing down what I believed about animals and how I think they should be treated proved to be really helpful. 

My beliefs:

1. Animals have souls
Just like us, all animals have souls. They’re not lumps of flesh and bone that react to stimulus. They feel pain, experience fear and are capable of forming complex emotional bonds, in many cases with species other than their own. If animals have souls, then they are unique and as far as I’m concerned anyway, they have an afterlife. They may not be as intelligent as us, but neither are human infants, so why would we treat a dog, cat, horse or cow any differently to how we’d treat a human?

2. I don’t own my pets
Pets are property – legally anyway. When my friend’s elderly horse was set alight in her field by some thug with a flamethrower aerosol, the police said if ever caught, they’d have to charge him with criminal damage. Not torture, cruelty or GBH. No, the same charge he’d face if he smashed a car window. The horse was an ‘it’ not a ‘her’. Thankfully, she may a full recovery.

But I don’t believe that sentient creatures should be bought and sold like handbags. It may seem like a trivial point, but it’s important to me. So, if my cat one day decides that she’d much rather live with my next door neighbour and that person is loving and caring, I will have to respect that.

For the record, this is a test of my beliefs I really don’t want to have to try out, but I’d like to think that I’d do the right thing for her. Many years ago I rented a room in a house with a resident cat who’d done just that. He decided that his owners, who were vets of all things, weren’t half as great as my then landlords. They tried everything to discourage him but his persistence paid off and the two couples bowed to his wishes and shared him right up until he passed away at a ripe old age.

3. I have a dog to love

I have animals because I love them. I enjoy looking after them. I enjoy seeing them happy. I enjoy getting to know them and watching them mature and learn. I enjoy learning about them and from them. I didn’t get a dog to feel like a better person, impress my friends, carry in a handbag like a doll or to be a ‘pack leader’ (more on that in future blogs).

The deal I have with them (in my mind at least – they’ve certainly never signed anything!) is that they get loved and well looked-after physically and emotionally for the rest of their lives and in return, they let me love them, which makes me happy.

It’s a straightforward deal but it answered the question that I really struggled with during my months of soul searching: ‘Why do I want a dog?’ I kept coming up with answers like ‘because they’re cute’ or ‘because I work from home and have the time’, ‘I always had a dog growing up’ or ‘It’s a great excuse to get out and walk every day’, but the fundamental reason was that I wanted a dog to love – same reason I got a cat, same reason I got a wonderful man.

4. Positive is always better
I’m not the type of person who will ever feel comfortable being a mean, either to a person or to animal. As I explained in the post on dog training, I’ve made mistakes in the past and gone against my beliefs on the advice of ‘experts’. When LittleBear pulled on is lead and barked manically I was told to ‘check him’ and stupidly I did. I watched Caesar Milan and thought that popping LittleBear on his back was the way to deal with his occasional aggression. I didn’t like doing either because they went against the grain – it just wasn’t me.

I’ve since found better ways of dealing with the behaviour that actually work – positive ways that don’t contradict my beliefs. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it’s obvious to me now that anything I was advised to do that didn’t feel right to me was bound to fail. More about my views on expert advice in future blogs.

5. My animals needs come first

Animals come with needs – I knew that before I got them. Little Bear needs regular exercise, food, fresh water, grooming, training etc. The cat needs food, water, a clean litter tray, copious amounts of cuddling, at least a half dozen comfy beds to snooze in and regular playtime.

Just because I’ve had a bad day at work, I’m on a deadline, or I need to clean the bathroom before my mother visits doesn’t mean that these needs are any less or can be put off until a more convenient time. This isn’t to say that I’ll be late for work because I need to walk the dog – or that I’ll stop cleaning my house because it gets in the way of our training routine. But it does mean that I organise my life around all of my responsibilities – no ifs, no buts.

Housework, writing, and a lazy night on the sofa can never come at the expense of fulfilling my animal’s needs, because, Little Bear especially, can’t take himself for a walk, make his dinner or fill up his water bowl. Sometimes it’s inconvenient, but that’s just part of the deal.

6. Dogs are for life

A no brainer for me this one, but I decided before I got Little Bear that even if it all went horribly wrong I’d find a way of dealing with it. Taking him on meant that I was taking on a lifetime commitment and that no matter how difficult it became, I’d do the best I could for him.

I’d better end here – Little Bear is giving me a hard stare which I think means “I’m ready for my walk now.”

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