Archive for September, 2010

Anxious pants Bear

Little Bear is an anxious little chap.  We have a long list of things that worry him. Some are pretty normal for a small dog e.g. other dogs,  children (when running and screaming), fireworks etc.  But then there’s the other list – the random list which includes:

  • clickers  (our attempt at clicker training failed at the first hurdle)
  • books if you flick the pages, even accidentally
  • Bees and Wasps (I’m pretty pleased about that one)
  • Dynabands
  • Mice (he was first out the door when The Cat brought in a live one last winter)
  • Bed change day (he hates the duvet shake as it makes our shell light shade tinkle)
  • Bubbles. Yes, the type you buy in little pots for children or get given at weddings…one glimpse of an evil, Schnauzer killing bubble and he heads for his bed.

Now all of the above we can deal with without too much trouble, but teaching him that children and other dogs aren’t scary is a top priority for obvious reasons.

I know he’s capable of overcoming his fears because there was a time he’d bark like a maniac at horses.  I was only reminded of this the other day as we stood just a few feet away from a field of about ten horses. Our routine of sit and treat when we see horses has become quite automatic to the point that I almost forgot how he used to react.

As I stood admiring a beautiful coloured mare and day dreaming about ‘one day’ LB stood quietly by my side watching them.  The nearest horse was on a slight incline but was only about 5 feet away from the fence. I took a baby step forward and he went right up to the fence, still calm and quiet and continued his observation of the ladies in the field. This of course earned him lots of praise and treats. Clever Bear!

He’s obviously on an over-achievement kick because today on our morning walk he decided to sit and watch me instead of barking at the children we saw in the street.  He did this not once, but FOUR times!  His anxiety is obvious, he gives a little moan which is a prelude to the nervous barking. So we’ve been working on interrupting that cycle, either by telling him to ‘leave’ before he gets to the moan stage or if he spots them before me, by asking him to sit and watch me or play paw touch.  Lots of praise and treats help take his mind off what worried him.

The key to this is distance. Like any of us, scary situations are improved or made worse by proximity – so a spider the other side of the room isn’t pleasant but I can cope (ug, get a glass, grit your teeth). A spider on my lap is another matter and will elicit a completely different reaction!

So far, so good. The approach is working really well and he’s now looking at me when he’s anxious instead of launching into his usual reaction. I hope it’s also helping to build his trust in me to keep him safe.

We’ll be out again tomorrow doing our version of the school run and maybe one day soon he’ll sit quietly as the littlies march by and I’ll remember that once upon a time he used to bark at them.

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I have a question: Is it possible to change who we are?

In school I was labelled ‘sensitive’ by my teachers in tones that suggested it was some sort of crippling social impairment. Duly labelled,  I tried and of course failed, to prove that I wasn’t.  With hindsight and a few years under my belt I understand now that what my well-intentioned teachers were probably trying to say was that as a child I lacked confidence, but in their pussy footing around the issue they had taken one of my fundamental character traits and made it feel like a defect.

As an adult, I’ve learned to see my sensitivity as an asset – it fuels my  creativity, my compassion and my intuitive side and I could no more ‘stop being sensitive’ than I could fly to the moon. It’s who I am. It’s how I was born.

So, what has this got to do with dogs I hear you say?  I’m getting there – I promise!

My point is this. In the nature vs. nurture argument I believe that they both play a part in how we, and our canine friends turn out but I think nature plays a far more important role than maybe we give her credit for.

I don’t believe we’re born as blank canvasses to be moulded and manipulated like clay dolls at the hands of our parents.  As I’ve said before, I believe dogs, just like people, have souls and as such have consciousness before, during and after their lifetimes. The scientists among you may not agree of course, but even without the spiritual dimension of belief, the unborn child or puppy is the product of its genetic make up and subject to the hormonal influences of its mother before birth – another point to nature over nurture.

Where can I stuff this vol-au-vaunt?

About six months ago I was introduced to a friend of a friend at a party. A fellow dog owner she effused about her new puppy and told me three times within the first five minutes how the trainer who ran their puppy classes had singled her out for special praise and considered her to be an exemplar of a ‘natural dog handler’.  I have no idea what a natural dog handler is but congratulated her none-the-less and said she must be very proud.

When she eventually asked about my dog,  I mentioned that LB had anxiety issues that we were working on. She frowned and said flatly “Well you know it’s always the owners fault don’t you?” She stared at me as if expecting what? A confession? A plea for help?

I resisted the temptation to shove the mushroom vol-au-vaunt I was holding up her nose and decided to ignore the comment, a momentary silence that she filled with more stories of her dog handling prowess (of 12 weeks standing) and advice on how batting him with a rolled up news paper would ‘sort him out’.

Irritating though she was, her comment stung.  Was it all my fault? Had I ruined my puppy to the point of no repair? The question has lurked in the back of my mind, being batted like the ball in a pinball machine between my intellectual side (‘Poppycock’) and the small worried little voice that was just born to worry and fret (‘It is all my fault!’)

Redemption (almost)

So it was with a sense of something approaching euphoria this week that I read that some dogs are to be really simplistic, born ‘sensitive’.

In James O’Heare’s brilliant book ‘Canine Neuropsychology’ (don’t be put off by the title, it’s an excellent and fairly easy read) he describes research by Lindsay(2000) which describes how dogs can be genetically predisposed to a emotional reactivity and biological stress. Defined as ‘sympathetically dominant’, these dogs are apparently more prone to develop behaviour problems. Pages 5-6. [http://www.jamesoheare.com/]

Now I’m not for a minute trying to wriggle off the hook of less than perfect puppy parenting.  I made lots of mistakes along the way but it’s comforting to know that it wasn’t necessarily ‘all my fault’.  Looking back, the signs were there from day one but I was too inexperienced to see them for what they were.  Interestingly, I found out today that his litter mate is apparently almost exactly the same temperament wise, even though she has been brought up in a very different home environment.

Someone told me the other day that we get the dogs that we’re meant to – I certainly think that’s true. I picked a Schnauzer partly because they were described as ‘confident little dogs’, but here he is, a sensitive little chap who lacks confidence and worries easily.

So, can we change who we are?  Can I teach LB not to be sensitive?  Of course not. He is who he is and I love him for it. My job now is to help give him the confidence he needs, not to change his sensitive little soul, but to find ways of making life just that little bit easier.

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Proud Mamma

I can’t believe it’s been so long since my last post! I won’t bother with excuses about the day job and trips home to see the family and the like, because although all valid, the real reason is that the dogs (yes, still plural) have been taking up most of my free time.

Annie’s reactiveness to other dogs we’ve discovered is pretty much initiated by Little Bear. He barks, she joins in.

At home it’s the same story – his hair-trigger for door bells, car doors slamming and people walking past the house or generally sounding like they’re enjoying themselves now has them both barking like idiots.

So, we’re having to walk them separately for now. Her season has just started too so she’s getting walks in the small hours when we can guarantee no other sane person will be pounding the streets with their pooch. Her pulling is still extreme (although improving) so Annie walking is being done by the BSM (big strong man) that is Other Half.

If this sounds stressful, it has been, but this isn’t going to be a whinge – I’m writing today because I’m proud of them and I want to record it.

I think it’s sometimes human nature to just record the bad times. Ask most women about their teenage journals and they are probably filled with the dramas and the heartaches with scant attention paid to the nice but mediocre or indeed even the thrilling times.

There’s probably a good reason for this, after all, who wants to interrupt a good party to write its review? When life is good we’re naturally absorbed in living it.

Well life has certainly been absorbing these past few weeks! I’m determined to reach a point where we can walk them together and so I’ve been redoubling efforts to help Little Bear cope with his anxiety. I’ve been hitting the books again and although my chosen methods haven’t changed, I’ve been making sure that I’m 100% consistent in their application. I wouldn’t say I’d been inconsistent in the past, but I have dropped my guard here and there; distracted by my phone or chatting to people we meet in the park when I should have been watching him and focussing on his body language and assessing the situation.

So now every single walk, (at least in my mind) has been a training walk. My goal is simple, to be able to walk past a dog or a group of children in the street without him barking at them. That’s it. It may sound very straightforward, if not down right simplistic, but for me it will mean that he’s confident and relaxed enough not to feel the need to react.


And here comes the pride bit! Yesterday we walked past a dog and HE DIDN’T BARK! Admittedly, it was an elderly dog but it was only a few feet away and although interested to the point that he really wanted to go and say hello, he allowed himself to be distracted and we moved on without incident.

This little breakthrough is hot on the heels of another achievement that came last week. While off lead in the park he spotted a dog in the distance and went into his usual routine – run ten feet from me and bark manically. But this time, after the first woof he came when called and sat for treats and (of course) enthusiastic praise.

And then today, another milestone – he started barking at a dog across the street but then allowed himself to be distracted with a round of the ‘paw touch’ game instead. A few muffled woofs escaped in between treat munching but on the whole he was much, much calmer than usual.

On top of that, he’s just looking happier. His tail is wagging a little more, he’s playing with even more enthusiasm than normal and his recall is just superb now. He comes galloping back to me, tongue lolling and makes such a fuss you’d swear we’d been apart for months instead of seconds. We’re still to master the art of always remembering the ball, but I’m not at all concerned about that.

The barking at home is also starting to get to a controllable point. Luckily, Annie has food on her mind 24/7 so one rattle of the treat jar and she comes running. Not to be out done, LB is always hot on her heels, usually getting a few final woofs in for good measure though. Annie, having learned super quick that food requires a sit has her bum on the ground before I can even pronounce the ‘t’ – LB stands next to her, not wanting to waste a sit, should for some reason it not be required this time. Beaks shut and bums parked they get their ‘treat’ which is just a biscuit from their daily allowance. I almost feel mean, but hey, it works, they’re happy, I’m happy.

It’s onward and upward in the Little Bear household and I’m reminded every day how much this little chap is teaching me.

And here he is – I’m now being hypnotised by a small dog with a large teddy bear in his mouth. The look and the tail say it all ‘PLAYTIME!’.

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I’ve said before what a great teacher Little Bear is.  I believe that all dogs have something to teach us – if only we look for the lesson of course.  LB and I have had our fair share of problems and so I’ve become an avid reader of dog websites, magazines and books. I’ve also sought help from trainers and behaviourists – some great, some not so.

Until recently, when I finally made the decision to follow my instincts, my head would regularly be swimming with competing theories, techniques and opinions to the point of total confusion. But what’s always been helpful has been reading about what’s worked for other ‘normal’ people.  Not trainers or behaviourists, but real people with day jobs and mortgages and the other baggage of normal life.  So, with this in mind I’m going to share a couple of ‘What worked for me’ lessons.  I’m no expert and I certainly know that what works for one dog and carer may not work for the next, but hopefully in the act of sharing it’ll prove useful.

Lesson 1 – How to stop a dog jumping up

Firstly, a confession. LB hasn’t learnt this because I actually like him jumping up.  Shock, horror, I know, but he’s little and its cute and so off the list of ‘things to worked on.’

Annie on the other hand weighs three times as much LB and at her most enthusiastic, has all the grace (and control) of a hippo on roller skates.  After almost knocking me off my feet and then nearly squashing LB flat, ‘not jumping up’ shot to the top of our list for her.

Why Annie jumps

As far as I can make out, Annie jumps out of enthusiasm. She’s thrilled to see you and wants to look you in the eye and get your attention. A typical scenario would be first thing in the morning – one large Lab, front feet over baby gate, wiggling for all she’s worth.  Step over the baby gate and she’s like Tigger, jumping all over you.

How she learnt to keep four paws on the floor

Step one was to not step over the baby gate until she was calm.

Teaching her to sit was a big help here and once we had ‘sit’ we could quickly make her realise that she’d only get our attention if she was sitting down. As long as she continued to bounce, she was ignored. So I hovered near the date but didn’t look at her or turned my back. A couple of times she got so frustrated she barked at me.  This resulted in me walking away out of sight. So hopefully that served to make her realise that barking made what she wanted (me) go away  – so barking doesn’t pay.

Step two happened almost by accident.  After a couple of days, although still bouncing when she first saw me, she quickly sat down for her morning cuddle – result!  As with most things though, new habits take a while to set in, and one morning she caught me off guard with a well-aimed bounce that almost knocked me over while raking her claws down my leg.  I squealed loudly and she shot back, mortified.  I called her back and she came over looking extremely sheepish. I calmly asked for a sit and then cuddled her and praised her like mad when she did it.

So, by accident she’d learnt that jumping on people hurt them and from her reaction, she obviously doesn’t like hurting people. So we now work with that natural tendency now; if she forgets herself and jumps on or near us, we yelp. But, and this is really important, we always give her the opportunity to get it right straight after.

So, she jumps, we yelp, then we immediately call her back and ask her to sit or sit and give a paw – anything that allows her to learn a calmer, more controlled way of greeting us. In doing this we also end on a positive note so that she feels good about the whole thing – and that will increase the likelihood of her doing the right thing again.

We started doing this about three weeks ago and we’ve been really consistent (the key to everything!)  but I honestly can’t remember the last time she jumped up.

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The invisible Bear

Annie has been in residence for four weeks today. She’s made great progress already. The Eliza Doolittle of the dog world, this little urchin has learned to sit, give a paw, wait politely for her food and even picks up her feet to have her harness put on.  Today she offered up both paws for a treat so we have a ‘Meerkat’ or beg in the making there too.  She’s taken to all of this with great enthusiasm and looks so terribly proud of herself every time she learns something new.

She and The Cat are ‘free-ranging’ too.  Annie, although curious is very gentle around her and  on the couple of occasions The Cat has hissed at her, has shown her preference for flight over fight each time.

Little Bear however, remains invisible to her.  Despite his best efforts to initiate play she’s just not interested. He’s like a bug, climbing all over her, chewing her neck and dancing in circles while he shoulder nudges her. Her reaction is to ignore him.  She walks around the house with LB, limpet like on her neck and then when she’s had enough, she lays down and ignores him in comfort.

Her Schnauzer blind spot also extends to doorways as she frequently barges him out of the way without a by-you-leave. Having fixed the jumping up swiftly, I’m not as worried about his back as I was, but we still have to remind her about her manners as she just doesn’t seem to see him.  The back incident happened on  the first day they were together – she jumped up to greet me over the baby gate and came down on top of him, nearly squashing the little fella flat.  He squealed and told her off and rightly so – she weighs three times what he does! I checked him and he was fine, just a little dented pride bless him.

His perseverance is admirable; he’s had that many cold shoulders I would have expected him to have given up by now, but it’s heartbreaking to watch the constant rejection.  It must be like having the kid in the park that the other kids won’t play with. I’ve tried to encourage them to play; I get the toy box out and although she’ll help herself to a toy and sometimes has a little bounce with it, she’s not even interested in playing with me or OH.  She had a polite round of fetch with us the first week, but hasn’t shown any interest since. Neither is she interested in tug a war or the like. Maybe this is normal for a rescue dog? I know my Mum once adopted a feral cat who had no concept of play until the day she died – we concluded that life on the streets hadn’t afforded her such luxuries. But apart from her time on the run, she’s was well looked after and lived with other dogs so she doesn’t really seem to fit the same mould.

So LB continues to be a little grumpy. We’re walking them separately for now because she’s as reactive to other dogs as he is and we don’t want them to spark off one another. This does mean that I’m able to give him my full attention and today we had a wonderfully long walk in the park together. We met his little Bichon-Poo friend and they scampered around like idiots playing chase and generally larking about like idiots. It was wonderful to see as LB looked so happy. Let’s hope that one day he and Annie can play the same way.

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