Archive for January, 2011

The thing about studying anything new is that it gives rise to the odd reverie. The whole reason for doing the dog behaviour course and volunteering as a puppy class assistant was to help me understand how to help Little Bear. But on a bad day in the corporate jungle, I have succumbed to the fleeting idea that I’d love to ‘give it all up’ and work with dogs. I could open a day care centre; study full time and get a degree in behaviour or be a dog walker. Fun and fulfilment in fury bundles, what could better?

Well, after my dog walking attempt last week went hilariously wrong, I think I may need to rethink my escape plan. This is what happened.

The walk

Last week our very dear friend had a health scare which put her in hospital. Once back home and under doctors orders to rest, we volunteered to walk her lovely Labrador X Grace while she convalesced.  So, Other Half, Little Bear and I set off one lunch-time last week to collect her.

Grace is the sweetest dog you’d ever want to meet. Looking at her today, with her broad grin and ever wagging tail, it’s hard to believe that she was an ex farm dog who just under a year ago was a shivering wreck afraid of everything and everyone. Her new mum has worked wonders building up her confidence which really showed when we took her out as she trotted after us excitedly without even a backward glance.

Now walking someone else’s dog is a big deal. Walking someone else’s rescue dog in the field where six months ago you lost your foster dog five minutes after getting her is an even bigger deal. Add to that the fact that Grace now wears an identical collar to the one that broke and set Annie loose on her incredible journey and you can maybe begin to understand why my buttons were being pressed.

Believing in the belt and braces approach to risk management we took Grace out in Annie’s harness and I popped a lead on both her collar and harness just to be on the safe side.  Despite reassurances that her recall was perfect and that she’d not venture more than a few feet from us and her beloved football, I wasn’t willing to have history repeat itself, so once in the field, I popped on a long line.

When I say ‘popped on’ I actually mean, I faffed about getting ridiculously tangled while the super bouncy Grace pogoed up and down trying to get to the ball.  In trying to get the lead off her collar mid-bounce, I dropped my gloves, which Little Bear, seriously unimpressed with this sudden display of uselessness from his mum, promptly ran off with.

Chasing Bear to retrieve my gloves, I dropped the leads. Grace was still bouncing expectantly and Little Bear of course enjoying the impromptu game of tag.

Leads and gloves finally retrieved and holding tightly to the long line, OH decides to reward the ever patient Grace with a game of chase the football. Nothing wrong with that EXCEPT, he didn’t warn me that he’d do his best Ronaldo impression and hoof the thing 30ft across the field. And therein lies the rub – because the long line is only 20ft long…

The events that followed were a bit of a blur, but went something like this:

  • Grace explodes after the ball with an impressive turn of speed
  • Long line fails to be quite long enough
  • I sail unexpectedly through the air (sideways), land with the thud and get dragged ten feet across the muddy field

Now if this wasn’t bad enough, I soon discover that I have an audience of sniggering by-standers. Terrific. But to add insult to injury, my plight was about to get even worse.

While Grace was completely oblivious to the havoc that had been unleashed (literally!) Little Bear was beside himself and doing his best ‘anxious pants’ impression. As I lay in a heap trying to prise myself out of the mud, all he could think to do was take the ends of my scarf and start an enthusiastic game of tug-of-war.

So I’ve been hauled through a field by a Labrador and now I’m laying face down in the mud being strangled by a Mini Schnauzer.

Other Half of course was in complete hysterics and thankfully I quickly saw the funny side.

So on the days when the day job is really getting to me, I’m going to re-read this post and remind myself why dog walking is most definitely NOT on the career change list.


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There are days when I beat myself up about, oh, not playing chase long enough with the dogs. Or giving them a raw carrot instead of cooked veggies if I’m running late (Little Bear refuses dried food without veg on the side, I kid you not) or maybe losing it and yelling at them to ‘purleeeaaassseee ,shut up!’

Then there’s the ‘should have brought him up differently’ type of guilt which has me wishing I’d read the books spilling out of my bookshelves now, before I even bought a puppy. Boy, if I’d known then what I’m beginning to learn now…. we’ve all probably been down that particular road.

But, all said and done, on a daily basis I think my dogs are pretty well looked after. They get plenty of exercise, good quality food, warm beds, mental stimulation, training, regular grooming, medical care when they need it, the odd private agility lesson and as much love and attention as they can soak up.

Now Little Bear in particular is a challenging dog, but never, ever, in even my darkest, gloomiest moments have I ever even thought that an Electric Shock Collar might be the solution to our problems. Why anyone would want to electrocute their dog as a means of managing their behaviour has always been lost on me, so imagine the look on my face when I met a lady at the park the other day who didn’t know the button she was pressing on her radio controller was actually zapping her beloved dog!

I doubt she’ll ever read this but just in case I’ll keep the details brief. Basically she claimed to have no idea that the collar was delivering an electric charge, but was merely emitting a high-pitched noise that ‘encouraged’ her dog to return to her. The gentle dog in question was indeed very attentive and yet it was only when I could bite my tongue no longer and let slip something along the lines of ‘I’d be attentive too if I was being electrocuted in the neck!’ that her mistake transpired.

Horrifically, as she couldn’t hear the supposed noise the collar was meant to emit she had turned ‘the volume’ up near the maximum…of course it wasn’t the volume but the charge. I could have cried.

I know some people plead ignorance to avoid confrontation but the horrified look on her face convinced me that she really had no idea about the true purpose of his torture device. I’m still bemused as to how anyone can not realise what an electric collar actually does, but it just goes to show that even seemingly sensible, intelligent dog owners can get it terribly wrong.

Luckily her dog won’t have to endure frequent and painful shocks any more but I’d love to see these despicable things banned outright. They’ve been outlawed in Wales but sadly I don’t see other countries rushing to follow their enlightened lead. Or how about a new rule? Test it on yourself first and guess what? If it hurts, don’t use it on your dog!

Okay rant over….for now

P.S some excellent resources and great blogs on the topic at www.nevershockapuppy.com

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I’m not one for making resolutions at New Year, primarily because of the collective air of expected failure accompanying the tradition. We’re bombarded with the oh so hackneyed, ‘New Year, New You’ messages from a straight-faced media without a hint of the Schadenfreude, but the same people peddling the ‘New You’ messages of hope will be sharpening their pencils to report on how 80% of resolutions will be broken and abandoned within weeks.

January is not the best time to live off lettuce or give up the delights of chocolate. As mammals we’re still in semi-hibernation, crazing warming foods and (alas) storing fat to stave off the cold.

And yet we all get caught up in the collective need to make the most of the new year – the clean slate on which to rewrite our stories in better than ever technicolour.

I love the start of a new year and succumb to the need to join in with the clean slate brigade, but instead of setting a series of resolutions, a ‘to-do’ list of the most torturous kind if ever I saw one, I prefer to set a vision for what I’d like. So, in the spirit of sharing, here’s my dog training vision for 2011…for those viewing in black and white, in my head it’s in glorious, technicolour 4D…

Other Half and I are walking Little Bear and Annie through a busy town on a summer’s day. As we stroll along in the warm sunshine, we pass runners, cyclists, screaming children and lots of other dogs. Annie and Bear are calm and relaxed – they say nice hellos to a couple of dogs who come within sniffing distance and then settle happily under our table at a pavement cafe for a snooze as we enjoy a coffee.

After our pit stop we wander over to the park where they tear around the field playing with some new canine buddies until their tongues loll happily and we see the smile in their eyes.

For anyone with an unreactive dog this will read like a very small dream indeed – but for me it’s huge.

Come on 2011 – I have a feeling you’re going to be a great year!

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Badly behaved pooch? It’s always the owner’s fault you know.

How many times have I heard that? Or worse, seen it on the faces of fellow dog owners as Little Bear throws a fit in the park at the mere sight of an approaching dog.

On a good day it’s just embarrassing, but throw in a few hormones and a to-do list that reads like War & Peace and its darn near soul-destroying. Well at least, it used to be…before I became the Kevlar coated Mary Poppins of the dog world.

Okay, I’m talking myself into this somewhat, but the point, (once I get to it) is a serious one.  Our reactions are incredibly important when it comes to controlling the behaviour of our dogs. As Alexandra Horowitz points out in the truly excellent ‘Inside of a dog’, dogs are amazing readers of human body language and probably also pick up on subtle chemical signals that we’re totally unaware of throwing out there.

They most probably, read us like books, but as owners, we don’t much like hearing that we’re the cause of our dogs bad behaviour.  To be fair I don’t think it is ‘always the owners fault’.  Many factors will influence the behaviour and disposition of a dog so we don’t have to take it all on the chin. We can’t control genetics, or early socialisation issues or indeed breed tendencies, but there is a lot we can do to help our dogs learn how to cope and behave.

The big challenge of course is controlling our own behaviour and emotions. We all know how important it is to remain calm and stay consistent, but that can be a tall order on a good day let alone a bad one. Which is where everyone’s favourite nanny comes in.

Years ago I had some professional coaching for public speaking at work and the tutor suggested I overcome my nerves by pretending to be someone else when behind the podium. I can’t remember who I picked to ‘play’ now, but it certainly seemed to work when I had to deliver my first speech to a conference of 400 people a few weeks later <gulp!>.

So, when it comes to Little Bear, I regularly don my metaphorical Mary Poppins hat. I actually caught myself saying ‘Spit-spot’ the other day too which I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, but hey, whatever works!

Silly as it may sound, I’ve found that mentally stepping into a part on the bad days really helps me to control my emotions and reactions which in turn make for a calmer, happier Little Bear. It also gives me an emotional distance which is helpful as it allows me to focus on the behaviour at hand without wrapping myself up in my own, or indeed Little Bear’s emotional state.

You won’t find me singing Chim Chim Cheree at the Park anytime soon and I’ve drawn the line at looking the part to boot, but at least I have another tool in the toolbox.

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