Archive for March, 2011

Camden Cat, Lassie in a 'purr' coat

Camden Cat, Lassie in a ‘purr’ coat

As a child, I loved Lassie.  And don’t get me started on The Littlest Hobo or I’ll be in tears, brave little furry angel that he was. I used to watch our Springer Spaniel, Bramble intently when out on walks. Maybe he was pulling on his lead because he’d got the scent of an escaped convict or was digging to unearth some buried treasure!

Alas, like many childhood fantasies it never did amount to anything dramatic, but I consoled myself with the idea that it was all for the lack of opportunity.  Had an escaped convict wandered through the neighbourhood the six-year-old me didn’t doubt that he’d be first on their trail.

So imagine my surprise when just last week, I was alerted, in no uncertain terms to impending danger by…..THE CAT!

Pulling onto our drive one evening, I was greeted by Camden meowing loudly at me. This was unusual in itself because she’s pretty much a house cat who takes a twice-daily trip into the garden to take the air and keep a lazy eye out for mice.

She rarely ventures over the back fence and she’s forbidden from the front of the house as it’s too close to the road. On the rare occasions I’ve caught her around the front, she’s run full pelt for the side gate and is through the cat flap and laying on the kitchen chair pretending to be asleep by the time I make it into the house. “Who me? Nope. Must have been some other cat. I’m not allowed out the front.”

So this brazen display of rule breaking was really out of the ordinary for her. I tried to coax her in the front door but she was insistent. Meowing at me and then running around the side of the house only to return and repeat the exercise as I stood bewildered on the doormat.

Now had I been watching Lassie of late, I should have said “What girl? You want me to follow you?” It would have saved her several trips I’m sure. When the penny did eventually drop, I followed her and found the side gate standing wide open.  Cursing the new window cleaner who had been told specifically to lock the gate when he left, I shuddered at what might have happened if the dogs had ventured onto the road.

Satisfied that her completely stupid human had finally got her message, Camden stalked away up the path, shooting me a quick look over her shoulder as she did.

By the time I got in, she was of course curled up asleep on the kitchen chair.

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As people in the UK take to the streets to protest about the deep public spending cuts, I find myself ranting at the TV. Not an endearing quality, admittedly but the whole issue has me really fired up.

It’s not that I don’t empathise with everyone effected. I grew up well below the poverty line and we’re not flush now, but I am entirely sick to death of the blame game.

We’re blaming government, (the new one, the old one), we’re blaming bankers and rich people and corporations… everyone ‘else’ it seems, is at fault.

People with ‘problem dogs’ do this too. Hands up, I did it for a long time. When Little Bear would embarrass me I’d explain that ‘He was an angel until he was attacked by another dog as a pup…”  There, see, it isn’t our fault, that other big nasty mean dog made him do it!

It might have been the thing that kicked it all off, it might not, but what I came to realise was that putting my energy into the past, although temporarily soothing my battered ego, wasn’t getting us a solution.  Little Bear can’t work this out on his own, so it’s up to me to help him.

I decided a long time ago that I’m done blaming. I’m done pointing the finger and looking back for causes. What we both need now is solutions and do you know what? As soon as I decided to suck it up and take responsibility for moving us forward, his behaviour has improved hugely.

What’s that old saying? When you point your finger, there are three pointing right back at you?

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Little Bear’s behaviour problems started to really take a hold when he was just under a year old. The product, we think of a couple of attacks by other dogs, although it’s easy (and very human) to try to pin the behaviour on a single incident where he was the innocent victim. With hindsight, it was probably a whole combination of things including my reaction straight after the event which was to scoop him up and cuddle my shaking pup.

As the barking, lunging and then pinning and growling started to emerge I tried to fix it with the help of Mr Milan. Big mistake. Although there’s much about his approach that I agree with, (the focus on exercise, assertiveness and the need to work on the owner sometimes more than the dog), that’s as generous as I can be.

So I went to my vet and was referred to a very well qualified behaviourist. She assessed him and a few days later I got the written report and my training plan along with a lifetime guarantee of follow-up support.

All very good, but the crux of the advice was to avoid all other dogs on the basis that he shouldn’t be allowed to practice the bad behaviour. Although this didn’t make sense to me, she was the expert, so I tried. For months we picked quiet times at the park and would hot foot it in the other direction (as instructed) the minute we saw another dog approach.

Now for a young, playful dog used to romping around with his friends every day this must have been pretty miserable.  He became more and more frustrated and reactive and I questioned the advice on more than one occasion and was told firmly to ‘stick with it’ which I did.

Then one day in a deserted park we were dive-bombed out of the blue by a huge young Labrador. She came out of nowhere and bowled LB off his feet and of course he went nuts, pinning her down and growling at her the minute she flipped on her back.

Never being able to secure a ring back from the behaviourist, I tearfully emailed her to ask what I should have done in that circumstance. Her advice was curt and uncompromising, ‘You shouldn’t have put him in that situation to begin with!’

A lengthy email exchange followed in which I explained that short of keeping him in a box, avoiding all dogs was just not an option. The ‘treatment’ was making him even more reactive and we were both miserable in our self-inflicted roles as the local lepers. We weren’t talking about a vicious menace to society, but a Miniature-Schnauzer who had learnt to growl at more submissive dogs, so surely isolating him from other dogs was a little over the top.

What I needed were the tools to be able to deal with such a situation if it arose.  I mentioned that a friend of mine made her dogs walk slightly behind her if they’d been naughty and asked if this might be a useful technique. This earned me a lecture about not taking advice from ‘amateurs’ and I was told that she didn’t advocate any form of punishment, including making him walk behind me or indeed telling him ‘no’ if he mis-behaved. The advice remained, I was to avoid all dogs and ignore all bad behaviour, period.

It was at this point that I decided that she wasn’t the behaviourist for us. After persevering for months with her plan, LB was even more reactive than before, but was also now pretty miserable to boot. My own confidence had been shot to pieces and I was more confused than ever. Probably the most frustrating thing was her refusal to explain the theory to me. With hindsight, this was probably the catalyst I needed to start the behaviour course,  but I’d wasted a lot of time and money following her advice and I was still without the practical tools I needed to manage LB’s behaviour.

Thankfully, the experience didn’t put me off seeking help and thanks to a couple of fantastic behaviourists, I now have the tools (and a bit of theory) to deal with LB’s behaviour if he steps out of line (see the magic of time out).

So if there’s a moral to the story, I suppose it’s about finding the right fit for you.  Finding properly qualified people is always important in dealing with any problem behaviour, but especially aggression of any kind, but so too is making sure that you can work with that person. Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn’t, so moving on to try someone else is sometimes the best option.

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It’s been a tough week. I’ve spent most of it spontaneously blubbing to the point where my eyes are puffy enough to make a story about going a few rounds with Mike Tyson sound almost plausible. Everywhere I look there are horses or references to them or pictures of them. The world has been a grey and joyless place and my mind has conspired to remind me of all the times that I could have seen her and didn’t.  The time I’ll never get back.

Life has of course, continued apace around me. Camden clawed Little Bear in the face for no good reason on Tuesday night which resulted in everyone sulking; Annie’s been waking us up at 4am nearly every morning for the hell of it and there’s been the usual rounds of walking, feeding and playing. Oh and of course, throw in an emergency trip back to the Bionic Vet for Annie when she suddenly stopped putting weight on her ‘new’ leg.

But today, amidst the chaos and the gloom, we had an unexpected breakthrough. At the field, LB decided to try and bully two adorable but very submissive adult spaniels. As the first squirmed and went tummy-up LB fell into the horribly familiar bully boy mode growling and posturing over her.

In the past I’ve shouted at him and grabbed his harness which makes him ten times worse.  Today, I walked calmly up to him and said sternly ‘Do you want a time out?’ On hearing this…..he walked away!  To which I said ‘Good’, (which is our clicker replacement word because he’s afraid of clickers…oh the irony!)

Before I could get to him, second submissive Spaniel ran up to him and promptly threw himself on his back. LB slipped into the same routine and this time when I said ‘Do you want a time out?’ he STOPPED growling and started sniffing instead which earned him another ‘good’. I was amazed.

He barked and chased them a few minutes later which earned him a two minute time out on the lead until he calmed down, but I can’t tell you how proud I was when on the next lap of the field, even though the Spaniels were just as submissive, he approached them calmly and sniffed without a trace of a growl or a stiff body posture. My praise was of course effusive for this turn-around and within seconds they were playing together.

‘Time out’ has been THE most effective training tool ever and it’s all thanks to my lovely friend and behaviourist Lou. Yes, it’s a punishment of sorts because it temporarily takes away something that he values i.e. his freedom to play off the lead, or if at home, his freedom to be with us, but I prefer to think of it more in terms of a consequence.  After months of using this technique consistently at home, it’s acting as a really effective management tool out and about, to the point where even the threat of it ‘Do you want a time-out?’ is enough to stop him in his tracks and make him think.

Hearing me in the park the other day, one lady was reduced to fits of giggles and asked me if we had a naughty step at home too a la Super Nanny.  I know it sounds a bit silly, but it’s working for us. I finally feel that I have a tool that helps me to control LB’s less desirable behaviour but without resorting to aversives which I detest and simply made his behaviour worse.

So in the midst of my gloom, yet again my dogs have shone a little light. I sometimes wonder who’s actually training who…

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I lost a very dear friend yesterday. She taught me to ride as a nervous adult some ten years ago and in so doing, she taught me that I’m sometimes better than I often think I am. She taught me that love and gentleness are far more powerful than force.  She taught me about patience and perseverance. She taught me that life is sometimes best lived just for the sheer hell of it. She taught me to be joyful. In her passing, she taught me that I have more courage than I ever thought I possessed.

Some of the happiest moments of my life so far have been spent perched upon her broad back.  My darling Apache, a Rubenesque, tri-coloured Welsh Cob, slipped away yesterday in the Spring sunshine while I and her devoted owners whispered our love in her chocolate-brown ears and tried to keep the agony from our voices. I’ve seen her fall a thousand times since and my heart is breaking.

Another lesson was waiting for me at home. Little Bear and Annie, usually exuberant in their greetings were off the scale frantic. As I sobbed, Annie tried to super-glue herself to my lap, snuffling my hair and hurriedly licking my face and ears – something she never does. Little Bear ran around trying to find the right teddy to bring me, stopping to lick my cheek here and there while barking like a lunatic. Every sniffle since has brought a cold wet nose to my hand.

You can write it off as anthropomorphism, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the animals we’re closest to recognise human pain and do what they can to comfort us.  Apache once did the very same thing many years ago. Seeing me cry in her stable over my disintegrating long-term relationship, she walked slowly towards me, put her great head over my shoulder and gently held me there while I hugged her neck and sobbed into her mane. When I was cried out, she snorted the remains of her garlic laced dinner into my hair and then nose-butted me in the bum as if to say “Right then Lady, time to get on with it.”

Following the tragic deaths of Lance Corporal Liam Tasker and his devoted dog Theo,  there’s been much speculation  about whether animals can indeed die of broken hearts. To me it seems to be a moot point, maybe what we should be celebrating is their frequent and often overlooked ability to help heal the broken-hearted.

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