Archive for May, 2011

Annie the Labrador sleeping

Annie snoozing after her walk

I’ve said it before, but having a reactive dog can be pretty exhausting. What should be a leisurely stroll around the block before bed is a choreographed expedition with enough equipment to get you to the pole and back. If you think breaking a finger nail causes women to freak, try hiding my clicker or treat bag; it’s not pretty.

So locked and loaded, Annie and I set off for our evening walk. There are a couple of known hot spots on our route. There are the Jack Russells at the end of the street who bark like crazy from the window as we pass and then ‘cat corner’ where, despite only ever seeing a cat there once in a blue moon, never fails to send her into a fit of the bouncys.

Safely past, we’d just stopped at the kerb when the neighbourhood cutie, a strawberry roan cocker spaniel appeared with his owners from around the corner.  There are some days when I’m ready for anything, but having run around an agility field for an hour in the sun and then working late on an inbox that would just not empty, today just wasn’t one of them.  But that was my problem, not Annie’s, so we turned on our heel and quietly walked the other way until we could duck into a wider bit of the road and allow them to pass.

As I distracted her with ‘watch me’ and treats, the couple smiled and waved. This is always an awkward moment. Do you focus on your dog and risk looking rude? Or attempt a conversation only to have it drowned out by the barking you were working so hard to avoid?

My mouth seemed to decide for me and said ‘She’s a reactive rescue in rehab.’  Wow, get me, dog training and alliteration all in one, you’d never guess that I don’t get out much?! I winced at my unintended cheesiness and was mid-way through a mental note to just focus on the dog next time when I heard them say ‘We often see you or your partner pass with her and she’s so much better now. You’re doing such a great job with her.’  I nearly exploded with pride, especially because Annie was still sitting and wagging in full sight of the strawberry cutie.

I don’t know their names, or even their dogs’ name, but I wonder if they realise that they made my day. Annie and I celebrated with some dog biscuits (I let her eat my share) and a big cuddle. She beamed and wagged and just for good measure, ignored a Terrier on the way home too.


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When I adopted each of my animals, I made them a promise. It was quite simple and there were no bells, whistles or points of ceremony. The promise was that they were home. Forever.

Home is an incredibly powerful concept and not just for those of us with a cortex capable of deep and meaningful navel gazing either. To be home is to belong; to relax in the knowledge that you’re safe and loved. It’s the keystone that allows us to spread our wings and live.

For Camden Cat, I was her fifth home, having been passed around from pillar to post as couples split up, moved house, married and had kids and other pets. Five years later I think she’s secure in the knowledge that we’re together for life. Little Bear too has the air of one who’s grounded in enough love to know that even the worst of behaviour will never see him out on the street. Annie still has a little more believing to do, but she wears her joy so openly that I’m sure she’s not too far off the mark now.

Security is vitally important for our animals. They depend on us for their very survival and by taking them on we have to remember that commitment.


Chatting to a friend the other day, he mentioned that his sister-in-law, although ‘devoted’ to the dog, was now, after many years, going to re-home him.  I asked what he’d done and was horrified by the answer. This darling dog had done nothing wrong, he’d merely become an inconvenience.  They found him expensive to keep and foreign holidays were becoming ‘awkward’.

So, just like that, these ‘devoted’ dog lovers were planning to abandon their friend to an uncertain fate.  I’ve heard many a terrible tale about people being forced into giving up their dogs through marriage break-up, illness, bankruptcy etc, but these are the ones I find the most sickening.

I think my next post will be about all the awful bits about sharing your life with a dog. Maybe us dog lovers paint too rosy a picture of the canine-human bond, lulling the floating voter, Siren-like onto the rocks of a long-term commitment they’re not prepared for. Or maybe we’re a fickle species with scant regard for the emotional capacity of others and a predisposition for breathtaking selfishness.

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Imagine you’re a dog.  You’re an emotional, sentient creature who is utterly dependent on the two-legged beings you live with. They control everything you need to survive – food, water, shelter, comfort, warmth. They have lots of complicated rules about what you can and can’t do and in the beginning, you make a lot of mistakes. But by the time you’re about two years old, your hard work and careful observation has paid off and you have most of the rules pretty much figured out.

Then your world is turned upside down. For reasons you’ll never understand, you’re removed from your home and taken to a bare kennel in a rescue centre. Your people, the ones you’ve relied on your entire life, leave you there and you never see them again.

A forever home?

After what seems like an eternity, a new family turn up and take you home. You have no idea who they are or what their rules might be. You’re scared and anxious. Your last people went away and never came back, so you decide to follow the new ones around the house just to make sure you never lose them again. When they leave you at home, you start to panic and get so upset that you’re being abandoned again that you’ll do whatever it takes to be near your new people again. Because after all, where else will you be safer?

Because you’ve lived in a kennel for months, where nobody came to open a door for you when you asked for a toilet break, you learned new rules. Nobody shouted at you for peeing in your kennel so the rules must have changed right? It’s safe to pee indoors now. But in this new home, peeing indoors gets you shouted at and maybe worse. Now you’re really confused and even more scared.

Just when you think things can’t get any worse, your new people, the ones who bought you a nice comfortable bed, new toys and a shiny new collar and lead, pack you back into the car and take you back the kennels. You never see them again.

So much for second chances

This is what just happened to a delightful little dog an acquaintance of mine recently adopted. Just two weeks after he found his ‘forever home’ he was handed back. The bit that makes me even madder, is that the family in question asked for advice on his house training and separation anxiety from a local dog trainer, they were told that the problems were ‘untreatable’. What utter, unadulterated poppycock.

For the first few weeks, Annie howled the place down when one of us left the room, let alone the house. I was even forced to do one conference call from my shed at the bottom of the garden one day because of the noise! My friends 3 year rescue dog would run upstairs to toilet when she first got him. Who knows what he was thinking, but we think he worked on the principle that doing it out of sight of humans was just safer. I hate to even think of how he learned that lesson, but it can’t have been pleasant.  Two weeks of going back to basics and treating him as you would a new puppy was all it took to remind him of his housetraining and reassure him that nobody was going to shout at him or hurt him for getting it wrong. He’s never had an accident since.

I hope with all my heart that this other little dog has gone on to be re-adopted by someone who understands dogs a bit better and realises just how long it can take for them to overcome the upset of rehoming. Some dogs settle very quickly, but for others, learning to trust new people and figure out new rules can take a long time.

Surely, for all the love and joy they bring us, we can at least try to see the world from their point of view now and again and give them the time, love and understanding they need to readjust.

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Little Bear

There’s a scene from the first Bourne Identity film where Jason Bourne, sitting in a restaurant, tells his companion that within seconds of sitting down, he knew exactly how many exits there were, how long it would take to get to each one and who, amongst their fellow diners may be a threat.

Now I claim no such super powers of observation, (I couldn’t tell you what colour my own socks are at this present moment) but having a reactive dog does teach you to become something of a strategist. I know which parks, fields and tracks to avoid and when. For example the dog park nearest us isn’t safe past May as it’s so lush with greenery that you can easily get dive bombed by an off lead dog without warning plus the exits are too far apart.

I’ve also learned to spot the sometimes less than 100% considerate owners a mile off. The ones who look completely disinterested in their dog and let it practically walk itself while they chat on the phone or gossip with friends. If we spot one of these in the distance, we’re off like a shot in the other direction. Handling your own reactive dog on a lead is one thing, but trying to keep a strange off lead dog away from him when it’s owner is half a football pitch away is quite another.

Tools of the trade

I’m sure Jason Bourne could fashion a deadly weapon or a useful lock pick out of a toothpick and an after dinner mint, but as a mere mortal, I have to take a more mundane approach.  These days I never, ever leave the house to walk the dogs without copious amounts of treats, a squeaky tennis ball or two and my clicker. After Little Bear was attacked last year, I also carry a pet corrector just for emergencies and since Annie disappeared, a spare lead, just in case I ever find a lost dog (oh yes, what a boy scout!)

The organisation bit, not being my natural forte, has taken a while, but I see every walk as an opportunity for Little Bear to succeed. If I forget the tools that help him then I’m setting him up to fail and that’s not fair on either of us. So I shove everything into a  little back pack and leave it by the door ready for the next walk.

If dog walking in our house sounds like a military operation, then I have to admit, sometimes it feels that way too. But then you have days like today when all the preparation and practice pay off. On this morning’s school run, LB was an angel. We passed tonnes of kids, people on bikes, push-chairs and kids on scooters – one in particular was being ridden by an ecstatic five-year old girl who was singing her heart out at the very top of her voice ‘Hip, hip, hip HOORAY! The sun has come out to play!! I’m so happy Daddy! The sun has come out!’ She squealed as only little girls can. As we were standing just a few feet away, I anticipated a bark fest, but Little Bear was sitting at my feet, mouth smiling, tail wagging. Hip hip hooray indeed!

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Swim time Bear

It's a big step for a Little Bear

Little Bear, as I’ve probably mentioned before, swims like a brick. So much for this ‘all dogs can swim’ theory. Mine splashes, panics and then sinks. Had he been the type to learn his lesson and avoid water like the plague, that may have been an end to the matter, but he’s absolutely fascinated by the stuff.

Apparently forgetting the times I’ve had to lay on pond banks to haul him out by his harness, one whiff of a pond, stream or river and he’s running with gleeful abandon towards it.

So there was really only one thing for it. Swimming lessons.

I felt like a bit of an idiot making the appointment , despite assurances that a lot of their clients attend for the exact same reason and an even bigger idiot when our vet, on receipt of a consent form to sign, called me to ask why on earth a fit, healthy young dog was going for ‘hydrotherapy’.  Obviously amused, she signed on the dotted line, but I have been teased by friends asking if he’s going to get pony riding lessons next and do drama club at weekends.

At his first lesson, he had to be carried into the pool shaking like a leaf in a hurricane and clinging for all he was worth to the hydrotherapist. The patience of a saint, she held him, massaged him, coaxed and cajoled him until he took a few frantic doggie paddles in my direction.

This week, at his third session, he was brave enough to walk up the ramp by himself and spent 20 minutes playing ball at the poolside, even bending down to try to retrieve it out of the water. He still needed a carry-in but swam a whole length without being held. A far cry from the frantic, wide-eyed splashings of lesson one.

Although my initial motivation was to keep him safe from drowning, what I’m seeing from the poolside is a little dog learning to face his fears and work through them.  I’m not sure Little Bear will ever be a super confident dog, but I’m starting to see the beginnings of a familiar look on his face at these sessions. It’s the ‘Little Bear smug’ look, reserved for the times when he’s downright delighted with himself. It’s a permanent fixture at an agility one to one and who knows, it may take root in the pool too with time.

If it does, then we can tick yet another fear off the list. And what the heck, maybe then I’ll buy him some pony riding lessons too 😉

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Little Bear on the sofa

When Little Bear was a tiny puppy, he met a Great Dane on the beach. A gentle giant, the Dane had been recently adopted by a lovely couple who told us all about his previous abuse at the hands of people, who sadly, will probably never stand in a court room to face their crimes.

Half of his ear was missing (I’ll spare you the details) and they’d lost count of the scars and cigarette burns this gentle soul had on his body. Watching him wag his tail generously at the seriously over-excited Little Bear who was trying to lick his face, it was impossible to know what he was thinking, but I’m sure that he wasn’t thinking about his horrible past.

I found myself remembering this meeting today as I pondered on the stories I regularly tell about Little Bear.  We all have them. They’re the ones we trip out by rote as if on some kind of autoplay. The owners of rescue dogs are always keen to share their ‘before I got him he was in a terrible state..’ type of tale.

In the number one slot for me, is probably the ‘he was such an angel until he was attacked’ story, backed up with probably way too much detail than the inquirer had ever bargained for!

We tell stories for many reasons. To solicit sympathy; to excuse (this was certainly one of my motives if I’m brutally honest); sometimes to entertain or to raise our own (perceived) status. But do they do our dogs any good?

If dogs don’t dwell on their own past, why, I wonder do we feel the need to do so on their behalf?  Personally, I think it’s rooted deep in our own egos. But this is where we also need to cut our own species a little slack for being ‘only human’.

Together Little Bear and I are re-writing his stories – while I put in some more work on the ‘only human’ side of things.

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Click to calm

I cried when I first read the excellent ‘Click to calm’ by Emma Parsons. Here was a professional dog trainer who’s dog seemed to become aggressive out of a clear blue sky. Just like Little Bear, her dog Ben barked and lunged at a dog one day for no apparent reason. You can see how my brain was working…”Well if it could happen to her and she’s a pro, then…”

That book, in fact even just the introduction to that book, helped heal a gaping wound for me. I stopped looking for the reasons why he was behaving as he was (and blaming myself in the process) and started looking for solutions.

The book offers great practical training exercises and so I bought a clicker and…..ground to an abrupt halt. Even muffled in my jumper behind my back, Little Bear reacted to a click like a rocket had gone off in the lounge. He’d shoot me a ‘how could you?’ look and scurry away upstairs to his bed.

I bought soft clickers. I bought adjustable volume clickers. Super soft clickers that I wrapped in layers of fabric…but even clicking from another room got the same reaction. I eventually gave up and used a marker word, ‘good’ instead, but it never felt the same.

Apparently, what I needed all along was a Labrador. Annie took to clicker training like a duck to water (there’s food involved, she’s a Lab, what more needs saying?!) but what absolutely amazed me was the fact that LB crashed the training session and lined up calmly for his reward on hearing the click. No running to bed. In fact, not even an eyelid batted.

From there we’ve gone from strength to strength. We use the clicker on every walk, rewarding non-reactivity to things he might have once found scary, like screaming children or other dogs. I also mark eye contact with me on the cue of ‘watch me’.

Today we achieved something huge. We went to an agility class. With other dogs! Four other dogs in fact, none of whom we knew.  Reverse a few months and this would have been a recipe for being asked never to come back.

There were a couple of woofs at the start when a huge Doberman started barking and lunging at another dog, but a little more distance and a few rounds of watch me was all he needed to calm down again.

He barked frantically when he saw the tunnel, but this time out of sheer joy! It was a super waggy ‘Is it my turn now? Is it? Is it? Oh boy of boy! It’s MY TURN!’ His delight was unmistakable.

Otherwise he was impeccably behaved, even though at times I’m sure he found it a bit stressful. The real joy for me today was that he looked to me automatically when he was stressed. He sat and gave eye contact without being asked. He leaned into my leg from time to time and so we took ourselves a few steps away and did some simple tricks or a bit of massage.  By listening to him I was able to help him manage his anxiety for a whole hour.  He even met one of the other dogs, both on leads and said a lovely, polite hello.

As we left, incident free, I just couldn’t stop telling him what a clever boy he was and how proud I am. I think he knows it, but it never hurts to remind him all the same.

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