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Mini Schnauzer dog being carried

Getting your dog quickly away from a scary situation is often the best option

As part of my on-going quest to lead a generally less cluttered life, yesterday we joined a field full of other locals who had risen at dawn to sell our unwanted stuff at a car boot sale. Among the items for sale was a large bag of freshly washed dog toys that I had to smuggle out of the house. 

Dogs are a given at most car boot sales and I mostly gave the toys away to any passing dog that showed an interest. One Jack Russell called Tyler became so excited by his free squeaky that his person bought him four more. A tug rope went to a sweet old yellow Lab called Dylan who pounced on it like an Andrex pup and as we were packing up, I gave the remainder to a lovely lady who ran a rescue centre. 

Scaredy-pup 

The dogs were a natural highlight of the morning, but there was one dog that simply broke my heart. A tiny Yorkshire Terrier, quite recently rescued from a puppy farm. Typically terrified of anything and everything as ex-breeders usually are, play was the last thing on this poor little dog’s mind.

Seeming to take little comfort from her chilled out companion dog, she ducked, cowered and sprawled herself flat on the floor against the tsunami of feet, trolleys and other dogs that surrounded her, her tail so tucked it hugged her belly. 

Chatting to her owners, it was clear that they considered such outings good for her and told me with pride that she’d made good progress over the weeks since they’d adopted her. If this was progress I shivered at the thought of what she had been like before.  

Flooding

Sadly, thanks to a certain unqualified and dangerous celebrity trainer, flooding as a desensitisation technique has resurfaced from the archive where it should have been left to gather dust with choke chains and dominance theory. 

Flooding is a ‘behavioural desensitisation program for treating phobias and fears in which anxiety-producing stimuli are presented at a high intensity and continued until the fear response is diminished.’ (V.Schade, Bonding with your Dog 2009)  The human equivalent would be to lock someone with arachnophobia into a room full of tarantulas in the hope that they’d just ‘get over it.’

Learning 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think being stuck in a room full of spiders would help me overcome my fear of them and it’s pretty much the same for dogs. Studies have shown that when any animal is fearful (and that includes us) the rational, thinking part of the brain is sidelined in favour of the amygdala.

Sometimes called the reptilian brain, the amygdala is responsible for memory, decision-making and emotion. Our amygdala keeps us alive because it’s job is to react to danger, either real or perceived. We can thank this part of our brain for every ‘fight, flight or freeze’ decision we’ve ever made.

In the case of the scared little Yorkshire Terrier, flight and freeze were very much in evidence as she scuttled  around the circumference of her lead, cowered and threw herself on the floor in a freeze before being dragged off again to the next stall. The sad thing about this form of ‘training’ is that dogs are incapable of learning in this state.  The next car boot sale she’s taken to is likely to be just as scary as this one.

The reason for this is that when the amygdala is in charge there’s not a hope in hell of the brain learning anything new. As far as it’s concerned your life is in danger so all other concerns are jettisoned out of the window – survival is the only priority.  If I was stuck in the room with the spiders you’d have a hard time getting me to recall my name let alone asking me to pick up a new skill while I was in there! It’s the same with dogs. 

Systematic desensitisation 

A far kinder form of training is systematic desensitisation. This is the method advocated by reward based trainers and is the one we’ve used to great effect with both Little Bear and Annie – and it’s by no means rocket science!  

Annie’s explosive reaction to a dog a football pitch away has been systematically reduced and eventually extinguished by keeping her below the point where her thinking brain checked out in favour of her amygdala. Gradually over time, using distance from the stimulus (in her case another dog) plus food as rewards she was able to stay calm enough to learn that the other dog was nothing to be afraid of. For the scared little Yorkshire Terrier, standing at the gate of the car boot for just a few minutes might have been learning enough. With the submersion into the throng of the event itself slowly built up over weeks, months and perhaps even years this would have been a far kinder and far more effective method of helping her to overcome her very real fears. 

 

 

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Annie the labrador

Annie

At around this time four years ago today I  slipped into a nightmare.  It had all started so well. My planning had been pretty flawless. The only glitch was the harness that hadn’t arrived in time. Never mind I thought, plenty of time to pop out and pick one up in the morning.  Except the next morning would be spent bleary-eyed through lack of sleep and crying, frantically calling Vet’s Surgeries and Rescue Centres as we pounded pavements, tracks and fields searching for the foster dog who, just minutes after arriving had snapped her collar and bolted into the dusk.

Guilt

The guilt I felt was overwhelmed only by the desire to find her. My most important job was to keep her safe but just an hour after meeting me and just minutes after she found the courage to edge her way along the back seat of the car to rest her head tentatively in my lap, she was lost in a strange place, dodging traffic as the sun slipped out of the sky. I’ve never in my life seen a dog look so scared and hope I never do again. (Read the full story here)

Forgiveness 

Annie forgave me far more quickly than I forgave myself.  When we eventually found her two days later exhausted and completely shut down all we cared about was the fact that she was alive and safe. We resolved to give her whatever she needed to recover from her ordeal.  We took it in turns to sleep on the sofa and we abandoned our offices to work off the dining room table that had become her den so that she had company at all times. We respected her wishes and kept our distance, waiting for her to make the first move towards contact.  Two days in she was confident enough to sniff Stu’s feet as he slept on the sofa. Three days in she nuzzled my hand under the table as I worked and I knew we’d be okay.

Joy

Meeting her today, the dog who will now pull to greet strangers in the street if they look like the cuddling type, it’s hard to remember the dog who wouldn’t even make eye contact with us. The dog who would literally cower behind our legs if someone looked at her in the street, or heaven forbid, bend to stroke her. She can still be reactive in the wrong circumstances (she can’t stand German Shepherds or Huskies despite our best efforts), but she’s come so far. We have new challenges today with the recent diagnosis of severe arthritis in both her elbows to match that in her hips and a bladder problem no doubt caused by having too many litters to line the greedy pockets of her previous ‘owners’, but she remains an utter joy to share our life with.

So happy ‘gotcha day’ day our darling Annie May.  Yes, there will be biscuits.  And the even better news?  In two days time we’ll be celebrating ‘gotcha back day’.

xx

Camden Cat

Camden Cat

A few months ago Camden, our much loved thirteen year old Cat became suddenly quite ill. After a few days with all the symptoms of a nasty tummy bug she refused her breakfast and an hour later we were both sitting in the vet’s waiting room on a bank holiday. 

They took bloods, gave her a vitamin injection and packed me off home with a large bill, enough antibiotics for a small pit pony and ten sachets of Royal Canin. 

Research 

She’s had digestive problems for the nine years I’ve been lucky enough to have her and as a result, I’ve done the usual poking around online reading blogs, reports and research papers on what cats do and do not need in their diet.  Sugar as you can imagine is not on the list and yet the sachets from the vet listed ‘various sugars’ as the second ingredient. I knew this before they gave them to me but to be honest, feeling stressed and willing to do just about anything to make sure she’d eat, I caved in. 

They certainly went down a treat with Camden. The first ten sachets lasted barely three days – her appetite returned with an ear-piercing vengeance as she howled for her bowl to be topped up throughout the day.  A box of twelve lasted just long enough to get her to her follow up appointment but now that she was looking so much better I was determined to get her off the junk food and back onto something more healthful. So, I asked the vet…

The conversation went something like this: 

Me: So now that she’s feeling better I’d like to wean her onto a better quality food. Any recommendations? 

Vet: The Royal Canin we sell here is an excellent brand. 

Me: Really? But it contains various sugars and is made with meat derivatives? 

Vet: Sugars? Where did you hear that? <he sniggered at this point> 

Me: Er, it’s written on the ingredients list on the packet…

Vet: Is it?  Well the Rep always says what a great quality food it is.

As he was just about to take more blood from Camden, I bit my tongue at this point – hard.  

Integrity

Now don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful to the vets who have helped all of my animals over the years, they do a job I would never want to do in a million years, but it absolutely beggars belief that such learned professionals seem to have such little knowledge – not to mention such little interest – in diet and nutrition, the one thing that we know has such an enormous impact on health. Even more worrying is the idea that once qualified their source of information on such matters comes from pet food Rep with a vested interest in flogging more products. 

Sadly, this isn’t an isolated case. I’ve heard from lots of friends who have had very similar experiences.  We’ve since changed vets but although lovely, our new vet freely admits to ‘not knowing much about pet food’ which is a bit like my doctor saying she doesn’t know much about a healthy human diet – it’s just absurd!  

Ignorance or a blind eye? 

If the veterinary profession really cares about the health of our animals they need to focus on preventative health care for our pets. Just like humans, we know that diet plays a huge part in health and wellbeing which begs the question: why are so many vets still apparently ignorant? Is it a genuine gap in their training or is there simply too much money tied up with the big pet food manufacturers to risk rocking the boat?  

What’s your experience with vets and pet nutrition?  Does your vet disprove this theory? If so, please share via the comments as I’d love to be wrong on this one, for all our sakes. 

 

Annie the labrador on the patio in the sun

Annie enjoying the sun

A few months ago Annie developed a strange phobia about an area of the kitchen.  One day she was fine, galumping around all over the place and the next she had pinned her ears to her head, tucked her tail and flatly refused to come to either one of us if we stood anywhere near the dishwasher.

Human logic being what it is (flawed) we initially thought the dishwasher had made a noise and scared her. With reports of sink holes opening up around the country I have to confess to a mild does of paranoia which had me checking the exterior walls for any signs of subsidence but as Little Bear and the Cat were unfazed by the area and our brickwork remained in tact we quickly came to our senses.

Annie’s phobia then spread to a larger area of the kitchen and then the hallway.  By that point we suspected that it was probably the tiles at the root of the problem and tested the theory by covering the floor with mats and towels. Sure enough, with something to walk on besides tiles, the phobia disappeared as if by magic.

Within a week however, the phobia had generalised to any tiled floor, including the one in the pet shop, normally one of her favourite places.  We think the fear was probably triggered by her slipping on the floor and hurting herself – a theory that has now played out as she’s since, weeks later gone on to develop a limp on her front leg.

So it’s off to the vet tomorrow for what I suspect will be another X-ray.  Our poor love, she’s been through so much already I can’t stand the thought of leaving her at the vets again even though I know it’s for her own benefit.  We’re crossing fingers and toes that its a minor injury that can be easily fixed.

Fellow bloggers, hands up anyone who’s been overcome with an absolute burning desire to write a blog post at the exact same time that you ‘should’ be doing something else?  That report you need to finish writing?  Housework to do? Cat needs a bath? (I was joking on that last point)

Right now I should be writing an article I’m planning on pitching to a newspaper but, what do you know? I can’t possibly start until this urgent post is out-of-the-way!  I know.  Pathetic isn’t it?  I’m fully aware that I’m distracting myself because blogging is safe and rewarding (who in their right mind wouldn’t want to write about dogs all day?!) but pitching new ideas to scary editors is, well, scary!

So that my wasted ten minutes isn’t completely wasted, I’ve coined a new term purely for my own amusement:

Blogstraction – the act of writing blog posts as a distraction. 

There. Post done. I’ll just make another cuppa before I tackle that article….

 

Poor old blog.  If it had four legs and a tail it would get way more attention than it’s currently (not) enjoying.  So just to make myself feel marginally less tardy, here are some photographs of our dynamic trio.

Little Bear the mini schnauzer in a smart blue bandana

Guess what I got from Crufts?

 

Annie the Labrador laying on an astro turf rug

Annie checking out the astro turf ‘rug’ we had to put down after she slipped on the kitchen tiles.

 

Black and white cat Camden

Miss Camden Cat. Possibly the most loving cat in the world (unless you happen to be a schnauzer)If 

Little Bear the Mini Schnauzer

Sensitive Soul

Annie’s puddle diving addiction has got her into a bit of bother. During a particularly enthusiastic session in the Forest on Sunday she leapt into what turned out to be more pond than puddle and  disappeared momentarily into the murk.

She seemed nothing more than a bit taken aback by the whole incident and continued her rampaging for the rest of the walk, but by dinnertime, it became clear that stinky pond water isn’t great for the digestion; even the digestion of a Labrador with a passion for snacking from the cat’s litter box…

Vet trip

I’ll spare you any more gory details, but needless to say we ended up at the vets where she had to have an injection to stop the vomiting and a course of antibiotics to fight off whatever bug she’s picked up.

She refused all food yesterday and moved only between her crate and the couch with the occasional detour to the garden for the necessaries.  As my gran used to say, she looked ‘proper poorly’ all day poor love.

Thankfully, she’s on the mend today and is a little brighter. She’s forced down two small bowl fulls of chicken and rice and we’ve even had a few wags out of her so I’m hoping the worst is over.

Sensitive Bear 

As you can imagine, yesterday was slightly full on and Little Bear’s walk ended up being pathetically short, squeezed in between vet trips, supermarket dashes for chicken, copious washing of dog bedding, floor cleaning, bowl sanitising and frequent coddling of the patient  – and that was without the small matter of trying to run a business!

Amazingly though, despite having to play second fiddle to Annie all day, LB was an angel all day. He didn’t nag for food, (even though he had every meal late yesterday) he didn’t nag me to play (which is a nightly occurrence) and even his alert barking was considerably pared down.  When Annie ventured from her crate to lay on the sofa, he didn’t pester her to play as usual, he simply waited for her to lie down and then snuggled up next to her and slept.

Empathy  

When you have a reactive dog it’s all too easy to see the problem: the lunging, the barking, the hair-trigger temperament that means even a hiccupping bubble bee at forty feet can set them off; but in focussing on the problems we often miss something very special: The empathy, the sensitivity and the kindness dogs are capable of exhibiting, not just to us, but to their own kind too.

Reactive dogs are often sensitive dogs and while we work on helping them with their fears, we need to also appreciate and recognise the wonderful upside to their sensitivity.

Thanks LB for reminding me of your sensitive soul.

 

 

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