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Posts Tagged ‘dog behaviour’

Mini schnauzer Little Bear having a cuddle

Bear deals much better with firework night if he has someone to snuggle with.

“Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” For some unknown reason we’re still celebrating Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt to blow the Houses of Parliament to smithereens 400 years after the fact.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for tradition if it brings a smile to people’s faces, but when you have a dog that’s terrified of loud noises, firework night is traumatic. Picture your dog hunched in a corner, shaking like a leaf and panting so hard you’re afraid he might pass out.

It’s a pitiful sight especially when you’re unable to control the source of their fear. What’s worse is the fact that as the sale of fireworks is unregulated, fireworks ‘night’ now seems to last up to two weeks meaning another assault can come at any time.

Advice 

Lots of dogs are of course frightened of fireworks and social media has been awash with people asking for advice on how to cope with their terrified pets.  On the whole the advice offered is sound: Turn up the TV; try a Thunder-shirt, herbal calmers, hormone collars and diffusers like Adaptil and for those instances where nothing works, a consultation with your vet for a prescribed tranquilliser.

However, there are still those who insist that ignoring your dog is the only way to deal with the situation.  I understand where this thinking may have come from – in positive reinforcement training we often ignore bad behaviour like jumping up for fear of reinforcing it with our attention.  However, YOU CAN’T REINFORCE FEAR! Once your dog is afraid he’s incapable of learning anything so you won’t make it worse by giving him attention.

For pity’s sake, just cuddle your bloody dog! 

So please, if your dog is frightened and wants to be near you – CUDDLE HIM! Distract him, play with him – hell, wrap him in a blanket and feed him roast chicken off a fork if it’ll make him feel better but please, PLEASE do not ignore him.

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Mini Schnauzer Little Bear takes a break out on a solo walk

Little Bear takes a break during our solo walk

If you have more than one dog, chances are you probably walk them together.  I actually still recall the “Walking two dogs is no more work than walking one” argument I used as part of my case for a double dog household.  Oh foolish fool, how wrong could I have been?!

The reality is, if you have reactive dogs like ours, combined walks can sometimes do more harm than good.

Tipping point

Just like us, all dogs have a tipping point. Now for your laid back, confident pooch the circumstances needed to reach that tipping point might never ever arise but for the nervous, under-confident dog the line between calm, rational thought and an emotional, amygdala driven outburst is always that much finer.

In the fourteen years we had our beloved Springer Spaniel, I only once saw him aggress and that was when a Rottweiler  jumped into our garden and cornered him in the yard. Even our sweet old gent found his tipping point that day and acted to defend himself much to our utter amazement.

For reactive dogs like Bear and Annie, their equivalent of a Rottweiler over the garden wall can be as seemingly benign as a dog on a lead 300 yards away. Through an unfortunate mix of temperament, experience (and lack of it), they see threats where there are none.  But when they bark and lunge, it’s out of the same fear my old Springer felt all those years ago, it’s just that their tipping points aren’t as obvious to us.

A life lived in fear

They say a life lived in fear is a life half lived and this can certainly be the reality for many dogs. On Little Bear’s scary list were: bikes, skateboards, other dogs,  horses, velcro (?!) and thunderstorms to name but a few.  A walk invariably encountered at least one of the things and so for a long time, practically every trip out of the door would mean he’d end up in a frenzy of fearful barking and lunging.

Positive reinforcement 

Over the years we’ve worked to raise his tipping point to a more comfortable level.  Armed with clicker and treats (and a swift and unapologetic about turn if we spot something that I know he won’t cope with) we’ve slowly built up his tolerance to the point that he can now see a dog across the street and remain calm enough to sit and get a treat for his non-reaction.

Bikes and skateboards no longer get a second look thanks to the same positive reinforcement and he can walk past a field of horses without batting an eyelash. That said, he has learned to flutter them a little in the hopes of a reward when he thinks he’s been especially good.

The key to the training has simply been to encourage him to feel differently about the things he was once afraid of.  Get rid of the fear and the over-reaction just isn’t necessary anymore.  Which brings me on to the need for solo walks.

Going solo

Part of the ethos of positive reinforcement is that dogs are alway set up to succeed. Considering his naturally anxious disposition, Little Bear has achieved a lot over the last few years which is why asking him to be cool, calm and collected while his best friend Annie is freaking out by his side is really a bridge too far.

So, as much as I love walking my dogs together, until he and Annie are at a similar level in terms of tipping points we’ll continue to walk them separately as often as we can. The good news is that judging by Annie’s progress, she’ll not be far behind him.

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Little Bear finds a shady spot

Little Bear finds a shady spot

When it’s hot its hard to keep dogs properly exercised without the risk that they’ll over-heat. Little Bear especially finds the warm weather quite tough and although he knows his limits, it still leaves us with a problem: One very bright, very active little dog who has no outlet for all his get up and go.  As we know ourselves, being happily tired after a good workout is very different to the lethargy that sets in when it’s just too hot to move.

Putting the fun back 

So this morning , before the day had chance to hot up, we booked the local agility course with a friend of ours. LB has done agility before. We had a couple of one-to-one lessons and then joined a group class. Given his anxiety levels, the group class was incredibly challenging, but he coped admirably and seemed to forget about the other dogs once he was doing the course.

Teaching resilience

He’s loved agility from the off and proved that although he wasn’t built for speed or endurance, he’s a brave little chap.  To my utter amazement he tackled a full height A frame on his first ever session (see the video here).

Taking a break at the end of the session

Taking a break at the end of the session

I was reminded of this today as he lost his footing on the walkway but pressed on regardless. Then again when he misjudged a jump and took a tumble. He picked himself up and with a bit of lighthearted encouragement took the same jump again and again as if to prove it hadn’t beaten him.

 Building confidence

Nervous dogs usually lack confidence and depending on their temperament, use either aggression or retreat (fight or flight) as their only means of coping with the things that scare them.  Watching LB face his fears today and overcome them so swiftly was a timely reminder of how I need to be constantly finding ways to build his confidence and boost his resilience. The other bonus is that before the sun had had a chance to take too much of a hold, Annie and Bear were back home, happily tired, mentally stimulated and quickly snoozing.

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Lennox, guilty of nothing but looking like a banned breed was taken from his family, kept in awful conditions for 2 years & killed by Belfast  Council in questionable circumstances.

Lennox, guilty of nothing but looking like a banned breed was taken from his family, kept in awful conditions for 2 years & killed by Belfast Council in questionable circumstances.

When I was about eight I was nearly bitten by an English Springer Spaniel. Thinking him to be just like my best friend at home, I reached down to tickle him but he growled and lunged at me. I got the shock of my life, but I also learned a couple of very valuable lessons 1) always ask before approaching a dog you don’t know and 2) don’t think breed is an indicator of temperament.

Last week, 14-year-old Jade Lomas-Anderson was killed by four dogs at a friend’s house in Wigan, UK. Horrifying and heart-breaking, it’s hard imagine losing a child so young, yet alone in such circumstances.

Media speculation

Predictably, the news reports, still waiting for confirmation of the facts, started speculating on whether any of the dogs responsible were from a banned breed.  When it emerged that they weren’t, the flames of speculation were duly fanned by the suggestion that Bull Mastiffs and Staffordshire Bull Terriers should be added to the list.

Genius idea. Dog bites have actually risen by 41% since the Dangerous Dog Act was introduced according to HES so on what planet does this sort of thinking make any sense?  I was enraged, not just because I’m a dog lover, but by the laziness of the reporting.  A beautiful young girl had been killed in appalling circumstances and they had rolled out the usual lazy, hackneyed tripe about banned breeds.  It’s akin to obsessing about the make of car involved in a hit and run and not tackling the real issue of who was behind the wheel.

Breed myopia 

The elephant in the room here is that by focussing so myopically on breed we’re totally missing the point. Would our children be safer if we told them it was okay to talk to strangers just so long as they weren’t French, or Greek or any other arbitrary classification? Of course not.

As I found out all those years ago, any dog is capable of biting, just like any human is capable of harming another.   To keep people safe we need to educate them on how to treat dogs ethically and how to meet their needs – for exercise, training, socialisation and security to name but a few, but while any moron can knock out a litter of puppies in their garden shed to earn a few quid and while utter garbage like Caesar Milan is allowed to pass for national dog training, is there any wonder that we have damaged and fearful dogs out there and owners without the first clue of how to properly care for, train and manage them?

State sponsored lunacy

That the media and government compound this lunacy by suggesting that eradicating some breeds of dog will magically solve the issue is just beyond comprehension.  We do need tougher laws, but they should be around the strict control of the breeding of all dogs.  Licence all breeders and stamp out the quick buck mentality fuelled by the likes of Craigslist and PreLoved that provide an easy market for flogging puppies like second-hand sofas.

When we declared a war on drugs we went for the source and we educated people so why not take the same approach with dogs?  Our rescue centres are bursting at the seams and according to Dogs Trust, nearly 8,000 are killed every year by local authorities and other ‘rescues’ due to a lack of homes which is a disgusting waste of life and should be a point of national shame.

When dogs can’t be bought online, in pubs and out of the boots of cars, there’ll be more opportunity for licensed breeders and rescue organisations to vet would-be owners and to educate and support them to raise their dogs in a responsible manner.

Breed specific legislation has done nothing to keep people safe and adding to it will be a pointless waste of time and public money.  It will also bring untold heartache for thousands of committed and responsible dog owners all over the country and allow the backstreet breeders to continue to peddle their misery. Enough is enough.

 

You can find out more about the story of Lennox and the lunacy of Breed Specific Legislation here

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Little Bear the dog in front of the Christmas tree

Little Bear and the Christmas tree

With the Christmas holidays around the corner, I’m counting down the days to a week off.

In my head, I’m imagining something straight out of a John Lewis ad.  All Country Living magazine festive with everyone laughing around an elegantly dressed table laden with fantastic food, fine china and posh crackers.

I’m enough of a realist to accept that it will be more like something out of Fawlty Towers, but I’m a relentless optimist too. Somehow, my deep desire for the fantasy Christmas has blocked out the fact that it will most likely be a few stressful days of last minute shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning, bed making and entertaining various house guests sandwiched between two 300 mile round trips to pick up and drop off family members.

Stress 

Sad though it is to admit, Christmas is stressful and if we’re stressed, you can bet our dogs will be too. Especially fearful dogs like Annie who take comfort in the certainty wrought through routine and anxious dogs like Little Bear who can quickly get hyper.

Having lots of visitors can be exciting, but it can also be over-stimulating for some dogs and ours are no exception.  In our eagerness to make sure everyone has a full glass and a plate of something tasty, we can too easily overlook the subtle signs of stress from our dogs.

Retreat

We’re taking radical action this year. We’re sacrificing the comfort of guests for the comfort of our dogs. We’re donating one of our sofas to a charity so that the dogs can have their beloved crates back.

Having a safe space to retreat to is really important for dogs all year round, but especially at Christmas. I’ll also be stocking up on Adaptil refills for the diffuser and there will be some stuffed Kongs and deer antlers on the treat menu to give them something to focus on while we’re playing hosts.  It’s no magic bullet, but knowing that the dogs are happy will at least be one less thing for me to stress about.

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My gorgeous boy

Little Bear and I have clocked up our fair share of trainers and behaviourists over the past five years.  The first trainer turned out to be a major part of the problem with her ‘yank it round the neck till it behaves approach’ and subscription to the ridiculous dominance theory.  From there I sought help only from qualified APDT registered trainers but even then had mixed results.

One just told me to keep him away from all other dogs and refused to explain any of the theory to me on the grounds that I wasn’t a professional and wouldn’t understand.  The next one was good, if a little superior but so busy I had to wait literally months between appointments, which was little use to me.

Lack of people skills

There were others in-between and classes too but a thing I’ve noticed about a lot of professional trainers is their complete lack of people skills. Yes, we, the novice dog owning population can be ignorant idiots and I do appreciate that when you love dogs enough to devote your career to them, it must be hugely frustrating to see them so mis-managed by people who just don’t understand them.

Click

After five years of looking, I’ve finally found two trainers who get it. Specialising in aggression issues, they use kind, effective methods and focus on helping dogs learn appropriate behaviours through socialisation with teaching dogs who have impeccable canine communication skills.

Little Bear has been going to the fortnightly Shy Guys group for a few months now and he’s making real progress.  Their kind effective approach extends to both ends of the lead and the results seem to speak for themselves. The groups are really popular and I think that’s down to the fact that the trainers obviously understand that in order to help the dog, they first have to help the human.

Find out more at http://www.dogcommunication.co.uk/

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Annie the Labrador

Annie

On the fifth of August 2010 we picked up our new foster dog – Annie,  a four-year old Red Fox Labrador who’d been used as a breeding bitch.  A snapped collar saw her disappear into the twilight before we’d even had chance to get her home (Disaster strikes) and so began a two-day roller coaster.

The panic, the despair,  the guilt and worst of all, the agony of wondering what this sweet but terrified girl must be going through to be lost in a strange place but tempered with the humbling kindness of the strangers who helped us find her ( Little (Big) Dog Lost & Breakthrough).

It’s hard to believe that was two years ago. Watching her now, stretched out, paw over nose, twitching in dreamland on the sofa, it’s almost hard to believe that this was the dog so shut down that she refused to even toilet for three days. The dog you could send scuttling under the dining table should you accidentally look her in the eye. The dog so seemingly ‘aggressive’ that she’d erupt at the sight of a dog a football pitch away and who would charge the patio doors on sight of Little Bear or Camden Cat in the garden.

Overcoming fear

Now that the fear isn’t doing quite so much of the talking we’re seeing the real Annie. She loves Little Bear and she and Camden have come to an arrangement based on mutual respect that even extends to polite sniffing. She can still be wary of some people, but will also cheerfully approach complete strangers with a relaxed wag if she likes the look of them.

Her dreams are more peaceful now too. I don’t know what dogs dream of, but I know for sure that they have nightmares. Seeing her run in her sleep, her face contorted as she whimpered and whined was once a regular occurrence.

We’re still working on the on-lead dog to dog reactivity but that’s coming along steadily too. She’ll get there. Just as she learned to let go of the other fears that racked her life, so this, in time will pass too.

Lesson

I’m not know for my patience, but dogs don’t work to our ridiculous, artificial schedules. Annie will continue to learn and grow in her own time and our job is to help and encourage her along that path. My knees still go a little weak when I see her run because a part of me will never fully get over that fateful first day, but I can’t help wonder whether it didn’t do me a favour.

In losing her I gained a valuable insight – I now know what real fear feels like. We are all so hounded by the imagined fears of our over-active minds that real fear, the type that comes from immediate danger is blessedly rare. Maybe, in order to help her overcome the very real fears she has to face, I just needed to walk a mile in her paws.

 

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