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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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Where's Bear?

Where’s Bear?

With the warm weather persisting, walking the dogs has become an exercise in trying to dodge the heat. We were lucky today because the morning stayed cool right up until lunchtime but even so, Little Bear still needed to take some time out to have a rest.

His favourite medium of choice is clover, which of course prompts a swift chorus of ‘Roll me over in the clover’ from yours truly, but failing that, he’s quite partial to some long grass.  He disappeared so completely into it this morning that it took a while to find him. If he keeps this up I’ll have to start a Schnauzer version of Where’s Wally.

The clover shot is for pure cuteness.

Clover Bear

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Hot dogs

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The UK is currently enjoying a rare and much needed heat wave. After a wash out summer last year and what felt like a perpetual winter, to be able to bask in temperatures hovering around 28 degrees is a special kind of delight. That is, unless you’re a dog.

Annie has approached it as she does most things, with an accepting wag. Little Bear on the other hand is just short of writing to his MP to complain. He hates the heat and I’m sure is dreaming of snow, (the only sort of weather he seems to enjoy) in those foot twitching, lip quivering sleeps only dogs seem capable of.

In an attempt to cheer him up I gave them a frozen Kong stuffed with dog food. Annie got the idea right away while Bear was a little more perplexed bless him.

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Little Bear the dog snoozing

Little Bear snoozing

The good news is that after frightening us all half to death, Little Bear is making a good recovery. A third X-ray on Saturday revealed that things were moving as they should be through his intestine which rules out any kind of obstruction and as he was eating and generally brighter he was allowed home on Saturday afternoon!

He’s not yet back to his old self, but compared to the pitiful little dog we took to the emergency vet on Wednesday night, he’s miles better.  We took him on a short walk yesterday evening and although he enjoyed his runabout, he abruptly ran out of steam meaning I had to carry him part of the way home.  I swear I started off carrying a Mini Schnauzer and ended up with a Newfoundland by the time I reached the front door!

He’s still taking antibiotics and has easy to digest prescription food until we get the results of the blood work back in a few days. So we’re taking it easy, letting him sleep as much as possible and generally just keeping an eye on him. The most important thing is that he’s here, he’s well and he’s getting better by the day.

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Annie & Bear under the (fake) mistletoe

Annie & Bear under the (fake) mistletoe

At the weekend, during a half-hearted attempt at Christmas shopping I made one purchase that I was particularly tickled with.  It was a bunch of felt mistletoe. Now I know this might not be everyone’s idea of a top buy, but since I’ve had dogs I won’t buy mistletoe as the berries are poisonous.

I said as much in passing while chatting to the sales girl and she was absolutely horrified, hastily explaining that she had a new puppy and had no idea about things that might be harmful.

Cue crazy dog lady who then felt compelled to then hold up the queue listing all of the things that are potentially fatal to dogs and especially curious puppies…

Irresponsible advertising

It’s a topical point as a battle royal rages between the dog loving world and Morrison’s supermarket who’s Christmas advert shows a dog being fed Christmas pudding.

Raisins are incredibly toxic to dogs and even a few can cause fatal renal failure, a fact that their PR department is bizarrely trying to deny despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

There’s little excuse for large corporations to get it so wrong, even less for such a puerile stance when their error is pointed out to them, but we can be more generous to the innocent dog lover, who, like the young girl in the shop simply didn’t know.

Spread the word

So if you want to help dogs this Christmas, please spread the word that lots of everyday food stuffs and some of the plants we decorate our homes with at this time of year are potentially fatal to dogs.  It’s even more important when we welcome friends and family into our homes who may not have dogs.

One of Little Bear’s Bichon friends was fed four After Eight mints as a puppy by a visiting toddler and spent two ‘touch and go’ days at the emergency vet as a result.  Had he not had such a clued up owner or fur incapable of hiding chocolate stains, he may not have lived to tell the tale.

Here are some of the common ones, but Dog’s Trust do a more comprehensive list that’s worth a ‘cut out and keep’ and sticking to the fridge alongside the emergency vet number, just in case.

Avocados

Apple pips

Apricot kernels

Aloe Vera

Antifreeze

Chocolate

Raisins

Grapes

Holly berries

Kale

Mistletoe

Onions

Poinsettia

Xylitol (a sweetener found in low-calorie foods)

You can follow the Morrison’s story via the ‘Morrison’s Christmas Pudding TV Ad could Kill’ Facebook page

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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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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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Little Bear the Mini Schnauzer

Little Bear

I’m thinking of writing a stiff letter to Life.  I think I’ve been incredibly tolerant up until now but something really has to be said about the way it relentlessly interrupts my training plans. And please, don’t even get me started on its effect on my blogging schedule…

I’m joking of course, but it’s a nice thought isn’t it?  ‘Excuse me Life, but can you just butt out for a while? I have dogs to train. We’re on a schedule you know.’

Curve ball

My mother was taken suddenly and critically ill recently and in the space of one phone call everything changed. Life jumped on us from a great height and we had no choice but to let it.  Thankfully she made a remarkable recovery and when I returned home nearly two weeks later, (to a thorough telling off by Little Bear and what I can only describe as a giggle dance from Annie) the dogs and I picked up where we left off.

Surrender

I’ve used Churchill’s famous quote about ‘never ever giving up’ many a time and it’s still something that inspires me and spurs me on when I’m tired and down-hearted. I’ll never stop striving for the best for my dogs, but I am willing to give up on something – the idea that I have to do it all perfectly and that if I don’t, then I’m somehow letting them down.

If you have a reactive dog, let alone two, you know what hard work they can be.  The dream is something most other dog owners take for granted; a quiet stroll in the park, a coffee at a pavement cafe without it causing a scene. It’s not a big dream but getting there takes a lot of work.

Little Bear and Annie have come such a long way. The work is working and we will persist, but I’m going to tear up that draft letter and tell Life that it’s okay. I understand. It has to do its thing and that’s fine. Whatever it throws at us, well, we’re just going to work around it.

 

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I write all day. I’m lucky in that my day job is in corporate communications so I’m paid to write speeches; copy; briefings; articles and press releases. And yet when I finally turn off the PC for the day and get on with the usual chores of eating dinner (notice I didn’t say cooking  ;-)) walking, playing and feeding the dogs and then trying to create  some semblance of order in the house, the itch to write is constantly with me, pulling at my sleeve like an incessant toddler.

I’ve often pondered on this. I doubt decorators come home from a long day and get the urge to get the paint rollers out again and I’ve known many a teacher who bolts the door for fear of even seeing another child in the next twelve hours so what’s going on?

Expression

My only conclusion is that most writers are driven by a need for expression.  The need for people to read what I’ve written is nowhere near as important to me as the need to commit my thoughts to paper or pixel.  A purging almost of the mind and soul, it doesn’t need to be read in order to matter as far as I’m concerned – I just need to do it.

I may write all day but on the whole they’re not my words. I’m a ghost stepping into another’s shoes to write speeches; I’m a saleswoman pitching an idea in my copy; I’m a teacher marking the homework of the agencies whose work I edit with a bleeding pen through clenched teeth. I’m many people, except of course the most authentic one – Me.

Writer’s block

I sat down this afternoon desperate to write. Dogs walked; laundry done; ironing ignored for another day, I opened up WordPress and – nothing.  Not a single idea for the Little Bear Dog blog.

My creative writing teacher once told us the only way to overcome writer’s block was to write.  His was a generous take on the problem as he saw nothing wrong in including shopping lists in his suggested cure for the dreaded block.  I’ve not veered that far from the path today, but it has helped – I hope regular readers will forgive the digression.

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