Got a problem? I'm here to help!
We all dream of the idyllic life with our perfectly well behaved pooches we can take anywhere any place any time, but sometimes things just don't quite go to plan.
Sometimes, its a case of rethinking our expectations: not really realising how much hard work goes into building a relationship with a dog and not appreciating their natural instincts and drives. I know myelf back in 2000 *I thought* I had been very thorough in my reseach with regards to how living with a weimaraner might be. I had a German Shepherd at the time, and found her to be very easy to live with. Maybe just a little too easy - I wanted more of a challenge. When I did get my long awaited and much researched weimaraner, for all my background work I still found myself with my hands very full!
My beautiful Cindy really left her mark on me. I've completely fallen for this breed with their sometimes quite challengling personalities but overall fun loving cheeky ways and I could not ever imagine myself with another breed, but there have been many times I've cried into my hands 'Why me???'
If it were not for her being such a handful, I would not ever have found myself where I am today, helping others overcome their problems and teaching owners how to beter understand and communicate with their dogs. I lost her to cancer in 2012, but she lives on in my work every day.
On the other side of the coin, I've worked with a number of dogs now who really do have problems fitting in to every day suburban community life and this can really cause problems, especially for those who have to rely on dog walkers due to long out of home working arrangements. Few behaviour and training issues are caused overnight, and by the same token it will inevitably take some time to undo and train out behaviour issues. It can take a good deal of flexibility and careful foreplanning to help these dogs, but I have had some pretty remarkable success stories to date.
This is where careful observation and a real empathy for how the dog might be feeling about the situations it finds itself in is important, and the ability to think outside of the box and find solutions to obsticles helps a great deal too. I have learned some really very valuable lessons along the way. Here are a few case studies of dogs I have worked with and how we've managed to make things a little better for both dogs and owners alike.
The most important thing you need to remember: Say 'Yes', not 'No!'
Living with a dog that 'freaks out' at the sight of another dog, people or any other every day occurrence can be very difficult to live with. Sometimes these dogs can put on quite a fearsome display, and of course then there are all those other people how have an opinion to make you feel worse about it.
No two dogs are the same. There is no one size fits all.
However, there tends to be a few common factors and the one thing I can absolutely totally and utterly say to you is that using any kind of hissy spray can corrector, bags of coins thrown at the ground, even saying 'NO'! is NOT going to help. It might just shut your dog up for a moment, but the underlying issues have not been resolved.
If we think of all the energy that your dog has been displaying in protest at the presence of [other object: dog, strange man, cat, motorbike, horse rider etc.] Its lot of energy to bottle up, it is going to have a release somewhere.
Here are a few case studies of dogs I have helped or worked with and learned from. I won't use their names for the sake of client confidentiality, so names are made up.
Autumn started coming to my classes in Clavering last year, she'd been adopted a few years ago and I was aware that there were a few problems because I am friends with her owners and we chat on Facebook. On the first day she came to class, we were in the hall and I was really quite taken aback at how absolutely scared of the world this poor dog was. Helping her overcome her fearfulness has been a wonderful team effort from all our Clavering gang.
Her real underlying issue would seem to be poor early socialisation. She had really had very little experience of the world outside her own back garden until she was re-homed, and then rehomed again due to marriage break up. We know that dogs learn very much by trial and error. If it works, they'll try again, if it doesn't work, they'll try something else. In puppies, it is really important to ensure that they are familiarised with as many every day experiences as possible in their early months to help stretch their minds and teach them how we want them to react in the event of coming across situations that are unfamiliar to them. If they are not properly taught what to do, they default to trying to guess.
Its clear Autumn guessed that the best way to deal with things she wasn't familiar with was to act very scary and hope that this would make them go away. She's a big girl, it was an effective tactic. At the same time, she is actually a very sweet girl who loves to be fussed and would love to have lots of friends, but her fearfulness, especially of other dogs is quite deep rooted (this is highly likely because she may have been told off or had aversive training methods used on her in the past compounding all that fear), so we exercise a great deal of care when working with her.
At first, she struggled to come into the hall at all. We found her safe distance and kept the doors open so she could just edge closer week by week and I taught her owner the basics of 'click and treat' so that we could start working on focus exercises (see using the reward marker). She started to learn that the other dogs in the class were not an issue for her to worry about, they were all calmly doing their own thing and that was fine. We started with simple exercises to keep her focused and working with her owner - walking slowly over poles on the ground (she found this very difficult at first) and following her owners hand.
Once her owner's timing was very good and she was recognising her reward marker, we were able to work on LAT (look at that) and building on the trust that if you tell your dad that you are afraid, he'll take the initiative to give you more space.
Autumn still comes to class, and she's generally very relaxed and happy as new dogs come and go from our class environment. I would not want to ever take the gamble that she is cured, but I am very proud indeed to see a happy confident dog taking new challenges training exercise in her stride.
So what has worked here:
Because she was taught what to do when she saw strange things that worried her, she no longer felt the need to second guess for herself. In her owner teaching her what to do, she learned to have a greater level of trust in her owner because the uncertainty of what happens if I get it wrong is fully removed if we say 'YES' not 'NO!', and so she can now be confident that if she follows her owners lead, she'd get it right.
Peer pressure can be immensely damaging. Sometimes we just need to stop and really step aside to see what's going on.
Apollo came into my Great Chesterford class, a very handsome collie indeed. His owner was very nervous herself and he was wearing a yellow dog 'I'm nervous' harness. We talked about his various issues, other dogs, strange men etc and we started working on understanding the reward marker and keeping his attention and focus. We then were ably to work on LAT and presenting him with very simple challenges, like walking over poles on the floor.He had to miss a week through illness but was back the next week and then his owner said something that really struck me. The vets had told her that he was just fine' as in not a nervous dog, when he had to stay over night with them. Having seen him myself and seen his body language especially when my husband was present in class, I was quite happy to agree with her that he was a very nervous dog. I was reasonably confident that he would not bite, but i most certainly was not going to do anything to make him feel more nervous or push him to the point whereby he might feel like he might need to.
To confront one's greatest fears is not at all easy. Our bodies have natural instinctive defense mechanisms that tends to take over when we are presented with danger. In our modern world some fears might seem quite irrational, like a fear of spiders, but if that fear is present it can have a very dramatic effect on the chemicals in our bodies. At its very worst level it can actually cause us to pass out. Most people have heard of the survival instincts 'fight or flight', but when our options become so closed we can literally shut down. Its a pretty awful place to be but unfortunately for many trainers they seek this as their goal when looking to resolve behavoural problems. We've all seen how Ceasar Millan works with his so called red zone dogs, well now you understand how his method works, and hopefully you would never want to put your dog in that place. You can read more about this here.
The following week I asked Apollos owner why she thought her dog was so nervous. She looked so sad as she gazed to the floor, and said 'because I am'.
I knew she was going to say that. I smiled and said no, that is not the reason.
That's what the vets told you though, isn't it. She said yes. I then said to her, your dog is not nervous because you are nervous. Your last dog wasn't nervous though, was he? No she said. I thin said to her: Your dog is nervous because he is a collie. I'm not going to go into the respective breed traits but there is more on this here, but this poor woman had been made to feel so bad about herself by others who thought they knew better that it was becoming hugely damaging to their relationship. Her face lit up, she smiled and with that extra confidence her dog felt more confident to look to her for support.
Dogs draw a great deal of information from our faces. When our friends smile at us, we take that as a sign of reassurance. They are happy and relaxed, and everyone wants to be surrounded by happy people. If you want your dog to want to hang out with you, don't forget to smile when you call him.
Spot the dog's story...
This is perhaps my most interesting dog to date. Spot's name has been changed here, but she is a little lurcher who was rescued from a farm when the farmer died and rehomed in a nearby semi urban environment. She was found living in a barn with other dogs of similar type. She came into class, and her owner said that she was very reactive to cats, some other people and was fearful of many different everyday occurrences. She had been treated for meningitis and was mildly deformed in her hind legs but happy to run and it soon became quite clear the meningitis had not affected her brain, she was a very clever little dog. She generally got on well with other dogs and lives with another dog.
She didn't seem to bad the first day, but on the second week she showed me a much more wary dog. I worked to make a lot of space for her and was very glad that she liked her food. I asked her dad to walk her over some ground poles, and she found this exercise very difficult at first, but gently gently step by step she progressed down the line. As soon as she's achieved our goal, her dad made a huge fuss of her and her little face lit up. Suddenly she could not wait to do the same again.
At the same time, suddenly my presence seemed to become far less of a worry for her, her whole body seemed to relax in an instant.
At the farm where she lived her whole past life until being rescued, she never saw other people. She was not kept as pet, she had a job and she knew how to do her job. No doubt at all she was very good at her job and enjoyed the achievement she derived from catching rats and rabbits and other vermin that the farmer needed rid of.
Now she found herself in a completely alien environment whereby she didn't have a job. She didn't know how to live this life or what was expected of her. She didn't know how to cope with all the strange people and things in her new world. She just knew the barn, the fields, the other dogs she lived with and how to catch vermin. She saw things that looked like vermin (cats) in her everyday life but instead of being allowed to go and hunt it as she knew how to do and was very good at, she was restrained and told no.
Unfortunately her owners work patterns were such that they felt it would not be possible to stop taking her out on walks for any period of time so I could not give them the training plan I would have liked to but we did find that looking to give her a puzzle a day to solve for herself helped give her a little bit more self confidence and a sense of achievement and purpose in her world.