A short while ago I received an email out of the blue from the owner of a young female Collie-cross dog called Carla who I had seen for behaviour counselling 12 years before.
“Hi Kendal, I don’t know if you will see this message but thought of you and Gwen* the other day and all the help and advice you gave me when Carla was a puppy 😊I’m eternally grateful for everything you did to help and thought I’d send a short note to say Carla will be 12 at the end of this month. A happy, healthy, slow old lady now who is generally well behaved and we learnt how to manage her quirkiness. ❤️ love Jackie xxx”
Carla was then under a year old and, as described in my report, was at the time chronically fearful and potentially aggressive towards people she didn’t know, particularly men. She had also nipped the family’s then then five-year-old daughter Charlie which was of great concern.
I do not generally give owners a step-by-step behaviour programme to work though as I find this approach leads to the assumption that at some point the ‘training’ comes to an end. In fact, I have become rather frustrated whenever I have been asked in court by a presiding judge or magistrate how long training and behaviour modification will take. The assumption (created by the very term ‘training programme’ is that the essential ingredients of a) consistency on the part of the owners and b) appropriate learning on the part of the dog need only occur over a finite length of time, over weeks or months, and the ‘programme’, like a course of antibiotics, come to an end. In reality we should be creating life-long habits upon which the dog can come to depend with confidence.
The advice I gave for Carla was divided into ‘General principles’ to help correct any misconceptions owners may have about dogs in general and Carla specifically, and ‘Practical measures’ to be taken as routine in certain contexts. The general principles included: dispelling the dominance myth and reinterpreting Carla’s body language using the Ladder of Aggression; explaining that obedience commands were simply the way of giving a dog the information it needs in order to decide what to do; that the best way to give such information is by positive reinforcement and reward to keep a dog in a positive motional state; and that potential problem situations should be routinely predicted and pre-empted before Carla reacted in a potentially aggressive way.
‘Practical measures’ included: to think of a ‘sit’ being Carla’s version of ‘please’; the demonstration of clicker training as a means of demonstrating approval; muzzle training; that all interaction with Charlie were to be supervised with strict instructions to Charlie not to hug or cuddle her; using stair gates for separation at other times; and giving Carla approval for simply doing nothing rather than expecting her to earn her reward by doing something active.
Of great importance was to address her behaviour with strangers and visitors. This is a quote from her report:
“All dogs are driven to investigate strangers and make ‘friend or foe’ decisions about them. Our assumption that all greeting behaviour is ‘friendliness’ and a request for physical attention is one of our biggest mistakes. All any dog is asking for is that nothing threatens them at such times and that they do not intend to threaten in return. This puts a frightened dog like Carla into an extreme ‘approach-avoidance’ dilemma and conflict, which most of the time she attempts to resolve by darting to and fro and barking. All visitors (big or small) must ignore her completely (tell people to turn away and keep arms folded or hands in pockets to avoid temptation for stroking) however much she may appear even to want them to pay her attention. This must continue for the foreseeable future, regardless of apparent improvement if Carla is to eventually believe that the world does not want to look at her. If people will not obey your instructions absolutely, keep Carla safely away from them.”
“I stress ‘habit’ as there will not be a finite end to your way to managing her and your means of communication with her. Consistency and continuity are key.”
On thanking the owner, Jackie, for getting in touch, she replied:
“Charlie is now 17 where does time go? She and Carla are inseparable. She even has her brother’s old downstairs bedroom so that Carla has company as we don’t allow her upstairs now that’s she’s old and wobbly on her back legs.
“Carla even poses for Charlie’s photos as Charlie loves photography and adores Carla. I’ve attached a photo of them.
“My granddaughter is now 4 and she and Carla are best of friends too. Carla makes friends quickly now. We have remained vigilant and are strict with how people greet her and still have stair gates between rooms. It’s all a habit to be honest. We worked with her quirky ness and love and patience paid off."
However competent we may appear to be on the outside, owners are perhaps not aware of how much ‘good news’ means to us as vets and behaviour counsellors. The thought that the advice given has now successfully extended to a second generation of children was for me particularly satisfying. It is so often only the complaints when things do not go according to plan that we hear about and, although having to be satisfied with the old adage ‘No news is good news’, it is sometimes hard to remain convinced. But, as with all positive feedback and appreciation, a little good news, particularly in these uncertain times, can transform an otherwise dull and gloomy day. It certainly did mine.