Border Terrier Willow is a little subdued at homeLittle Willow is four years old, and has been in her new home for seven months. She is exceptionally small for a Border Terrier. Just imagine seeing this tiny dog out on a walk, pulling on a short lead, being constantly corrected, and wearing a muzzle along with an electric collar. This isn’t because her owners don’t love her – it’s because they are doing the best they know how and are at their wit’s end over her aggression towards other dogs.

At home Willow is angelic – but a bit too quiet in my mind. She seems subdued and with little enthusiasm. It’s like she’s being careful. She constantly lifts her paws and licks her lips.

It is unusual that I feel owners of small dogs in particular are overdoing ‘leadership’, but I feel that in doing their very best with Willow they are using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut. They are avid followers of a certain TV dog gentleman. People think that because he’s on TV and charismatic, what he says must be right. It’s all about dominance and who is ‘boss’, not about reward and encouragement. They have been told to rebuff all friendly approaches by her. Whilst it’s not good to always obey a dog’s every wish for attention, there is a happy balance. These old-fashioned notions were reinforced at dog training classes they attended where Willow would bark at other dogs, obviously extremely stressed, and when spraying water at her didn’t work they were told to pin her down. Why didn’t a so-called ‘dog-training professional’ try to understand why Willow was behaving in this manner instead of using force? Fortunately the owners have been uneasy with this and, seeing Willow getting worse rather than better, realise that their tactics are simply not working.

The problem is that when our dog’s behaviour really annoys or bothers us, our own behaviour is suspect. We do whatever works most quickly and gives the best immediate result. The more exasperating the dog’s behaviour, the more concerned we become. Hence shock collars, citronella collars, pinning down etc. Unfortunately these things don’t work well in the long run. The best long-term results come from strategies that work slowly, requiring patience and encouragement. The ‘fallout’ from bullying methods is well documented. Whenever the dog becomes acclimatised to a certain level it has to be increased in order to keep working. The dog probably doesn’t really understand where the punishment comes from or why. Where does it lead? Some dogs end up by shutting down completely. Others may even turn on the source of their suffering.

Fortunately Willow’s owners had already begun to ‘see the light’ which is why they called me.

Email a week or so later: “Good to see Willow appearing more relaxed and definitely more playful within a week of starting this plan”. Six weeks in: I visited little Border Terrier Willow again today. The best news is she is that with encouragement and rewards she is a lot more trusting and cheerful at home. Progressing into the outside world is slow, but the young couple are working very hard and she now walks beautifully on a loose lead in the garden and around the garage area. Beyond there she still has a meltdown at any noise or person, let alone a dog. We have a plan to desensitise her a bit faster, and that is to have sessions that aren’t walks at all – for them to pick her up and carry her around their quiet housing estate (carrying a dog is something I have never advised before). Willow can then get a bit more used to sounds like doors closing and distant dogs barking, and to cars and people – but held safely in their arms and maybe even inside their jacket also. She still just feels far too vulnerable on the end of a lead. It’s Catch 22, if she isn’t exposed to things she never will get used to them, but when she is exposed to them it sets he back because she panics.