Young chocolate labradorTilly was picked up from a barn in Wales six days ago. She is the most beautiful two-year-old Chocolate Labrador that you can imagine, beautiful both in looks and in temperament.

Although she has had very little contact with the ‘real world’, if it were a puppy farming outfit then surely they wouldn’t have kept her until she’s two, unspayed, without having bred from her. I feel she hasn’t been ill-treated, but apparently never taken beyond the confines of the barn where she was living with a few other dogs, and the woods behind.

She wore no collar and it seems she’s not been on lead before. That she survived the long journey home from Wales without total panic says a lot for her temperament. She has been plunged into a totally different world, a world of houses, streets, doors, machinery, people and different dogs. Even little sounds like the fridge clicking on and off alarm her.

Their first and most pressing problem is that Tilly has never been all alone. She’s always had the company of the other dogs. They tried leaving her in the kitchen the first night and she howled and barked so much that the lady came and slept downstairs with her. After speaking to me a couple of days ago, they now have her upstairs in the bedroom, on her own bed on the floor.

If the lady eventually wants to have her sleeping away from the bedroom, then she shouldn’t fuss and give Tilly attention when she is in there. She needs to be weaned gently away from constant contact, particularly with the lady who she has already grown very attached to.

Over time the bed can be moved onto the landing, and eventually back to the kitchen – the same place where Tilly is left when they go out.

With plenty of ‘separation’ work over the next few weeks, Tilly should soon be happy left for a couple of hours in the kitchen. First, however, she needs to be happy with a door shut on her and the person out of the room for just a couple of minutes.

Even with the shortest absence the departure should be associated with something nice – food in the case of a Labrador!

This brings me onto food and ‘hand-feeding’. Hand-feeding doesn’t mean pandering to a dog and treating her like a princess. In the case of a dog that needs a lot of desensitising and counter conditioning around things that make her fearful, the food can be used as a sort of tool. It can also be scattered on the floor. Foraging and searching is incompatible with spooking or barking.

Why put all her food in a bowl to be scoffed in half a minute when it can be spread throughout the day, helping her to get used to situations where she currently feels unsafe?

Eventually the hand-feeding can be dropped as she gets used to things.

Here is one little example. I went upstairs and Tilly is scared of the sound of feet on the stairs, particularly coming down. As I walked back into the room Tilly was quiet and I could see that the couple were feeding her, unprompted.

Although she lived with certain dogs, Tilly quite obviously hasn’t met different dogs. On walks she is very reactive – and to people – so she will growl, bark and lunge on the lead which is attached to her new collar, most likely the only way she knows of trying to drive them away. For the first time in her life she will be trapped on a lead – making her feel even more unsafe. This discomfort to her neck will be having the very opposite effect to what we are aiming to achieve with the hand-feeding.

When approaching something their dog is reactive to, a human’s common reaction is to tighten the lead or hang onto the dog’s collar while the ‘danger’ gets nearer and nearer until it has passed by. This, in my mind, is the very opposite to what they should be doing unless caught out in an emergency. They need to immediately move to a distance the dog feels safe, keep the lead long and loose so she feels ‘free’, and then work hard with the hand-feeding, scattering or play.

If a Labrador won’t eat, then they are still too close!

It goes against the grain for most humans to turn around and go back the way they have come or even to escape from a situation that’s not helping the dog as it’s like ‘giving in’. To them, a walk is more about getting from A to B and being boss, less about the journey. Old-fashioned dominance and force methods die hard, not aided by one or two TV trainers.

That was a general comment – Tilly’s people immediately caught on to my approach. In fact, they had made gentle progress already in these first six days. They wouldn’t dream of being anything but kind to her. Now that they have more tools, they realise that comforting her when too near a dog or person won’t work when distance is what Tilly needs.

They realise that helping Tilly to catch up with the world outside a barn in Wales could take a long time.

Lucky Tilly.

Six weeks later: ‘We’ve made huge strides lately & with fingers crossed turned a corner……….she now can stay in the kitchen up to 4 hours without causing damage…….Your help has been pivotal at times so thankyou for your help. We will be in touch if we come across an issue that flummoxes us.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Tilly. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).