Sometimes what our pet dogs were originally bred for can make some aspects of modern life within the confines of a house hard for them.
Border Collie, Ben, is one such dog. From the first time their baby granddaughter came into their house the very friendly, well-socialised dog became extremely agitated. Now that she’s a toddler he is even more distressed.
He whines and paces around her, he pants and sometimes barks and they feel might nip her if he got the chance. In addition to what seems like a version of herding behaviour when in her presence, he continues to whine and stress all the time she is in the house, even when he’s shut somewhere else. It’s like he is obsessed with her. Obviously they are never left alone. The little girl is unfazed and their other Collie, one-year-old Molly, loves her.
Sitting with the two very friendly and relaxed dogs who had calmed down after their wonderful welcome of me, it was hard to believe that six-year-old Ben could be any different, until they tuned into an animal programme on the TV.
At the sight or sound of an animal Ben whines and runs about. He paces and crouches. He will then get into more of a frenzy and lunge and bark at the TV. I saw this for myself.
I started to work with him with the TV on and instead of the usual trying to stop the behaviour, I concentrated on showing him what he could be doing instead each time he looked at the animal. He reacted calmly for a couple of minutes or so before becoming aroused, not helped by Molly who was now joining in by barking at Ben.
It was obvious that they will need to put Molly behind a gate and work in very short sessions with Ben. They will start by making things as easy as possible, maybe the TV on mute or an animal image paused. They can slowly, over time, build up from there.
What is interesting is that the dog acts in such a similar way with the little girl. They can be using much the same sort of approach around the child as they do around the TV.
They will do repeated very short sessions.
I deliberately don’t describe exactly what we did because the specific strategies may not work in all cases and if wrongly interpreted may make matters worse.
Molly must be out-of-the-way and they can start when it’s easiest on Ben – when the child is sitting still in her high chair (they can’t sit her in front of the TV of course, because an animal may come on!). One grandparent can be with the child and the other bring Ben in on a long and loose lead, attached to a harness, so they have complete control over him all the time and so that he’s comfortable also.
Gradually, as Ben settles, they can have the child walking about, holding one grandparent’s hand while the other grandparent works with Ben.
Interestingly he’s only like this with the child when they are indoors. Out in the garden or off lead on a walk, he takes no notice of her.
There is one other big thing that I feel majorly affects Ben’s anxiety and stress around the TV and the baby, and this is both dogs’ lack of self-control. When they go for a walk, there is frantic and excited barking – to see who can rush out through the door first. Multiple commands go on deaf ears. Molly also is a big jumper at people. Again, commands do no good.
So, before they get to work on TV and baby, a calmer, more controlled environment needs to be created. With patience, the dogs will learn that the back door isn’t opened until both of them are quiet and hang back a bit – and this need not be done using commands at all. At present their noise and jumping is rewarded with the back door being opened. It now simply has to be the opposite!
All this arousal needs to be reduced in order that Ben’s stress levels are as low as possible before they embark on their work with him. Getting the background stuff in place can initially seem a lot for people to do, but these things have to be put established first so that they can make good progress with the lovely, friendly Ben.
They need also to work on doggy ‘remote control’! In addition to coming immediately away from something when asked, both dogs should also be trained to go to a bed or mat when asked so they can be sent away to settle down if necessary.
It would be great if, one day, the little girl could be watching the TV with both dogs lying peacefully on the floor nearby or in their settle places. Border Collies are so clever and trainable that with hard work and patience they should get there in the end.