The importance of consistency.
I sat with the family – parents with late-teens son and daughter – and their dear little Tibetan Terrier, Archie.
My first question was, as always, ‘What would you like to achieve from my help?’ The answer was for Archie to be more relaxed around other dogs and to be trusted to come back when called.
Exactly the same aim as so many people I go to.
This sounds simple and straightforward but it isn’t. It’s unlikely to be just a question of going out on a few walks with someone. For a dog to be relaxed around other dogs he must feel safe and this has a lot to do with his relationship with his humans.
Poor Archie was attacked by two dogs a couple of months which has not only upset Archie but it’s really shaken the lady who had him at the time.
In order to feel safe the dog should not feel trapped and helpless on the end of a tight lead, particularly one attached uncomfortably to a collar, held by someone he may not completely trust to keep him safe (in his mind). In order not to feel trapped he should learn to walk in a more relaxed fashion on a loose lead. In order to walk on a loose lead he should no longer expect to make progress when the lead is tight; in order to walk on a loose lead he shouldn’t be too excited before starting out. In order to trust his humans when out, they themselves need to be confident; they need to show him who protects him and motivates him back at home.
In order for him to come when called when off lead, he must take notice of them at home and reliably come when called around the house and in from the garden etc. etc. Each family member must be consistent.
It’s anything but simple.
It’s great to go to a family where all four members pull together with a walking rota. Archie gets two walks a day.
For a plan to work, each walker must have the same walking system. Each needs to wait for calm before leaving. Each needs to use the same technique for teaching loose lead walking. Each needs to react in exactly the same way when Archie sees a dog – he alerts, he may pull and then he drops down flat. It’s vital none of them use force.
Each should give Archie their full attention for that twenty minutes and not be occupied with something else like a phone.
A ‘walk’ now mean something different.
Walks will occupy the same amount of time as before but no longer go from A to B. It will be about the journey, not the destination. So what if the dog wants to sniff for five minutes? Whose walk is it? A dog that is pulling with a walker who is in a rush is bound to be reactive to things. A dog having a relaxed sniff walk on a loose lead with someone who is relaxed is much more likely to walk past other dogs without a reaction.
It was fun to see the family begin to see why Archie actually does things – what functions his actions have for him. Why does he jump up? It gets him the attention he wants. Why does he run off with a sock? It starts a game. Why does he pull on lead? It gets him somewhere. Why does he bark at people who walk past? It chases them away. Why does he keep scratching at the door? It makes someone get up.
He can learn that something they prefer will give him the same result. Sitting and not jumping will get attention. Stealing a sock gets ignored but a toy may start a game. Pulling on lead will get him nowhere, but a loose lead will. Scratching the door doesn’t get him let out, but sitting politely may and so on.
Why does Archie sometimes get cross when made to go out at night? Because gentle force is used and there is nothing in it for him. He will happily do as asked when they work on his ‘coming when called’ routine at home, using food.
Getting him to earn some of some of his food (and that doesn’t mean commercial rubbish treats or anything large that fills him up, but tiny bits of real food) is a recipe for a motivated and happy dog.
This brings us back to his mild reactivity to some dogs when out on walks. Whatever he is doing, whether it is dropping down, pulling to the dog or barking at it, he does it because it has a function for him, probably that of keeping the dog at a greater distance – or giving himself some control at the very least, particularly if he’s being held close on a tight lead.
What if he was given something more acceptable to do that provided the same function? Turning to look at the handler for instance? Or perhaps standing still and not lying down? Or looking away from the other dog and down at the ground to forage for food? The handler should be sufficiently on the ball to sense the distance t which Archie has clocked the dog but isn’t yet reacting.
Archie would learn that the alternative behaviour would be grant him his wish, that of increasing distance, whilst associating the other dog with something positive and nice.
Another reason they should be alert is that sometimes Archie, depending upon his mood and upon the dog, may ignore it and walk past. Other times he may want to play. The response has to be appropriate to the occasion and well-timed, and this takes practice.
I would err on the safe side in favour of too much distance rather than too little.
Sadly, when your dog has been attacked and injured by another dog that has just appeared, off-lead, out of the blue, walks may never be quite so enjoyable again.