Distraction or Counter-Conditioning? Look – A Dog!

Distraction isn't helping Distraction is helpful if the dog is taken by surprise. Distraction however doesn’t help him to cope with the appearance of another dog.

Oaky is a sensitive little Border Terrier. He has lived with the lady for a couple of years and not too much is known about his past. A perfect dog in his loving home, the lady isn’t enjoying her walks with him due to his barking and pulling towards any other dog he sees.

Anxious and embarrassed

Oaky wears a half-check collar. The lady pulls him to the side and holds onto him tightly as the dog passes. She may say ‘Watch Me’ as a distraction. She admits to feeling both anxious and embarrassed; he will doubtless feel this down the lead to his sensitive neck. Continue reading…

Little Dogs. Treat as Big Dogs?

Most people who choose little dogs treat them very differently to how people usually treat bigger dogs, carrying them everywhere and keeping them closely on lead – but not so the couple I went to last night.

Daisy

Daisy

Little dogs are ‘proper dogs’.

Their two little dogs, tiny Chihuahua Jack Russell mixes, have deliberately been given the same ‘proper dog’ life as larger dogs in every way possible.

Surrounded by love and care, they have been kindly trained to do the important things like come back when called and to wait. Twice a day the lady takes them somewhere by car so they can run free. The little dogs are seldom carried.

Although both Daisy and Poppy are fourteen months of age, they came from different places. Poppy, the smaller of the two, is much more robust mentally. Daisy is more nervous, easily upset, and it’s for her that I was called out.

Both little dogs get on very well apart from the occasional pop when Daisy gets over-aroused and redirects onto Poppy. Daisy’s general arousal and stress levels are something we will be working on.

They called me in with the aim for Daisy ‘not to react aggressively to dogs that came too close to her’.

Why should little dogs not object to their personal space being invaded?

Upon discussion, I feel that it is totally acceptable for Daisy to tell another dog – a dog that will probably be a lot larger than herself – to keep its distance. She ignores dogs unless they are in her face, it’s the same with young children, and that is the end game many people would be happy to achieve.

This is where treating little dogs exactly the same as big dogs falls down.

Little dogs and big dogs aren’t the same. Little dogs are a lot more vulnerable. Just imagine what the world and other dogs must look like through their eyes! Anything approaching would loom. Just imagine also how little dogs may appear to a big dog, particularly a dog of a hunting breed.

Twice a day the two little dogs are taken, by car, to a large open park or to the woods. Both come back when called and, always off lead, they have plenty of freedom. Daisy in particular stays close. Of late, the more nervous Daisy has shown reluctance to go for the second walk but that’s okay, the lady allows her choice – she also allows her choice if she doesn’t want to get out of the car the other end. I love that, but why the reluctance in the first place?

I’m sure Daisy is torn between loving the walk and feeling unsafe. Once a day is enough for her at present.

If the lady is anywhere she can’t see other dogs coming, she is taking a risk.

Little dogs on the beach

On the beach

A short while ago the two little dogs were chased by a Rottweiler and another big dog that suddenly appeared out of the trees. The Rottie was after the braver Poppy who, when she eventually came back, leapt into the lady’s arms terrified, urinating and shaking. She may have been lucky.

They talked to their vet about Daisy’s attitude to other dogs. The advice given? Not to pick her up because she may then become protective of the lady!

How ridiculous in this context.

Just as behaviourists are not vets and I would always refer for anything medical, few vets are experienced, up-to-date behaviourists and often give outdated advice or may not have had time to see the whole picture.

The two aspects we are concentrating on are Daisy’s general stress levels and confidence, and making sure she feels safe on walks. This means doing things just a bit differently. It means choosing locations carefully.

Making sure the little dogs not only feel safe on walks but are actually safer too means regularly calling them back even if there is no other dog about so the two things are not associated. It means regularly picking one or other dog up and getting her used to being carried for a short distance, regardless of the approach of another dog.crisis. Why?

Little dogs simply are not big dogs and they have to be protected

The owner needs to be the little dogs’ safety net and trusted always to keep them safe. If, then, a big dog approaches, Daisy can opt to jump into the lady’s arms – better than simply scooping her up unless in emergency. If she knows she has backup, she may feel less need to defend herself anyway.

Little dogs in the mirror

Who are those dogs in the mirror?

See this lovely video ‘Small Dog Syndrome‘ from Steve Mann with his own little dog, a Chihuahua.

The lady will watch Daisy’s body language carefully and keep sufficient distance between her and other dogs. She can be assertive with other owners and parents of young children. She already has a yellow top for herself that says ‘My dog needs space’. I suggest one for Daisy too – ‘I need space’.

If the other dog leaves her alone, Daisy is chilled. She can even sit within a couple of feet of a dog she doesn’t know if the lady stops to chat, so long as it leaves her alone. What more can we ask for?

Would we like a giant stranger looming over us and putting his scary face right into our own? No. He would deserve a complaint if not a slap. We ask a lot of our dogs.

So, we have changed the aim of my visit from ‘For Daisy not to react aggressively to dogs that came too close to her’ to ‘Helping Daisy to feel safe when other dogs get too close’.

Little Daisy will then trust the lady to keep her safe and I’m sure she will soon be happily choosing to go out for the second walk.

 

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 the little dogs Daisy and Poppy and I’ve not gone into exact precise details for that reason. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)

From Street Dogs to Pets

Rocky and Flossie were born on the streets in a small coastal town in BulgaDogs from streets of Kavanaria around two years ago from mothers also born on the streets. For the past year or so they have lived in a house with a couple who have done remarkably well with them, transforming them from street dogs to settled house dogs.

The one respect in which they are, if anything, getting worse is when out on walks and particularly when encountering other dogs.

Outside the house – more their natural habitat one might think – they are finding things harder.

Initially there were no problems with other dogs. When picked up they had no scars or evidence of fighting and they had lived happily and free around the other street dogs. Now when they encounter a dog, Rocky in particular is scared and Flossie is getting worse. Rocky shrinks and lowers himself and as they get nearer he resorts to lunging and barking, not wanting the other dog to get any closer.

This is where humans need to start thinking ‘dog’. It really doesn’t matter whether a destination is reached, it’s about the journey. What does matter is that they mimic as closely as possible what a free dog would do to feel safe. If the dog wants to increase distance then that’s what must happen. It could mean turning around. For now it could mean avoiding narrow passages and taking different routes. It could in some cases mean starting walks with a car journey to somewhere appropriate and safe.

In his past life, unleashed, Rocky could have chosen to turn and go the other way.  Both dogs would have had free choice as to whether to interact with other dogs or not. Now Flossie and Rocky are, necessarily, trapped on the end of leashes even when away from the roads. If let off lead, Rocky will take himself off for an hour or two and Flossie may well go home.

The lady in particular is finding walking the dogs increasingly nerve-wracking. She is afraid Rocky in particular might harm another dog.

There are three elements we discussed to help these two lovely dogs. The first is, when they are out, for them to feel as free and comfortable as possible. From having no restriction at all they are now on the end of retractable leads which, by the very way they work, always have tension. They thankfully wear harnesses but even these could be more comfortable.

The next thing is that the dogs need to be walked separately for a while because each needs full attention and their ways of reacting aren’t the same so they could well be firing one another up.

Thirdly, their reactivity needs to be worked on – carefully. Avoiding dogs altogether will get them nowhere, but even worse is to push them too close, beyond their comfort threshold so that they feel forced to defend themselves. The human at the end of the lead, watching their own dog carefully and increasing distance the instant there is any sign of discomfort or fear will, over time, build up trust. If Rocky knows he’s being ‘listened to’ then he should gradually dare go a bit closer.

Now desensitisation can begin. The appearance of another dog can start to be associated with good things like scattered food – but from a ‘safe’ distance.

When the dogs are in open places they are currently restricted on the end of just ten feet or so of retractable lead. They could be on 15 metre long, loose training lines, able to run, sniff and explore. If an off-lead dog does happen to run up, whilst escape strategies have been discussed, the dog should feel he has some choice. On the end of long lines their recall can really be worked on.

Both dogs are understandably nervous of new things, certain sudden sounds and people who look ‘different’. The best tool to change this is for every single time either Rocky or Flossie encounters something even slightly scary or anxious-making, something good should happen. This can be food or fun – the more rewarding to the dog the better.

Helping the dogs to feel safe is the priority. It’s the most important thing – more important to them than food even. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t be interested in food. Right from puppyhood these two would have been free to follow their instincts in order to keep themselves safe. In their new life, because trapped in effect, they need total trust in their humans to keep them safe instead.

So much of the stuff I normally advise is already in place for these dogs at home including a perfect diet and kind, positive training techniques from caring and knowledgeable people. It will be great when (and it will take as long as it take), the walks become relaxed and enjoyable too.