Behaviour change. Erratic. Staring. Upset or Unwell?

Maybe it wasn’t such a sudden behaviour change after all. Perhaps there were already signs.

Earlier when we spoke on the phone I heard this story:

Sudden behaviour changeIt began about three months ago. Ambrose was spending hours just sitting and staring. Continue reading…

Chasing Shadows and Lights

Bichon Frise looking for shadows

Looking at the wall for shadows

It’s really strange how it all started.  They have had the little Bichon Frise for just a few weeks – he came over from Ireland with an unknown past – and the young lady quite unwittingly bought him a laser light thinking that he would enjoy chasing it.

Just a few minutes triggered something in the adorable and affectionate Buddy that has been unstoppable since.

The slightest shadow or reflection starts him off, as even do flying birds. On a walk recently some swallows swooping about overhead had him leaping about and barking frantically.

The behaviour seems to be triggered by stress and excitement as well as any actual shadow or light. When I was there, someone coming back into the room was enough to start him off again. If there is no shadow to see, the young dog will look for it.

It follows a three-stage sequence which starts with Buddy prowling about, his eyes up at the walls. Next he becomes more agitated, to the extent that by now he is deaf to any calling or distractions. Finally he erupts into a wild fit of barking, charging about from room to room and now it’s hard to catch him.

They have tried everything they can think of including putting him in another room which seems to settle him.

This is particularly hard to deal with, mainly because with most behaviours that we want to eliminate we arrange the environment so the dog has less opportunity to rehearse them. In this case the shadows may not actually exist in order for him to start fixating.

It was evident early in our meeting, by listening to the lovely family and watching the little dog, that he spends much of his life far too aroused. They feel that he was probably neglected in the past and bless them they are doing all they can to compensate for this now. They feel guilty when they leave him alone so make a big issue of their comings and goings. He has more or less constant attention. He may have four walks a day, one possibly for as long as an hour and a half.

When he gets home from walks he can be in a hyper state which tells me that the walk hasn’t really done what it’s meant to do. Over-exercise and stimulation is possibly little better than too little.

They have had him for three months now and want to make his life as fun as possible, so, like many people, they stir their dog up intentionally in the belief that exciting him is the way to make him happy.

I suspect that everything is simply too much. Probably the contrast with his former life is also simply too much also.

Our approach is to tone down everything. Lower, softer voices, gentler petting, no deliberately exciting him before going out, short and calmer walks where he can do a lot of sniffing.

Play should be careful. At present it’s far too exciting. He grabs something and ‘loves to be chased about’. Toys and balls are thrown for him to run after which can simply be fuelling his fixation with moving things. We looked at calm games that will exercise his mind like hunting and foraging.

We did some gentle clicker training, the aim being to get him to touch a hand – a way of calling him away from shadows before he gets stuck in. Using a clicker, we also marked and rewarded him each time he chose to take a break from looking about, before he got too carried away. There may be other things he can be taught to do that are incompatible with chasing shadows – like settling somewhere or looking away at something else instead.

The environment needs to be made as helpful as possible. If doors are shut he can do less charging about when he’s in a frenzy. If he’s less stimulated by letters coming through the door and so on, there will be fewer triggers.

Finally they need to step in a lot sooner than they have when taking him out of the situation to calm down. The ‘quiet room’ is a room where he’s happy to be alone – a spare bedroom. It can be dark, with soft music especially produced for calming dogs.

It’s sad when everything has been done to give him a great life by his new family that it’s backfired on them so badly. Over-exciting him hadn’t occurred to them as part of the problem.

It’s very possible that the laser light merely woke a latent behaviour in him that he had done in his previous life. We will never know. I am convinced the key is to get him calmer and more relaxed on all counts which means that his humans must be calmer and quieter around him too.

Each shadow-chasing dog does it his own way, so I don’t go into complete detail here as to our approach. Anyone with a dog who fixates needs professional help. A clicker isn’t a magic tool, it’s just a bit of plastic. It’s worse than useless unless used properly.

It would be a good idea if these laser lights sold in pet shops for cats, came with a written health warning.

Cocker Spaniel a Naughty Dog?

Yesterday I visited a 9-month-old Cocker Spaniel called Willow.  Wonderful!  My own irrepressible Cocker Spaniel, Pickle, has given me some good practice.

Here is a list of things Willow does: Jumping up on people, excessive licking of people’s faces, jumping at the table and sides, barking (answering) back when told off, too much noise generally, steaCocker Spaniel Willow's white tailling any items she can get hold of and running off with them, leading the lady a merry dance and getting cross when cornered, humping people, fixating and barking at certain objects, jumping over people and furniture, racing at speed round and round the room and growling when eventually caught and restrained, shoving toys at her people to make them play with her, pulling on lead and, finally, chasing the cat. Oh – and running back to the car on walks.

All this may sound amusing to read, but it can be exasperating and has reduced the poor lady to tears and it’s no wonder she thinks Willow is just a naughty dog.Bored Cocker Willow does everything she can think of to get attention

Willow really is adorable as you can see – and see the white tail? She is a soft, affectionate little girl, However, two or three walks where she’s encouraged to keep moving and not sniff too much, just isn’t sufficient for her. She is not a naughty dog. She is a BORED dog.

The family is on the back foot, trying to ‘field’ the things that Willow throws at them rather than themselves being proactive. She is a clever, working dog with insufficient appropriate stimulation so she is constantly finding ways to fulfil herself. She spends quite bit of time in the ‘naughty’ room.

‘No’ is a much used word.  In the three hours I was there we consistently looked for ways of saying ‘Yes’, and rewarding her with food. The lady was becoming really good at looking for the good rather than the bad and Willow was getting the message, becoming really focussed.

It is only fair on a dog to let her know what you don’t want in a language she really understands. ‘No’ and ‘Get Down’ or pushing are very confusing messages when the dog wants attention, because they ARE attention.

If a dog is jumping all over me I consider how another dog would make his feeling clear to a bouncy adolescent. Would not a stable dog look away, turn away, maybe tip her off and walk away? The other dog would probably signal when he saw her coming, making his feelings clear from the start. Showing the behaviour isn’t wanted is only part of the exercise. Just as importantly we then need to follow-up by showing her just what we do want. If it’s ‘feet on the floor’ we want, then that is when she gets the attention.

Giving Willow a more fulfilled life requires being creative and offering alternative incompatible behaviours instead of scolding or ‘no’, and constantly reinforcing the desired behaviours. They will need to go cold turkey on the barking for attention whilst scheduling into the day the sort of activities that satisfy her canine Spaniel instincts – mostly nose-based. She needs plenty to keep her busy. When the family want to watch TV in peace, they need to instigate short bursts of activity themselves – during the advert breaks perhaps. She could have a hunting game, training games, a short ‘sniff’ walk around the block or a toy or chew kept aside especially.

Gradually, over time and with the help of food rewards, Willow will be looking for ways to get attention by pleasing them.  A different mindset for owners – looking for the good instead of the bad – can really help.

It’s the next day and I have just received this email: ‘We found all you said made absolute sense and we are now looking at interacting with Willow with fresh eyes.  Some things are so obvious it is almost embarrassing to have not realised it! Today we went for a couple of walks and it was so much more relaxed letting Willow do as much sniffing as she wanted rather than thinking she shouldn’t be doing it and trying to get her to walk on.  Also, I did as advised re meal times and she ate the meals!  Amazing! We have bought her a Stagbar and some other toys for playing with in the evening.  At the moment she is lying quieting asleep – perhaps dreaming of the fun day she’s had today! There is obviously a lot of work to do and reinforce but I feel much more confident and relaxed’!
And four weeks after my visit: ‘The advice you gave us has been invaluable and has changed so many things we were doing with Willow and have already seen some good improvement’.
Here is a message eighteen months after I met Willow: I now know we go for ‘smells’ rather than ‘walks’! What I have discovered in the last two years, is what an amazingly intelligent and quick learner she is! She is still challenging sometimes, but we try to preempt her e.g. Making sure we don’t leave dining chairs pulled out otherwise she gets up on the dining table too! Willow and I are still ‘learning’ but it’s been so much fun!

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Willow, which is why I don’t go into all exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs 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).

Obsessing Over Shadows. It’s a Dog’s Life – or Maybe Not

Border Collie Fudge on the left spends much of her time facing the wall obsessing over shadows

Fudge

I regularly go to see Border Collies who are so very unfulfilled in what they have been bred for – herding and stalking – that they substitute sheep with shadows, lights, joggers, traffic, children or anything that moves.

These two are both much-loved rescue dogs.

Obsessing over shadows

Two-year-old Fudge on the left spends much of her time facing the wall obsessing over shadows. Gemma (3) will be ready to fixate on anything that may be thrown for her, but most particularly the TV.

I suppose that watching TV is better than nothing – and they do have special ‘Dog TV’ in the States – but it seems a rather unhealthy alternative to the real thing and proper mental and physical stimulation.

Gemma is fearful of people approaching her

Gemma

Gemma is also fearful of many things, particularly people walking towards her. She has snapped or bitten several times when a hand has come towards her head.

As the days are now so short, both dogs only have a short morning session off lead in a dark field before school, and that is that for the day. They are left alone for nine hours most days while the family are out. Fudge chews things which I feel is simply about boredom.

High intelligence and trainability

It’s not by chance that many dog trainers have Border Collies for their high intelligence and trainability. They can include them in their work thus keeping them occupied most of the day. The poor ‘pet’ Border Collies with little to do must be going out of their minds and this often results in obsessive behaviours like shadow-chasing. Everyone in this household is so busy that all the dog-care is left to a fourteen-year-old son.

These two clever dogs could benefit from clicker work and more chase and nose games along with much more exercise and constructive time spent on them in general – not just a lot of cuddling. The family will be looking to find a dog walker to break up their long days.

Terrified of Traffic and Rounds People Up

Lottie is a small Border Collie mix, stretching out on the sofaLittle Lottie is a sweetie. She is a very small Border Collie mix, eighteen months of age. She lives with a couple and their two teenage sons.

Lottie is a stressy little dog, highly reactive to things and easily scared. She is also a brave little dog, constantly facing things that terrify her. She is scared of traffic even if it’s at a distance. She runs away from her lead before leaving the house – because she knows she will have to walk along a road.

Her life is confusing. She is taken to training classes of the old-school ‘domination’ type and her male owner wants a ‘controlled’ dog. There are quite a lot of commands and demands made upon her, whilst also overwhelming (to her), excitable type of hands-on play and affection.

The problem I was called out for is that she fixates and paces around the boys when they are moving about – almost rounding them up. Their response is to be angry, shout at her or order her into her crate. She is a dog that would respond to a whisper, so everything is ‘too much’.

I believe this is not an issue to attack head on, as it is a symptom of other things. She needs less stress and she needs to feel protected. She needs leadership of a type she recognises – calm, quiet and consistent. A leader she can trust not to lead her near ‘danger’. Twice a day she has to face the terror of traffic. I hope they will be able to avoid this altogether for a little while and then slowly work on the problem around her comfort threshold, gradually getting nearer to traffic. It could take a long time.

The rounding up problem, strangely, only happens when the lady is about, but we have a plan!

This little dog is highly intelligent and I feel she needs stimulation of the sort that doesn’t over-excite or put too many demands upon her. Teaching her to use her brain with a clicker will be a good substitute for some of the stuff she is currently getting. Clicker is an art in itself and the timing has to be right.

They want to do what is best for their delightful little dog. I hope they will ease back on the pressure of ‘training’ and ‘discipline’ and let Lottie work things out for herself.