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, stealing 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.
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).