Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood from the trees. Oscar is a dog, like many of our dogs, living in a world that he’s not been bred for. The couple do all they know to give him a good life, particularly by way of long daily walks, but it’s not enough unfortunately.
Oscar resorts to a ritual of repetitive behaviour.
The way to improve his life involves lots of changes. They want a family pet that is affectionate, reliable, companionable and to be trusted around children. Oscar’s primary needs are different.
There are so many things to deal with from his diet through to feeding his clever brain. Each little change links to the next so it is impossible to simplify things and extract just two or three things for them to concentrate on. It’s complicated.
Oscar is a beautiful Border Collie, age five. They have had him since he was a year old and they were already his third home.
He is extremely easily agitated and aroused. Things that wire him up include noises outside, animals and sounds on TV, bangs and young children.
He tries to bite when they brush his long hair. He paws persistently and painfully for attention – which he always eventually gets in some form. When the phone rings he goes mental. These are just a few of the daily challenges the retired couple face with Oscar.
Staring the dog down
Unfortunately, the man believed in advice that dominating him by staring him down would make him respect them and change his behaviour. This, to my mind, will have made things worse and actually caused him to bite those few times. He has only gone for people who have challenged him like this – the man, their son and another man they met when out.
I saw how arousal affects Oscar and causes his repetitive behaviour during the three hours I was there. People talking or his simply being ignored triggers the start of a ritual.
He runs to the window and starts to stare like he’s seen a fly to chase – he’s an obsessive fly-chaser. He then starts barking and scratching at the door. This is the start of a repetitive behaviour sequence. It results in the man getting up and letting him out – every time.
However, it’s not as simple as just letting him out. He is told ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’ before the door is opened otherwise he will jump at the man, barking.
Once out, Oscar’s ritual involves running exactly the same circuit of the small garden, across a little path and then back to the door again. The man then gets up again and lets him in. This earns a ‘Good Boy’.
By the third time of exactly the same sequence in a short time it was obvious Oscar couldn’t possibly need to toilet again. I could see this was a repetitive behaviour – a ritual that probably gives him some control over his own life and over those around him.
Breaking the cycle
I asked the man not to get up. Let’s see what happens.
This triggered lots of frustrated door scraping and loud barking and we braved it. Oscar stopped briefly. Immediately I quietly said ‘Good’ and dropped a tiny bit of food. He went back to scratching and barking and I repeated this process many times. Eventually he walked away from the window.
‘Good’, then food.
He then went and lay down. ‘Good’ and more food. Any more chatting to him would simply arouse him again.
A few peaceful minutes would go by then Oscar would be back to the start of the routine of repetitive behaviour again, scratching the window and barking. The man, on automatic, started to get up. I stopped him.
This happens repeatedly when they are sitting down in the evening, punctuated by barking at TV and pawing for attention.
His very failure to get the man to engage in his routine of repetitive behaviour was now frustrating in itself.
Understandably, when he is peaceful they breathe a sigh of relief. Let sleeping dogs lie!
Oscar is generating all his action by pestering and getting no reinforcement or action in return for being calm and non-demanding. This needs to be reversed.
I gave them a list of suggestions of things to exercise Oscar’s clever brain and enriching activities that include scenting, sniffing, hunting and so on. I shall go back and do clicker work. He will love the problem-solving.
Oscar has long walks but this isn’t enough – in fact, when he returns he is sometimes more aroused and demanding than when he left. This indicates that even the walks should be done a bit differently.
The first challenge is to bring his stress levels down as low as possible. Only then will they make significant headway. Robbed of his rituals of repetitive behaviour, he needs other things added to his life to bring him enrichment and action.
Unfortunate incident involving a child
With lower general stress levels, Oscar should be better able to cope with the things that scare or intimidate him like staring men and little children. Very unfortunately a child came from behind him and hit him with a stick when he was lying beside them in an outdoor cafe. Before this he had no problem with children. Unless and until they manage to change how he feels around them – yet more work for them to do – he should be muzzled when kids are about just in case. The law never takes the side of the dog even if he’s provoked.
There is a lot to deal with. Oscar, born on a farm in Wales and now living with a retired couple in a bungalow, is bred for a different kind of life. They are very committed to doing the best they can for him. It’s not by chance that Border Collies are the dog of choice for trainers who work hard with their dogs and get them to do amazing things.
Here’s a strange thing. After a couple of weeks in kennels when they go away he is a lot more relaxed. It does him good. Is it because the rituals of repetitive behaviour that he himself creates to make ‘things happen’ in themselves stress him? Is it because the usual triggers such as TV and telephones won’t be there? In the kennels he has an enforced break.