I have just come home from seeing three wonderful Border Collies.
They are all rescues and like so many, two are from Ireland.
So often Border Collies I visit, beloved family pets, also live a life of frustration, unable to use their clever brains or fulfill their instinct to herd. The loving hard work the couple has done has paid big dividends. The dogs are given plenty of enrichment in their lives including being regularly taken to training classes. Two of them do agility also.
Their main reason for my visit is for both Ben and Timmy to be less reactive to other dogs – most particularly Ben who will react as soon as he sees another dog in the distance.
Is dog training doing anything for Ben’s reactivity to other dogs?
Ben will soon be nine and has some Australian Shepherd in the Collie mix.
He adores the training itself but takes a while to get used to the other dogs in the class, even those he sees week after week.
How can they mix training classes with changing Ben’s reactivity to other dogs?
It’s proven that the way to help a dog with reactivity to other dogs is to work with sufficient distance between them that the dog feels safe and relaxed.
Here is an excerpt from an excellent article by Tobin Foster PhD: ‘Letting another dog approach and greet a fearful (or reactive) dog is too intense! Quick retreats at the first sight of an approaching dog is too brief! Letting your dog watch another dog from a distance and for a long time (until he loses interest is best!) will produce the most effective results in most cases.’. Tobin Foster, PhD
Bearing this in mind, how then can Ben manage the classes?
We looked at ways of turning his training classes into a positive.
The lady will see if Ben can now join the final class. He then no longer has to run the gauntlet of other dogs waiting to come in to the next class as he leaves by the only door.
They can arrive very early, watching the other dogs arrive one or two at a time from a distance. Ben can also watch the dogs from the previous class leave – from a distance. The lady can be ready to retreat, putting more distance between them, if he gets agitated.
She can then work at pairing the sight of sufficiently distant dogs with food and happiness.
She can even point them out: ‘Look at that!’.
Now I suggest the lady experiments with walking towards and into the hall, lead loose, being ready to walk out again if Ben ‘tells’ her with his body language that he’s not happy – before he starts to bark if possible.
Fortunately the lady believes that her good, switched-on trainer will be up for this.
Timmy, too, barks at other dogs.
He barks at some dogs, not always and only when they get really close. It’s probable he has caught some of this reactivity from Ben.
Timmy is the most recent to join them and is also two years old.
He adores agility, but gets so fired up that he has nipped several people and gone for another dog. He now has solo lessons.
Just as it’s hard to make indoor training classes compatible with keeping sufficient distance, it’s hard to make agility, particularly when competitive, compatible with lowering arousal levels. Agility requires a dog to become fired up; lower arousal levels are necessary to stop him being so stirred up that he nips. Catch 22.
Tom fixates on the cat, waiting to herd her if she moves.
Tom staring at the cat
The third dog, Tom, is two years old and is a dream. He is however prone to fixate on the elderly cat, waiting to herd her whenever she moves.
They currently send him to his bed. I prefer to deal with the emotions behind the behaviour rather than simply controlling the behaviour. He goes to his bed willingly enough when asked but doesn’t stay there for long before he’s back staring at the cat.
Instead of simply sending him to his bed with the urge to herd or chase unfulfilled, our plan should help diffuse frustration a little.
They will also interrupt the staring a lot sooner to try to break the habit and before it gets to the stalking stage.
Going back to Ben, he loves his training classes once he’s been there for a while and has stopped barking at the other dogs. They are very keen for him to continue and, being a Border Collie, activity is especially necessary for his brain and breed.
Stopping the training classes and agility for now would be the easy way to work on resolving reactivity and over-arousal problems.
But at what price?
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 with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approaches I have worked out for these three dogs. 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. Everything depends upon context. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dog (see my Help page)