Guards his food bowl. Resource guarding items.

Hunter guards his food and he guards his food bowl.

(Too often when someone calls me about a problem with their Cocker Spaniel, it’s to do with resource guarding).

guards his food bowlThe thirteen-month-old Working Cocker’s resource guarding problems are almost certainly genetic, possibly made worse by all the sibling puppies competing over the same bowl of food (I’m only guessing).

At nine weeks old he was growling at anyone who came too close while he ate. The lady worked at this and all was okay for a while.

Over the past few weeks Hunter’s resource guarding problems have been getting worse.

She reached down to retrieve something from him…

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Black Cocker Spaniel heaven! I met my Pickle’s brother.

What’s better than one black Cocker Spaniel? Two black Cocker Spaniels? Hmm – I don’t know!

black Cocker Spaniel

Pickle

I am very partial to lively working Cockers, having one myself. My own Pickle is aptly named and has been an adventure from the start, keeping both myself and my other dogs on our toes!

I adore him.

Pickle is now nine years old and showing little sign of slowing down.

The lady and her daughter have a lovely black Cocker Spaniel, seven years of age, called Otis.

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Boundary Bark. Boundary Chasing

One year old Cocker Spaniel Lucky will chase people walking past the fence and boundary bark. He is a lovely dog, doing exactly what most other dogs in his position would do. Particularly a working Cocker Spaniel with loads of energy both mental and physical.

Boundary bark

Give a dog free access to fences, where people with their dogs walk past, he will very likely boundary bark and chase. No doubt from Lucky’s perspective he believes he is chasing them away – they always go, after all.

With each time he does it, the behaviour becomes more established.

They have had him for three months now. He’s landed on his feet with a wonderful home, and they have got themselves a wonderful dog.

I was called in order to do something about his general excitement and the boundary barking.

Uncontrolled arousal

Boundary bark and chase dogs and peopleFrom the point of view of Lucky’s stress levels, this frequent charging from gate, up the side fence and back to the gate is not good. He gets so frantic he tries to dig out underneath.

The gentleman’s way of dealing with this is to chase after him with a slip lead and corner him. In such an aroused state Lucky sometimes gets to a stage where he can no longer control himself. On a couple of occasions he has redirected his frustration onto the man and bitten him.

It’s a bit like a child having a tantrum kicking out.

With frequently topped-up stress levels, Lucky will be much more nervous and jumpy in general, just as we would ourselves. Things that we consider may be fun for the dog – like repetitive or exciting hands-on play – can actually be adding to his general arousal levels. This will build up and remain in his system for days. Trigger Stacking.

Enrichment and fulfilment

A working dog needs breed-appropriate things to direct his energy onto. I understand this well, having a working Cocker Spaniel myself. He needs to hunt, forage, explore and to use his brain. Adding this kind of enrichment will tire him out in a much healthier way than simply exercise and physical play. It’s a lot harder work however than just letting the dog run around freely, doing his own thing.

A large aspect of Lucky’s life will be frustration. He will boundary bark but be unable to actually get to the person or dog.

As they can’t let him off lead on walks for fear that he would go off on a chase and not come back, walks must be frustrating for him also. Currently he is held close on a slip lead. With no freedom there will constantly be things out of reach that he can’t get at or sniff. I suggest giving him time on a long thirty-foot line in the woods or fields where he can make his own choices – and the man can follow him. This should enrich Lucky’s life greatly.

The line should be attached to a harness – a tightening collar could badly damage his neck.

Management gives less work to do

The first priority where the boundary chasing itself is concerned is to manage the situation better and to remove opportunity.

Allowing Lucky access to that gate when they aren’t right there on hand to deal with it immediately is simply asking for more trouble. Lucky has an anchor cable in the garden which gives him a lot of scope but keeps him away from the gate where the barking ritual kicks off. They should use this more. They may also be able to fence off the front part of their garden. 

Chasing the dog

When Lucky does boundary bark, it needs to be dealt with appropriately. The man may be able to catch him eventually, but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem at all. It won’t stop happening. It will intensify.

The humans should show Lucky that it’s their own job to protect him and the territory, not his. Their role of ‘protector’ can’t be just when they feel like it so they must be consistent and ready to react immediately he starts. If they delay he will have become so aroused that he will unresponsive and not even hear them.

Chasing and cornering him is the worst thing you can do with a dog. Lucky’s family will now work hard at getting him to come to them as soon as they call him.

They will condition Lucky to come to a whistle immediately and make it very worthwhile for him. As soon as he charges down to the gate they can whistle. Then, instead of chasing him, he will come to them. They can experiment with what works best as a reward. It could be a special treat, it could be scattering food around the place or it could be throwing him a ball.

Then, as well as relieving him of any boundary duty, passing people and dogs will be associated with something happy. This will result in them becoming less troubling to Lucky.

In time, if they do this every single time, he will be hearing someone approach and instead of chasing come straight to his humans for a reward instead – without having to be called.

Summing up

So, Lucky boundary barks and chases which is the behaviour they want to stop. As well as approaching this directly there are other things to do. They won’t excite him unnecessarily. They’ll enrich Lucky’s life as much as they can. Importantly, they will use management to prevent free access to that gate whilst reacting to any boundary barking appropriately.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’. Listening to ‘other people’ or finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. it’s obvious professional help is needed in a case like this of a dog bite with no warning. Click here for help.

I’ve Hidden the Ball Thrower. A Cautionary Tale.

This is a story about my own dog, Cocker Spaniel Pickle, and the ball thrower.

I’ve hidden the ball thrower.

Pickle loves to chase the ball. He jumps to catch it and he would carry on till he dropped (though I can’t image Pickle ever dropping if the ball kept being thrown).

Although the dog loves it, the ball thrower really may not be a good thing unless used very sparingly. People with ball chuckers seldom use them sparingly, like five throws then put it away.Play with ball thrower

Why isn’t it a good thing? Dogs LOVE it.

Unfortunately they can become obsessed. Too much and they can even become adrenaline junkies. They are never happy unless a ball is being thrown for them.

A lovely walk can become nothing more than chasing a ball, fetching and dropping it to be thrown again. The richness of the countryside becomes lost to the dog. He should be using his wonderful nose to explore the environment and all the dogs, other animals and bugs that have passed his way before him.

Unnatural.

Would a dog, freely out in the environment alone without humans, be doing anything quite so relentlessly repetitive?

Anything repeated over and over can be addictive and causes stress of a kind, even if the dog does LOVE it.

It’s almost like the dog is a clockwork toy (remember clockwork?) and with a key we are winding him up until he is over-wound.

Pickling

My Cocker Spaniel, Pickle, would chase a ball all day given the chance. However, if there is no ball, he is happily  ‘Pickling’. He does what instinctively comes to him which is running about, tail wagging, exploring with his nose. He may chase a pigeon or dig up a vole.

He’s a working dog, and needs to use his brain whilst exercising.

The day before yesterday someone took my dogs to the field with the ball thrower for Pickle. He threw the ball for him, over and over.

Over the past two days the fallout from that extended ball play on Pickle has been very evident. (I do myself play ball but it is for a few throws only then I stop. Adding some training and brain work goes a little way towards fulfilling his genetic needs).

Pickle never stops.

He brings the ball back, drops it where it makes it easiest for the person to pick up. He runs off in anticipation of where it might land before it leaves the ball thrower.

The day before yesterday after the lengthy ball play, Pickle charged back into the house ahead of the other dogs. I was sitting at my computer. He leapt into the water bowl, digging out the water all over the sitting room floor. Dripping, he charged all over the furniture and then jumped into and knocked over the larger water bucket the dogs drink from.

Any self control was simply impossible.

For a good hour he paced and he panted. Each small noise set him off barking.

Isn’t ball play meant to tire him out and make him calm? Isn’t a tired, physically worn out dog a good dog? Fat chance! It’s the opposite.

Pickle was on alert for sounds for the rest of the day. The next morning he was still high, getting vocal and excited for his breakfast, perfectly illustrating how stress chemicals remain in the body.

So, I have hidden the ball thrower.

No ball thrower yesterday and no ball thrower today.

Pickle has been out in the field with me several times, Pickling. No balls.

Afterwards he comes in, has a drink and settles.

Today the neighbours wheeled their wheelie bin down the passage. After just one token Woof Pickle settled again. No vocals before breakfast.

It’s taken three days to get him back to this.

This is such a classic example of trigger stacking and the importance of the right kind of exercise that I have written my story about Pickle this time.

If anyone reading this with a highly wired or stressy dog uses a ball thrower to chuck a ball repeatedly for their dog, just try something.

Try no ball throwing for a few days. Just allow freedom to explore and to sniff. Your dog may find ‘doing his own thing’ very hard to start with, but persist.

If the dog chooses to run, he can chase things he himself chooses to chase.

A less stressed dog will result in a dog being able to cope with all sorts of things life throws at him, whether it’s encountering other dogs on walks to being less destructive or waiting patiently for his dinner.

PS. Dangers to be aware of if your dog loves ball play. 

Chewing and Destruction. Finding his Own Employment

Chewing everything, jumping up and toileting in the house.

Chewing everything

Marley

Chewing and toileting indoors are enough to drive a patient dog owner mad! These are the negatives. Marley is beautiful. He is affectionate, gentle, brainy and funny.

They have been very fortunate with their older dog, an unusually placid German Shepherd. When getting a second dog, they hadn’t bargained for a ball of energy like Marley.

The nine-month-old Cocker Spaniel is so much like my own Pickle at that age in temperament. I have first-hand experience of a working dog without sufficient employment. He too would have been finding his own things to do by way of chewing and destruction had I not done things differently. Despite having had many dogs, Pickle was a big learning curve for me. I had never lived with a dog that required so much mental stimulation.

I wasn’t prepared for having to spend quite so much time doing things with my dog in order to keep him ‘good’. This meant providing some of the fulfillment his working breed requires.

He’s an ongoing project. It never stops and he’s now six years old.

The first thing I learnt very quickly with Pickle was that ‘No’ made him worse (see here how ‘No’ doesn’t work). Even though I knew from both experience and learning, that ‘No’ only makes things worse in the long term, I’m only human and sometimes couldn’t help myself! It made me feel better.

I also learnt the importance to my sanity of adapting his environment.

I particularly understand the frustration for busy people who have a dog like Marley or Pickle.

Adapt the dog or adapt the environment?

Pickle – a pen didn’t work

Marley’s most infuriating trait is his constant need for chewing.

To my mind he has access to too much of the house and there are too many things for chewing about the place. He will chew just about anything and has demolished a couple of DVDs in the past two days. I saw the chewed leg of a nice piece of furniture.

People often try to adapt their dog to fit into their environment.

I recommend they do the opposite – adapt their environment around the dog by making significant but mostly temporary changes. This by lifting and removing everything tempting or chewable and providing a constant supply of chew items. By shutting doors and blocking areas.

Adapting the dog means constant vigilance. Adapting the environment means teaching the dog what is acceptable one thing at a time.

Although the goal of my visit is to stop Marley chewing everything (as well as toileting in the house and jumping up), these things are just symptoms. They are symptoms of a dog that needs more one-to-one time, providing even more enrichment than his good off-lead walk a day.

Some activities are mentally stimulating whilst also stress-reducing – like hunting, foraging ….and chewing. A long walk, particularly if spent chasing a ball, may have the opposite effect.

Chewing helps a dog to calm himself – as it does ourselves. We chew chewing gum for instance.

The destruction is about keeping himself busy and maybe also helping himself to calm if he’s over- stressed (aroused/excited/bored). Digging, chewing, wrecking things, humping and so on are all symptoms – of ‘stress’.

Dogs do what works.

If jumping up works in terms of getting anyone’s attention, then Marley will jump up.

The price we pay, if ‘not jumping up’ is important to us, is for everyone, both ourselves and visitors, to react in the same way. Take away the ‘reward’ – attention. Then and just importantly they show him what does work. It will need time and patience.

Maybe as his jumping up is light and doesn’t hurt, they should decide how important this is to them and to pick their battles?

My Pickle never jumps up and it’s not because he is highly ‘trained’ (he’s not). Right from the time he arrived as a four-month-old puppy jumping up simply didn’t work. No notice of him was taken if his feet were off the floor. Plenty off attention was given when his feet were on the floor.

If chewing things satisfies a need to relieve frustration, boredom or other stress, then Marley will chew anything he can find. He needs regular activities and enrichment provided by his humans, and not only when he’s doing something they don’t want him to do. Initiating activities when he’s relaxed and restful is making ‘calmness’ rewarding.

Sometimes the time and hard work needs to be shared a bit more equally between family members and then it doesn’t seem quite so bad.

Effort put in on Marley now will pay off big time later on. I would guarantee that if he was taken out daily with a ‘positive force-free’ gun dog trainer who worked him, he would have more self-control at home. He would no longer be chewing things, jumping on people and toileting indoors.

Unrealistic and impossible, I know. But we can do other things that fulfill our brainy, working dogs.

My attempts to catch a photo of Marley!

 

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 Marley. 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).

Scared Spaniel Barks at People

guarding

Nico with his little hoard

‘Wary’ is the word I would use to best describe little two-year-old working Cocker Spaniel, Nico. He has lived with the couple in his new home for three months now.

It is a very good bet that his problems stem from having not been adequately socialised from a puppy onwards. There is also a strong possibility that some of his wariness is genetic. He must have been well-loved because a lot of time has been put into training him and he knows a lot of ‘tricks’. Whatever caused the family to have to rehome him must have been very upsetting for them.

When I sat down he stopped barking, encouraged by my giving him bits of food which he dared take from my hand whilst in a ‘ready to run’ position. Throughout the evening he continued to show many signs of stress and uneasiness – including yawning, licking his nose and looking away. At one stage, quite frantically, he chewed up a large rawhide bone that he had had for quite a while and had barely touched. Chewing, of course, is a valuable mechanism to help a dog calm himself down.

Lookaway

Next Nico collected the various chewable objects that he could find, and hoarded them. As you can see from the sequence of pictures, it was quite clear that they were ‘his’, but although he looked like he might growl if someone walked past he didn’t do so. I wondered (just guessing really) whether this might be some sort of displacement activity, giving him something ‘safe’ onto which to focus his attention that he had control over.

When he is alone with the young couple and is his normal self he likes to run off with things, therefore I suggested they remove all items he may regard as resources so that he no longer rehearses any guarding behaviour which could potentially escalate, and to allow him one item at a time, offering it in such a way that he is taught to take and let go again and that nothing is ever taken off him without either being returned or exchanged for something better.

stresed dog yawning

Yawning

On walks he is scared of other dogs, particularly when he’s on lead, and he barks at people approaching too directly. His wariness has resulted in a couple of occasions when, already very stressed, he has bitten the hand of someone grabbing his collar (something that’s not a good idea with any dog – a harness is a lot better).

A strange thing is that despite having made good progress with Nico’s lead walking – it seemed like he had never been on a lead before – and despite all their loving efforts, he is actually becoming more nervous in general. I do wonder whether this is due to too much stress or arousal in his very different new life. After a half-hour morning walk with intense ball play with the lady (he has become quite obsessed with the ball), the man then takes him to work. He barks at people coming in and out of the office and this is getting worse.

As Nico seems to be quite happy when left alone at home with the cat, I suggest he spends half the day chilled at home and the other half at the office where the man can make use of the people at work in a desensitisation programme, leaving a pot of food outside the door and asking them chuck some to Nico whenever they open it – maybe also stopping to throw him food even when they are just passing.

At the moment the dog could be feeling he has to guard the doorway. His open crate containing his bed is currently by the office door. It would be better beside or behind the desk where the man can ‘protect’ him and he, too, can work hard at desensitising the dog when people come into the room.

The young lady and gentleman are gentle and kind with their new little dog, and I know they will have the patience to help him grow in confidence and get used to life in their world.

A fortnight later and still very early days: ‘Nico seems a lot more confident and I think that is because we are clearer about how we should be acting with him. He doesn’t bark as much at loud noises and he is getting much better while out walking. The neighbour who I meet has even noticed a difference.’

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

Lady in 80s Struggles with Working Cocker

Jacob with a toy What a wonderful face Cocker Spaniel hasMy own working Cocker Spaniel, Pickle (aptly named), can be hard work. He has a wonderful nature, he’s gentle and affectionate but if there is any mischief to be had, Pickle will find it! Because of how I behave with all my dogs I’m thankful to say that he doesn’t do the things that Jacob does!

Look at Jacob’s face! What a Spaniel! Wonderful!

As the lady let me in, Jacob jumped up first on me, and then leapt straight up from the floor onto the kitchen table! It soon became apparent that this is normal. He spends a lot of time up on things – the kitchen table and the backs of sofas and chairs from where he will scratch at the lady’s head!

The poor lady is at her wit’s end with his barking. He quite simply controls her. He barks until she jumps to his tune – she will do anything to stop him so unintentionally she’s teaching him to bark. Jacob gets all his best quality attention for jumping up, barking and stealing things.

To gain a bit of physical control we tried putting his lead on – something to grab. You can see from the picture on the right that he soon found a way around that!!

What a splendid little dog but what a challenge for a fit and active person let alone someone a little bit frail. Fortunately her daughter lives down the road and her son stays with her during the week, though during the day he’s at work.

Jacob’s life lacks enrichment. There are two days a week when he doesn’t even go out. He’s a working dog designing his own work. Without rules, boundaries and a calm, consistent owner, a dog can also become anxious; Jacob is terrified of fireworks and certain other sounds.

We worked on a few rules. The kitchen table and sofa-backs are not part of a dog agility course! I showed them how to stop the jumping on back of chairs by teaching a replacement behaviour on the floor that is a lot more rewarding to him.  Using positive methods and encouragement he’s really eager to please. Barking should no longer get the desired result. I also suggested they found a dog walker for the days the son isn’t there, because his life needs a bit more in it; he then won’t so badly need to manufacture his own stimulation.

Email received 7 weeks later from the daughter who originally contacted me on behalf of her mother: “Having spent Christmas Day and Boxing Day at my mum’s I am happy to report that Jacob’s behaviour has continued to improve. Table jumping is now a rare occurence, barking is less and he seems are far more settled and happier dog. Mum is much more relaxed too. On New Year’s Eve he apparently slept through the televised fireworks display! Tilly has maintained her new behaviour (Tilly is the daughter’s dog). Thank you so much for helping us to take a step back, view the world through the eyes of our dogs and changing our behaviour”.