Over the months the stress both in and between these two 9-year-old dogs has been building up.
Staffie Maddie is almost impossibly noisy, pushy, barking and jumping up when the lady owner has guests – if she is allowed to join them at all – and little Misty, a Terrier Whippet cross, is also very vocal but with more obvious fear. People can’t hear themselves speak. The way they try to calm Maddie is to do as she demands and keep stroking her as she lies beside them. Not only is it giving her a very good reason to behave like this, but also, even while she is being given the attention she’s demanding, she is getting more and more worked up!
When I initially arrived Misty came through alone and she was quiet, relaxed and sniffing. It was only when Maddie rushed in that she, too, started to bark at me. Once little Misty has stopped barking, she watches Maddie. Sometimes she shakes. Maddie intimidates her when she’s like this. See how anxious she looks.
Maddie’s stress levels are extreme much of the time. Small things set her off. This is now increasingly being redirected onto Misty and there have been a couple of incidents, one resulting in blood.
Ten days ago I went on a fascinating weekend seminar by Dr. Susan Freidman about behaviour, consequences and reinforcement. It was like she was sitting on my shoulder. The more noise Maddie makes, the more attention she gets – sometimes scolding sometimes petting – but reinforcement either way. The more anxious Misty becomes, the more attention and fussing that earns also.
As soon as the lady comes downstairs in the morning, Maddie starts the day by rushing at the gate separating her from Misty and giving her a loud, warning bark. When she comes in from the garden, she noisily demands her breakfast – which she gets. Quite simply, barking works.
Maddie excelled at dog training classes. This is another example where traditional dog training is largely irrelevant, especially if it doesn’t take into consideration the home dynamics. Commands don’t reduce stress. In fact, ‘silence is golden’. Both dogs get a lot of excercise with lovely long country walks.
Whilst I was there Maddie was learning very quickly that the only attention she got from me was when she was still and quiet. She tried so very hard, bless her. She was distracting herself with a bit of displacement scratching and chewing in her efforts to keep calm while she was beginning to understand what was required. I, too, was learning just what level of gentle attention was enough not to break through that fine line and fired her up again. She is so eager to please and only needs to understand what is required, and then for all the humands to be consistent.
It can be so hard for us humans to break our own old habits.