I know you might find this hard to believe, especially just after Crufts, but some people do not like dogs! I know this sounds mad to a dog loving audience but some find dogs’ behaviour at best irritating and at worst grounds for formal complaint to a local authority with the aim of some form of legal action.
With modern UK building practices resulting in population densities increasing, it is inevitable that dogs and people are going to come into contact more and so this will result in some people finding our dogs’ behaviour, grounds for complaint.
I’m not sure if it has always been this way, but it just feels to me that some sections of society have become less tolerant of dogs in general and that social media and legislation gives people a platform to express their upset without actually talking to each other.
I would say the number one problem that brings dog owners into conflict with their neighbours, is barking. I say this because most of the time when I am asked to help with barking dogs it is because the owners have received a complaint.
Let’s first agree that barking is something that dogs do; fish swim, birds tweet and dogs bark. They may bark for a variety of reasons – they may be barking in play, worried about something, frustrated or just plain bored, but whatever the reason why, it is not something you can just switch off like a light.
Now as pro dog as I am, I do have to agree that a dog that is left for long periods of time on its own, that barks continually for hours on end, day after day, may be considered a nuisance and unreasonable for your neighbours to put up with. In fact, there is probably a welfare issue that needs addressing in this scenario too.
Accepting dogs bark, I do struggle to understand why people get upset when a dog barks for just a couple of minutes broken up throughout the day. Some people will not even tolerate a small intrusion into their lives – they notice every noise your dog makes and become very intolerant of everything the dog does, picking up on every single bark. People will literally fall out over the stuff that dogs do and behave completely irrationally.
One of the first questions I ask clients who have received a complaint is; have you talked to your neighbours? An awful lot will reply ‘no’, along with ‘it’s pointless, they just won’t listen’ or they are worried about their reaction.
I have even worked with one owner who had received a complaint from her neighbour about her dog barking and the neighbours who complained also owned a dog that did not stop barking for the full duration of the consult! When I asked if this was normal, the owner told me ‘it’s like this whenever they go out’, I did feel a little sorry for her, especially when she told me she never let it bother her but now if she mentions it to her neighbours, she is afraid they will just think she’s saying it to get back at them.
So, what can you do if you receive a complaint?
Whether you have been spoken to in person or maybe all you have had is a letter through your door, start by trying to defuse the situation – it will be much better than going into battle with them over it. Listen to what they have to say and try to avoid being defensive (it is very hard not to be defensive, especially if you feel you have been done an injustice and the complainant is being totally unreasonable). They will probably tell you that your dog barks all the time, which you know is an exaggeration, but for now just listen and accept your dog probably barks sometimes. Tell them you are sorry that your dog has been a nuisance to them and be sincere, but do not admit guilt. Take them wine, beer and flowers as way of an apology and empathise with them but do not offer things you could not deliver or are prepared to do. Ask them what would make it better for them and negotiate a little, do not promise, but do your best.
Start to gather information about your dog as this will be useful if the local authority get involved. There are a vast array of apps and technology that is available to let you monitor your dog’s activity and I use them often for my own dogs. You want to have something that will record the date, frequency and the duration of barking, when you are away from home. When you are home with the dog, note this information down as this may be important evidence should local authorities become involved. Try to figure out if there are other dogs barking around the area – sometimes it can be an accumulation, certainly when I did this exercise, there were at least three other barking dogs in my location. It is also worth asking neighbours on other sides of the property if they are hearing the same things and make notes of their replies.
If you have irritated a neighbour, there is a fair chance they will be looking for any other opportunity to support their case, so do not give them additional ammunition, always be polite and courteous, make sure you fulfil your responsibilities as a dog owner, clear up after them and keep them under control etc.
Once you have a better idea of the problem you can then start to act. You could call in professional help, but understand that no professional should ever guarantee that a dog will not bark again, that would be unrealistic. The aim of training is to reduce the number of occurrences and the duration of barking to an acceptable minimum.
There are a number of things I could do to assist with this, for example if your dog is bored and under stimulated, we could increase its exercise and give it more things to do when you are absent. Change the time of its walks and make sure it is not left alone for long periods. We could increase the amount of white noise, maybe leaving a radio playing will make them less sensitive to everything going on outside. We could add visual barriers in the way of opaque film on windows, or better still, don’t give your dog access to places where they can sit and bark at the world as it goes by.
If your dogs’ fence-fight with the neighbours’ dogs, you could add a second fence or barrier to keep them further apart. It might be they are just frustrated at not being able to get to each other – could they spend time together if they were all dog friendly? Work with your neighbour to reduce to a minimum when they are out together, do not leave it to your neighbour, encourage them to participate but act as if you were working on the problem alone. Improve your dog’s recall so that they can be called away from boundaries and fence-fights, which will help you when out on walks too.
If you think your dog is barking excessively and/or is worried about being home alone, please seek the help of a competent force-free, reward based professional who will be able to help your dog feel happier about life in a kind, aversive-free way.
First Published in Dog World
To play or not to play, that is the question! I was recently working with a client and a question came up about whether they should get another dog to join their family because their own dog does not play as much anymore.
Now, my first thought when asked this question was, every time a new dog joins your family, you reduce the one-to-one time you can give your existing dog – you can only spread yourself so far. Maybe instead of thinking about another dog for your dog to interact with, why not spend more time with the dog you have? I am certainly not against multi-dog households as I have one myself and from an enrichment point of view, having a member of your own species around adds another dimension to your life for sure and I’m certain dogs benefit from this too.
However, to get another dog because your dog does not play as much anymore may well not be the answer you are looking for and could possibly come with a range of other unintended consequences. Many owners place a great emphasis on their dogs playing and being able to play with other dogs and sometimes they will even feel something is wrong with their dog if they do not want to play or that they used to play lots with other dogs but now they are not so keen. Saying to a dog you must like playing with other dogs because I think you should, is a bit like me telling my wife that she must like horror movies because I do!
Some dogs will play for the whole of their lives, but most will show some decline in their playful behaviour as they age, just as we do. As some dogs mature, they may become less tolerant of those that want to play and will tell them in their own doggy way to back off and leave them alone.
So, what is play all about? Many animals play, especially when they are young, I did, you did, lions and wolves do and left to their own devices, dogs will play. It is generally believed that play serves as a way for young animals to rehearse the life skills that they require as adults and play activity will fall into the four categories of fight, flight, feeding or reproduction and if you watch dogs playing, you may well see them chasing, body slamming, growling, mouthing, mounting and fighting etc and it can look rough! What I have found is that most owners love to see their dogs playing with other dogs and to be honest, I also love to see my dogs running around, chasing and wrestling with each other.
However, my dogs do not all play like they did when they were young – two of the three play on a regular basis and enjoy wresting, biting and chasing. I have one however, who seems to prefer human interaction and plays very little and when he does, it usually involves short bursts of just running around like a fool.
So, is dog-play good or bad? When you ask a trainer this question, their answer will be more of a reflection of that trainer’s experiences rather than a scientifically proven fact.
If a trainer has had mostly ‘bad experiences’ or they feel out of control when they let dogs play, then they may well think play is a bad thing for dogs, but on the other hand if they have had mostly good experiences, they may well think play is a good thing.
I personally think that dog play is mostly a good thing, offering elements of socialisation, exercise and enrichment to our dog’s lives that only dogs can provide and like I say, there are others who think it’s mostly a bad thing and allows dogs to behave inappropriately with other dogs and rehearses undesirable behaviours like ‘bullying’.
What I do know is that nobody really knows for sure, but trainers will try to figure it out from the dog’s body language, but even this can be problematic if you are not careful and start over interpreting what you see. Just take something as simple as the popular term ‘calming signals’, are they calming? Do they defuse conflict? Is that what the dog really thinks?
What we are really getting is somebody’s interpretation of what they believe the dog is thinking based on watching numerous dog interactions and the outcome of those interactions.
We can apply this same process to play and this helps us identify that a dog’s intent is play, rather than the real thing. So, what do you look for? We would be looking for clues from the dog’s behaviour that we believe signal the dog’s intent and those behaviours fall into the following categories; meta-signals, self-handicapping and role reversals.
It is believed that meta-signals are how dogs signal that their intent is play and not the real life equivalent of the behaviour. You will often see these signals before, during and after play. What are the meta-signals you are looking for? You are looking for what most people recognise as the classic play-bow – front end down and bottom in the air, but there are others. You are also looking for ‘play faces’ – basically looks like the dog has a big happy grin over its face or inefficient bouncy running (a rocking horse gait) as they chase each other – it should not look like they are chasing a prey animal.
When I talk about self-handicapping, I am referring to when the dog is holding back, for want of a better word, pulling their punches – they look like they are biting but without punching holes in each other. You will often see their mouths wide open and waving their teeth around but not bearing down on each other. Another common example of self-handicapping is where you see a big dog rolling onto its side while a little dog bites its face – my Border Terrier over-powering my Dogue, really? Only if she wants and allows it to happen!
During play you should also be looking for role reversals – this is where the dogs’ roles swap, for example where one is on top biting, they then swap over and the other goes on top biting or where one chases the other and then they swap around so the chaser becomes the one being chased.
Don’t get me wrong, if you allow play, squabbles will, from time to time, break out, but most dog squabbles are nothing but arguments – they are not trying to kill each other. If they were really trying to kill each other every time they had a fight (and judging on the number of dog fights there are every day), they are not very good at it!
A great website for dog body language is called ‘I speak dog’ and can be found at http://www.ispeakdog.org.
So, as I have already stated, I think dog play is generally a good thing, but play is not just about letting dogs get on with it and hoping for the best, we need to monitor their interactions, understand what to look for and not let our dogs just run up to others uninvited – yours may love play, but not all do.
First Published in Dog World 21.04.17
I know I have said this before, but it is interesting to see how certain dog behaviours go in batches. Since writing my last article, I have had a group of cases that have proven this to me again. This month, I have seen several dogs with resource guarding issues – guarding spaces, places, objects, guardians and food items. Now, just because I have seen a lot of dogs with these issues, it does not mean I am seeing an epidemic.
What it is really telling me is that I have seen a cluster of cases and because of what I do, I am more likely to see more, but to complicate this further, these cases never happen in nice even frequencies, it is just that I am seeing more cases than usual at this current moment.
The reality is that I do not even know how many dogs are in my local area, so how do I even know where to start counting from? It could be that the numbers of dogs living locally to me have increased but the cases of resource guarding have remained the same or not increased proportionately to the increase of dogs so this would suggest resource guarding dogs have gone down in number, not up.
So, why do dogs guard? I was told by one guardian that they had been told it was because their dog was the biggest in the litter and another because the litter was so big it had to compete for food. But was it? It could be true, but we just don’t know and what we’re actually hearing are people’s opinions which can be formed on somewhat rather shaky data.
You would think in a world of plenty where most dogs have access to everything they need – food, warmth, shelter and comfortable resting places etc, why would they feel the need to guard from us and other dogs? It’s simple really, guarding is a normal behaviour for dogs which has an adaptive significance and has ensured their ancestors were successful on the playing field of life. Basically, those ancestors of the dog who guarded their food and resources, were the most successful and so those behaviours served dogs well.
These days there are not the same selection pressures on dogs so there is no need for them to resource guard and we now have a situation where being a good resource guarder is not actually favourable for the dog’s survival. Domestication has resulted in dogs becoming a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to whether they will resource guard or not.
Resource guarding is not breed specific either; I have recently seen spaniels, cockerpoos (technically not a true recognised breed) Vizslas, terriers and Border Collies. I have also seen puppies do it as young as ten weeks of age but in most cases, older dogs develop this behaviour as they mature. In fact, three of the dogs I have seen recently had bitten their owners while resource guarding and sadly one of these bites was serious, but not one of the recent resource guarders I have seen had been a bull breed.
Of those that got bitten, two of the owners were under the misguided impression they had to be the boss and when the dog growled, they thought they should make them move/take away their stuff because once the dog thinks it’s in charge, it’s a slippery slope to dog domination.
What this really demonstrates to me is that the commonly held belief that you must be the boss and that there is some kind of dog pack structure in your house, with the dog trying to be top dog, is alive and well even though there is no science to support this.
Ultimately, the real function of this behaviour is to get us to move away and for the dog to retain what it has. They are trying to create distance between you and the thing they want to keep, but if you ignore their warnings through not recognising them or by you challenging them, they have no option but to either concede or drive you away in the best way they can which can sometimes result in a bite.
Often people tell me the snap or bite came without warning, but could you recognise your dog’s more subtle communication? As you approach your dog when they are eating something, chewing a favourite toy, or resting peacefully, do they pick up the object and move away from you, start eating faster as you approach, freeze over the object, give you that ‘hard eye’, ‘whale eye’ or do they growl, snarl, snap or bite?
The above behaviours and associated body language when in context are indicative of resource guarding. The trouble is, we tend to only notice when the dog decides to growl, snarl, snap and bite and as dogs do what works, the next time they may not bother with the subtle warnings and go straight to the ones we do take notice of.
It’s interesting though how times have changed – when I was child, my parents would say to me, “don’t go near the dog while he’s eating or sleeping, you will get bitten”, but now we expect to be able to walk up to the dog and take anything off them without a grumble. We wouldn’t do this to humans and not expect repercussions!
So, what can you do? To start with you need to understand that it is a process that will take time and the great news is that it is a behaviour that has shown to be very modifiable, especially in comparison to something like fear of strangers.
If you suspect that you have a resource guarding dog, you can start with the following steps:
Step 1: Manage diligently – restrict access to your dog’s preferred resting places, for example by closing doors to a room with an area they guard (bed etc), feed the dog in places where you do not have to walk by when they are eating, avoid going up to them when they have items they will want to keep, etc.
If your management systems slip up and they do get something you don’t want them to have, do not try to snatch it back off them, but instead use distractions such as a tossed piece of food to lure them away from the item and when the dog leaves the item behind, pick it up and remove it. If they take it with them, drop the food for them to eat and then toss another piece. You could even try ringing the doorbell and see them run to an imaginary visitor, while you retrieve the item.
Step 2: Get professional help, especially if your dog has already bitten you! They will help you identify body language to take note of, refine your management systems, develop a hierarchy of guarded objects and build a plan for you to follow. If you are not in the position to employ a trainer to help you, it may take a little longer, but it is still achievable with patience and care. Get a great book to help guide you and I highly recommend Jean Donaldson’s Mine.
By Nick Honor and reproduced with the kind permission of Dog World.
By Nick Honor and Reproduced with the kind permission of Dog World Magazine: For many years, I have been lucky enough to run specialist puppy classes and have had the pleasure of working with numerous puppies of different breeds, shapes and sizes. During this time, there is not a lot that I have not been asked and it is lovely to hear people actively wanting to do their very best for their new charge. But there is one question I am asked on a regular basis and unfortunately, in my opinion, I am generally asked it a little too late – ‘when I left my puppy on the first night she cried and cried all night and should I let my puppy just cry? I have been told not to go down to her, it sounds terrible and she has cried every night for the last three nights. I could not bear it any longer and have now let her upstairs with me and she sleeps like a baby.’
Now, it is still widely believed that you should leave a puppy and let it cry it out and woe-be-tide you if you go down to see puppy as it is thought that if you do, you are making a rod for your own back. But it is my view that this is not the advice we should be giving new puppy guardians, instead ask yourself why is the puppy crying and howling in the first place?
Times are changing and people are looking at emotions in dogs and other non-human species and as dogs have similar brain structures to humans, it is widely believed that dogs experience emotions too. How these are labelled is open to interpretation, but I think we are all more than happy to agree that dogs experience a number of base/simple emotions, such as fear or joy. This is a vast and rapidly evolving area of study and if you want to know more about the research into emotions, you will need to do no more than carry out an internet search for Jaak Panksepp or Joseph E LeDoux.
Why is knowing about emotions relevant to us and our puppy’s first nights in their new home? Let’s imagine what it’s like for most well-reared puppies. Up until the point of being taken from their home, their world is probably very small and feels very safe; there will be puppy, mum, maybe dad and brothers and sisters, they will probably have seen a few human beings and be surrounded with familiar sights, smells and sounds. They would never have been left on their own, always having their canine and human family around them for company and care.
Then one day without warning, they find themselves suddenly taken from everything they have ever known and just as suddenly, find themselves in some strange environment, but it’s okay, they are surrounded by humans that are giving them lots of comfort and they hardly notice that their world has changed dramatically. Then, they are placed in a crate, in a room that they do not know and abandoned on their own. It’s dark and unfamiliar, they have no idea what’s going on and so they cry in the hope that somebody will hear them, but nobody comes. They cry on and off for hours, then sleep because they are exhausted. If they are lucky, somebody hears them and comes to see them, but then leaves again and so they cry longer and harder to see if they can get them to return, if they are unlucky, nobody comes until the morning and wakes them from exhaustion.
Now try to imagine how emotionally stressful this experience would be for you!
It is even possible and has been put forward that this early emotional trauma could lead to separation issues (fear of being alone) later down the line. Not for all dogs, I grant you, as there are plenty that go on to not develop separation issues, but for some, this early trauma could be the start.
For all, these first nights will be unsettling to one degree or another, so if this sounds like a horrible way to start your puppy off in their new home, how could you make it less traumatic?
Firstly, think differently – what is wrong with giving your new puppy time to settle into their new home without feeling abandoned? Remember they have no idea we are coming back when we leave them. Let’s instead desensitise them to us going out of sight. Take some time off work so that you can focus on making puppy’s transition to your home as stress-free as possible – let’s face it, it’s a bit like having a toddler in the house and you may want some nap time!
During your time together in the first few days, why not spend time crate training puppy, teach them you will be gone for gradually longer and longer periods, give them food stuffed toys to help wear them out and give you some time to leave and come back.
Crate training will help you with house training as well and so it’s a win/win situation. A competent trainer will be able to help you with both.
Do this in conjunction with gradually leaving them overnight. You can do this in several ways and my favourites are either spending a few nights sleeping downstairs near to your puppy and over several nights gradually move further and further away, so that puppy does not feel abandoned, or allow the puppy to be near to you while you sleep – you could use a crate for confinement and this could be gradually moved further from your room.
Wherever you want puppy to sleep, start by making the sleeping area really comfortable and cosy. Make sure it’s warm and you could even look to use some familiar smelling bedding that you brought with them or something that smells of you.
I was quite fortunate in that I have always had other dogs in the home who were puppy-friendly and the puppies I have had were quite happy to be snuggled up near my other dogs and settled quickly into their new home.
Whatever method you choose, let puppy gain some confidence and find their feet over a few days, give them a chance to learn that their new home is a safe place and even though they may be left on their own, you will be coming back and will not have abandoned them.
There are several ‘calming products’ on the market which may help support puppy through the first few nights, some use aromatherapy and others use pheromones, which may help them settle.
Over the coming weeks, gradually prepare puppy for longer absences, it may feel like a lot of work, but believe me, in comparison to working with a dog who has separation issues, a few weeks on prevention is time very well spent.
I know there will be plenty who do not agree with me and will continue to carry on with the old way of leaving the puppy to tough it out, but what are we really toughing them out for?
If for no other reason than by taking a more humane approach you could be helping to prevent separation issues later down the line, then this has got to be worth the investment in time. As a bonus, you will also get a better night’s sleep and not annoy your neighbours.
Would you risk your life to save your dog? I have had this discussion on several occasions and the answers are wide and varied, but unfortunately, we know this is the time of year that for some, may become a real decision with very real safety considerations and the potential for life-threatening consequences.
Sadly, we are likely to see tragic news articles about dog owners who enter water or who have gone onto ice to help their pet who is in distress and have got themselves into trouble. Thankfully, at this point in my life (and I hope to keep it this way!) I can only imagine what it would be like to see your beloved companion struggling after entering water or even worse, falling through ice, and the decisions you will suddenly find yourselves faced with.
But water does not have to be frozen to present a significant risk to life – cold water can impact on you and your dog’s physical capabilities. Being a strong swimmer in a swimming pool does not equate to you being able to swim well in cold water. Cold water carries heat away from the body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature.
For human beings without specialist protective clothing, in water between 0.3 to 4.5C you can lose dexterity in under three minutes, exhaustion and unconsciousness in 15-30 minutes and your expected time of survival is 30-90 minutes, assuming you can still breathe.
In water between 4.5 to 10C (the vast majority of inland water in the winter) you can lose dexterity in under five minutes, exhaustion and unconsciousness in 30-60 minutes and your expected time of survival is one to three hours.
This basically means in under five minutes, you may not be able to grab and hold onto anything passed to you and you will require physical rescue.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said: “In the last ten years, over 20 people have drowned after falling through ice into water, while many others have had to be rescued and revived. Looking at past incidents it appears that the individuals most at risk are young children and males of any age. “However, over 50 per cent of ice related drowning involved an attempted rescue of another person or a dog. “In many instances, the dog managed to scramble ashore unaided while the owner did not and it is therefore prudent not to throw sticks or balls for dogs near frozen water, if they do get into trouble, do not attempt to rescue them by venturing onto the ice!”
It does amaze me how much access we give our dogs to large bodies of water, such as reservoirs, lakes and ponds and the myriad of waters-ways we have, without truly understanding the dangers that lurk beneath the surface of the water.
Would we consider letting our children run around water unsupervised, especially in the winter? I’m sure we would not be throwing them into water to get them to swim or throwing items for them to retrieve, but we will regularly do this with our dogs!
Don’t be fooled by benign looking brooks that just about flow in the summer – because of the increased winter rainfall, these can be raging torrents in the winter and we can expect our local ponds, rivers and lakes to be significantly deeper than you would expect.
However, it’s not always human actions that put our dogs at risk with water and ice – they can do it all by themselves. Dogs will wander onto frozen lakes and rivers for a number of reasons, not least it looks solid and there is often an interesting array of water birds stood on it – you can’t blame the dog for being interested in the opportunity for a chase!
So, what can you do to help prevent finding yourself in this situation?
The easiest thing is to keep your dog on a lead – when on a lead, it does not really matter how well trained your dog is or isn’t, it cannot get into trouble. Instead of a lead, you may consider using a long training line, if you do put a line on your dog, make sure that it is a floating line that remains on the surface, as a line that sinks presents a significant risk, should it get snagged. If you were to try and retrieve your dog by pulling it in, you are very likely to pull them under and drown them.
Now some of you will be saying, I must let my dog off the lead, he needs the exercise, so if this is you and you want to let them run, why not avoid walking your dog during cold snaps in areas where there are known water hazards?
If you live on a boat or have no choice but to be around water, why not consider a life jacket for your dog too? Should they fall into water or through ice, the extra time and assistance this provides may well be enough for the emergency services to attend and carry out a rescue for you.
Make sure your dog is wearing a collar or harness as should they need to be hooked or pulled to assist getting them out of the water, a rescuer will need something to hook onto or grab.
If you do decide that you are going to enter the water, I would strongly caution you not to, but if you do, firstly contact the emergency services and tell them exactly where you are. If they cannot find you, they cannot help you.
As dog owners are generally outdoor people, what should you do if you come across somebody who is in water or on or through ice? What can you do without putting yourself at risk?
Call for assistance from the emergency services.
Do not attempt to go out onto the ice yourself.
Instruct the casualty to keep still to maintain heat and energy.
Try to find something that will extend your reach, such as a spare dog lead, pole, branch or item of clothing.Throw this or reach out to the casualty with it. Then, making sure you are stable on the bank, by lying down or getting someone to hold onto you, attempt to pull the person to the shore.
If you live in areas with lots of water hazards, why not carry a throw line with you for this purpose, it could even just be in your vehicle.
If you cannot find something with which to perform a reach or throw rescue, try to find something that will float to throw or push out to them. This will help to keep the casualty afloat until assistance arrives.
Throughout your rescue KEEP OFF THE ICE, continue to reassure the casualty and keep them talking until help arrives.
If the rescue is successful, the casualty will need to be kept warm and treated for shock. All casualties should be taken to hospital even if they appear to be unaffected by their ordeal.
Remember there is a significant chance that your dog will get out on its own!
So, if we go back to the opening paragraph – would you risk your life for a dog? Well, when it comes to water and ice, there is no need if you keep your dog on a lead!
Have you ever feared anything? I wonder how many of you are afraid of going to the dentist? Some of you will be terrified and others may just be slightly anxious. Now, try to imagine that horrible feeling you get as the time of your appointment approaches and how it intensifies as you enter the waiting room and oh my goodness, that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you sit in the chair!
Fear of the dentist is quite common and if I was to ask you why you were frightened, you would probably say something along the lines of it hurts, it feels odd and it’s unpleasant. Even though we can rationalise this and know it’s for our own good, it does not make going to the dentist any easier.
However, when you enter the dental practice and are worried about the experience, they comfort, communicate and sometimes medicate to help you through the experience. I have known people who need to take medication just to get through the door. Now, let’s change dental practice to veterinary practice and dentist to vet and finally you are now the dog. Try to imagine from your dog’s perspective, your first visit as a puppy, you walk into a strange smelling environment where there is an array of unusual and sometimes worrying scents, sights and sounds. Somebody starts talking to you in a language you do not understand, while at the same time picking you up, prodding and poking you with sharp, cold and potentially painful things. The vet cannot talk to you and let you know it’s for your own good or that it’s going to be okay, instead you are just associating the sights, sounds and smells of the environment as something that predicted something unpleasant.
The next time you attend, you are probably already a little anxious remembering your previous visit, but this time you’re probably feeling a little unwell, which is why you are there in the first place and again you suffer a multitude of potentially invasive and painful procedures, you don’t know why this is happening, but you do remember this place is not good. You could even go in fit and well and end up having body parts removed and coming out feeling worse than when you went in. But now you realise it did not start there, it was when you were put in the moving tin box that people call ‘car’, and you only get put in ‘car’ when you end up at the scary place. On the next visit, they have to drag you into ‘car’, then into the waiting area and then the treatment room. You try to tell them you’re scared, but they are not listening, so you bite them – it’s the only way to get them off. Whereupon they suddenly place a cage over your mouth and hold you so you cannot move and then the process starts again.
Imagine if your dentist did this, how would you feel? But this is what it may feel like to your dog when it enters the veterinary surgery, so it’s no wonder they can become terrified of the vet. Could we make this potentially traumatic experience much less stressful and traumatic for our dogs?
Absolutely! We can do our bit as owners and all the vets I have ever had dealings with are more than happy to help reduce their patients’ fear and anxiety. Veterinary practices want to do the best for our dogs and are increasingly becoming aware of the advantages of reducing and minimising the stress and anxiety experienced by their patients during visits as it benefits everyone – it makes it easier to carry out routine examinations, it reduces the risk of aggression from the dog and so makes it safer for the staff and less stressful and embarrassing for the owners who are now more likely to seek treatment for the dog sooner than they would have done before and if your dog does require medication to be administered to help it through the procedure, being less anxious may well enable smaller dosages of medication to be used.
What you must understand is that your dog is not being dominant, stubborn, disobedient or bad – it is frightened! So, let’s start by taking a few moments to recognise the signs of anxiety and stress in your dog, which may well include excessive panting, pacing, scanning, dilated pupils and increased heart rate. You may also see lowered body positions, standing very upright or tense, they may attempt to escape, growl, snarl, snap, bite or a variety of other behaviours associated with the fight/flight response. If your dog is biting, it is not biting because it’s aggressive, it’s biting because it wants the scary thing to go away. Do not be fooled if your dog is doing nothing either, extreme fear can result in the animal freezing, giving the appearance of being okay, but in reality, is too scared to move.
Here are some simple tips that may help reduce the stress and anxiety for your dog when they visit the vet:
If you know you have a dog that is already terrified, speak to your vet, they will usually be more than happy to provide help, advice and maybe medication to support your dog through the visit. If they are not happy to help make your dog’s experience less stressful, see what other practices can offer you.
While at the vets, if your dog starts showing signs of extreme stress and anxiety, it would be well worth asking the vet if you could reschedule the appointment. This may seem a waste of the vet’s time or an inconvenience, but it is not – by going away and prepping for the next appointment, you will make the whole process far less stressful and more successful for all involved.
It may be as simple as scheduling an appointment at the end of the day to avoid other dogs if your dog is not good with dogs.
If you must complete a car journey to the vets, take them out other times and let them think that more often than not cars can lead to fun, make the car journey to the vet the exception rather than the rule.
Consider using pheromones and other calming scents to help reduce the dog’s stress and anxiety, before arrival spray it onto towels, bedding or purpose made garments.
Think about where you position yourself in the waiting room, have somebody assist you, so the dog is not left around the reception desk where it can get crowded with people and other dogs.
Ask the vet if you can be in the room with your dog, just being around somebody familiar is going to help your dog, even better feed some tasty food during the examination or procedure if you are allowed to, this will help keep the dog busy but they may also learn that good stuff happens here too.
You could pre-train some behaviours at home and turn routine husbandry such as nail clipping, administering ear drops, teeth cleaning and wearing a muzzle etc into a fun game. A competent positive reinforcement trainer can help you with this.
As a certified fear-free professional, I know there are many benefits to making the visit to the vets practice as fear free as possible and I hope this article has helped and given you something to think about.
First Published in Dog World Magazine
Trainers and behaviourists know that behaviour change takes time, (a lot of time) – consider how long you were at school or maybe how long it took you to learn a musical instrument. It takes time and a lot of practice to learn a new skill and we understand that when working with clients and their dogs, we are on a journey to a destination, where the journey is as important as the destination. We know that this journey is very rarely, if ever, simple and straightforward and the reality is that it will have good days, bad days and everything in between and some destinations are not even possible. For instance, I recently worked with a client who said that they just wanted their dog to play and get along with other dogs and to never fight with another dog again! This is not an uncommon expectation, but how can I agree to this?
If you give a dog access to other dogs then there is always a chance they might argue and it would be totally irresponsible of me to guarantee this destination. Yes, we can make it a lot less likely, but we can’t guarantee that it will never have another squabble again.
As a trainer, I know that no behaviour can be guaranteed to occur with 100 per cent reliability 100 per cent of the time and no matter how hard I train, all I can really expect is that the more I train, the more probable it is that I will get what I ask for, when I ask for it.
So, we may have to adjust our destination, but over time we would expect to see improvement. The speed of improvement will depend on a number of limiting factors. Fear, for example, takes a long time to improve and in many circumstances we may never get the dog to where we would like them to be. Another factor is how much available time your client has.
I was listening to a very highly regarded behaviour expert recently who said that they estimated that your average working person can manage about ten minutes of training per day and then of course, the client’s financial resources need to be taken into account. So, as you can see, there is always going to be a trade-off – some people do not have much spare time but sufficient financial resources to get somebody to do the work for them, others may have more time but less financial resources and so will have to sacrifice some of their time and do the majority of the work themselves.
From my experience of the clients that I work with, they seem to have some time available and some financial resource, but not endless pots of either, so generally they will do the majority of training themselves.
However, me knowing all this is one thing, it is not however, the reality for many of the owners I work with, whose expectations of dog training and behaviour have been shaped by watching TV, reading books and even more so now, the internet and social media. Even if they are getting good information, it’s one thing knowing it, it’s another being able to act on it.
Unfortunately, TV can give the impression that undesired behaviours can be fixed in an hour when they only show, through editing, where the progress is constant and almost instant. This wrongly gives the impression that changing a dog’s behaviour is easy, but let’s face it, people would not have even contacted me if it was easy! The reality is that it is highly unlikely that we are going to see significant and lasting behaviour change in one week, let alone one consult or even one hour.
This impression that it is easy, also devalues what we do as trainers. I know many trainers who feel guilty about charging people for what we do – do not get me wrong, we all want to help dogs, but by giving away our advice and time for free, it only undermines and devalues what we do and as an industry, trainers are notorious for under-charging for their skills and services.
I have spent thousands of pounds on my education and hundreds upon hundreds of hours developing my practical skills and knowledge. Every year I attend seminars and conferences to maintain my CPD and am always learning.
So, if we as trainers do not value what we do, how can we expect owners to do the same? Ironically when people have to invest financially, they are more likely to do what is needed – they do not want to waste their hard earned money, but we still do not come with a magic bullet – we come with knowledge and skills.
No matter how good a trainer or behaviour consultant I may be, the real challenge is how I communicate this information to the people I work with and in a way that does not leave them disheartened by the real task ahead. You have to like working with people, as in truth it’s the people who are your clients, not their dogs.
Whether a particular case will be successful or not will be hugely dependant on how well I am able to coach my client and manage their expectations. Irrespective of how good I am at training a dog, I need, above all else, to be good at explaining concepts and coaching people. I could be the best dog trainer in the world, but if I cannot coach and educate people then I may as well give up now because I’m not going to be any help to you or your dog!
Sometimes, I am not the first trainer people have seen with their dog problems and when I look at the information they have previously been given, it is good advice with sound techniques, but something isn’t working, which is why they are now coming to see me.
Now, we do not get it right every time, but when I speak with the owners to discuss their previous plan, what appears to have been the biggest problem is the expectation they have of what they should have been able to achieve.
When we get it right, we will help the dog-human relationship – for example, I recently worked with a wonderful lady, who at the end of the consult said “I know it’s going to take a long time”, and understood she was limited by her resources, but by setting out with a realistic expectation, she will continue to make steady progress and will reach a level that her available time and resources will allow.
So when you are looking to employ somebody to help you, why not look for more than just dog training or university qualifications – these are super important for sure and should form the basis of your expectation, but what’s the point of having all the knowledge if it cannot be imparted in a practical and useful way? Next time you look, why not look to see what else your trainer can bring to the relationship and why not chat with them first and see if you like them, as ultimately, it may be the difference between success and failure.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Dog World