No Need with a Lead!

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!

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Make Vet Trips a Fear Free Experience

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

Its a Journey!

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

Live to sniff -Sniff to live!

Why did you get your dog? We all know there are a large variety of reasons for people to step into the world of dog ownership, but for the vast majority of pet dog owners, it falls to some form of companionship and this can be a wonderful thing. However, when the dog’s goals and objectives are different to ours, things go wrong and it can result in a very strained relationship.

One of the key things we are told to do when we own a dog is to provide adequate exercise and this more often than not takes the form of a lead walk. Now, if we are diligent, we will walk our dogs daily for a prescribed amount of time and in my experience, this generally falls within 30 minutes to several hours per day. The decision about how much we should walk them is normally based on age, breed, health, activity levels and one of the biggest factors, is the owner’s available time and we will predictably walk them in the morning and evenings and if they are lucky, in the middle of the day too.

But even though we walk our dogs, the reality is that most dogs will spend the vast majority of their day within the confines of their home or kennel. Imagine how boring this would be for us! Imagine being locked in your home for 22 hours a day and then being let out for just two. I am sure a few of us would go a little stir-crazy in this situation and with this in mind, we should not be surprised when our dogs get excited about going out into the world when we mention that magic word!

We must accept that modern life dictates this type of life for many of our dogs and given this fact, we should start to appreciate how important the walk can be for the dog, not least because dogs that are kept in a sterile environment and not given the opportunity to express their normal behaviours, can develop serious behavioural conditions such as continuous pacing, light and shadow chasing, spinning and excessive mounting etc.

Now, you may be an owner of one of those dogs that gets plenty of exercise opportunities but never seems to stop from the moment you go out – they appear to never stop wanting to work or hunt, or maybe they jump around, biting at their lead, mounting, mouthing or they never seem to just chill out in the house unless they are sleeping.

I see too many dogs that are well exercised but still off their heads with boredom or frustration. Improving walks for these guys with some mental stimulation or games and activities that help them calm down, will help immensely.

But how many of us ever sit back and think about the dog and what they would like to do with their walk time? Let’s face it, who is the walk really for?

If I ask this question to owners, I nearly always get told it is for exercise, as the dog needs exercise, doesn’t it?

Sometimes I think the human desire for exercise may take priority and actually the dog may want to do something different. It does sadden me to see dogs being route-marched around next to their owner and only being allowed to stop for the toilet in the misguided belief that they must be the pack leader, or more often now the owner is power walking or jogging to exercise themselves and thinking that the dog can be exercised at the same time.

But let’s look at it from the dog’s perspective – given the opportunity to sniff and investigate the world or march around in a hurry, what do you think they would rather do?

I would love my walk to be exercise for me, but that’s not my dog’s priority. My Dogue de Bordeaux lives to sniff – he loves stopping at every lamppost, corner, road sign, drain etc to find out about all the other dogs that live around us, to check out and leave pee mail and just generally learn about the world around him.

In fact, if he had a motto it would be ‘live to sniff, sniff to live’ so when we walk around the streets, we mostly do so at his pace and he is allowed to take it all in. The walk can be so much more than just exercise. It is great for providing a level of enrichment that if you just march them around the walk, they would miss out on.

So given what we know, those few hours every day when you are out walking are precious to your dog and quite possibly its long-term mental health and this can be even more so if they are not able to get off lead and explore, so why not give it a go and let them do something that they would rather do?

In my dog’s case he loves to sniff and in most instances I am happy to let him take as long as he wants, but why not add in some simple training exercises as you walk along, take a different route, go at a different time of day, change direction and be less predictable, or maybe toss some food into the grass for them to find.

Another really simple exercise that is good for all dogs, but in my opinion especially so for dogs that never seem to switch off, is to help them learn to relax and in effect give them an ‘off switch’ and the great thing about this exercise is that it is really easy do on the walk. Take part of your walking time and instead of just marching around or letting the dog work continuously, go to a quiet place away from lots of people and traffic and just stop and watch the world go by, maybe drop a few treats for your dog to pick up, but don’t do anything, just hang around quietly for five or ten minutes and then walk quietly on.

When was the last time you just stopped and did nothing but relax and how much better did you feel?

So, what is all this talk about walks leading up to? Well, a client I have recently worked with was having some problems with their dog’s behaviour in the house and it appeared on the face of it that one of the biggest underlying causes was boredom. He would regularly look for ways to get the family to interact with him and as usual the only things that worked for him were the things that bugged the family and ultimately this resulted in him doing the wrong behaviour more – dogs do what works!

When I suggested that their dog was bored, they initially could not believe it – they take their dog jogging with them everyday and run several miles at a time – what more could he want? I asked about whether they have ever considered what he was bred to do, what was his breed’s original function and why not give him the opportunity to do some of this in games and training sessions when on walks? This simple change to his walks over a number of weeks has noticeably improved his behaviour both in the home and outside, but ultimately his relationship with his owners.

So, why not do something different with your dog this weekend? Your furry companion will thank you for it!

Reproduced with the kind permission of Dog World.

How To Break Up a Dog Fight

Posted with the kind permission of Dog World:

Just as I sat down to start writing this article, my two male dogs decided that they were going to have a fight with each other. This wasn’t one of those squabbles which are over before they get started, this was a full-blown, I am not going to back down and now I have you in my mouth, type of fight! So this month, I have decided to give some advice on the best way to deal with a dog fight, if you should find yourself in this situation.

Putting aside the more exotic underlying medical conditions which may cause aggression, for the vast majority of dogs, the occasional argument, squabble and fight is just part of everyday life and results in little or no injury to either party. I am not suggesting that because it’s normal we should just let dogs get on with it, but instead understand that for a variety of reasons – poor play and social skills, bullying, conflict over resources, proximity sensitivity or frustration – dogs may growl, snarl, snap and fight with other dogs.

So, if we can accept that dogs will have aggressive behaviours in their normal behavioural repertoire and will use this behaviour when they feel it is appropriate and that this may sometimes result in a fight with another dog, it is my hope that by looking at dog fights more rationally, we will be less freaked out and more likely to act sensibly when it inevitably happens.

Living with groups of dogs has prepared me well and I have become accustomed and a little desensitised to the occasional squabble and fight and consequently well-practiced at dealing with my own dogs and the occasional fight that may break out in a class. Similarly though, I do recognise that if you have not had as much experience of dog squabbles and fights as me, a fight can be a scary experience.

No matter what your experience, when a fight breaks out, you need to act decisively and quickly. Now is not the time to panic, so it helps to be prepared. Before a fight happens, mentally rehearse and practice what you would do if a fight was to break out so that you will then be more likely to react and stop a fight quickly. In addition to rehearsing, I carry protective gloves, citronella spray and a break-stick. (A break-stick is used to open the dog’s mouth in order to release the other dog, but this needs some skill and confidence to use).

So what can you do if a fight breaks out?

There are a number of ways people advise on how to break up dog fights and the method I use is based on the one that can be found in the book Fight by Jean Donaldson. No method is 100 per cent safe, so I must caution that if you choose to use the following, there is always a risk of injury; plunging your hands into a dog fight puts you at a real risk of receiving a redirected bite.

If there are a number of other dogs present, get everybody whose dog is not involved in the fight to catch and control their dogs as quickly as possible. Dogs are drawn to intensity, so it is important to act quickly and interrupt before it really gets started.

To interrupt, as soon as a fight breaks out, very quickly raise your voice, make a loud noise, yell and clap your hands. In many cases this sudden startle may be enough to nip things in the bud and stop the dogs in their tracks. If this brings the fight to a sudden end, immediately move the dogs away from each other and restrain and/or separate them and then check for injury.

If making a sudden noise for no more than a few seconds has no effect, you are going to need to part them, to do this, work together and go in and grab the dogs at the rear of the body, at the point where the legs join the body. Don’t mess around, move decisively and positively and pull them backwards away from each other and at the same time elevate them into a wheelbarrow type position and start to turn them away from each other so the dogs are also side stepping. In this position, it is unlikely you will get a redirected bite and the dogs are unable to lunge forward – Note: never elevate a dog by its lower legs or tail.

Being on your own with no help available is a dire situation to be in if a fight breaks out, so firstly try and get help from people around you. Tackling a dog fight on your own is something that requires a calm head and quite a lot of skill and experience, but sometimes you may find yourself without a choice and so you will have to do the best you can if you decide to intervene.

If you do find yourself in this position, try to startle them into stopping and then if you have it with you, a citronella spray can sometimes work, but do not waste time if startle and spray does not have a pretty immediate effect of stopping the fight, you are going to have to part one of the dogs, so choose the one that appears to be the aggressor, if you cannot tell this, just choose the dog you can least likely control with your voice and try to part them using the wheelbarrow technique, while using your voice to keep the other dog back.

If you have a situation where a dog latches onto another dog and will not immediately let go, try not to panic, in most cases this looks worse than it is. I also need to stress this is not a common occurrence, although some breeds appear more prone to do this than others. Quickly assess that the bite is not causing the airway to be compromised or that the dog is not panicking. If there is not an urgent need for emergency action, take hold of the collar of the dog that has latched on and try to coax them off with food or just wait patiently and see if they will let go as things calm. Do not pull them apart as this risks tearing and in my experience, the latching dog will often bite down harder to hang on.

Finally, if the dog’s airway is compromised, it appears to be losing consciousness or if the dog that is being latched on to is panicking, then it is a real emergency. If you have prepared and have a fight kit handy, now is definitely the time to use it. If you do not, then you will have to think on your feet and use whatever means you can to get the latching dog to release the other dog. This is not going to be easy and may be unpleasant for the dog, but better that than a dead or seriously injured dog – sometimes, in very extreme circumstances, the ends may justify the means.

I would just like to let you know that thanks to their stellar bite inhibition and me acting quickly to separate my dogs using the wheelbarrow technique mentioned previously, both parties were fine, apart from having bruised egos!

Dogged Determination

Before I start, I will ask you not to make judgements but to read this article with an open mind. I know many people will think ‘well they should have done this and shouldn’t have done that’ etc, but like most of us in life, sometimes what we should do and what we actually do, can be very different things and this is a story, albeit briefly on the trials and tribulations of owning a fearful dog.
The main character of our story is a dog called Joe – before coming to the UK, Joe lived in a foreign land and was rescued from a life on the streets by a local dog charity. He is a small crossbreed, about one year old and the size of a small Whippet.
My story really starts in September 2015 when a few days before his arrival into the UK, I was contacted by a lovely family asking me to help integrate a new dog into their family home with an existing family cat.
However, this family did not just have a cat, they had a dad who had never owned a dog before, two young boys aged six and three and numerous visitors coming and going, including other children.
So, there I am chatting on the phone learning some of the back-story and getting a bit more information about the impending new arrival, when alarm bells started to ring in my head. Now, part of what I do is to know what battles to pick and what to let go, but when you hear alarm bells in your head so early in a new client relationship, you know that you have a difficult conversation coming.
They had not met the dog, they had been told he was okay with cats and as it got closer to the day, they had been told that he takes a little time with people he has never met and is wary of children.
This information was concerning to me and was to trigger the first of what transpired to be a number of discussions over several months with them that living with a fearful dog can be life-changing and I voiced my concerns, suggesting they contact the charity immediately for more information, which to be fair, they duly did.
The information that they got back did not put my mind at rest and I still suggested that Joe may not be the right dog for their family. Now this is tough, a new client who I have only known for a few days and I’m telling them that their new dog that they have been looking forward to getting, but have never met, may well not be suitable for them.
With time running out, Joe was being flown over the next day, the family decided that they would proceed with their decision to adopt him. They picked him up from the airport and I was due to see them in their home in two days’ time.
As first experiences matter the most, I asked them to take some super ‘out of this world’ treats with them to offer to him the first time they meet.
After they picked up Joe, we spoke again and I asked them to describe how it had gone. Joe had not rushed forward tail wagging, wanting to lick them all over; he had instead backed away with rounded back, tucked tail but would eat the treats if tossed towards him. He was not aggressive though, just frightened and they were able to crate him and bring him home.
In preparation, I had asked them to create a confinement area where Joe could live and be given time to settle over the next few days, but at the same time, they needed a space where they could keep Joe safely away from the children and cat. Although they needed a little convincing, they thankfully agreed and this proved to be very important, as when they first arrived home, Joe spotted the children and immediately growled as they approached and he backed away and the parents immediately took him to his safe space and called me.
I gave them some initial safety advice over the phone and arranged to meet them as soon as possible. When we first met, I sat with the family and we talked for several hours about what the road ahead looked like and what was involved. I laid it clearly on the line; the risks with children, the work, the patience and even suggested returning the dog if they could, as it clearly was not going to be the easy-going family dog they had hoped for.
There were some elements in our favour, in that Joe was going to be exposed to lots of new situations that we could capitalise on, I had a compliant family that was willing to do what it takes, he was not a large dog, was inclined to go backwards when worried and would provide protracted warnings (growling and air snapping). As far as we knew, he had never bitten and so we had no bite information.
The next day, we spoke again and they told me that they had considered everything I told them and they were prepared to do whatever it took to give Joe the loving family home he deserved.
So, we set about the safety management and behaviour modification, over the next few months we worked with crates, leads, tethers, gates, muzzles and lots of chicken and cheese. We got their vet on board to rule out medical conditions and provide clinical support if required.
Now, if I feel there is a safety issue, I make it very clear that they MUST do what is asked of them and throughout the plan they managed Joe and the children diligently so that they were never left alone together, which is no mean feat in itself.
Joe responded well to the training and within a couple of days he was starting to show signs of improvement with me and Mum. It took a few more weeks for Dad to be accepted and a good seven months before Joe was relaxed around the children. Because of all the early management, the integration between cat and dog just happened naturally.
To give you some idea of time, in the early weeks I would see the family twice per week, then for months I would attend weekly, and in the last two months, I have seen them once monthly.
You will often see me write that working with fearful dogs is a slow process that will be life-changing and can also be incredibly rewarding. It has not all been plain sailing; there were plenty of ups and downs for the family. There were times in the early months that they felt like giving up; we had all the emotions, tears, joy, challenge and self-doubt.
As the months passed, Joe improved week on week and although Joe will not be the dog they originally expected, they have grown to love him and accept that life with Joe will always be different. He is comfortable around the children and going back to the original call, is living in harmony with the cat.
Due to their sheer dogged determination, this family has achieved something truly wonderful and I couldn’t be more proud.

All things puppy

Just got a puppy or young dog thinking of getting one? Have loads of questions? Why not come along to Wendover Heights Veterinary Centre on Thursday at 7pm and find out the answers to many of the common puppy problems and much much more.