Celebrate Those Testing Pooches

Looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth right? But Leon (the dog in the header) was a very challenging dog in that he used to be people and dog aggressive and he’d also clear off with any toy (or dead rabbit) and just not come back with it (he’d be the opposite end of the field with it). He is an awesome dog, and ha taught me so much and pushed me to learn new techniques and to be creative about how I trained him.

He will be 11 in October 2018 and I can’t believe that we’ve shared 10 years together. Yes, he has driven me nuts, made me cry, caused me no end of stress and frustration, made me wonder why I took him, made me very ware of people approaching and of what they are going to do (he’s cute, cream coloured and fluffy and people just want to touch him, not what he needed). I’ve wondered what the hell I’d let myself in for and whether I was totally mad when I offered to keep him after fostering him for 3 weeks. He arrived with a bite history, had been badly handled and had learned to bite first and ask questions later. He didn’t have a lot of trust. He was a mess…he barked and lunged at people and dogs. He had to be muzzled to go to the vets otherwise the poor vet would have been bitten. He had no recall if toys were involved and was very experienced at playing keep away. Why oh why did I take him on? Why did I put myself through this?

i’m sure many of us that have these challenging dogs, have asked ourselves the same questions many many times? Why do we do it? Because the rewards are so worthwhile, even if no one outside of your family and friends every sees them. They will one day, trust me. Yes it takes dedication and yes, sometimes it seems that we take one step forward and ten backwards, but then on other days, we may take several steps forwards and none backwards.

The point of this rather self-indulgent blog? Celebrate your successes people, no matter how small they are. We are such a negative species and we really do beat ourselves up with things go round and mull over in our heads how we could have done things better. We lose focus on the things that have good well, we forget to focus on the goods things that have happened. We need to celebrate the successes, the times when our dogs made a good choice or when we made a good choice.

Smile and celebrate the times that your dog didn’t react to one of his/her triggers. Pat yourselves on the back for a job well done. You’ve got this, honestly. Look up, look around you and really notice your dog. Look at how far they have progressed, look at the trust that shines out of their eyes. They may not be perfect (yet), but they are making progress. They may be finding life tough outside of the home environment, but inside these four walls, they are with people who they trust and who love them, warts and all. You do love them,, otherwise you would have moved them on, in one way or another.

I remember, all too well, the sense of failure when we’d had a bad walk, the sense of frustration when things weren’t working out well and training seemed to be going so badly, the despair when nothing seemed to be working and we were making no progress for what seemed like months on end, but was probably only a few weeks. I remember going through stages when I hated Leon and hated myself, but then I stopped and took stock of where we were at that point in time and looked back to what we started with, and realised we had made progress, the boy was doing good; I had just got some tangled up in the negatives that I wasn’t seeing the progress.

My challenge for you today, is to stop, look into your troublesome pooches eyes, give them a smile and a cuddle (if they will let you). Let them know they are fabulous and then look, really look at just how much progress they have made. Every day make a point of noting down at least one good thing your dog has done that day and celebrate your part in that success. Step by step these successes will build and suddenly, one day, you’ll stop and notice that your dog now has a new doggy pal or a new human friend or he/she hasn’t reacted at one of their triggers for weeks. Please don’t miss this moment, they are so precious.

leon draxI no longer think of Leon as a reactive dog, he has his own circle of friends, he is safe to be let off lead around people and dogs and has ended up being a fabulous dog who has helped many troubled pooches to settled into my home and to teach them how to trust people/dogs and how to communicate and play. Yes, he is still special and I still don’t allow folks to touch him unless Leon invites them to, but I can relax when I walk him, I’m no longer hiding behind cars, finding secluded places to walk him or telling folks to keep away. He has raced in flyball for me (gaining his BFA Flyball Dog award), gained his Gundog Club Grade 1 and gained Bronze and Silver levels of the Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Dog Scheme. I know what makes him tick and I love him warts and all.

 

 

 

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Running Free – an understated need

Living with and working with dogs that are easily over aroused (poor impulse control) and those that are reactive to various things, I’ve recently be pondering about exercising these dogs.

Note: for the purposes of this blog, reactive dogs are those that lunge and bark at things like people, dogs, other animals, cars, jogger etc. I know all dogs are reactive (aware of and reacting to) to what goes on around them, if they weren’t they would be dead!

We are often told to make sure that these dogs have relaxing, calming walks and to allow them to sniff. This is because these activities are inherently calming. I have no problem with that as a main activity, but I do think dogs need more than this; they do need to burn off some energy by being allowed to runabout and to play with their handler (or other dogs if they are sociable). We are often advised that allowing a dog to run about is too adrenalising and will make it more reactive or ‘hyper’. The flip side of that is, that if  a dog is never allowed off a lead to run about, it will have pent up energy just desperate to bubble out..think about it as a can or bottle of a fizzy drink that has been shaken up…all that energy needs to go somewhere and it will explode out once the bottle/can is open.

It must be very frustrating, as a dog, when you are kept on a lead for the majority of your walks, even if you are allowed to wander where you wish and for as long as you wish. Dogs do need to run and burn off their energy. Compare it to a toddler that has had to sit still for several hours and how they just have to have a run about afterwards. Consider how you would feel if you were only allowed to walk to the same places day in and day out and how much you’d enjoy doing something different.  Conversely, I’m not suggesting that you just let your reactive dog off leash to do as they please, but they do need to trot, run and lark about.

In my experience, the lack of off lead exercising can make reactive dogs more reactive and can bring out other unwanted behaviours. With those dogs that can be over aroused, an off lead blast is a great way of letting off steam and you may well find that they are less easily aroused after a good run and less easily triggered as well as a bit less OCD.

Of course, finding safe places to let these types of dogs off for a good run, can be difficult. If you have a dog that is a car chaser, it can be hard to find an area to let them run where they won’t see a car and be tempted to chase. For those dogs that are reactive to dogs and/or people, it can be hard to find somewhere to let your dog run off lead where there are no people or dogs. Often times, we end up walking in very secluded areas or very early or late at night, so that we can avoid those triggers.

17103796_1890622894549274_3683343764793018899_nIf there are no safe off lead walks near you, consider hiring a secure field for your dog to run off lead in. Several rescue organisations rent out their secure fields (such as Jerry Green’s and the RSPCA centers), some boarding kennels may rent out their secure exercising fields and, thankfully, there are a whole host of private secure fields that have been developed for dog walking purposes. These fields are usually available to hire for 30-60 minutes and some allow you to have dogs from more than one family sharing, so that you can have a safe place to meet up with your dog’s pals.

16938839_1890622881215942_961381504793021443_nThere is a fab resource on FaceBook called Dog walking fields – enclosed, private, off lead dog walking  which has details of secure fields all over the UK. I’m lucky that there are about 4 secure fields within an hour or so drive from me. Check the page out and find a secure place to give your dog a good off lead run. Great places to work on recalls as well.

Try it out, just once a week and you may see your dog’s behaviour improve for the better.

Costs vary depending on area, but somewhere between £5 and £10 is the likely cost and once a week, that has just got to be worth it.

Thanks to The Paw Park at Sand Hutton for allowing me to use a couple of their photos

 

 

To Ditch or Not To Ditch….

The Food Bowl that is.

We hear it all the time, don’t we? Don’t feed your dog out of their food bowl, let them work for their food out of Kongs and other food enrichment toys. There are some trainers and ‘experts’ that promote the idea that dogs should never get any food in a food bowl and that they should work for it all.

But is it really the best thing for the dog? Don’t get me wrong, I use food enrichment toys for my dogs. They have Kongs, K9 Connections, snuffle mats, slow feeding bowls and other food enrichment toys. I also use part of their daily ration to reward them for good behaviour during the day (and of course, they get ‘extra treats on top).

DSCF9576However, for some dogs, having to work for all their food causes huge frustration and this can tip over into training and may even result in behaviour problems such as food guarding appearing as well as things such as poor impulse control. We really don’t want frustration to tip over into training as it then becomes part of the behaviours that we are training (yes, emotions can be attached to behaviours during training) and when that frustration bubbles over the top, we can end up with an aggressive outburst  and someone (or some dog) is going to get bitten.

Yes, some frustration is good as we do need to teach our dogs (and kids) some frustration tolerance, so that they can cope with delayed gratification rather than just wanting instance gratification. Too much frustration is not good and can lead to aggressive outbursts (bit like a temper tantrum in a child), so we need to avoid that.

We are often advised to feed young puppies (8 weeks of age) only from Kongs. Now young puppies need more food than an adult of the same size as they are growing so fast. They need to eat frequently and need nutrient dense food. They get hungry fast. The problem in feeding only via Kongs, is that the puppy cannot get enough food in its belly quickly enough to meet their hunger pangs. Hungry dogs will have low blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar levels can and do result in uncontrolled aggression. Just think how ratty and irritable you get when you are hungry. Hungry animals will resource guard food and people carrying food. They are hungry, so food is very important in their lives, so they will guard any source of that food; their Kongs, their owner’s treat pouch etc. and they will guard it from other people and other dogs.

Yes, there are plenty of puppies that have been fed only via food enrichment toys and have never developed resource guarding, but there are many that have, so it is something to be aware of. Some dogs are more food driven and struggle to cope with being made to eat their food slowly. Yes, we need to teach them to slow down (with having GSDs, I always worry about bloat).

Lara (GSD), has been horrendous. Even at 11 weeks, when she arrived, she has been almost frantic to eat her meals. Feeding her only via Kongs would have been an out and out disaster. She has been hard enough to teach to cope with using a slow feeding bowl, although she is better than she was and enjoys a meal from her snuffle mat.

With this ravenous-type pups,k they do need to eat the majority of their meals from a bowl, but you can also give them part of that meal in a Kong, on a snuffle mat or scatter feed it. This type of pup, can be very grabby over treats, so watch your fingers and teach them some slow treat control and Doggy Zen (see our online Self-control course).

Also. bear in mind what I said earlier; hungry dogs are going to be more impulsive, more easily frustrated, more irritable and easier to tip over into an aggressive outburst.

My advice?

Feed some of each meal in a food bowl; the rest can come from a Kong or scatter feeding as long as it doesn’t take the dog too long to get the food into their belly.

When you first introduce Kongs, they should be really easy to empty and should empty quickly, especially for puppies. We need to them to get the food out quickly to have satiate their hunger. If we make them too hard to empty too soon, all we are doing is building frustration in an already hungry dog. DSCF9538

Gradually increase the difficulty of the Kong.  For the really experienced Kong users, you may want to try freezing them first. For some recipe ideas, take a look at my frozen Kong recipe page

Don’t train a hungry dog. Even a dog that has had its meal will be happy to take food rewards (and their are loads of other rewards we can use other than food). Hungry dogs will lack impulse control, will get frustrated faster and will be more snatchy/grabby over treats and are more likely to tip over into using aggression. Make sure they have had at least 50% of their meal before you train (can be hours before your session) so that you have taken the edge of your hunger (and make sure you don’t train when you are hungry as you will be more irritable as well).

Kongs are fabulous as an entertainment toy; to keep your dog occupied for a little while. Heck, I use them myself and the dogs love them, but just be a little careful over how you use them and don’t make them too hard too soon or use them are the only source of your dog’s food.

My advice is to not ditch the bowl completely.

 

Distance is your friend

When you live with a dog that is worried about people and/or other dogs, then walks can be a bit of a nightmare as you want your dog to enjoy some exercise/new environments but still need to ensure that other people and/or dogs stay away from your dog so that you dog doesn’t get upset and feel the need to react. It really is a balancing act.

Why is distance your friend?

reactive rvers distancesYour have two critical distances around it and the size of those spaces will depend on the individual dog, and the outer one will alter with training.

The outer circle or bubble, can be thought of as peripheral space; outside of this space, the dog is aware of people and other dogs but isn’t worried by them. They are far enough away not to concern him at all.

One a dog (or person) crosses that barrier and enters that outer bubble, then your dog will start to get anxious and the closer the other dog (or person) gets to the inner circle (the dog’s personal space), the more uptight and worried your dog will become.

If the dog (or person) enters the dog’s personal space, then the dog is likely to react. Dogs only let their close friends into their personal space, very much like we do. Think about how uncomfortable you become when a stranger gets too close to you. It’s only our social inhibitions that stop us from lashing out (well usually they do).

For some dogs, that out peripheral boundary may be more than the length of a football pitch or more; for other dogs, that distance may only be the width of a street. Our aim is for out dogs to be comfortable to have dogs/people within that outer boundary and to shrink the distance of that boundary down to a more acceptable (to us) distance. This isn’t going to happen overnight and it certainly won’t happen if the dog is punished for showing signs that it is uncomfortable.

Your job is to keep people and dogs outside that outer boundary and to reward your dog for being comfortable when they are there (so lots of really tasty goodies or play with their favorite toy). The food (or toy) only gets produced when your dog is aware of the other dogs/person.

Sometimes, the other dog or person just gets too close and we need to be backing away and getting our dog away.

Here are a few tips for dealing with dogs when you are out walking with your dog reactive dog.

Both dogs are on lead

Cross over the road, do a quick U-turn and quickly go back the way you’ve come from, hide yourself and your dog behind a car, hedge or tree so that he doesn’t see the other dog. I’ve even nipped up someone’s drive way before now to avoid another dog. Basically put as much distance between you and the other dog.

If the other dog owner insists on following you, shout across to them that your dog has got kennel cough or some other infectious disease and that usually makes them go away.

Your dog is on lead and the other dog is off lead.

This is a slightly trickier situation, especially if the owner is not in sight or appears to be of the “It’s OK, he only wants to say hello/play” type. I cringe when I hear that phrase as it usually means that they are unable to call their dog back to them, no matter how politely you ask them to. I usually carry a pocket full (or more) of tasty treats. As the dog approaches, I grab a handful of treats, lift my hand up above my head (a signal for sit) and shout at the approaching dog to sit and at the same time, I throw the treats straight at it. The startled dog usually spends a little while scoffing the treats, enabling me and my dog to run away in the opposite direction.

You can also try the “My dog has an infectious disease” approach if you feel that the owner has a hope of recalling their dog.

I’ve heard of people using pop-up umbrellas to startle the other dog away, but it’s not something I’ve tried and you will need to remember to teach your dog that the umbrella popping up is not something to be scared of.

Tips for dealing with people approaching your dog

As you see a person approaching, before you even speak to them, quickly back up and call your dog to front and then keep walking backwards as you explain that your dog is frightened of strangers. Feed your dog the whole time you are doing this.

A variation on this is to walk backwards, call your dog back to you and then drop food between your feet. People seem less inclined to approach a dog’s backside to fuss him that they do the head.

You could teach your dog to go behind you as people approach, thus putting yourself between the approaching person and your dog.

I have actually been known to step forward with my arm up whilst saying stop (bit like a policeman directing traffic). That generally shocks people into stopping their approach, which then gives me chance to explain.

One more thing with people is that they are very judgmental and when your dog does bark, lunge or growl, they expect you to tell the dog off (which actually won’t help) and are shocked when you don’t. I’ve found teaching the dog a ‘mock’ reprimand works very well in these situations as folks believe that you’ve told the dog off. A mock reprimand is something like ‘bad dog’ where we have actually taught the dog that these words and a cross tone mean that a reward is coming. It’s a very handy ploy.

For more tips like this and for support for your reactive dog, come and join us in our Top Tips for Reactive Dogs FaceBook group.

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