The importance of using a qualified behaviourist

The dog training industry is completely unregulated, meaning anyone can set up as a trainer or behaviourist. This leads to a huge variety in the quality of service you may receive and the methods used. Some trainer and behaviourists may have completed a course that is a few days long, while others like myself and other trainers and behaviourists I refer to have spent years studying animal behaviour and achieved degrees and masters degrees to ensure we have a huge bank of up to date knowledge. The hope is that one day all trainers and behaviourists will need a minimum level of training to advertise their services and ensure you are getting the best advice for your pets, but until then please ask questions before you book a session.

Research into animal behaviour is constant, especially work on dogs as the UK’s most popular pet. For that reason, after my degree in animal behaviour and welfare, I chose to continue my studies with the Msc in Clinical Animal Behaviour at Lincoln University.

The University of Lincoln MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour is an evidence-based post-graduate qualification and is one of only two UK courses accredited by the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. 

Some dog trainers who do not possess any qualifications will tell you that experience is more important than a piece of paper. I agree that experience is just as important and that is why Lincoln University ensure all their students engage in real cases. I also spent 5 years working at Jerry Green’s dog rescue while studying for my degree to ensure I have the practical experience to back up my knowledge. To be a good trainer or behaviourist the theory and the practice are essential.

The Lincoln MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour is generally thought of as one of the two best places to study this field (alongside the University of Edinburgh) and is headed by Europe’s first veterinary behaviour professor, Daniel Mills, alongside Dr Helen Zulch, Professor Anna Wilkinson, and many other leading scientists in this field. The university is a world leader in animal behaviour research and it is amazing to be able to discuss ideas and theories with such knowledgeable people.

The following businesses are headed by fellow students from the MSc course, and I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending any of them!

Laura Welch Dog Trainer – Laura is based in Christchurch, Dorset

Rachel Rodgers – Pupstartdogtraining, Spalding, South Lincolnshire

Quality Canines – Natalie Smith, Dog Trainer in North Lincolnshire

Let’s Play Dog Training – Lyn Caldicot, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire.

Kyra Dog trainer & Behaviourist, West London

To my fellow dog owners

Super proud of my reactive boy during our camping weekend, he demonstrated how far he has come. From a dog that barked at everything, to calmly walking through busy areas, passing people and dogs, cows, deer and sheep at close quarters and ignoring cyclists and traffic. We all have our limits though and I wish my fellow dog owners would respect that my dogs limits may be different to their dog’s.

So, to the man I ‘met’ in the pub car park, while I was stood, in what I thought was a safe out of the way corner with my dog, waiting for my husband to follow the covid rules and 1 way system to find a table in the beer garden. I realise you don’t think your lovely, friendly dog who clearly doesn’t have a painful spinal condition like my dog and who clearly desperately wants to approach every dog he sees even if the other dog is giving loud signals asking him not to come closer, did anything wrong.

However while your dog lunged and pulled towards my dog, pulling so hard on his lead that his body was at a 45 degree angle to the floor and getting close enough so I could hear his claws scraping on the concrete as he tried in vain to gain more traction to pull you closer to my dog, it would have been helpful if you had called your dog away rather than laughing at my dog having a mini meltdown and making some offhand comment that I could not hear over my dog’s barking.

And to the lady in the beautiful national trust grounds with lots of signs asking dogs to be kept on leads. It is wonderful that you have so much confidence in your ‘well trained’ dogs, so much so that you drape their leads around your neck rather than attaching them to your dogs.

However, while we moved over to the other side of the path to maintain some space and your dogs ignored my on-lead dog’s signals that he would rather not say hello today, I wonder whether your confidence was misplaced, as neither of your dogs seemed to be aware that you were calling them and did not turn away until my dog was forced to give a brief ‘back off’ grumble. Your comment that ‘it serves them right’ may or may not be true, but does not help my dog who was put in a stressful situation that meant he felt he had to bark/growl at your dogs.

I work hard to avoid these situations and to build my dog’s confidence around other dogs so that he knows they are not a threat and will not approach him uninvited so he doesn’t feel that he needs to panic (bark/lunge) as soon as a dog comes into view. My dog is more than happy to maintain the 2 metre social distancing rule and will happily ignore your dog if only they did the same.

Do they really need to sit?

I was at the vets with JJ this week for his 6 monthly medication check. It’s the first time we have been allowed to wait inside since the pandemic began so it was quite a challenge for JJ who finds the vets scary and doesn’t like some dogs in close proximity. After we had moved out of the way of the very barky dog, which JJ did fab not reacting too, we settled in a seat and JJ took up the ‘safe’ place under the seats so he could observe.

A lovely little black lab came in with her owner, she was very sweet and a little nervous about the environment. She wagged her tail at the receptionists and had a couple of quick peeks at JJ who was blatantly staring at her. Her owner though was repeatedly telling her to ‘Sit’ and when she didn’t respond immediately the demand got louder and more forceful, eventually resulting in the owner pushing the dog’s bum down forcing a sit. This worked momentarily until the little lab felt she needed to get a better look at what was happening behind her and the process started again, the owner clearly getting more and more annoyed that her dog had suddenly forgotten the most simple command!

Why was it so important to this owner that her dog sit in this situation? The dog was not pulling on the lead or getting in anybody’s way. She wasn’t trying to wander off or approach me or JJ, she was standing still, glancing around occasionally looking a little apprehensive.

Owners seem obsessed with getting their dog to sit in every situation, but why? To prove control?

In lots of situations our dogs may not feel comfortable sitting, they may feel that standing is a more prepared stance, particularly in an environment or situation that makes them anxious. If we are training a dog not to chase traffic or bark and lunge at other dogs is it necessary for them to sit? I would just be happy with them not chasing/barking/lunging, the sit might come later when they feel more relaxed, but it should not be our primary goal and should certainly not be forced.

On a training walk with a very nervous overseas rescue yesterday I asked him to sit at the road before we crossed. He happily did this at the first road near his house, but when we got to the main road with lots of noisy traffic the ‘Sit’ fell on deaf ears. As he watched each vehicle go by while I waited for a safe gap, I could see his anxiety increasing. Was it important at this point for him to sit? No! It was important for him to be able to cross the road and get to the park without feeling so anxious he wanted to go home like he had the previous week. We ran across the road as soon as we were able and he had a lovely sniffy walk around the park which had seemed completely out of reach a week earlier. Was his owner mad that I hadn’t made him sit at every road? Of course not, she was super proud of her boy for getting to the park 🙂

In puppy training ‘Sit’ is one of the first things that are taught and it seems to be a relatively easy one for puppies to manage, but owners soon start shouting ‘Sit’ at their puppy in all kinds of situations. Like when the puppy is jumping up, but this doesn’t really work. Just like the nervous little Labrador at the vets who was too frightened to listen to her owners demands, an excited puppy is having too much fun getting a reaction out of their owner to do something calm like sit. Sometimes we need to do nothing. If we don’t respond to the jumping up, the puppy will soon get bored and try something else to get the attention it desperately craves. Maybe they will briefly land with 4 paws on the floor and we could reward them for that. Expecting a sit at this point is a little ambitious, but if we start with our puppy greeting us with 4 paws on the floor a sit becomes a more realistic target.

So next time you are going to ask your dog to sit, ask yourself why. Is that really the behaviour you want or are you trying to stop a different behaviour? If so maybe a different training technique needs to be considered.

Just Walk the Dog!

Driving through a lovely little village today, I turn the corner to see a little dog in the middle of the road on an extendable lead. His owner looks up from her phone and pulls him out of harms way.

I hate extendable leads, dangerous things, but that’s a blog for another time. My main issue is that the owner was on her phone, not just talking to someone on the phone, but looking at the phone screen, maybe a video call who knows!

The point is, she has chosen this part of the day to take her beloved pooch for a walk, but instead of going for that walk with him/her she is doing something else instead and simply keeping hold of the other end of the lead.

We expect our dogs to pay attention to us on walks, to walk nicely on the lead, to come back when called even when there is something really exciting to chase/sniff. So if they have to be ready to attend to any move or sound we make why do we not return the favour?

As an owner of a reactive dog I have to be tuned in to what my dog is doing, I am on alert for any potential triggers that might scare him so that we can avoid or manage the situation. That doesn’t mean though, that when I take our steady old girl out for a walk I think I can multi-task and reply to emails, make some important phone calls etc. That wouldn’t be fair on her or me! The point of a dog walk is for you to go out and do something together. It is a bonding opportunity and if you want them to engage with you then you should pay them a bit of attention too.

Not only that, if you are staring at your phone you are missing enjoying your surroundings, the spring flowers, the wildlife, the sun finally peaking through the clouds after what seems like the longest winter.

I am so lucky to live in the Lincolnshire Wolds. On this morning’s dog walk I saw 5 red deer and 2 hares, as well as the usual pheasants and squirrels. I would hate to have missed all of that because I was checking my emails or scrolling through Facebook. If my dogs had seen the beautiful wildlife before me I may also have missed the opportunity to prevent a game of chase the critters.

If our dogs find walks boring they will create their own fun, whether that be chasing livestock or wildlife, running off after other dogs or rolling in fox poo, any of those options are undesirable for us as owners. Our dogs want nothing more than our attention. Yes I take a toy and treats on most of our dog walks, but JJ is happy if we play ‘Lets Go’ and ‘Left’ and ‘Right’, all of which just involve me instigating a change in direction. Humans can be fun, if we let ourselves, our dogs think we are the best things ever. Lets try and live up to that.

For clients that come to me with recall problems, one of the first things I help them do is increase engagement from their dog to them, but part of that is them paying more attention to their dog.

Love the dog you’ve got, not the one you imagined you’d have!

I had JJ’s life planned out before he was born. I had decided to continue my boy Jack’s line by having a litter of puppies. Jack was such a wonderful dog, amazing temperament, a beautiful traditional black and white collie and easy to train, so I had high expectations of his potential offspring.

When the 3 little puppies arrived I knew straight away which one was Jack Junior (JJ) and how he would make our little family complete and be a wonderful dog just like his father.

As a tiny puppy at home with his mum, dad, brother and sister, JJ was confident, he was my little explorer puppy. Once he was old enough to go out into the big wide world his confidence left him, he barked at everything and nothing. I just didn’t understand, I tried to reassure him and take him out with his dad as well as on his own to build his confidence, but for the first 6 months of his life JJ heard JJ-No! more than his name. We used to joke that ‘We kept the naughty one of the litter’.

The high expectations and the dreams I had that JJ would be just like his dad, were not fair on this little puppy who found the world a scary place. I wanted him to go everywhere with me and be happy and friendly when faced with new people, dogs and places, but JJ barked and lunged when he was scared.

At puppy class he did everything that was asked of him, but cowered if people came near and barked if dogs looked at him for too long. At puppy class they squirted him with water if he barked, so we did this at home too if he barked at the neighbours, because the experts know best, right?

I read book after book, and any of you that have found yourselves in similar situations will know how much conflicting information is out there.

By the time JJ was 6 months old and had had a couple of altercations with dogs and lunged at a couple of people on the street, I enrolled on a degree in animal behaviour and welfare. I started it just so I could understand my puppy, but it took me on a journey of discovery into animal behaviour that I never expected to be continuing nearly 7 years later!

Alongside my degree, I started to take the time to really watch JJ and listen to what he was trying to tell me. While his dad Jack, was my one in a million dog, who will always have my heart, he didn’t teach me anything other then unconditional love (what more could I ask for!). JJ though has taught me more than any amount of book reading and web surfing could. He is an intelligent boy who many people see as very obedient when they see us out and about. He is so responsive and eager to learn, but he is also sensitive and unsure of the unexpected which can cause him to bark first, think later.

JJ also got me into the sport of Canicross because it is something reactive dogs like him can excel at. We regularly went on runs of up to 8 miles. I loved the company and motivation it gave me on my runs and he was more confident around people and dogs when he was in his running harness. I thought we had found our niche.

However, at 4 years old, after JJ was castrated, he was diagnosed with Scoliosis. The castration had aggravated the condition that is likely to have been there since birth. The scans showed he already had arthritis on his spine and I was informed this was likely to get worse. An operation would cost thousands and was not guaranteed to fix the problem, it would also mean weeks of crate rest afterwards in order to recover. For a young border collie that would be hell. We went with the management route of pain medication and hydrotherapy. Our days of running 8 miles at a time were over, much to my disappointment. Another dream dashed.

Now I know some of his barking and lunging is likely to have been linked to a painful spinal condition that he ignored in order to do all that I asked of him, I only wish I had known earlier (I cried tears of guilt when I saw his scans). JJ had been checked by vets and behaviourists in his early years, numerous blood tests run and despite being incredibly skinny and reactive I was told he was a healthy dog, just nervous. I wish someone had suggested he could be in pain. Now when I speak to clients about their dog’s behavioural problems, pain is always something I consider. Research by the university of Lincoln found that more than 80% of the behaviour cases they see have an underlying pain factor.

So the dog I dreamed of that would go everywhere with me and love everyone, was lost when Jack died a 14.5 years old. And the dog I thought would run as far and as fast as my legs would carry me was semi-retired at only 4 years old.

Did I ever think of giving JJ away? Not once! Hand on heart, the thought never entered my head. I loved him for his differences, for his sensitivity and for the changes I have seen in him as I have learnt more and more and made a life for us that he can be happy in. As a result he is a cuddly loving dog, just like his dad was. His trust in me wasn’t immediate like it was with Jack and its taken years for him to completely trust that everything I do is to help him, so now I am his safe place and that is a dream fulfilled. I want him to turn to me when he sees something he is unsure of, I want him to find his way to me if he gets a thorn in his paw, both things his dad used to do and I didn’t realise how important that was to me until JJ started doing it too.

The dog you have may not be the one you dreamt of, but they can be better, they can teach you things and show you new experiences. The bond you build with a ‘difficult’ dog is so strong because you have been through the difficulties together and learnt more about each other.

If you do have a dog with behavioural problems, please don’t give up on them, speak to a qualified behaviourist first and ask your vet to check them for signs of pain. That difficult dog might end up being the best thing that ever happened to you.

Nutraceutical – just a made up word or something that can prolong our dogs lives? Pt II

After my investigations into Green-lipped Mussel, I couldn’t just leave it there, I needed to know what the 28% Glucosamine Chloride in my dog’s Yumove did too.

So investigation part two is here 🙂

Firstly there is more than one form of Glucosamine, this is usually Glucosamine Chondroitin or Glucosamine Hydrochloride, although these are also written and Glucosamin Sulphate and Glucosamine Chloride. Its no wonder us dog owners go with what the vets/internet suggest, its so difficult to find out what the ingredients actually are never mind what they do and whether they are helping our dogs!

But don’t worry, I kept digging and I will try to keep this non-sciency so we can all follow it.

The main difference between the types of Glucosamine are just the delivery vehicle the Glucosamine is carried in to allow the body to absorb it. Glucosamine Sulphate comes from Shellfish and contains 75% Glucosamine and a higher level of salt than Glucosamine Hydrochloride which comes from vegetables and contains 83% Glucosamine. So I’m thinking I prefer the Hydrochloride version which by the way is the type in Yumove.

But whichever type is in your dog’s joint supplement or specially formulated dog food/treats, does it do any good anyway?

Well, the next problems was finding studies that looked at Glucosamine on its own rather than as a combination nutraceutical. I only found one. It compared Glucosamine to injections of snail mucin or saline after surgically inducing osteoarthritis in young dogs! Details of the study are in the reference section, but I felt it was highly unethical. The results showed that Glucosamine slowed the progression of osteoarthritis in the joint. Injecting snail mucin, in case you wondered, caused painful swelling of the joint so don’t go scouring the back garden for snails.

The remaining studies used a combination product containing Glucosamine and Chrondroitin, which is a popular combination in several nutraceuticals marketed for improving joint health. Yumove ‘contains naturally occurring Chondroitin’ though the quantity is not stated on the ingredients.

The studies on this combination range from double-blind, randomised clinical trials (the gold standard in research) to subjective owner assessment (with a high chance of the placebo effect). Because osteoarthritis is a painful condition, most of the trials used a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), usually Carprofen, as the comparator rather than a placebo.

Whether treatment was monitored over 40, 70 or 90 days the Glucosamine + Chrondroitin supplement did not fair particularly well. With only one study (McCarthy et al 2007) suggesting that by day 70 pain and weight-bearing had improved, but not lameness or joint mobility which seems contradictory to me. If the dog isn’t in pain then why would it be showing signs of lameness?

The same study found that the dogs treated with Carprofen showed improvement in all measures including lameness and joint mobility, at much earlier point (42 days).

There is some evidence that Glucosamine + Chrondroitin may slow the process of osteoarthritis by slowing the degeneration of cartilage in the joint, but the evidence is not clear and shouldn’t we be spending our money on something that has been proven to work rather than something that ‘may’? If our dogs are in pain today, giving them a supplement that may slow further joint degeneration is clearly not adequate, we should be looking at reducing their pain first.

The Green-lipped mussel studies I talked about last week saw the greatest improvements in dogs that were being given both the nutraceutical and NSAIDs and so, as much as I am now dubious about some of the contents of these nutraceuticals, the studies has shown very few adverse effects (occasional stomach upsets in a minority of dogs) so as long as they are being used alongside medication from the vets for those dogs that already have degenerative joint disease then I feel they can’t do any harm. And perhaps for younger dogs to hinder the process of the inevitable arthritis we know will slow them down as they age, joint supplements could be a good idea.

For me, with two dogs that I know are struggling with osteoarthritis and are medicated for it, I’m going to shelve the Yumove and look at other supplements with a higher level of green-lipped mussel.

Further Reading:

Ajadi, A., Gazal, O., Otesile, E. and Kasali, O., 2013. Evaluation of Glucosamine and Snail Mucin on the Progression of Experimental Knee Osteoarthritis in Dogs. International Journal of Morphology, 31(1), pp.280-286.

Alves, J., Santos, A. and Jorge, P., 2017. Effect of an Oral Joint Supplement When Compared to Carprofen in the Management of Hip Osteoarthritis in Working Dogs. Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, 32(4), pp.126-129.

Bhathal, A., Spryszak, M., Louizos, C. and Frankel, G., 2017. Glucosamine and chondroitin use in canines for osteoarthritis: A review. Open Veterinary Journal, 7(1), p.36.

Evans, R., Conzemius, M. and Scott, R., 2017. Efficacy of an oral nutraceutical for the treatment of canine osteo arthritis. Veterinary and Comparative Orthopaedics and Traumatology, 30(05), pp.318-323.

McCarthy, G., O’Donovan, J., Jones, B., McAllister, H., Seed, M. and Mooney, C., 2007. Randomised double-blind, positive-controlled trial to assess the efficacy of glucosamine/chondroitin sulfate for the treatment of dogs with osteoarthritis. The Veterinary Journal, 174(1), pp.54-61.

Nutraceutical – just a made up word or something that can prolong our dogs lives? Pt I

Many dog owners are familiar with nutraceuticals such as Yumove (a joint support supplement) or Yucalm (a supplement for anxious dogs) and enthusiastically tell others about how much it has helped their own dogs, but is this just wishful thinking or do these supplements really work?

Yumove was recommended to me by a fellow collie owning friend when my boy Jack was showing signs of getting older. A tell-tale catch of Jack’s nails on the pavement from one back paw on the way back from walks told me he wasn’t finding things as easy as he used to. I happily tried the supplement which contains mainly green-lipped mussel extract (17%) and Glucosamine Hydrochloride (28.4%) as well as a few other vitamins and minerals.

I can’t say I saw a noticeable change and Jack’s little nail catch continued until the day he couldn’t manage a walk anymore, but I hoped that the supplement might slow his decline and ease any discomfort so continued to give it to him and then to my girl Trim as she got a little older and their son JJ when he was diagnosed with scoliosis at 4 years old and already had evidence of arthritis on his spine.

It is not until a discussion at university over the lack evidence available for behavioural nutraceuticals that I began wondering if these ‘magic tablets’ were actually helping my furbabies. So I decided to start some research.

Firstly, I think it is important to say that the term ‘Nutraceutical’ has no regulatory definition, it is simply a combination of the words nutrition and pharmaceutical and is really just a dietary supplement. The manufacturers have no legal requirement to provide evidence of their effectiveness and the surprising response from one such manufacturer of a behavioural nutraceutical was:

We don’t have any studies in house that we can give you with regards to the efficacy of this product. We know how the active herbs work in the products and it is a product that has previously been licensed for use for over 50 years.”

The fact that they are ‘licensed’ for use have nothing to do with their efficacy, it has become standard practise that if they have historical use without detriment they eventually become licensed.

The next problem with working out whether products such as Yumove are effective, and worth you spending your hard earned money on, is that they often contain a combination of ingredients. In this case how do we know which, if any, of those ingredients are the important ones?

Studies on the effects of individual ingredients are much more common than studies of combination treatments. So I started with Green-lipped Mussel extract (GLM) as it has been become a popular supplement in the dog owning world to improve dogs mobility and lesson the pain associated with osteoarthritis. Products such as Yumove, Vitali-Paws, Aniforte and no doubt many more are sold in vets and pet shops all over the UK. You can even buy GLM from Holland and Barrett for human use.

So what is it about Green-lipped Mussels that effects the joints?

Green-lipped mussels, native to the New Zealand coast, contain 91 fatty acids and have a particularly high level of Omega 3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA for short) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA for short) both of which can reduce the deterioration of collagen in joint cartilage and have anti-inflammatory properties.

Numerous studies have been conducted (references below) on the effects of GLM on dogs with hind and forelimb lameness caused by osteoarthritis, all studies show some improvement in symptoms through supplementing the diet with GLM. Even if we take into account the possible placebo effect that may cause owners to ‘see’ improvements, several of the studies were conducted in such a way that meant neither the owners nor the vets assessing the dogs knew who had been given GLM and who had been given an alternative or a placebo, suggesting that any effects seen were real rather than wishful thinking.

The additional benefit of GLM is that it does not have the potential side-effects of drugs traditionally used to treat osteoarthritis in dogs such as non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) E.g. Caprofen, Loxicom, Firocoxib. However the greatest improvements in mobility and reduced signs of pain were seen in dogs receiving in combination of NSAIDs and GLM.

The studies confirm that GLM can help reduce the pain and slow the progress of osteoartritis which many owners have come to accept as just part of their dog getting old.

The studies conducted to date used different forms of GLM with PCSO-524 being the preferred version due to a patented extraction and stabilisation process, so perhaps the question is not whether we should be giving it to our dogs, but where can we get the best possible version? Yumove only contains 17% GLM a dose of 150mg per tablet with the following dose recommendations based on body weight:

  • up to 15kg -1 tablet = 150mg
  • 16-30kg – 2 tablets = 300mg
  • 31-45kg – 3 tablets = 450mg
  • 45kg+ – 4 tablets = 600mg

The most recent studies averaged a 200mg dose per day, but the dose was not necessarily altered in accordance with the dogs body weight. Soontornvipart et al (2015) gave 50mg per 10kg body weight, but Hielm-Bkorkman et al (2007) gave a much higher dose of 20-49mg per kg per day for the first 2 weeks then reducing to half the dose.

The outcome of my investigation is that I will continue to give JJ and Trim GLM, perhaps looking for a stronger dosage now JJ is approaching his 7th birthday and clearly having bad days with his scoliosis despite pain medication. Next, I want to know whether the Glucosamine Hydrochloride that makes up 28.4% of Yumove is all its cracked up to be (check out the next blog to find out).

Further reading:

  • Buddhachat, K., Siengdee, P., Chomdej, S., Soontornvipart, K. and Nganvongpanit, K., 2017. Effects of different omega-3 sources, fish oil, krill oil, and green-lipped mussel against cytokine-mediated canine cartilage degradation. In Vitro Cellular & Developmental Biology – Animal, 53(5), pp.448-457.
  • Hielm-Björkman, A., Tulamo, R., Salonen, H. and Raekallio, M., 2009. Evaluating Complementary Therapies for Canine Osteoarthritis Part I: Green-Lipped Mussel (Perna canaliculus). Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 6(3), pp.365-373.
  • Kwananocha, I., Vijarsorn, M., Kashemsant, N., Lekcharoensuk, C. (2016) Effectiveness of disease modifying osteoarthritis agents and carprofen for treatment of canine osteoarthritis. Thai Journal of Veterinary Medicine, 46(3), pp.363-371.
  • Soontornvipart, K., Mongkhon, N., Nganvongpanit, K., Kongtawelert, P. (2015) Effect of PCSO-524 on OA Biomarkers and Weight-Bearing Properties in Canine Shoulder and Coxofemeral Osteoarthritis. Thai Journal of Veterinary Medicine, 45(2), pp. 157-165.

Let them Sniff!

Do you find yourself hurrying your dog along on walks? Thinking “I haven’t got time for you to sniff every blade of grass!”

I certainly did. Especially when I had a little pack of 3 border collies each with bundles of energy. My goal at 6 o’clock in the morning, 5 days a week was to get them round our 3 mile walk as quickly as possible so I could get them home, clean and fed before I could start getting ready for work. But for years I had been completely missing the point of a dog walk!

For dogs, its not about how far they walk and certainly not how fast, its about all the interesting sniffs they can have on the way. Every time we call them away from a sniff, we interrupt an important information gathering process that will need to be started again next time they get a whiff of that scent. The information they gain from each sniff is essential for them, not allowing them to take in that information would be like taking a human for a walk blindfolded.

For anxious dogs, allowing them time to take in their surroundings and learn about the other animals that have been there is even more important, as I found out when JJ was old enough to go out into the big wide world. He found it all very scary and my need to rush us everywhere just made the situation worse. Despite him being walked with his confident father I still wasn’t giving JJ the time and space he needed to learn about his environment. JJ’s way of dealing with this was to bark at everything and nothing and I thought I was trying everything to make things better for him. The one thing I hadn’t thought of was just slowing down and letting him work things out for himself.

Its many years since JJ was a puppy and I will always wish I has started my studies in animal behaviour before he arrived, but his father, Jack, had always been a perfect dog and I hadn’t needed to understand the nuances of dog behaviour because Jack had been so good at understanding human behaviour. JJ was the catalyst to a long journey of study and investigation into dog behaviour that I think now I have started I will never stop. There is always more to learn about our loyal friends and so much that they can teach us, especially the sensitive ones like JJ.

These days our walks are much calmer and slower, if they stop to sniff I wait patiently for them to finish before moving on. I still get up at 6am most days and have a finely tuned morning routine that enables me to get to work on time, but it includes a relaxed, steady 2 mile walk where the dogs can play ball and sniff to their hearts content without me hurrying them along. The distance is less, but they gain so much more from this kind of walk than the hurried 3 miler we did in the early days of JJ’s life. Many of my clients have anxious dogs and I often say to them, ‘Don’t have a route or a distance in mind when you walk your dog, just see how far you get in the time you have available.’

Lots of dog owners worry that their dog hasn’t had enough exercise unless they have covered great distances, I certainly used to have that in mind with my 3, especially with an active working breed like border collies, but more miles just means more stamina. Your dog just gets fitter and fitter so the miles aren’t tiring. On weekends we go for ‘sniffy walks’ where we don’t take a ball so they have more time to sniff and explore and our timid girl Trim loves it, she particularly likes the woods where she can follow trails of wild critters. If you want your dog to be tired and content let them use their nose, and for the anxious ones, actively encourage them to get their nose to the ground.

Why we failed as foster parents

On my social media feeds being a ‘failed foster’ is a good thing as it means a dog has made their foster parents fall in love with them and gained themselves a forever home. Sadly for us failing did not have such a happy ending.

15 month old border collie Willow came to us after a long search for a young female to join out family. We were prepared for the adjustments that would have to be made to accommodate this little girl especially with our dog reactive boy JJ, so slow introductions and lots of space was given to everyone as well as lots of cheese as rewards.

JJ surprised us all by being keen to meet the newcomer and very tolerant of her over enthusiastic greetings which included tapping him on the head with her paw while he laid in his bed. Over the next few days they figured each other out and Willow persuaded JJ to play tug and to let her share his toys and bed.

Our old girl Trim also surprised us all by hiding from Willow and spending time in a different room growling if Willow got too close. Trim has always been great with other dogs and for the past few years has been my stooge dog to help training nervous and reactive dogs. We didn’t think Trim would have a problem with a new dog. On walks Trim kept her distance too and didn’t want to walk near Willow when on the lead, so we respected that and gave her the space she needed. Over a few days Trim let the distance reduce little by little and stopped growling when Willow approached. We thought things were going well and little Willow was winning our hearts by being cute and clever.

As Trim gained confidence so did Willow and over the last couple of days Willow has chased Trim away from the sofa and from us in a bid to win those resources for herself. Every time Trim would try to join the family, Willow would quietly and efficiently send her back to a different room. Trim’s decision to leave reinforced Willow’s behaviour, so Willow gained more confidence and next challenged Trim with growls, lunges and snaps. Of course we chastised Willow and led her away, but my poor old girl would hide again reinforcing Willow’s belief that she was winning.

I worked in rescue for several years and saw, on more than one occasion, old dogs given up because they did not get on with the new puppy. It always broke my heart to see these faithful old souls lost and confused in kennel blocks when they should have been safe at home with the love of their family and a comfy sofa to pass their final years. I could never understand why the owners gave up the dog that they had ‘loved’ for years, and that had undoubtedly loved them in return, rather than rehoming the new puppy.

We had said from the start of our search for a new family member that JJ and Trim were the most important factors, if they didn’t like her she couldn’t stay. And so we made the hard decision to let Willow go after a very short stay with us, because it is the best thing for Trim.

Within minutes of Willow leaving, Trim is reclaiming her space and playing with her toys in the garden with a happy, relaxed expression on her face. She looks instantly younger and I know I made the right decision even if it was hard not to cry as I waved Willow off with another family who’s dog can’t wait to continue the games he started playing with her in their introduction in our garden.

Why I can’t ‘fix’ your dog in one session

Puppy classes often consist of 6 weekly sessions which cover the basics like loose lead walking, sit and stay. To have a puppy that can do each of these simple tasks owners also need to practice with their dogs between classes resulting in a considerable time commitment. Studies show that even after attending puppy classes more than 80% of owners said their puppy still pulled on the lead, suggesting that 6 weeks worth of classes was not adequate to reliably train the behaviour of loose lead walking.

One to one training sessions and behavioural consultations are usually requested for dogs that are displaying undesirable behaviours such as aggression towards people or dogs, resource guarding or a non existent recall in working breeds due to high drive. Despite these problems being more complex and often well practised by the dog over months or even years, some owners hope that a one hour long consultation will ‘fix’ all the problems.

Dogs who display anxiety, fear or aggression have an emotional response to certain situations, an emotional response requires a long period of rehabilitation to change the dogs emotions from negative to positive. If you are scared or heights or spiders you would not expect one hours worth of counselling to relieve you of your fear. Many of our dogs problems are fear based including aggressive displays towards unfamiliar humans or dogs and destructive behaviours when left alone.

These undesirable behaviours can also be inadvertently reinforced by owners or the environment so that the dog has learnt that the behaviour ‘works’. For example if your dog is scared of other dogs and on seeing one begins to bark and lunge, you may sensibly move your dog away, likewise the owner of the other dog may avoid you and your angry looking dog. Therefore your dog’s behaviour got the scary dog to move further away and your dog began to feel better. From your dog’s point of view their behaviour is successful, from an owners point of view that behaviour can be stressful and embarrassing. Because your dog has practised this routine over and over, perhaps daily, they are not suddenly going to abandon a ‘successful’ strategy for an alternative one suggested by a trainer. The new strategy needs to be taught, reinforced and practised for at least as long as the old one.

I know from struggling with my own dogs behaviour that there are no quick fixes and that behaviour modification takes time and patience. It is something that owners need to make a commitment to and take part in. If a dog trainer suggests they can fix your dog in one session and charge you an extortionate amount for the privilege, I would suggest that no trainer has a magic wand with which to achieve this, no matter how much you pay. Those that use punishment based methods also tend to think they can achieve results faster, but although these unkind methods may supress the unwanted behaviour, they do not solve the underlying cause and as a result can cause further behavioural issues in the long term.

When contacting a trainer it is important to discuss their methods as well as your expectations so that they can advise on whether your goals are achievable. We may have a vision of our ideal dog in our minds and want to turn the dog we have at home into that ideal, but every dog is different and they have their needs as much as we have ours. As an owner of a ‘reactive’ dog I have had to alter my expectations for what his and our life will be like, but he has taught me so much and because of my willingness to understand his needs he is now a different dog with a much happier life and our walks and outings are a pleasant experience rather than the chaotic stressful episodes they were before I learnt how to understand what he was trying to tell me with his ‘bad’ behaviour.