Dog Quest: The Calming Hug

We may have accidentally come one step closer to resolving Abby’s dog-reactivity issue. I’m not sure why exactly it works (theories abound), and I’ll be asking our trainers at the earliest opportunity, but here’s how I stumbled on it.

About a month or so ago, I took Abby for a walk, and the usual disasters happened: she’d see another dog, she’d growl and jump and bark and get herself into a state, and she’d do this even as I tried to take her off the path, get her to focus on me, give her treats and desensitise her. I’d had mixed results with this approach before, and figured that – like anyone with social anxiety – she was just having a bad day.

By the end of the walk, she was exhausted and obviously unhappy (in fact, she launched herself into the car as soon as we got the carpark; she just couldn’t get home and back to her Amos soon enough).

There’s a large pile of rocks on one side, opposite the lake and near a bridge on the way out of the park. About five or six people were sauntering along the bridge. I recognised them because I’d seen them on their way in. There was a professional photographer, and his assistant was carrying a very large reflector strapped to his back.

“Uh oh,” I thought, and sure enough, Abby began to take exception to this bizarre silhouette. I took her over to the big pile of rocks and, since it was a comfy space to sit, I sat down and prepared a handful of treats to distract her with.

I was very tired after the adrenaline of our “relaxing walk” together past every other dog in the five nearest suburbs (might as well have been), so instead of trying to just keep a loose hand on the harness and leash and showing her the treats, I pulled her into a bear hug. I generally try not to do this – I was always taught (a) that hugs aren’t necessarily comforting for dogs, (b) that “overcomforting” will lead to anxiety and (c) that it was better to let her decide not to react, and to reward that impulse control.

It turns out that all those things are true, but how true they are might vary relative to the level of anxiety and the age of the dog. Abby has always had a tendency to be very snuggly, so I tend to write off the “dogs don’t like hugs” when it comes to her. Amos will tolerate hugs, but prefers simply to lean or be leant on as an expression of affection, and I think he’s probably a more typical dog in this respect.

She calmed down a bit. Not all the way, mind you, but she stopped quivering so much. Her muscles were still quite hard, and I fed her a few treats, which helped relax her further. You can tell when Abby is trying not to react – she gives these strange huff sounds, rapid breathing, from her nose, as though she is hyperventilating or huffing paint.

Then the photographer’s assistant took the reflector off his back and put it down on the grass, and then as far as Abby was concerned he looked like a normal person again, and the danger had passed.

I didn’t make the connection at the time. I figured it was mostly the treats.

Today, we took her down to the same park – I had Husband and Amos with us as well this time. When the whole pack is together, she seems to feel a lot calmer, and I feel it can only be a positive experience to know that Amos has her back.

This time, she started to react to another dog as soon as I opened the back of the car. Instead of telling her off (firmly, not with a shout. Shouting never helps), I grabbed her muzzle. You have to be careful doing this, as the nose is pretty sensitive and you don’t actually want to cause pain – I just wanted to get her to look at me – but as soon as I exerted a bit of (very very gentle!) pressure on her muzzle, she started to just look at me. She was still stiff as a board, and making her little paint-huffing sound, but she was looking at me. Her eyes occasionally flicked over to the other dog she had seen walking past, but then flicked back.

“Good girl,” I crooned. “Good, gentle girl,” and other nonsense about how safe she was, and how gentle and calm she was, and as soon as the dog was out of sight, I pretty much just poured a handful of treats down her throat.

Happy dog. Wagging tail. Now we can start the walk.

I was thinking about this as we were walking, and as soon as we had to pass another dog, I took her way off the path as I normally would, but instead of just standing there trying to lure her attention onto me, I crouched down next to her and wrapped my left arm around her chest and shoulders, using my right hand to get at the treats.

I can’t properly put into words the difference in her behaviour – she didn’t even go stiff. She didn’t huff. She glanced at the other dog, but fixed on me, and that was before she even noticed I was reaching for the treat pouch (believe me, you can tell when she notices. She is a very food oriented dog).

Throughout the walk, I think I went through this sequence of behaviours about eight times. Husband and I swapped dogs a couple of times (he was walking Amos at the start), and he got to give it a go as well.

By the end of the walk, she was completely calm in a hug. The only exception was if I didn’t notice the approaching dog quickly enough and she started to react before I could get her into a bearhug and get the treats out. We still managed to avoid a full-blown tantrum, even though she was huffing and stiff.

It seemed as though, as long as I could prevent the physical reaction, she couldn’t get herself into a state. If I stopped the spiral before it started, she was able to focus on me instead of the other dogs going past. Maybe it wasn’t about “overcomforting”, but about trust; we were always there to take care of her when other dogs went past. The reason that overcomforting is a problem is that it teaches the dog that there really is something to be scared of. It’s best to avoid it in puppies and very young dogs; in those situations, ignoring irrational fears can be better, and they can take their cue from you. If you’re not reacting, obviously it’s not a big deal.

I can see that this rationale might not work if the dog is already absolutely convinced that the stimulus is completely terrifying. In that case, my ignoring the stimulus and the reaction to it might seem like I’m not paying attention, and if I’m not paying attention, I can’t protect her. Also, maybe I’m not very good at ignoring the stimulus – maybe, in spite of my best efforts, I tense up when other dogs approach, and that teaches her that it really is scary.

There’s a lot that might be going on here. Maybe it’s a mixture of things. Maybe all I can do is teach her that, yes, I will give her bear hugs when other dogs go past. Maybe over time she’ll learn that, if nothing terrible happened then, it won’t happen later. Maybe she’ll begin to disconnect the association she has made: she associates other dogs with her own panic, so if I can prevent the panic, all she will be left with is the initial stimulus, and it may not be that bad.

It’s not perfect. It’s obviously not a workable solution for dog training, and it’s not possible to really implement it when there’s a dog a certain distance ahead of you on the path and she can see them (she just keeps watching them. She can’t seem to stop).

It does, however, remind me of something. It reminds me of how babies are calmed by being swaddled, and how some autistic people find weighted blankets very comforting, and oh wait, it reminds me of this particular product, which I had always viewed with some skepticism.

So I will talk to our trainers, and see what they think. I am very tempted to try a Thundershirt to see if it can stand in for a bearhug.

If you have any ideas, thoughts, or experiences with these dog issues, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.


ADDENDUM: One thing I forgot to mention is that, on this walk, every single person we encountered, whether they had a dog or a small child, was very supportive of us trying to train our dogs. There was no snubbing, no muttered comments about aggressive dogs, just encouragement and praise and interest. In fact, one mother was very happy to have us go past with our dogs in a heel so she could show her toddler how well the “big doggies” were behaving. This meant that we were a lot more relaxed, because we didn’t have to worry about what other people were doing; we could just focus on our dogs. We thanked everyone for their encouragement. I think it really made a difference in the body language that Amos and Abby were reading from us.

DOG QUEST: Rescue dog ten month review, and what do you do with a reactive dog?

(spoiler: you give her cuddles)

It’s now been about ten months since we adopted Abby-dog, so I’ve decided it’s time to reflect on how it’s all going. This is a long post. There’s a lot to be said.

Two dogs

I always kind of wanted to have two dogs, but the main impetus behind the decision was the fact that Amos was bored during the long periods of time we couldn’t spend playing with him, walking him or training him. We had puzzle toys that could keep him occupied when he was inside with us (the treat ball!), but there was nothing that could really be used outside (we live on a property with a distinct slope, post-and-wire fencing, and a creek at the bottom on the other side of the fence. Anything that rolls has a high probability of ending up in the creek).

That is, to be honest, often the life of a dog. When their people aren’t around, they get bored. It’s a bit easier for dogs in their twilight years who are happy to sleep all day, but for younger dogs it’s a near-universal cross to bear.

This is the reason that many people get a second dog. “They can keep each other company,” we say happily, but some people go further and decide that for this reason, two dogs will be less work than one.

No. No, no and hell no. Two dogs are, in many ways, more than twice as much work as one dog. This shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Two dogs may love to play and leap and bound and entertain one another while their owners are away, but when you get home, you are the big attraction.

Suddenly, when you’re training two dogs, you have to deal with dogs that get in each others’ way when a command is given. You have two dogs to feed – and you need to keep them from interfering with one another (read: keep Abby from eating all Amos’s food. All hail the crate). You have two dogs who need veterinary care (who may infect or accidentally injure one another). You have two dogs to get into the car to go to training, and you have to have two handlers to deal with them once you get there (i.e., both Husband and I have to be in good condition for training). You have two dogs who wrestle inside (vale standing lamp, we miss you). You have two dogs who can’t be trusted with the treat ball because, if the other dog is around, the dog who has the treat ball will get ridiculously possessive (the treat ball is a solo toy only). You have two dogs to accommodate if you want to go on holiday, which is much harder than just the one, especially if one of your dogs is reactive (see below).

And, at least for a while, you have two dogs at very different stages of socialisation and training, which is more complex to manage than you might think.

I refuse to walk two dogs at a time: Abby is dog reactive, and the one time I tried it, she reacted to a small dog tied up outside the supermarket, and started pulling. That’s not so bad – she’s not as muscled as Amos and doesn’t really know how to use what she’s got – but then Amos decided that if Abby was acting up, there must be a good reason, and he should defend us all. Amos is very stocky, and knows exactly how to use what he’s got, so even with all the feet-planting in the world, I found myself being dragged inexorably by 75 kgs (165 lbs) of combined dog weight, and if a nice older man hadn’t consented to hold Abby for a minute (apparently he’d always had rotties, so he was quite charmed by their puppy antics) while I looped Amos to a pole, I would have gone A over T. Worse, I was terrified that one of them would run onto the road.

The whole situation was ill-considered and unsafe. They’d both been behaving so well on lead that I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. Never again, dear readers. Never again.

I honestly don’t know how so many people make it look so easy. I see a woman pushing a pram uphill with not one but two golden retrievers and I think, “That woman must be a genius. Or an Amazon. Or a WIZARD. Or those golden retrievers are angel dogs.” Then I look a bit closer, and one dog is trotting along happily and the other is getting relatively frequent corrections.

So, how’s it actually going with two dogs?

Surprisingly… not bad.

We’ve got them into a good routine. Oddly enough, I think Amos has been the one who has had to make the most difficult adjustments, and he has worked out a system for coping with some of the Abby-inspired irregularities (he is Clever). For example, when I go to let them in, I generally make them sit. Amos, who has been sitting before he comes inside for his whole life, would sit, and then get bowled over by Abby, who would sit. And then get excited. And bounce. And push in front of him. And sit again. And then get excited… So Amos has learned that when I open the back door, and wait expectantly, it’s best to back off. He backs away and waits politely next to the water bucket while I get Abby into a sit, let her in, wipe her off, and release her. Then he comes forward for his sit. I try not to give a command these days, because he can’t actually do what he’s told under those circumstances, and it’s not fair. If I wait long enough, Abby sits, and Amos backs away.

That’s great, because it means I can concentrate on Abby’s behaviour without interfering with Amos’s training – and if he didn’t have a good foundation before we got her, it would be quite the headache. Correcting one would be confusing for the other (that sometimes still happens, but Amos seems to respond to body language – eye contact, etc. – and works out when I’m scolding Abby and not him).

Abby usually trains with Husband and I train with Amos (although I did get to train with Abby once weekend because Amos was unwell, and Husband was wearing ugg boots… long story… and Abby is just super-cute when training. She dials everything up to 11). When I take Amos for a run, Husband walks Abby and concentrates on her basic loose-lead walking and heeling.

We’ve learned that both dogs are happier if they get a little bit of solo time with us.

So two dogs is much more work, but it’s very rewarding, and it’s working.

Abby on the left, doing her "Princess Flathead" impression, and Amos looking worried on the right.

Two dogs, no waiting! Abby on the left, doing her “Princess Flathead” impression, and Amos looking worried on the right.

Abby herself

Abby herself is a fascinating study in how a good nature can overcome crappy beginnings. In spite of the neglect she originally experienced, she still adores people, adores physical contact, and desperately wants to play all the time. Amos loves to play, but even when he was Abby’s age, he didn’t want to play as much as she does. If she’s not curled up on the couch next to you, snuggling with desperate needy canine love, she’s fetching various dog toys from around the house and bringing them to you, or trying to baff Amos in the face with them to make him play with her.

She is, unsurprisingly for a rescue pup, very food motivated.

She is mostly very sociable with humans, with two exceptions:

  1. anyone wearing a high visibility vest (fluorescent orange or yellow). We don’t know why this is, but it doesn’t matter how tall or short someone is, or whether they are male or female, or any other characteristic – she seems to get honestly frightened when she sees them, and there is growling and barking, and hackles. My plan is to try and get hold of such an item so that I can slowly desensitise her by wearing it, but so far all I have is Husband’s cycling rain-jacket which is not the right shape, so I’m not sure it will work.
  1. Big guys. It doesn’t matter how a guy is big – he could be big in a buff, muscular, gymster sort of way, or he could be big in a tall, roundish, tubby sort of way – Abby does not discriminate in these matters. She doesn’t react with terror in the same way she reacts to high-vis vests, but she will take longer to warm up to such a person. She will back away. She might even bark. She’ll come back and sniff shoes, desperate for attention. Then she’ll remember OH NO THIS GUY IS HUGE and back away again, her tail between her legs. She’ll spend a lot of time in a little crouch, licking shoes and hands, with the tail down, before eventually she calms down and starts leaning on their legs. It can take a few encounters before she gets used to a Big Guy™, but now there are at least two we know of where she will immediately start sucking up to them the way she sucks up to everyone else.

In terms of Abby’s murky beginnings, there is one other behavioural quirk that causes problems, and it causes far more problems than the above two issues.

She is dog reactive.

Note: she is not fear defensive or aggressive. She is reactive. This is a very different thing, and I get very cross when people accuse my dog of being aggressive when she is throwing a tanty. Is she jumping around like an idiot and nearly pulling me over on lead? Yes. Is she barking and whining like a complete nutter? Yes.

Are her hackles up? Is she snarling? No.

Abby was not properly socialised with other dogs as a puppy; this is very clear. When she is off lead, all she wants to do with other dogs is sniff and play. She absolutely does not get a clue when another dog doesn’t want to play; she’ll keep trying, and get herself in trouble unless we take her our of the situation. Amos was the same at her age until he learned what I like to call “dog manners”, so I have hope that at least this part of her brain will re-wire as she grows up.

The problem is that she has had limited exposure to free play with dogs other than Amos and Lenny, so when a dog gets in her face (in some way we haven’t worked out yet), or steps on her tail, she cracks it. She snaps at them, and snarls, and loses her shit. She doesn’t bite or do damage, she just throws a tantrum. Would she do damage if she really lost her temper? It’s possible. She has the equipment.

Generally speaking, she won’t start a fight; but if another dog (usually a smaller dog) looks at her, and decides to growl to warn her off because she’s too big to play with, she takes this as an attack.

I think the difference is confidence, and experience. Amos has been snarled and growled at (again, nearly always by smaller dogs who look scared by him), and he just stands there, blinking, and eventually just sighs and turns away. He copes. He doesn’t feel threatened by the warn-offs, just – apparently – kind of bummed out. Sometimes he gets an alert look, a guard-stance, and gets between me and the other dog, but it’s a very calm maneuver, like an experienced bodyguard saying, “Just move along, mate. Don’t cause any more trouble, eh?”

Abby seems to feel genuinely threatened. Which is ironic, and makes it very sad that you can’t explain things to dogs, because it’s usually the other dog who felt threatened first.

This, however, is beside the point, because it’s not the usual state of affairs. The usual state of affairs is that the other dog isn’t scared of Abby, but is interested, and wants to sniff and lick and do the things that dogs do, and if Abby is off-lead (which is very rare around other dogs), she is delighted to participate (up until she feels threatened by another dog).

In the usual state of affairs, though, she is on lead. And she can’t participate. She can’t sniff and lick and play and roll about with the other dog, which is what she would love to do, and she gets frustrated, and her brain disappears into some sort of weird toddler tantrum, and she cracks it, and I think the toddler tantrum really is a good comparison, because there’s no aggression in it, no malice, just intense, poorly managed frustration. She jumps, she barks, she whines, she makes a huge goddamn fuss, and to people who don’t know dogs (or who – sigh – think that they do, but really don’t), it looks like she is winding up for an attack.

She is not. She honestly wants to play, or at least investigate. Does it mean she wouldn’t crack it later at the dog if they crossed some invisible line? No, sadly, it doesn’t mean that. As I said, she easily feels threatened by other dogs, and we haven’t worked out what her trigger is (I think going anywhere near her tail-tip – crooked and deformed as it is – might be part of it. It seems a bit more fragile and sore and sensitive than Amos’s more standard pointy tail tip). She has happily played for hours with Amos and Lenny without cracking it, though (she cracked it at Lenny once; he – understandably – cracked it first, because these two big rottweilers were charging around in his yard, stealing his bones; but all was forgiven in about thirty seconds and she kept trying to lick him and suck up… poor little Lenny), and apparently at the kennel she was fine with free play with other dogs most of the time. They couldn’t find her trigger either. And yet she has, to all reports, never bitten, never done any damage; it’s all an explosive tornado of snapping and snarling and “get away get away get away!”

I feel I need to add here (in case any meatspace visitors are made nervous by these revelations) that Abby has never, ever reacted to humans the way she does to dogs. I can wiggle the tail, poke her in the eye (not that I do it for fun, mind you), syringe her ears, take her food away, and all her favourite toys, and accidentally step on her foot, and the most she’ll do is give you sad-puppy-eyes, and maybe yelp. When friends come to visit, she is equally tolerant of them. Even when she is scared of the Big Guys™, the most that happens is a little growly whine. While she has not been well socialised with humans, she clearly has much more experience with them than with other dogs. Where humans are concerned, she is ridiculously sweet-natured. She just wants to cuddle and lick and play, all day. She has no invisible line when it comes to human interactions – only when it comes to other dogs.

As you can imagine, this causes some problems.

What can be done with the dog-reactive dog?

Firstly, neutral socialisation training.

Our training company is a big proponent of neutral socialisation. There is no free-form, off-lead doggy play. Dogs are not allowed or encouraged to interact with one another. This is a good thing; you don’t want your dog to get stupidly excited when they see another dog if you’re out for a walk. You don’t want them thinking, “I know what other dogs are for! They are for playing!” You want them to be thinking, “Oh, another dog. Seems nice enough. Whatever.” The minute your dog starts getting super excited about other dogs, they switch off, and they stop paying attention to you.

They must always pay attention to you when you ask it.

This might sound terribly narcissistic, but as I’ve explained previously, dogs live in a human world, full of dangers for them, and the way that they navigate it safely is by listening to their humans. You need to be able to call a dog away from a busy highway, a poisonous snake, or even vulnerable native wildlife (because I do not want to be the person whose dog killed the ringtail possum. Brushtail possums, I can live with, but not ringtails). These are high level distractions, and in all honesty I’m not working at that level yet with my dogs, but we’ll get there.

We took Amos to a dog park when he was a puppy, and I honestly regret that. He is getting better at resisting distraction, and now I can actually see that he is dividing his attention between me and the other dog (which is an acceptable compromise; of course, I want him to be aware of his environment!), but it has taken time and maturity to get past his learned response of “Other dog! PLAY!” I also now know that it is amazingly risky to take a puppy to a dog park. If they get attacked, that leads to trauma, and then you can end up with a fear-defensive dog, through no fault of their own. There’s often no reason to expect an attack, either. It is so easy for these things to go wrong.

But people love the dog parks, and for the most part, their dogs look so very happy that it’s difficult to let go of the idea. Is the only answer really to never let your dog play with other dogs?

Of course not! That would be very sad for everybody!

I think the idea of “puppy play dates” is a good one. You have a known, familiar, safe dog that comes to visit (or you go to them), and that is how your dog can get fun dog-on-dog interactions, and learn dog manners (very important!), in a controlled and safe environment, without them learning that every dog they meet out in the wider world is a potential friend (or enemy). In this sense I think Lenny has been very good in helping Abby learn that she has to be gentle when playing, because if she is not gentle, he either snarls at her, or high tails it off the property (he’s a kelpie. She’s not catching up with him until he is good and ready to deal with her, and to his vast credit, he usually gives her another chance. Occasionally he is just overwhelmed and done for the day, and that is quite fair. Our dogs are very intense).

Amos is not good at teaching “be gentle”. He has no inclination to be gentle with Abby and the reverse is also true. They play rough.

But back to training: the great thing about a dog training school that practices neutral socialisation is that your dog learns to be around other dogs without losing their mind. This is very hard for Abby, and sometimes she has to be taken a bit away from the main group to find her working distance (i.e., where she can be close enough to the other dogs to benefit from the exposure but far enough that she doesn’t melt her brain), but the more we go, the better she gets (lately we have not gone to training much, due to an outbreak of kennel cough in our household that I would prefer not to spread around. Apparently the vaccine is not perfect). If our timetable worked for it, I would take her twice a week just for that alone.

What else can be done?

Desensitisation. I am a big fan of desensitisation, i.e., where you expose your dog very gently and lightly to the stimulus that causes the reaction, and then you get them to look at you – pay attention to you – and you give them treats. The more they look at you, and not the stimulus, the more treats and praise they get (or playing. For some dogs, a quick game of tug is better than a treat. This will never be true for Abby). It can take some time to find the right working distance – not too close, and not too far – but it’s worth it. Desensitisation helps if it is applied consistently and frequently. I’ve used it with Amos to get him more comfortable with horses, teeth cleaning and claw clipping (that last one has not been super effective, but probably because I don’t do it very much. It is just so traumatic for everybody!).

The usual disclaimers apply: I am not an animal behaviourist or a qualified dog trainer, and while I have seen this tactic work on genuinely traumatised dogs, perhaps it doesn’t work for all of them. It cannot hurt, however.

Do not give them treats or rewards if they are staring at the other dog. They must be paying attention to you for this to work. The only exclusion would be if the other dog is making a fuss and throwing a tanty, and your dog is keeping an eye on them, but has deliberately chosen not to respond. Then they get a reward. I have definitely rewarded Amos for this, especially when his body language indicates that he wants to react and make a fuss, but he is restraining himself even while the other dog is carrying on as though the world is ending. Deliberate impulse control is hard for dogs, but it is such an important skill to learn, and should be praised and rewarded whenever it manifests.

Other than neutral socialisation and desensitisation (and to be honest, the former is a subcategory of the latter), I am not entirely sure what is to be done for the reactive dog. Consult a professional trainer, for sure. We’ve asked ours, and this is how they’ve responded.

The other thing to note is that these are not magical solutions. Rewiring a dog’s instinctive response – however they acquired that instinct, through genuine trauma or simply poor socialisation – is a slow process. It takes time, patience, and consistency. We’re good with the first two but haven’t always been great with that last one.


In summary, Abby’s reactivity is an issue for us. It makes it more stressful to take her for a walk, to take her to dog friendly cafes, and to take her to even the most tolerant of kennels (they are happy to take care of her, but not during busy periods, i.e., over Xmas. We’re having to leave her with a different place over the break; they’re also good but the environment is not nearly as nice, and they won’t have time to monitor her, so she won’t get the controlled socialisation she would get at the other place; she’ll only have play time with Amos, and that’s it).

Do I regret getting her?

Not for a second. I am not sure I have ever met a dog that was so extraordinarily sweet-natured towards humans, so desperate and determined to form bonds and be loved, and even though this is an expression of separation anxiety, it is a bit heart-melting. She is a genuine darling.

She is very clever (Rotties usually are); she’s a problem solver and a quick learner and she has, dare I say it, street smarts (that have made life a bit more complicated in terms of keeping her contained, I confess, but it’s impressive what she can figure out).

The time we spend with our dogs is varied. There’s inside cuddle-time; there’s outside be-followed-around-and-“helped” yard work time (Abby is very helpful, especially if Husband is carting around pieces of bark for a burn-off… dangling pieces of bark…); there’s go-to-a-café-time (and sometimes she is fine, particularly at our favourite café where the owners are her personal friends. I think that makes her feel a bit safer, so she will watch another dog and whine a bit, but usually won’t make a fuss there); there’s training-time, there’s tug rope time, and there’s walking-time. The dog reactivity issue makes up a very small percentage of the time we spend with Abby.

I still look at her from time to time and think, “I can’t believe someone didn’t want her. I can’t believe they didn’t love her enough to take care of her. She’s just so extraordinarily lovable.” It’s inconceivable to me that anyone would neglect a dog so much (she was so thin when we met her! And that was after our awesome foster carer had been carefully feeding her up!), but what is truly staggering is how well Abby’s nature has overcome it. A few hiccups here and there are nothing compared to what neglect and abuse can do to a dog’s ability to trust and feel safe.

Nothing, it turns out, can keep our girl down.

DOG QUEST: The Stairs of Cirith Ungol

A slow and spreading disaster struck our household a few weeks ago, but it took us some time to realise the nature of the problem.

Some background is necessary: we have a deck out the back of our house that looks out over the yard and the rainforest in which we live. The only access to the backyard is via that deck and involves a set of narrow timber stairs. Now, in the long term, I have plans for that deck to be rebuilt, and a ramp put in, because one day our dogs will be old and have hip problems and stairs aren’t good for them. In the meantime, we can’t afford that, so they deal with the stairs.


The view from our back deck on a misty morning

When we first got Abby, she was deeply suspicious of these stairs. It took a great deal of persuasion and treats in order to convince her that she could get up and down them safely.

Of course, that was at the height of Melbourne summer.

Fast forward five months, and suddenly our back deck, which is normally relatively clean (if perhaps not what one would consider pristine), is becoming covered in dog poop. Around the same time (although we didn’t make the connection) Abby’s indoor behaviour started to go from “really improving” to “oh my God, this dog is a nutter.”

At this time both Husband and I were sick, so we put it down to the fact that we weren’t spending enough time taking the dogs out and interacting with them – less playing and training and exercise will of course lead them to go nuts.

Except that Amos wasn’t going nuts – just Abby.

The light went on one day about a week ago when I decided to take Abby for a walk up the street. I was still feeling a bit crook, but I had a serious case of cabin fever and I missed walking with the dogs. I’d already taken Amos up and back; now it was the little girl’s turn.

I stood at the side gate, below the deck, looked up at her, and called. She ran out of sight – I presumed to go down the stairs – and then, surprisingly, reappeared.

“Abby!” I called again.

The same thing happened – she would duck away, as if to go to the stairs and come down to meet me – and then she would duck back, looking simultaneously very excited and confused.

I went to the bottom of the stairs and called her again, figuring that she was so excited to go for a walk that her brain had short-circuited and she was stuck in some sort of canine pathfinding error.

She stood at the top of the stairs, looked at me, wagged her tail, and then dropped into a heap, giving me a desperate look.

I placed a couple of treats on the step second from the top (she can just bend down if I put them on the top step). She wriggled forward, put her two front paws on the top step, whined, and jumped backwards.

It all came together – the pooping, the berseko-dog behaviour, the apparent inability to get from the deck to the gate, and the minor cut above one eye.

The stairs get very slippery in the wet, and we’ve been getting a lot of rain. I hadn’t been concerned because Amos had negotiated these stairs last winter already and done quite well – but he’s very careful. Abby, on the other hand, is mostly made of elbows and knees and is a little uncoordinated.

So, I’m guessing someone slipped on the wet stairs, banged her eye, and decided that the stairs were now terrifying. She would go up them, but not down them. Meanwhile, she was getting no exercise (normally she and Amos run around in the yard with great exuberance), the poop was piling up, and she was stuck in a relatively small space for hours and hours that was full of dog poop.

Poor Abby. I felt terrible.

Today was the first free day I’d had to deal with the problem.

I went to Bunnings and purchased thirteen black rubber stair treads and a set of exterior screws (the minor miracle here is that I went to Bunnings with a clear idea of what I wanted and left with only those things).

Then Husband and I spent a pleasant half an hour outside in the late afternoon with the electric drills, affixing the stair treads to the stairs. They now look like this:


The Stairs of Cirith Ungol, now with dog-safe treads and uneven screws.

I grabbed some dog treats and got Abby out onto the deck to see how she would react.

At first it was no different. She sniffed the rubber curiously, ate the treats when I provided them at the first step, but wouldn’t come down to the second. I tugged gently on her collar. She pulled back and dropped into a flat heap at the top of the stairs, head on her paws. She couldn’t have said No I won’t! any more clearly if she tried.

It was Husband who suggested, “You might have to put her on lead.”

I was hesitant. I envisioned myself tugging Abby down the stairs, which, since she was genuinely terrified, would be traumatising for her. I wondered if there was some other way to do it, but in the end I agreed, and he brought me the lead.

I clipped Abby on the lead, and, planning to stop on the second step to try and lure her, began to go down the stairs.

Abby began to trot down confidently beside me.

I was mystified: why would being on the lead help? Husband pointed out that, when Abby is on the lead, she is always safe. She is being guided, and trained, and cared for. Nothing bad ever happens when she is on the lead, so it makes her more confident. She was willing to give the stairs ago when I had her on lead, because she trusted that I wouldn’t let her come to harm. Off-lead? She just wasn’t sure.

At the bottom of the stairs I unclipped the lead, praised her mightily and provided many treats and told her how clever and good and brave she was, and then we practised “Upstairs!” and “Downstairs!” some more. “What a brave puppy!” I cooed. “What a clever girl!”

(yes, I’m a bit nauseating with my dogs. Shhh)

She was delighted. Excited praise is her bread and butter.

After this we let Amos out, took both dogs downstairs, and watched them bouncing and playing and leaping among the trees. I was so relieved and happy I nearly cried – I’d been feeling so terrible about her predicament.

13 x Rubber stair treads: $200

100 x (8G x 25mm) exterior screws: $4.95 (I only used 78)

Watching your cooped up manic dog play happily: Priceless.




A blurry, twilight picture of Abby in the backyard. She has a crushed 2 litre plastic milk bottle in her mouth (best dog toys ever).


A blurry twilight picture of Amos, mid-leap (okay, I’m not an action photographer).