Dog Quest: The Price of Complacency

Edit: spoiler alert here – no-one has died. Everyone is going to be okay (more or less).

Most of the time, when I write about my dogs or my pets, there’s a certain amount of humour involved.

That’s not going to happen this time. This is a pretty hard post to write.

Husband and I have had a pretty emotional, devastating week, and while it’s starting to let up, it looks like it might be a bit demanding for the next little while. First I will tell the story of what happened, and then I will finish with some important take home points about how and whether this could have been prevented, what we as dog owners have learned from this, what action we will take in future, and what people reading this story need to keep in mind if it is going to inform any of their future behaviours.

So here goes.

We have two dogs, and two cats. We raised Amos from puppyhood. Although he does get excitable when we have company, he is for the most part a very laid back dog. He has a resource guarding issue with high value items, but we continue to work on that and it continues to improve. He’s a bit of a goofball, but he is very solid and clever and calm. To my assessment he has a core of emotional stability and confidence that makes his behaviour relatively predictable (for a dog). He has almost no prey drive relative to your average rottweiler.

We adopted Abby as a rescue, when she was about nine or ten months old, with a murky past. While initially our problems stemmed from her weeing inside and trying to play with Amos when he didn’t want to play, for the most part we’ve found that she is anxious and reactive, very eager to please, highly food driven to the point where we are still struggling to teach her not to raid the bin, since she has in the past been starved. She often seems to feel threatened by other dogs or want to play with them, depending on whether she is on lead or whether she decides they have crossed some line that neither we nor the kennel owners could figure out. She’s a bit scared of big guys, but she gets past it and attaches herself to them like a barnacle.

She loves people. She is postcard gentle with children and babies (although she does try to nibble-groom children; that was over a year ago though, and since then we have trained her out of nibble-grooming people. Note that this is a nurturing, not aggressive, canine behaviour). She is extremely affectionate and playful.

She has an extremely high prey drive. This is a dog that is made of elbows and knees and flaps around in an intensely uncoordinated matter and then moves like oiled lightning when she sees ducks.

Amos has always treated the cats as though they are small, slightly unfriendly dogs. By this I mean: he sniffs their butts (or tries to); he play-bows at them; he tries to get closer but backs off when they give their warning meows (this is only for Jabba, though; Lestat would not be anywhere near where he could even see a dog, although he did get his butt sniffed when Amos was a small puppy). Before we got Abby, Amos and Jabba were reaching an understanding where they could safely be in the same room.

By contrast, Abby did not even seem to really notice the cats for the first two weeks, in keeping with what her foster carer said (she was fostered with cats and other dogs).

When she did notice them, her interest was much more “target acquired” than “small unfriendly dog I need to make friends with.” So we continued to keep them separate, as it quickly became clear that Abby and the cats would not be friends or be safe.

I wasn’t entirely sure she would be dangerous to them – she managed to roll Lestat over once or twice before I got her away, and mostly she sniffed at him, and in this case I probably saw what I wanted to see. It helps that Lestat is basically a lump of a cat and doesn’t move much; even when he flails angrily he is quite slow, so probably he doesn’t set off the prey drive as much.

Our approach was to keep them separate, because while I wasn’t sure what she would do – and thought that possibly she was just curious – I didn’t feel anywhere near the level of confidence that would let me risk the safety of the cats. We kept them separate with a baby gate, which had bars wide enough for the cats to get through if they wanted to explore the rest of the house when the dogs were outside.

The problem is that the cats don’t always know when the dogs are outside. When they’re napping on couches in the lounge room, that seems pretty safe, so this Sunday just gone, Jabba wandered off to visit Husband in his study – on the dog side of the gate – and Abby woke up.

And caught him.

Amos expressed interest in the proceedings (sniffing and pushing forward, ears up), but didn’t join in (no biting or lunging). When Husband pulled him away from the fray (because if muscle dog joined in, things would go even more to shit than they were – Amos and Abby are about the same size, but Amos is a lot stronger), he was agitated, but held his position.

So I stuck my hand in Abby’s mouth and pried her jaws apart, while getting clawed by a panicking shocky cat. Every time I had Abby’s mouth open and Jabba was free, she’d lunge forward to get him again. And every time I stuck my hand back in Abby’s mouth, she let go.

In the end I had to wrestle her to the floor and get my legs around her to hold her still. She wriggled, and kept trying, but at no point did she express any aggression towards me (this is important). It was up to Husband to get Amos outside and then to get Jabba in the bedroom, because if I let her go for a moment, she would go back to her prey.

Which just happened to be my cat. I fucking adore that cat. I get frustrated because he wakes me up at least twice a night clawing the laundry basket or wanting to burrow under the covers; and just that very day I’d gotten really distressed because he had pee’d on a pile of clean, dry laundry (two loads worth), and I am very stressed at the moment and any extra problem does my head in. But I do really love this cat.

This is the thing we have to understand: to Abby, Jabba is basically a squeaky toy. Abby bites and chews and destroys and shakes toys. This is in her nature. This is what she does. She has a high prey drive. She is almost a gun dog in a rottweiler body. This is, actually, why we specifically wanted to adopt a cat-friendly dog and this is why I am frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be a good way to road test this apart from long-term foster care where the dog has daily contact with cats – and that requires a shitload of resources that most animal rescue groups simply don’t have.

So Abby got roared at, and put outside. She cringed, and had her tail between her legs.

And I managed to gently tug Jabba out from under the bed (knowing what I know now about his condition, this makes me wince, but I can’t think how else I would have got him out), and push him into his carrier, sobbing and desperately apologising as I watched his front legs collapse under his weight when he tried to crawl forward, while Husband called 24 hours Animal Emergency Care.

We drove down there with my hand stuck in the carrier, monitoring Jabba’s breathing. He was taking giant breaths. He was obviously in a great deal of pain.

(spoiler: he will be okay)

And the whole time, we’re trying to work out – are we going to need to rehome Abby? She did what many dogs do, but are we going to be able to deal with this emotionally?

And I’m thinking, “Oh my god, my poor little cat…” Because at this point we think he isn’t going to make it. Husband asks me a few times on the drive if Jabba is still breathing – he is. And we’re picturing a broken spine, or massive internal injuries and bleeding, crushed organs…

We got lucky. Really, really lucky. According to the vets at AEC (who dealt with the situation really well – compassion and expertise while being professional enough that it wouldn’t just make me cry), the big breaths and difficulty oxygenating was probably due to shock. No lung damage, although there might be some bruising there by now. The thing that was terrifying us was his inability to put weight on his front legs. They weren’t broken, and he could move them, but they wouldn’t hold his weight and we were concerned about permanent nerve damage (which could lead to him being euthanized).

It turned out this was just due to swelling. He can move around on his legs well enough, although he is not steady on his feet yet.

His only long-term problem (apart from just being traumatised by the event) is that he has a fractured and dislocated sternum. Apparently this heals up pretty well in cats so he will most likely be fine, although he may not ever be as spry as he once was.

Meanwhile, Abby became completely emotionally withdrawn after the incident – curling up in a ball in the couch, not wanting to play, not wanting to interact, all things that are very out of character for her – and that’s most likely because we withdrew emotionally from her. For the first 14 hours, there was no patting, no playing, no affection – and that’s a very stark difference. We are normally very affectionate with our dogs. Constant pats, talking, playing. There’s a constant reinforcement going on, but suddenly it was absent, and she could tell. Meanwhile, she was starting to take out her frustration on Amos in surprisingly nasty ways – her tendency to bully him has amped up more in the last couple of months (more on that below), but this was extreme. Amos, meanwhile, was getting clingy and needy from all the tension in the house.

So that is what happened. What are the things we need to consider in future?

Jabba himself

For the next little while, he won’t be able to move around much, so we have time to figure out how we’re going to increase our pet security. At the moment there is space between the bars for the cats to get through the baby gate, so we’re going to have to block that off. We’re also going to put up a curtain in the corridor to block line of sight – that way Abby won’t see cats and fixate on them, and the cats will be more comfortable crossing the corridor to get to the litter tray in the bathroom. Over time I am hoping this will make our feline residents feel more secure and happy. They are both well past middle age and into elderly and it’s very important for their long term health that they feel safe.

Right now he is curled up under my computer, occasionally purring when I pet him.

Abby

I know when I’m well out of my depth; I called our trainer (who is actually a behaviourist). Here were the key points she emphasised:

Firstly, we got complacent because Amos is a much more laid back couch potato sort of dog, and that makes a certain kind of sense; but in the case of dogs like Abby with high prey drive, you can’t afford to be complacent. They want to hunt, and that’s what they’ll do. Anything small and fluffy and vaguely rabbit shaped is a potential target, especially if it scampers or races around.

Could we get that prey drive down? Theoretically, yes, but it would be a massive job, and probably for professional dog trainers – we won’t have the time to invest in that project. Separation and prevention is a much better approach long-term.

Also, we need to heighten the security there, because now Abby has learned that shaking cats is fun, even if she got punished for it. In the meantime, this is now ancient history for her – over and done with – so we need to get back to normal now as much as we can, emotionally speaking. This is difficult, I’m having some conflicting feelings, but we’re trying.

She is not a bad dog, or a dangerous dog (I’ll emphasise this more later).

Secondly, her long-term frustration is probably because she has no outlet for her high energy. Husband and I have both been either sick or away for most of the last two months and so there hasn’t been anywhere near as much walking or playing or training with the dogs. I am thinking that as soon as my broken toe has healed up and I can run again, I am going to start teaching Abby to jog intervals with me.

In the meantime, as a failsafe, we need to work hard on her “crate” command, to the point where no matter what the distraction, she’ll go to her crate when commanded. This is going to be challenging, because while she is super good at going to her crate at dinner time, she mostly responds to hand signals – and I need her to respond to the verbal command even when she can’t see me. A year and a half in, and she is still not entirely clear on verbal commands, no matter how consistent I am with tone and enunciation. She is just now starting to get that there’s a different between “sit” and “drop”, even though she is very solid on the hand signals. It’s very common for dogs to respond to body language and hand signals before anything else, and I think that her base level of anxiety makes it a bit harder for her to concentrate and learn to pay attention to verbal commands.

Where did we go wrong? Well, we weren’t quite as clear on separation as we should have been. Our emphasis was always on making sure the cats had a safe place to run to that was just theirs, not necessarily on keeping them 100% separate, and that was a huge mistake on our part, and Jabba nearly paid for that mistake with his life. We got complacent. We got confident. We assumed Jabba would always be able to scamper off miles ahead of any dog approaching. We even assumed that Abby might not try to kill him, that she might just be curious (although as I said, I didn’t hold this view with intense confidence).

I’m aware that I fucked up, and that Jabba deserved better than this from me.

Finally: really. She is not a bad dog. She is not an unsafe dog, or a scary dog. Unless you are a cat (or a possum, or a rabbit, etc.), you are safe with her. She is, and remains, a good dog with children, although the usual caveats apply (never leave a dog unattended with a child).

The reason I emphasise the above is because anywhere you go on the internet with these sorts of questions, if you see a discussion where a dog has killed a cat, you will immediately get people gasping about what a dangerous dog it is, and what if it was a child?

And look, if you actually don’t know much about dogs, I can see where that anxiety comes from.

But humans, even human children, aren’t prey animals. They just aren’t. There’s no “the dog has taste for blood.” It’s pretty much “the dog has taste for cats.” I do understand the anxiety around the issue, and if and when I do have a kid, I will be very careful and systematic about how I introduce the kid to both my dogs.

Most of the issue surrounding dogs and children stem from the fact that dogs and kids are different species and they communicate instinctively in different ways. Behaviour that seems harmless and even cute to a human parent can be deeply distressing and even frightening to a dog, and dogs often exercise enormous restraint in the face of this behaviour, but everyone has a breaking point. I’ve seen videos where a parent encouraged a child to bounce up and down on a rottweiler’s back. The dog showed every sign of anxiety in the situation (whale eye, tongue flicks, etc.) – tolerated the behaviour all the same – but the danger there is real.

You can teach dogs to be patient and tolerant with children, but the degree of patience and the level of behaviour they will tolerate is going to vary between dogs, even as such tolerance varies among people – and there is a limit to how much they can learn. It is by far more important to teach children how to behave around dogs, from a very young age. Again, there’s only so much they will absorb (and only so much restraint a kidlet with a poorly developed frontal lobe can actually exercise!), and this is why we have to monitor dogs and kids closely until the child is old enough to manage their behaviour around dogs.

That’s a departure from the initial story, but it is a common reaction to dog-on-cat violence, so I thought it was worth making some space for that.

On a final note: this is not breed specific. Some rottweilers can be friends with cats. Some can’t. The same thing is going to be true of the vast majority of breeds. Some breeds are known for exceptionally high prey drive (huskies and malamutes, some working breeds), and really should not be homed with cats, but even in those cases there are exceptions to the rule. Some breeds are known for being very laid back about cats, and are expected to be fine, and every now and then you’ll get one of those dogs that mostly wants to eat cats.

So in summary:

We are keeping Abby. She is not a bad dog. We are stepping up her training and exercise.

Jabba is going to be okay. More on this as he heals up.

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.

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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: Canine Emotional Support

When I’m feeling very low, generally my instinct is to curl up in a cave constructed largely of doonas (eiderdowns or “comforters” for those of you not in Oz), pillows and cats, and go to sleep, on the theory that I’ll usually feel at least a bit better when I wake up. Usually, this is true.

So, bed is a safe place.

Every now and again I feel conflicted about this. I feel as though the only thing that could be more comforting than being curled up in bed next to snoring Husband and attention-demanding middle-aged cat (Jabba), and comatose elderly cat (Lestat), would be if Amos was asleep on the floor next to the bed and I could pat him.

We’ll leave aside reality for the moment. Reality would involve acknowledging that, in such a situation, Amos would steal my socks and refuse to give them back, and intermittently fart clouds of noxious gases into the bedroom, and wake us up from time to time by very loudly licking his penis (this results in quite the obnoxious slurping noise). Reality would involve acknowledging that he would probably eat the cat food, and the cats would be yowling and hissing in distress, and hiding under the bed, if not actively pissing on things in their outrage (this last one is more Jabba than Lestat. Lestat has more dignity than to piss on things in outrage).

I grew up with rottweilers. I took them entirely for granted, and it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I encountered another rottie and was reminded that there was perhaps nothing in this world that was as comforting to me as leaning my head on a broad, black, muscled, furry dog back. Nothing makes one feel quite as safe as snuggling up next to a large dog that is very fond of you.

When I cry, Amos gets worried. He expresses this worry by sitting politely in front of me, licking my face obsessively, and nibbling on my ear. He follows me around when I am sad or sick, and he lets me hug him and flop all over him, when most of the time he can be a bit precious about his personal space. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise at times like this, but dogs do recognise distress. Howling and crying are things he seems to understand.

And sometimes I feel that no-one will offer you such wholehearted, uncomplicated emotional support as a dog will.

"Draw me like one of your French girls."

“Draw me like one of your French girls.”

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.

Conclusion

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: Amos’s protective drive

Usual disclaimers apply here – I’m not going to delve deeply into canine behavioural psychology because, at this point, it is beyond my ken. There are some really good questions around territoriality and protectiveness, and I’m not much for answering those decisively, although I would love to know more.

This is about Amos, and some general perceptions of dog behaviour, and a bit of a brag, because I’m biased, and Amos is my bud.

Our first anecdote begins one bright Saturday morning when my father drove out to our place to help us with some yard work (this was before we adopted Abby). This is an ongoing project, ever since a fifty-metre-plus mountain ash with delusions of glory launched itself into our yard over a year ago and smacked down perfectly parallel to the fence line. Dad came around with his trailer and a tale of woe.

This is not unusual, and it’s a family trait. We love us some tales of woe.

Since the tree had crushed our original fence, gate and retaining wall, we’ve had some “temporary” pool-safety fencing up to prevent Amos from wandering the countryside. So Dad and I stood next to this fence as he shared his tale of woe. On the other side of the fence, Amos stood, wagging his tail and gazing happily up at us (Amos adores my father).

Now, this was a tale of betrayal and crappy friendship and a few thousand dollars lost between ex-friends, and my father gets very animated when telling a story.

This, too, is a family trait. Why simply tell a story with one’s lips when one can throw in waving hands and puffed out chests and facial grimaces? This is not merely a story, people. This is theatre, and that is our noble way.

He was very angry about what had happened, and, being Dad, he kind of got in my face, while shouting about it.

Let’s be clear – my dad wasn’t threatening me at all, and I was well aware of that, but I am not good around overt displays of anger or temper. I tend to freeze up a little, and twitch back.

“WOOF.”

Dad stopped mid-rant, mouth open. I frowned. As one we turned our heads towards Amos. He was standing in a very alert position, staring at my father. Now, Amos will bark to invite play, so I checked his body language – nope, this wasn’t a play bark. It wasn’t a full-on aggressive bark, either. “What?” I asked the dog (who, naturally, did not reply). “Nothing to worry about here. Everything’s okay.” I stroked him on the head and under the jaw and he relaxed, his tail wagging happily again.

I turned back to Dad. “Resume story,” I said, knowing the value of delivering a good rant.

Dad continued in his rant, and again, he got in my face.

WOOF.

And again, we turned to look at Amos.

The light dawned. “Ah. Dad, he thinks you’re yelling at me.”

“Oh!” Dad relaxed at once, and came over to give Amos some petting and love, and he backed off the story a bit, and all was well.

Now, I don’t know if Amos was responding to Dad’s aggressive body language (and it was very intimidating body language, particularly if you don’t know my dad), or my instinctive twitchiness in the face of anger, or possibly the combination of the two, but I’ll be honest: I think his reaction was excellent, and I’ll tell you why.

Dogs are attuned to human body language. It’s the only way they know to communicate with us. Every piece of information is crucial. I wouldn’t be entirely happy if my dog was so clueless that they couldn’t pick up on this sort of thing – it would probably be harder to communicate with them. I wouldn’t necessarily want a dog to become desensitised to it either, because that would indicate that displays of anger or temper are commonplace, and that’s not an ideal situation for anyone.

On the other hand, a dog that is overly protective – one that goes from zero to a hundred without warning – is really not desirable either. If a dog doesn’t let anyone they haven’t met get near you, that’s a problem, not just from a practical standpoint (having to put the dog away every time you have guests is frustrating. We sometimes have to do that, but admittedly that’s because of excessive social enthusiasm, not territoriality), but because it suggests that your dog thinks you can’t take care of yourself.

That may seem like excessive interpretation (and anthropomorphism), but bear with me: essentially, you want your dog to trust you to take care of them, not the other way around. In other words, it’s nice that Amos has my back, but clearly he follows my judgment when I declare things to be “safe” or otherwise. This means that if I don’t overreact to storms and earthquakes, he probably won’t either (note: lots of dogs are scared of storms and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your reaction – but your reaction can make it worse). If I react with warm enthusiasm to a visitor, that tells Amos that the visitor is safe.

If he were getting protective, even from people that I obviously like, that would indicate that he wasn’t trusting my judgment, and I need my dog to trust me.

I have another example. Last year, I had surgery. It was relatively minor surgery, but it did involve an open wound that took a while to heal, and Amos could smell that I wasn’t at my best. He didn’t get over-protective, but he did become a little bit more of a velcro-dog than he would normally be.

One day, a few days after I got out of the hospital, I stepped out on the back deck to find that Lenny, the kelpie from next door, had come to visit. Lenny is a sweetheart and a charmer, with an ant-eater style tongue that attacks you like a friendly, sloppy ninja, so I was delighted to see him. He galloped over to me for a pat.

Amos body-blocked him. He didn’t growl. He didn’t snap. He just ensured that Lenny could not get close to me, and after that, he actually gently herded Lenny over to the other end of the deck, and then came back to me, looking very pleased with himself.

It’s true that when Amos and Lenny (or Amos and Abby, or any combination of the three) are in the presence of any of their favourite humans, they get possessive and a bit jealous. No! I want all the pats! You can’t have any! And they will body block, and wriggle, and bounce, but there’s a very obvious no-hard-feelings about all the body language involved. I’ve never seen them herd each other before.

“Aw,” I said to Amos, “That’s sweet. But I want to pat Lenny.” So I put Amos in a drop, and walked over to Lenny, who was looking quite forlorn-

-and then I went back to Amos, and put him back in his drop-

-and-

Okay. It took a few tries to get past Amos’s instinctive conviction that Lenny shouldn’t be too close when I was vulnerable, but we got there. Amos held his drop, with a desperate look in his eyes, and I petted Lenny and told him he was very cute, and then I released Amos and petted them both, and the moment seemed to pass.

While I felt quite loved, herding away a smaller dog that we know well bordered a little bit on over-protective for me. He did it gently, with no overt displays of aggression, but it was an unnecessary level of caution. So, I decided that I had to demonstrate to Amos that I get to make all the decisions about patting other dogs, even when I’m sick and have an open surgical wound, and we did this in a controlled setting.

My favourite story, though, is a bit more ridiculous. It takes place the day after we brought little Amos-puppy home. He was nine weeks old and a bit under five kilos.

For nearly the first 24 hours that we had Amos, he interacted almost exclusively with me. Husband was working from home that day and things had apparently gone a bit pear-shaped, so he was very busy. I’d picked up Amos from the breeder and brought him home, talking to him the whole time and petting him at red lights. I’d put his box next to my side of the bed that first night, and slept with my arm dangling in it so he could lick me and get petted when he felt uncertain (just for the first night, I didn’t want to create a pattern). There was a very quick bonding process.

The evening of the second Amos-day, I was still very tired and not feeling at my best. Husband was stressed out about work, and we had what passes for a fight when two people are very grumpy but too tired to get excessively worked up. I was lying on the couch, and little Amos was sprawled on the carpet having a snooze.

Voices were raised. Tempers frayed.

Then, the adorable puppy growl: “rrrrrrrrrrRUFF.”

Little puppy Amos had woken up, and positioned himself closer to me, glaring at Husband.

We both melted immediately, and the fight was over. Husband held out his hand for Amos to lick, and all was forgiven. So, it was established early on that Amos is not a fan of raised voices in the home, or cross voices, and I’m not entirely sure that was a protective urge (he was just a baby, after all) so much as his own personal discomfort with the vibe of the room.

Still, I like to say, “Amos doesn’t like it when people yell at me.” And that works out well, because I don’t like it either.

DOG QUEST: Teaching survival skills, or, “It’s a human’s human’s human’s human’s world.”

…with apologies to James Brown.

I’m currently feverishly promoting this article. If it’s too long for you (it is long, but it’s not dense – very readable), the tl;dr version is this:

Dominance theory is dead. It does not work. It is fail. Application of dominance theory results in traumatised dogs, dog “aggression”, injured humans and a certain amount of stress.

First, I will briefly explain what dominance theory is (for more detail, please do read the linked article. It is very important). Then I will explain how this has applied to my own experience, my own dogs, and the training philosophies I have picked up along the way.

If you have ever heard anyone talk about how you must be “alpha” with a dog – that’s dominance theory. If you’ve ever had anyone tell you that you need to roll over and lie on your dog – that’s dominance theory. If any behaviour that occurs is interpreted in light of canine aggression and a desire to move up in the hierarchy – that’s dominance theory. It’s based on flawed interpretations of wolf pack structure and, believe it or not, Nazi justification of eugenics programmes (the latter came as some surprise to me).

If you have these ideas about dog training and behaviour lurking around in your head, don’t feel too bad. They are almost universal, and pop up in everything from poorly-researched documentaries to romantic werewolf literature (of which I read a great deal. Shh). We pretty much all grew up with these ideas of alphas and omegas and dominance. The best you can do is to replace this all-pervading pile of horse-puckey with good information, and reassess how you interact with your dog.

Dominance theory promotes the idea that there are leaders and followers in a pack, and that this is what dogs look for, and if you don’t nip it in the bud quick smart, your dog will think you are a follower and will try to be leader.

Firstly, wolf packs don’t work like that. Wolf packs are nuclear family units: mum, dad, and various generations of pups who stick around until they grow up and sod off to find their own mate (sound familiar?).

Secondly, dogs aren’t wolves, and haven’t been for a very, very long time. Dogs have been bred by humans to be tame and easily domesticated, and to look to humans for leadership and companionship. They are not the same. Behavioural observations drawn from one group can not be readily applied to the other. That’s a little like saying we behave like chimps (with some caveats); it’s not that we don’t have any behaviours in common, but their expression is wildly different.

I went to the Dog Lovers Show in Melbourne at the start of May (and I need to post about that, it was largely a very positive experience), and sat in with a behaviourist giving a presentation about dogs and kids. She said that the best way to understand dogs was to describe them as toddlers (intelligent, affectionate, playful, self-motivated, largely amoral) with mouths full of knives (what big teeth you have, little Abby-dog).

The comparison of kids to dogs is a common one, and there’s a whole blog post in that too, but I’m going to point out what I personally feel is the absolute crucial functional difference between raising a dog and raising a kid, and why I’ve given this post the title that I have.

When you raise a kid, you are – ultimately – guiding a little fellow human towards independence and autonomy. You are protecting them and loving them, yes, but you are also teaching them how to interact safely with the world and make their own decisions. One day, they will talk back, and one day soon, they will argue, and then, they will start making their own decisions, and eventually, they will make all their own decisions and you will be left biting your nails and watching the end result of all your parenting (not that it ever really ends, or so I’m told, but there’s a letting-go-point and I understand that this is nerve-wracking).

When you raise a dog, this never happens. There is no letting-go-point. Dogs cannot ever be autonomous or independent, no matter how intelligent they are or how well trained. They’ll be able to do certain things – work out where they are allowed to poop, for example, or operate those toys that deliver treats, or herd sheep – but they’ll never be able to feed themselves, or refill their water bucket, or contribute to financial decisions which help pay for their food. They will never be self-sufficient. Dogs are companions and friends and an absolute delight and treasure; but they are pets, and they are completely dependent on us.

Dogs have to live in a human world, and if they live solely as dogs, they are not safe. For example, biting and mouthing is one of the ways in which dogs communicate. They nip, they herd, they push, they pull, they demand attention, they nag, they play. Biting and mouthing are not automatically warnings, or aggressive behaviours. They certainly can be, but it’s far from certain.

If dogs are not trained out of these behaviours, someone will get hurt, and ultimately, it will be the dog who pays the price.

The same can apply to containment. Dogs will naturally wander about, establish territory, interact with other dogs, and explore – but they live in a human world, a world full of cars and trucks, bigger dogs, pounds and council regulations. Again, the dog will ultimately be the one to pay the price.

This is why I don’t call what I teach my dogs “tricks”. I call them “survival skills” (or, sometimes, fun games). Recall – getting your dog to return to you – is definitely a survival skill. Holding positions like sit, drop and stand may seem more like tricks, but not only are they good for discipline (and fun to learn. Dogs love to learn, especially if there are rewards like treats, and praise, and playing), they are good for veterinary examination. I teach my dogs that they have to let the vet play with their feet and their ears and examine them, and while they are still pretty wriggly at the vet, they’re well-behaved overall. Drop is also good for making big dogs less threatening to small children – I’ve had kids who were very scared of Amos come over and give him a pat once I got him into a drop.

It’s not that tricks aren’t fun to learn – but none of these things are idle. We don’t teach dogs “heel” and “sit” and “drop” because we want to show off or dominate our dogs; we teach them because it makes it safer and easier for dogs to interact with humans in a human world.

Achieving a good level of obedience is not about being a bully in the way that dominance theory espouses. Dogs need boundaries to their behaviour because they live in our world, not theirs, and unlike children, they will never be able to live in their own world. We’ve bred them for ours. This is where dominance theory is so seductive to people: it’s a simple might-makes-right solution to a complex problem (and simple solutions to complex problems are almost universally wrong). We accept the first premise – that we need to teach dogs to obey certain commands that we give them – and perhaps the second premise – that in order for that obedience to take place, a dog must respect us – and then we go bananas with it, because that respect is as much about trust as anything else. Dogs are self-interested. They have to trust that you won’t hurt them, that your decisions are best, and perhaps that sometimes obedience results in cheese (Amos’s favourite thing in all the land), while disobedience results in dogs being put outside and ignored and not getting any attention (let alone any cheese).

The attitude espoused by dominance theory – that we must physically bully our dogs into obedience – is harmful. Training is one thing. Reward. Praise. Repeat. Occasionally passive punishment (ignore dog! possibly combined with sharp words – “Bad puppy!” is still very effective with Amos) helps for things like jumping and mouthing. I used to believe otherwise (I used to think I knew everything), but now I know better. The science is not behind dominance theory.

I have a few great examples.

Amos has, on two occasions, behaved in a way I might describe as “a challenge.” In both cases, I told him to go outside, and he didn’t want to. His posture got very stiff, and he stared at me, and he growled when I touched his collar. This is un-Amos-like behaviour, and the Cesar Milans of the world would probably say that he was challenging me for dominance. Bullshit. In both cases, there were special circumstances. The first time was shortly after we got Abby – he’d been sick, there was a new dog around, and he was stressed. The second time, he was not feeling well. He was stressed, he was shitty, and he didn’t want to go outside, and he’d had enough.

I’m not saying it’s acceptable behaviour – it absolutely is not! – but it’s not a challenge, and it’s not aggression. In fact, when I told him off, and persisted in touching the collar, he backed down. He continued to growl and grumble, but he got up and went to the door. He was protesting. He was, in fact, trying to see what he could get away with – pushing the boundaries – and all it got him was being told off, put outside, and ignored. At no point did he attempt to mouth, or bite, or cause me any damage.

[side note: this is one point where the difference between dogs and kids would come into play. With a kid, depending on their age or developmental stage and what the behaviour was, I would ideally explain why those boundaries existed. I can’t do that with a dog]

I have had people tell me that my dog was “being dominant” when he licked me (or anyone else). This is such extraordinarily stinky bullshit that I do not even know where to start. Licking is affection, greeting and excitement. I ran into some difficulty when my dad kept telling Amos off for licking him, and Amos started licking him more – because all Amos knew was that dad was cross with him, so he licked him to say, “Do not be cross with the puppy! Be friends!” and the cycle was a bit confusing for everyone.

I have had people tell me to hit my dog.

There was a time when I would have listened, and thus, when I would not have the trust from my dog that I have now.

Dog behaviour is fascinating and complex. You want the trust and respect of your dog. You do not ever want their fear. If fear makes people stupid, imagine what it does to dogs who can’t reason through their emotions.

Please… read the article.

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.

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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:

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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.

 

 

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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).

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