Recognizing the problem
Having a dog with marked behavioural problems, which appear to include an element of fear related aggression is a bit like I imagine it would have been to live with Jekyll and Hyde; one moment a sweet poppet of a dog and the next having what I can best describe in human terms as having a panic attack – snapping and growling and beyond control.
This was George when we got him, even friends coming to the house were perceived as a threat, but the greatest problem was other dogs. This made walks or attending the Dog Club with him difficult in the extreme.
He hated people walking past the house, let alone coming to the door and visitors were certainly not allowed! It became a habit to ask people to come in and sit down straight away; once the environment was relaxed George would walk across to the newcomers, investigate them, then climb into a vacant lap and snuggle down. As time has gone passed and George has become more confident with us this has improved and now, with people who have been before, he is fine. More care has to be taken with strangers, but he is improving all the time. It has to be said that in terms of people visiting the house, much had to be done without the benefit of our subsequent sources of advice, so it was very much on a trial and error basis.
With obedience training George is quick to learn and keen to please. He rapidly learned to do sit and down stays, walk to heel and recall. He acquired a rather good retrieve while I was watching television one evening using Arnie’s old, chewed, wooden dumbbell.
With regard to his fearfulness we must have had him for nearly two years before anyone explained that this could be at the root of his problem. I had never come across ‘fear aggression’ before and it was only when friends asked me to go with them to see their gundog trainer (who had a history of success with a wide range of canines with problems) based in the small village of Kilndown in Kent, that things started to improve.
Jon (the gundog trainer) took George’s lead in his hand and I saw all the tension quite literally drain out of him. The poor little fellow looked completely different. Jon then explained to me about aggression sometimes being a fear response and that he should never be allowed to make decisions for himself as they would almost certainly be ‘the wrong ones’. He also showed me a few things I could do to help him when he was feeling threatened.
Unfortunately with winter approaching, Jon’s evening sessions ceased and I only saw him once, but some months later George was able to start on a Behaviour Modification Programme with Julia at Sandhills Canine Training Centre, which was conveniently close to home and with her he has gone from strength to strength. Once again, if you have a problem with your dog, I would stress the value of seeking help from someone with appropriate knowledge and experience.
I have learned so much from Julia, not only about what I can do to help George, but also how to watch him for signs that he is becoming anxious so I can engage appropriate avoidance tactics at the right time.
Our earliest meetings with Julia were two one-to-one sessionsin autumn 2009, during which she did a basic assessment of George, and agreed that there might be an element of fear in his behaviour (she was later to give me a fuller explanation of fear and other aggressions) and reiterated the need for George not to be allowed to make any decisions, though her coping mechanisms were slightly different.
In February 2010 we started training regularly with Julia, in what she called rehabilitation, though I always called it George’s remedial class, because he put me in mind of stories she related about her son and remedial work that was done with him! Having practiced our coping strategies religiously during the intervening months we had made some progress and were ready for Julia’s next step; sharing lessons with a dog who had similar problems.
Interestingly even the limited work I had done at this stage had made a noticeable difference to George and Julia commented on how much of the stress had left him, making him look younger and happier.
Little Rolo was an adorable teddy-bear faced Border Terrier who could swear as well as George – it was like watching a choirboy pour out profanity; somehow always incongruous. Not that they normally wanted to have a growl-up after the first few weeks, but it was still necessary to be vigilant as anything could change this!
Early lessons were about watching our dogs, learning to understand some of their body language so that we could better anticipate problems and learning when and how to reinforce appropriate behaviours. After about four weeks we started taking them outside the training centre, so we could begin putting all our new learning into practice in a more natural environment, initially working individually and later together. Using areas in the vicinity of the training centre that would best simulate the sort of problems we had been experiencing at home, Julia watched and helped us work on improving our handling skills and gaining our dog’s confidence.
It was obvious that George initially found the sessions quite stressful and it was interesting to see that when he got back on the Sandhills land there was a similar ‘relaxation’ to that which I had observed the first time Jon took his lead.
We continued to work together at Sandhills and in the nearby roads for about twelve weeks, doing a range of exercises and introducing new factors to replicate some of the situations we might meet in real life. By the end of this time Julia felt we should spend some weeks working with our dogs to consolidate what we had learned and then return for some further training to move them on to the next stage of their rehabilitation.
In the meantime she also suggested we should keep diary sheets to monitor our progress and identify any problems we might be experiencing.
Raising the Bar
Recently Rolo’s owner and I had a review meeting with Julia during which she discussed our progress and how we should be moving our dogs on, explaining that what we had done in terms of building confidence and reinforcing good behaviour was a good start we now needed to move on to a point where ‘good behaviour’ and exhibiting a quiet demeanour at all times would become the norm rather than a behaviour deserving of attention.
It had come to my notice that as George was becoming more confident and overall a better behaved dog that other aspects of his character, good and bad, were beginning to show through. I hadn’t really thought much about what was behind this, but as part of our review meeting Julia spoke a about how dogs could show a range of behaviours and that though for both of ours fear was probably a factor there were a number of other aspects to their characters.
Watch this page – to learn whether I make any progress in training George.