Problem behaviours: pulling and jerking on the leash

Problem behaviours: pulling and jerking on the leash


Confession time. Before I knew how to stop it, I had a dog who pulled like a demon. Once, he was part of a group of four dogs I was walking that pulled me on my arse through a field of cows to see a dog at the other side. He pulled so much that it made my hands and shoulders sore. It made me really cross with him too, and I’d finish walks furious if I had to walk him on the leash the whole walk. For this reason, I’d let him off leash more than I should and I even contemplated choke chains. I didn’t get as far as thinking of prong collars, but what I wanted from my dog wasn’t what I was getting.

Sadly, it was all my fault too. Before I knew better, I’d clipped an extending “flexi” leash on him. I used one with my cocker spaniel and it suited us fine. But that flexi-leash taught my young pup about constant pressure and snapping to an end. It taught him he could go where he liked and to feel the constant pressure until it jerked to a stop. This is how he thought dogs walked on the leash.

Not only that, I did another bad thing. I let him off leash at 20 weeks of age for the first time. For a few weeks, it was great. He could walk without pulling and his recall was great. Until he saw a deer. And then a rabbit. His 100% recall was shot and he had to go back on the leash. But he’d got smells by then. Making a lunge to a smell, dragging me from one side to another, wrapping me up in that nasty nylon flexi-leash… so I moved to a 1 metre flat leash, which is the standard leash length. He couldn’t move anywhere and spent the whole time trying desperately to get to a scent. The leash became a punishment in itself. Not only that, but trying to walk past various dogs behind 100m of open fencing meant he too got barrier aggression. Two great reasons to pull and lunge: barrier aggression and over-excitement around scents.

And I did that horrible thing. I expected him to grow out of it. I thought that, by the time he got through his teens, he’d stop.

The dogs I’d had before either walked nicely on leash or had great recall. Molly wasn’t so great on the leash, but she had good recall (on the whole!) and she was never aggressive with other dogs. Tilly and Saffy walked nicely on the leash and good recall (unless there was a cowpat or a cyclist!) But Heston was neither 16kg of easy-to-control dog nor was he a homebody wanting to stay with the pack. No. He was an independent spirit who wanted to chase jays and crows, sparrows and starlings, deer and boar, cyclists and joggers.

While I didn’t get it right with leash walking, I did with a lot of other stuff. We negotiated destructive boredom and he had lots of other ways to burn off energy at home. Heelwork, agility and obedience training were good for him.

But a walk was a living nightmare, with me constantly on edge.

I think that’s the same for a lot of people.

I suspect that walks are the biggest point of conflict between dogs and owners. We love going for a walk with our dogs, otherwise we really wouldn’t take them. And lots of people don’t walk their dog. For 23 hours of the day, you have a great dog who you love very much, and for 1 hour a day, you have a dog that you’d surrender to a shelter. For 23 hours a day, you’re all treats and rewards. For 1 hour a day, you’re at your very worst.

Let’s face it, more people let their dog off the leash than should. I can’t tell you how many accounts of poor dog/dog greetings on a walk I read in one day. For those of us who walk our dogs on a leash, being approached by an unruly off-leash dog with zero recall is our worst nightmare. The Dog Lady posted yesterday about an off-leash incident that cued a lot of comments from owners whose dogs on leashes were attacked by dogs off-leash.

But I know why so many people walk their dogs off-leash.

On-leash, their dog is a nightmare. Off-leash, their dog’s recall may be poor, but many dogs kind of pootle about near the owner. I let Tilly, Effel, Molly, Saffy, Ralf or Amigo off leash and I know that I could walk and they’d be somewhere near me. Sure, they all have their moments where they go all Benton (remember that viral video of the dog chasing deer, much to the frustration of their owner?!) but off-leash, they’re a happy dog and I’m an owner who isn’t having my arm pulled off.

This has consequences of course. More lost dogs is one. Dogs run over is another. Dogs being self-employed on a walk is a serious side-effect. I can’t tell you the number of times Heston disappeared whilst on an off-leash walk. I can’t tell you how many times Tilly has disappeared after some distant cow-pat. But the risk of them doing so was always less than the daily pain in the arse of walking dogs on a leash

Most off-leashers seek out quiet spots away from other dogs. But you can’t predict when someone else will appear. By far most common side-effect of walking off-leash with a dog with poor recall is that if your dog sees another dog or human, they are going to approach it. I think most of these incidents end without bloodshed. The psychological trauma of repeated incidents for both dogs is enormous though. And for vets who deal with dog bites, what percentage of those happen between unfamiliar dogs where they were out on a walk with one or more of the dogs off-leash?

So why do so many people let their dogs off, knowing that their dog is a bit of an arse with others and that their dog has zero recall when confronted with other dogs?

And why do so many good people turn to choke chains, prong collars or gentle leaders to help them out in what is, quite frankly, often a daily battle? If you ask me, the daily walk is the last bastion of punishment training, the one point in a dog’s life where we feel like punishment might work even if we feel uncomfortable punishing a dog at all.

The answer to these questions is simple: walking your dog is often harder than it should be. For many of us, we feel strongly enough that we should walk our dogs but we focus too much on control rather than communication. We haven’t got good enough communication with our dog to have a fool-proof recall or a jerk-free leashed walk, so we try and control the dog instead.

Think about it, though.

You and your dog have different goals on a walk. You want to see some nice landscape, hike across the moors, take a gentle amble to the paper shop, feel good about making your dog happy, enjoy a little time with your canine friends … your dog wants to cram as much into that brief walk as they possibly can. It’s their dog time. The rest of the day, they have to refrain from doggie behaviour. No nuisance barking. No investigative chewing. No hole digging. Is it any wonder our dogs are so excited? They are FREE! But that freedom is short-lived, and they know it. Most medium-sized adult dogs are capable of a good three or four hour walk every single day. And unless you are a jobless walking health freak, there’s no way your dog is doing that.

For this reason, it becomes a really high energy moment for many dogs. I bet you any wager you care to offer that a dog who walks eleven hours a day will not be quite as excited about the prospect of a walk as your dog who gets an hour a day.

A dog’s motivation is to smell and investigate everything they can. Your motivation is… to do enough of a walk so you feel like you’ve done your bit and get home for a drink. Especially if it’s cold, windy, wet, hot, early or late.

We have other conflicting goals. We want our dogs to enjoy the walk. We don’t want automatons walking perfectly to heel, unless we are doing dog obedience or schutzhund, or unless we work in the military. We don’t want to frogmarch our dogs down the road whilst they watch us without any interest whatsoever in the world around them. By the way, if you do want this, don’t get a setter. Or a spaniel. Or a terrier. Get a shepherd. But don’t get a super-smart shepherd like a Malinois or an Australian shepherd. Get a low-maintenance German shepherd or a rottweiler. They’re more likely to see their walk as impromptu bodyguarding. They might bark at cars and grumble at passers-by if you’ve not taught them right, but they like to walk with you. It’s their body guarding job. Getting a good heel walk out of a shepherd isn’t hard. Loose-leash with a socialised shepherd is easy. Getting one out of a hound can take the most patience you’ve ever had.

Our personal goals are incompatible. Most of us want a happy medium between dogs who use what leash they have to go and smell stuff, but dogs who don’t lunge and jerk the leash. We don’t want frogmarching, but we don’t want the dog to walk us. It can be really hard for a dog to work out that some sniffing is okay but pull-sniffing is not.

Clicker training can certainly work. Watch Dr Sophia Yin or Emily Larlham teaching young dogs to walk to heel with a treat bag and a clicker, and you’ll no doubt think it’s a miracle. Their methods are perfect for young dogs who haven’t yet learned about all the other rewarding stuff they might find on a walk if only they lead you and not the other way around.

But clicker training to get a good on-leash walk with an adult dog can be really frustrating and doesn’t always work, even with minimal distraction.

I couldn’t see why clicker training wasn’t working for my puller. My clicker-trained dog who can perform a perfect peekaboo and can jump over my back, spin and twist through my legs like a slalom skier can walk to heel perfectly like an arena show dog…

And then he catches a smell and yanks me to the other side of the road.

No amount of ham, chicken skin, turkey, beef or duck is going to bring him back to me when he has caught a smell.

The fact is that once you have a dog who has learned that there are many, many more fun things on a walk than you can ever provide, you’re going to have a battle bringing it back to non-yanky, non-pully walking. How can a piece of chicken skin compete with the smell of dead badger?

For Heston, it just didn’t.

Funnily enough, it was a video about prong collars that got me thinking. The trainer kept explaining how the prong collar was a communication tool. I disagree. It’s a control tool. Sure, it communicates, but it does so with the appalling ability to shout so loud it’s like a Sergeant Major screaming in your face. It says, “you are under my control” to the dog. The dog gets to say nothing in return. That’s not communication.

A leash is a method of communicating with our dogs. It should tell them the speed we’re walking at, and the direction. Most humans are fairly predictable. We walk rather than running, and we go forward, the way our feet are facing. Sounds dumb, I know. But this isn’t always clear communication to a dog.

Not only that, dogs don’t walk like us. Most don’t walk at all. Walking’s what you do as a dog when you’re completely worn out and someone is coaxing you, or if you’re in trouble. Dogs trot. Watch your dog’s natural gait and they trot. Sometimes they run. Sometimes they gallop. But dogs don’t walk, not often. Effel lopes along. Tilly scurries. Amigo trots. Heston rushes.

And we humans tend to walk or run at a steady pace. Go run a marathon and you’ll see all the pace setters. Run a 6-minute mile? Run with the 6-minute pacer. What we don’t do is run and stop, run and stop, run and stop, run and smell stuff, run and investigate. But that’s what dogs do on a walk. If they’re setting a pace, they trot. So walking for a dog is a thing you have to teach, a pace thing.

So there are two fundamental issues with leashes. Firstly, our dogs don’t understand what we’re communicating mainly because a leash is silent and you only know it’s “talking” when you’re at the end of it. Secondly, how a dog walks and how a person walks are two very different things. What we need to teach is not how to realise they’ve got to the end of the line, whether that’s a metre or forty metres, but how to walk.

For that reason, we have two things to do. One is use our voices more and in the right way. The second is to teach dogs about speeds.

We may also have an issue with rewards and with more distracting environments for a dog.

How do you teach when the rewards you have are not as good as the rewards a dog gets for pulling you all over the path? How do you teach when the environment itself is so filled with interesting distractions that sticking a prong collar, halti, gentle leader, choke or slip leash on a dog isn’t ‘loud’ enough communication to combat the distractions?

The first thing to do is treat the walk itself as its own reward. The behaviour of going forward is rewarding in itself to a dog. On a walk, that’s what they want to do. Or zigzagging. But generally forward. Training a dog to walk loose-leash, you can use this to your advantage where chicken and ham may fail.

A walk is its own reward. For Heston, all he wants is to be on the walk. I’ve seen him spit out treats, even high value ones. He’ll take them, but he wants to walk. It’s the same with toys. He doesn’t want to play fetch or frisbee. For this reason, the best motivator is the walk itself. Moving forward is the reward. Exploring is the reward. Smelling stuff is the reward.

For this reason, one of the easiest motivators you can use with a dog on a walk is… the walk itself. It might be why your cheese is failing and your ham-scented biscuits don’t get a second look. You can see Emily from Kikopup using smell as a reward here:

Once I’ve understood that the behaviour itself is rewarding (like barking or chewing… you don’t need to teach a dog to do these on the whole!) the next thing I need to do is think about what I want from the walk. Do I want a frog-marcher, stepping alongside me, Malinois obedience style? It’s feasible if I do. You will need to do a lot of work on place-boards and turns, but you can do it. There are about forty mini-steps within an obedience walk. Any good trainer will tell you that it takes a long time to get the dog in the right position without a food lure, being able to turn on the spot keeping their front legs still and their back legs moving. Spins and twists are okay, but you need higher level stuff, like putting a placemat under your dog’s front feet and getting them to do a 360° on that. From here, you want to teach them to contact the side of your leg with the side of their body, as well as teaching the dog to circle on all kinds of different objects, including flat ones. You need to teach about eye contact too, as well as turns…. okay, so it’s feasible if you have fifty hours to train your dog to do it and lots of time to practise.

But most of us don’t want an obedience walk. Most of us just want a leisurely stroll where our dog can have a sniff from time to time without pulling us off our feet.

I don’t want to ‘control’ my dog, but I want my dog responsive to communication and I want them not to run on the leash or jerk towards a smell. When I’ve taught my dog to maintain communication during a walk through my voice signals, I won’t need leashes that control a dog: I can throw away the halti, the gentle leader, the head halter, the prong collar, the choke, the slip. I can also use longer leashes so that the dog can interact more with the environment and get the mental stimulation they crave from a walk rather than walking with me.

What I need to teach, then, is not the perfect heel or goose-step, but the perfect speed and some voice commands. If my dog is walking, they can smell as much as they like. If they’re doing the hoover-trot, where they’re simultaneously hoovering up smells and dragging you along, then this is not working. I need to take it back to a less stimulating environment where the dog is less aroused by the smells around them. I also need to teach them a cue word when I can see they’re going too fast and they’re going to get to the end of the leash. I think this is where a lot of the training videos fall short because a scrabbling, pulling dog is often trotting or running on the leash and they aren’t at all interested in food. This is where I’m going to use going forward as the reward in itself. But I still need to practise good leash behaviours like walking on the lead instead of trotting.

One of the problems I find with trying to use traditional clicker training, rewarding a dog for walking at your side and looking at you is that it only works if your rewards are more high-value than the environment, and you can spend literally months building up a ‘strong behaviour’ based on food without ever getting to the point where your food (or even play) will be more of a reward than the environment itself and your dog’s desire (and need) to interact with it. If a dog has to walk at your side and look at you (and thus interact with you rather than the environment) to get a reward, you aren’t going to win when your dog is full of energy and when the rewards for not walking at your side or looking at you are bigger than whatever treat you have to offer. Otherwise, I’ll be happy to show you Tilly’s ‘perfect’ heel walk when she knows I’ve got a pig’s ear in my pocket. But is she interacting with the environment? Not at all.

Also, there seems to be something inherently flawed about trying to teach a dog to interact in less crazy ways with the environment by rewarding them for interacting with you.

For this reason, I’m going to use the environment first as the reward, use treats/play if my dog will accept them and teach them verbal cues to tell them that they are going too slowly, too quickly or I’m going to change direction so that they can hear it coming before it does. For most leash-walking videos I see, whether prong or clicker, there’s no verbal communication at all between the dog and the walker. We’re using the leash as communication in both methods and that seems ridiculous. The dog only knows that they are out of leash when they feel the end of it which is why I think so many dogs walk at the end of the leash. If the only way to communicate that they’ve gone too far is the fact the leash jerks, then we’re failing in our desire to communicate with the dog, which is where a verbal cue is the missing link.

In the teaching world, getting your class to stop what they are doing is a similar situation. Imagine if you will a drama class in full engagement with their work, or an exam hall where you have two hundred candidates doing a paper. How do you get them to stop? You give them verbal cues. You don’t want your students constantly keeping an eye on you for some silent signal that they’re doing the right thing, or only knowing they’ve done the right thing when a buzzer goes and they get a biscuit. Dogs are capable of understanding our tone of voice, so we should use that. It seems silly to me to see gundog or working dog trainers using all kinds of aural cues like whistles and commands, and never see that in the dog walking world.

For this reason, I’m first going to teach my dog a cue to trot: “Quick, Quick, Quick”. Read Patricia McConnell’s thoughts about the effects of sound on speed and you’ll know where I’m coming from on this. Horse trainers and sled drivers use this all the time. Sounds and words equal a change in pace. Words and tone can encourage a change in pace. In fact, I’m going to teach my dog to trot on cue to “quick quick” and to walk on cue to “sloooooowww”. I’m going to teach them “stop”, too.

I promise you that people who run with their dogs have fewer problems with leash-pulling… having seen some of our great pullers at the refuge (Manix!) going for a trot with a volunteer, he doesn’t hardly need to be taught a trot because it’s his natural gait.

You don’t need to trot far, either. Ten paces following a “Quick Quick Quick!” will do. And before you go to a walk, teach your dog “Sloooooooowwww”. And use that tone. Anyone who’s had puppies knows that a “puppy, puppy, puppy!” call will bring them all to you. A “Quick Quick Quick” command is great if your dog is spending too long on a smell… and a “slooooooow” command is good if they’re trotting.

To teach these two commands, start in a safe, distraction-free zone. An empty car park if you need it. Your garden if you can. A car park is good because there’s no clear ‘forward’ direction or back, whereas a road or a path goes only in two directions, making it more predictable that you will go backwards or forwards. I’d recommend a shortish leash at this point so that they’re within your range of communication. One metre leashes are a little short and I think they can encourage pulling to get to smells, but even a three-metre leash would be too long for many dogs. Once a dog has mastered this with a two-metre leash, I move up to longer leashes and long lines when I know they’re responsive to commands further away from me.

Start this training after a walk, when your dog is not going to go mental at the sight of a leash, leave the leash on and try it then. If your dog is full of pent-up energy, you’re going to fail from the outset. And play before a walk can run the risk of amping the dog up — although I always find that my own dogs are much calmer after ten minutes of play to get that energy burst out of their system. You can use food rewards if you like to teach these two speeds. But you’re going to cue a run by saying “Quick, quick, quick”, then go at your dog’s trotting pace for a few metres. You can click and reward if you like, or give them a verbal praise. I promise you, it does not take long to teach a dog “quick, quick, quick.” You’re ‘teaching’ them to trot at their natural pace when you say. You can also build in, “Let’s go!” to show them how to turn and move in the opposite direction. The Kikopup videos show a great “Let’s go!” command.

Just remember… verbal cue AND THEN behaviour.

Then, before you stop running, say “sloooooowww” and bring the dog back to a walk. Click and reward if you like, or praise. When you slow, you’re going to walk at your own normal pace. It’s really important to reward the dog loads at this point, because this walk is hard for a dog. Before your dog gets to the end of the leash, say “stop!” and teach them to stand without moving. Teach the verbal cue “Let’s go!” to turn around and go in the opposite direction.

You’ve got to forget walking in a straight line or in one direction until your dog has learned this, frustrating as this can be. You’ve got to forget your nice little circuit, or the need to walk a kilometre or so. If you only make ten metres progress on a loose leash in an hour, that is progress enough.  You can see how frustrating this might be for a dog, which is why some off-leash walking or play would be good beforehand. No point trying to reeducate your dog on how to walk properly when you’re just back from an hour of reinforcing pull-and-jerk.

Once you’ve mastered this in your garden, a closed field or an empty car park, move up to more distracting spaces. If you give a verbal cue then turn every time your dog lunges forward, every time they trot and jerk the leash, you will soon get to a point where you can use “Quick Quick Quick” as the cue to speed up (if they need it!) and “Slow” or “Stop!” to stop them getting to the end of the line. If they get to the end, I say “Too bad!” and turn in another direction.

I generally use the two-metre leashes with dogs who are in a distracting environment, three-metre ones and five-metre ones for areas where we might come to distractions like other dogs or people, and a twenty or fifty-metre long line when I’ve got one single dog on a leash in a non-distracting environment – for example, when all my other dogs are okay off-leash, but Heston’s still a bit whooo-hooo! and might do a disappearing act if he catches a smell. If I’m walking in town, it’s a two metre leash, maximum. If I’m walking a number of dogs, it’s usually two metre and three metre leashes. I actually have a carabiner attached to a short leash for Heston so that I can clip on different leashes at different moments without fumbling about.

Here’s a really good video from a BAT trainer about long line hand positions that really helped with Heston:

This is a great explanation and demonstration from Grisha Stewart that made a big difference for Heston.

As she says, it’s about walking in balance and in tune with each other. Her slow stop method was what got me thinking about teaching speed of walk and giving a cue before the stop. It’s a team exercise, but I need to make sure my dog understands that.

Teaching that you only move forward on a loose leash is vital. Teaching them to speed up and slow down on cue means that your dog can more easily predict what speed you want them to go at.

The five things that have helped most then are:

  1. Having the right equipment: the right leash for the right time.
  2. Teaching verbal cues for speed that tell a dog they are going too fast or too slow without them needing to look at me, remembering that a leash is one way of communicating with a dog, but my voice is better.
  3. Actively teaching on-leash walking skills when I’m not actually walking my dog and when I have no walking agenda.
  4. Using the environment as the reward and use forward motion as the reward for good leash manners remembering to be absolutely consistent about never letting my dog to go forward on a tight leash.
  5. Using long lines and Grisha Stewart’s methods of holding and handling the line to reduce pressure

You can see in the video below how Heston’s made such great progress that straight out of the car, he can walk at a loose leash. The wind’s coming in from the south carrying the scent of the wild boar from the forest a hundred metres away, so he’s a bit more distracted than usual. I also use “gentle Heston” because he knows this from a puppy, but he knows slow as well. I try to give him lots of verbal feedback about how he’s doing and he needs more at the beginning of a walk because he’s more excited. It’s a bit jerky – you’d expect that with three dogs in one hand and a camera in the other! He’s got his three metre leash on here so that he’s got some range of movement, and he does cross the road to keep an eye on the forest, though he usually walks on my right. Tilly and Effel walk to heel with no pulling, and they have great recall, which is why they’re off-leash. Amigo is partially deaf, which is why he is on-leash, and Benji is a foster, which is why he has a slip-leash and is not off leash.

Turning Heston from a dog who jerks on the leash, or trots and lunges, to a dog who gives some eye-contact during the walk and never has a tight leash has taken some time. It’s a combination of Patricia McConnell’s ideas about vocal commands, Grisha Stewart’s BAT loose-leash methods, and Emily Larlham’s clicker-training methods that has made the biggest difference for him.

Next time: how to improve your dog’s recall

Problem behaviours: over-excitement before a walk

Problem behaviours: over-excitement before a walk

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be tackling fifteen very common problems that owners have with adolescent or adult dogs… behaviours that are so super simple to avoid through good puppy training but also cause problems for owners who have adopted adult shelter dogs or who missed a bit in the puppy department. These fifteen behaviours are ones that often lead a dog to be abandoned at the shelter too. The good news is that even if your dog had all fifteen of these behaviours, they’re things that can be addressed very well. I’ve yet to find a dog who does all fifteen, but it’s not uncommon to find a lot of them in combination. They’re also all problems that people ring about in the first few days of an adoption, as well as being ones that – sadly – end in owners returning dogs to the shelter at the end of their tether. What makes me sad is that if they’d called us, we could have helped them with the problem.

The fifteen most common problems that people call about or lead to returns are: house-soiling, chewing, barking, digging, escaping, jumping up (exuberant behaviour), humping/mounting, leash pulling, no recall, poor socialisation with other dogs, biting, fighting with other dogs, fearfulness, resource guarding and problems being left home alone.

In this post, I’ll be exploring one that is very close to home… one that had me exasperated yesterday. Over-excitement before a walk and poor impulse control on the leash. Yes, you’ve got it… crazy behaviour before a walk, and not much better on it.

I’ll be splitting these up into two posts as really they are two separate problems, so I’ll to start by looking at how to bring pre-walk excitement back under control.

Let’s be clear… ALL my dogs, (that’s three of my own and two in foster care) are excited before a walk. But Heston… ah, Heston. He lives for a walk.

Circling, barking… kind of the same behaviour we see in a lot of shelter dogs at walk time.

In the interests of clarity, by the way, this used to be Heston’s default pre-walk behaviour. He’d already had a walk that morning and I usually don’t allow this level of excitement. You can hear me encouraging it for the video. Normally I don’t flap a leash at him, stand by the gate and mention the dreaded W-word with a camera on him. That said, sometimes I am incredibly busy and it’s harder to be consistent. Also, to be completely honest, he can be much, much worse than this. Yesterday morning, he was so over-excited that I spent it doing remedial pre-walk exercises. And then, when I wanted to make a video to show you all… he’s all “What?! Me? Over-excited? Never!”

But he’s not alone. All four of the other dogs here right now can also be agitated before a walk if I let them. Amigo whimpers and runs about. Tilly also cries and runs about. Effel has this weird behaviour where he comes barging in, lifts his paw and then when you put the lead on him behaves like a greyhound in the slips. He’s also a giant knob in the car. Benji barks and won’t stand still. Try putting five leashes on that lot of 200kg of excited dogs and walking out of the gate or putting them in the car.

You’ll notice that I put “if I let them” in italics way back there.

That is because this excitement is caused by me either intentionally (particularly in this video) or unintentionally. Heston does not spend all day circling and barking of his own accord. It’s me (or in this case me taking him on a walk) that has caused this behaviour. Can you imagine this 24/7?!

But because I cause this, it’s also up to me to manage it. What I cause, I can control. You can see though why a lot of people simply stop exercising their dogs or doing fun stuff with them, which can worsen other behaviours.

No, whether I like it or not, I’m the only one of us in that partnership that can also bring this lunatic back to non-crazy behaviour. I can’t expect Heston to “grow out of this” (he’s almost five!) or to stop because I’m telling him off.

Calming a dog’s pre-walk energy is up to you.

It depends on you understanding the prompts and cues you give, and taking a bit of time to address the problem. The good news is that it is a problem that is easy to solve, if a little frustrating. Don’t get me wrong: that frustration will certainly be yours, not the dog’s.

I think one of the most frustrating things about managing this behaviour is that even human beings just want to get out of the gate and have a walk! The first thing to do is put the idea of “a walk” out of the way until you’ve got this behaviour under control. Sure, that might mean your dogs only get a 5-yard ‘walk’, but a couple of weeks addressing this behaviour and I promise you that you’ll have an end to pre-walk excitement – and a dog you can communicate with right from the very first moments of your walk.

So what do we need to do?

The first is to understand the unintentional cues we give our dogs. Cues are “signals, words or other stimuli” that “reliably result in the animal performing a particular behaviour”. There’s bags of science behind this: unconditioned stimuli, conditioned stimuli, secondary reinforcers, antecedents and all kinds of trainer talk. Blah Blah sciency words. Cues can be deliberate, like asking for a sit, or they can be unintentional, like going to the fridge and being followed by a pack of dogs. When I bend down with a dustpan and brush, Heston reliably play-bows. My actions cue him to play bow. Who reading this avoids saying “walk” or “bath” because of the signals it gives to the dog? We are very adept at noticing the things we say that turn our dogs into lunatics, but not always good at noticing what we are doing.

These cues… they’re not all deliberate. Nor are they all avoidable. I may not mean to give them or even know I’m doing it. It’s only when I thought about it that I realised every time I stand up and push the chair under, Heston makes for the door. Or I may be aware that I’m doing it and be unable to avoid doing it. Like I know my keys set him off, but how can I lock the door to go for a walk without using my keys?

If you want to see cues at work, go and pick up your dog’s leash and see what happens. Stand up. Notice what your dogs do? Move towards the door. Do they look interested? That’s an action prompting a response from your dog. In the shelter, walking past the dogs with a leash is a massive prompt of excited behaviours. In the home, picking up your keys or a leash can be a cue for excited behaviours.

So why do these cues make dogs circle, bark or whine before a walk?

Because a walk is a massively fun and rewarding thing. It is the highlight of many dogs’ days. You might get this when you come home too. Benji, one of my current fosters, does these because me coming home is like hitting the jackpot and he’s excited to see me. Effel is just as excited at food time. If I say “Does Tilly want a treat?” she’s going to whine and whimper and race about like a fool.

You can get these perfectly normal doggie behaviours at any point when a dog is excited.

But when it can be cute from time to time, it’s not cute when five dogs are doing it before you go for a walk. And once one starts barking, the likelihood is that the others will all follow suit. That’s something else about canine excitement: it’s contagious. Thus I’ve got five barky, over-excited, whining, circling dogs to get through a gate and along a narrow path, past four houses with other dogs, over a main road and around ‘dog pee’ central where all my neighbours’ dogs also pee on the corner. I really, really don’t want that excitement behaviour.

How then do I stop it?

The first way to stop it is to break your cue-chain. This is a chain of classically conditioned associations. W leads to X leads to Y leads to Z.

Dogs are super-expert at reading cues and putting them together. Heston’s go like this…

Am I awake?

Yes.

Have I had breakfast?

Yes!

Did we have a nap?

Yes!!

Is it light outside?

Yes!!!

Is she standing up?

Yes!!!!

Is she putting socks on?

Yes!!!!!

Is she putting shoes on?

Yes!!!!!!

Has she opened the shutters?

Yes!!!!!!!

Has she brushed her teeth?

Yes!!!!!!!!

Has she picked up her keys?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!

Has she put on her hat?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!

Has she got her coat?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!

Has she got a leash?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Has she locked the door?

Yes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Then it’s WALK TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I’ve talked in previous posts about trigger stacking, but the same is true of cues we give our dog. A combination, particularly in a formula, is very predictable, like the pins falling into place on a lock. Every single one of those cues contributes to the excitement the dog feels. But when they’ve learned W leads to Z, and all the other cues before lead to Z, they’re going to get excited when the first of those pins falls into place. And that excitement is just going to grow and grow.

The fact is that Heston realises there’s quite a long chain of events that lead up to a walk. There’s a lot of predictable cues that let him know a walk is on the way. Our main job is to disrupt the sequence, desensitise the dog to various cues that are absolutely necessary and make whatever leads to the excitement much less predictable, so that the dog is calmer and you can work with them.

Ever tried calming a dog like the Heston in the video? Not so easy, is it? Couple that with frustration, a barrier… bringing a dog back down from that into a learning zone can be really a challenge.

One of the main things that we need to do is stop this level of over-arousal ever happening in the first place, so that the dog is listening and responsive.

The first thing to do is identify every cue that excites our dog. I need to make a list of every single thing I regularly do before taking my dogs for a walk. That can include things like pushing a chair under (because I have one dog who likes to get up on the table) and locking the food away (because I have another dog who likes to break into the food room and have a picnic). I make a list of every single movement I make in the half-hour leading up to a walk, including the time I regularly walk the dog. What’s tipping Heston off? I’m going to list everything.

Then, I’m going to eradicate every single cue that has become an accidental part of the chain… the non-essentials. Is it essential I walk Heston first thing? No. Could I walk him before breakfast? Yes, if it’s light enough. Do I need to open the shutters? No. Must I put on my boots right before the walk? No. So I get rid of every inadvertent accidental cue. Do I need a hat? Could I keep it in my pocket? The shorter the time that excitement has to build up, the easier it is to manage.

Identify every single behaviour or object that gets a reaction. Put all the things on a table a couple of hours or so after a walk, and pick each one up in turn then move to the door. What does the dog do? Which ones cause the most excitement? Which ones are “hot” objects that really indicate a walk? I just did this… put my hat on and moved to the door… picked my keys up and moved towards the door… picked a leash up and moved towards the door. The hat caused a marginal response. The keys caused a lot of interest. The leash, well, that was a ‘jackpot’ cue… Heston’s scrabbling at the door to get out. Pushing my chair under also has the same effect.

Once I’ve identified the problem cues that I can’t eradicate, I need to choose a programme to tackle this. I need to break the connection between these things and the consequence being a walk, and I need to be less predictable.

For the rest of the cues, well, unless I want to leave my house naked and barefoot, without a leash, without my keys, I need to find out just how stimulating each one of those things is.

Part of lowering this level of over-arousal with a stack of cues is to change the sequence. For anyone whose dog gets excited when they put a harness on, the simplest thing to do is put the harness on when you are doing something else – like they’ve just eaten – and leave it on until you take them.

Your aim is to stop the harness meaning a walk.

Once the dog comes to realise there is no longer an association between a harness and a walk, the harness going on doesn’t trigger excitement. It’s the same with a leash. One of the best things to do is have a harness that you put on when it is nowhere near walk time, and clip a leash to it at the same time. Wrap the leash around the dog so it’s not dragging on the floor but is easy to unwrap, and then you’ve removed a very significant cue from the order. Taking the fun out of a leash is vital. Put it on 50 times a day. 100. Carry it around with you all day. That leash needs to mean nothing at all. That can be hard with a dog who knows what it is, but you will notice that your dog becomes less and less excited the more you handle the leash.

Another way you can do this is to switch the normal walking tools. If you use a flat collar and leash, switch to a harness and a new type of unexciting leash. If you use a harness, switch to a flat collar and leash for a little while and let your dog wear the harness round and about the house until the harness stops meaning “Walk!”

I’m also going to do that when I have absolutely zero other cues around. Nothing on my list of cues can be anything that vaguely raises an eyelid. If I go and start messing around with leashes when I am in my coat and hat, wearing my boots, got my keys in my hand, it’s going to be too much.

I’m going to do it when he’s had a walk already.

I’m going to leave his leash on in the house for five minutes or so, and then I’m going to take it off and carry it about a bit. I’m going to sit and watch TV with it in my hand.

Then the next day, I’m going to do it a bit more.

This way, the dog has zero expectations. Who goes on a walk when they’ve just got back from a walk? No dog on the planet. Never in the field of canine walking has a walk come immediately after a walk. It is a very safe time to teach a dog that a leash is meaningless. Leave it on, take it off after five minutes, play with it. Put it away. Next day, do it a bit more. Within a week, you should have a dog who is happy for you pick up and move the leash without assuming that a walk is going to follow. Stop hanging the leash in its habitual place, too. Keep it around and about you.

When your dog is no longer as aroused by you picking up the leash, you can also use post-walk time to get the dog used to you taking off and putting the leash back on again. When’s the best time to practise putting a leash on without excitement? When you’ve just taken it off. If you use a clicker, you can reward calmness. A lot of us ask our dog to sit before we remove a leash, so keep them in a sit and immediately clip it off, then clip it back on. Do it ten times or so in the first couple of minutes after a walk and you’ll have a very different reaction from the one you get trying to do that before a walk. I’d also vary it – try taking the leash off and putting it back on five minutes after a walk. Leave longer intervals between taking it off and putting it back on. If your dog gets excited, leave it til after the next walk and do the same, just with less of a duration.

If I take him for a walk before he’s eaten, he isn’t as excited. It’s unexpected and unpredictable. If I went out barefoot, that would be too. If I didn’t have my keys or lock the door, that would be too. All of these tiny, tiny prompts add up together, and if I miss one out, it decreases his excitement because it becomes an unexpected walk and he hasn’t worked himself into a frenzy.

For many excitement behaviours, doing things out of sync can reduce them, or mixing them up. The more of those behaviours that Heston understands make it more and more inevitable that a walk will happen. If I could do them all simultaneously in one second, it would catch him off-guard, but the fact is that some of those things are ones I have to do.

I don’t walk Heston in the dark. I don’t walk him barefoot. I don’t walk him without having locked the door, and I don’t walk him without a leash. Some of these things are going to have to happen in an order. But some don’t have to happen in that order, or only happen right before a walk. For instance, like the harness or leash, I need to take the fun out of my keys, and the door being locked whilst we’re both on the “walk” side of it. I need to disconnect my boots from a walk, and my coat. Yes, I’m going to have a few days where I’m just picking up stuff and putting it back down, right after a walk. I’m going to do it at random and schedule it so that it will seem random to the dog but that I am being systematic.

At the same time, I’m really, really working on some trainable calmness. Sit. Lie Down. Settle. Look at me.

But you want to know five biggest changes that turn a crazy-eyed loon into a mild-mannered dog, reversing the Tasmanian Devil effect…

  1. The first was making sure my dog has had some exercise before the walk (avoiding making pre-walk exercise the cue for a walk!) and I’m going to do things that are mentally taxing, not physically taxing. Thirty minutes of searching for breakfast in the garden will do that. Chewing is also a great activity to get dogs to calm. Working on a bone for half an hour before a walk is no bad thing.
  2. I’m also going to make sure that my multi-dog household are not feeding off each other’s excitement. Actually, that means really messing with my schedule for a couple of weeks until the dogs are all calm and sometimes only taking one dog.
  3. Eradicating cues is a big game changer. I put my shoes on when the dogs are eating breakfast, and leave my coat to grab on the other side of the door. I don’t push my chair under or put my hat on. I leave the leash wrapped around Heston’s collar from dawn until a couple of hours after the walk. I practise putting it on and taking it off before the walk. Heston’s two biggest excitement factors are the keys and the leash, so I make them meaningless.
  4. Shaking it up with the cues you can’t eliminate also helps. Instead of moving towards the gate, I move away as if I’m going into the garden. I don’t even go five yards before he’s looking at me like, “the walk’s this way, dumbass” and he’s so bemused, he’ll sit.
  5. The fifth tip is to increase your expectations about calmness and to stop wanting to go for a walk yourself. If Heston’s barking and circling, I go back in. Barking and circling mean “too bad!” and he knows that’s a great big end to the fun.

What works, then, is a high expectation of calmness and careful exploration of your cues. Manage both, and you’ll have a calm dog waiting for a walk without going mental.

For further information, if your dog jumps up, leaps or grabs the leash, you can also check out this post which will also help you bring those excitement levels back down so that you don’t have to put up with a lunatic on a leash. In the next post, I’ll show you a video of Heston’s best ‘leaving the house’ behaviour before explaining how to stop leash-lunges and poor on-leash behaviour. Guess what? He’s my poster boy for that too!

Woof Like To Meet Dog Fails

There are times when I look back at something that has just happened with one of my dogs and think that a situation could have been completely avoided with a bit of common sense. In fact, I shouldn’t call these ‘dog fails’. I should call them ‘colossal lapses in human judgement’ – because when my dogs fail, it’s inevitably because I’ve taken my eye off the metaphorical ball. Every time I see one of those Dog Shaming posts, I want to get the tippex out and write “Owner Shaming” instead. There’s inevitably a human who took their eye off the dog there too. Unless there are a lot of people who let their dogs rifle through the bins or destroy sofas whilst they watch on. I look at those ‘dog shaming’ photos and sites, and it makes me sad. It’s not the dogs who should be ashamed, but their owners.

One of those lapses in judgement happened here last week. In fact, it was a string of Owner Fails. The first fail was four years ago, letting my collie x retriever Heston explore off-lead aged 4 months. His recall was blown because chasing deer was so much more fun. Four years on, I’m still working on recall. The second fail came at the same time. That was using an extendable lead and not teaching him that walks don’t involve pull-and-stop with constant pressure. And four years on, I’m still correcting that Owner Fail too. The follies of a new puppy owner who didn’t know what she was doing! On the day last week, there were a series of fails, all because I was distracted and a bit overwrought. I don’t take Heston out first thing in the morning because there are too many fresh smells. But I was due at the vet’s at 9am. Really, I should have kept him on the lead since we had to leave for our walk when it was still dark, but I felt guilty that I was so busy, so I let him off. I was still waiting for him 45 minutes later. Luckily, he taught himself to come back to where he left me … eventually.

Owner Fail #1-3: not teaching a reliable recall to a puppy, using an extendable lead, letting an unreliable dog off-leash in a space that’s too distracting.

Another fail happened to me at the weekend. I’d taken Heston on a long leash walk (because I’m still working at two hours a week to stop the lunges and leash craziness!) and the first quarter-mile, I could see a man with an off-leash Jack Russell and chihuahua. He was dawdling and I should have turned around and gone another way. It was too challenging an environment for Heston to handle and quickly gets him into old habits, like lunges when he sees other dogs. What did I do? Because I wanted to do my loop (I’m doing a sponsored 1000 mile walk in 2017) I followed but we inevitably got too close a number of times and it took me ages to get Heston back to a calm point again. Luckily, having had enough of him going crackers at a dog behind a fence halfway around, I avoided the third “dog” blackspot and went another way instead.

Owner Fail #4: putting my dog in a position where he has no choice but to react. 

I have had a few fails with Tilly, my American cocker. She is temperamental with toileting at the best of times. We have months where there are no accidents, but it is vigilance on my behalf rather than great toilet behaviour on hers. I’m meticulous about getting her out first thing, then after food, then around eleven, then mid-afternoon, then before dinner, then before bed. Meticulous. Except when it’s a bit damp or cold. I do exactly what she does and I feel the same. I do not want to stand outside with my eleven-year-old dog who should know better to check she’s been to the toilet because it is cold and wet. She does not want to go outside to the toilet because it is cold and wet. When she wasn’t moving at 9pm, I left her to it. When we went to bed an hour later, she got up in the middle of the night and left me a lovely puddle right by the door.

Owner Fail #5: letting toilet vigilance slide with a dog who needs you to be vigilant. 

Amigo, my collie x griffon doesn’t give me cause for many fails, but his age is giving me a couple. His hearing is going. Some days, he’s all but completely deaf. Others, he can hear a little. Because he can’t hear my other dogs (and his eyesight is not good either) sometimes he gets too close and he can’t hear their warnings. He’ll keep moving in and their warnings get more and more noisy. This means I need to leave the lights on until everyone is properly settled down, and not encourage midnight roaming. Still, one day over Christmas, I was more tired than usual and I switched all the lights off. Amigo came up to the bed for a little petting before he settled and stood on Heston. Luckily, it didn’t come to blows, but only through chance.

Owner Fail #4: not keeping my older dogs safe by sticking to a routine. 

Amigo also doesn’t like to be on the leash. He is usually great off-leash, but he can’t always hear us when we’ve moved on, and even 10 metres away, he can’t hear a car. However, he’s obviously been mistreated to get him to walk to heel, so he cowers, his ears back, his head down, the whole time on the lead. So I let him off because he looks so sad. Instead of putting his safety first, I let him off in places where it’s unlikely there will be cars or other dogs, but not impossible. It’s time to seek out new, secure walks, or to get him happier on the leash.

Owner Fail #5: not using a leash with a dog who has hearing problems. 

When Tilly arrived, we had a good few Owner Fail moments, including bin-rifling. I’d never owned a dog who would rifle through the bins before. I could leave anything out for Molly and the worst thing she would do would be collect a few of my things together and sleep on the bed with them. Tilly was fine if the things were in an enclosed bin. At first. But then there were a few times I’d come home to an upturned bin or a bin bag that had been torn apart. Once she ate some lambs’ kidneys that had been in the fridge for two weeks. How she’s only had an overdose of e-coli once, I don’t know. Anyway, I got pretty good at ensuring there was no food left out.

And then I got Heston. He did what adolescent dogs will do, and he chewed stuff. Not often, but enough. Four or five books. A toothbrush. My electric blanket. He liked blankets to chew too – that’s what can happen with a hand-reared pup. I got vigilant about picking stuff up and leaving him in the living room without anything bad to chew, and only good stuff to chew.

When Ralf arrived, he liked to break into the kitchen and take cans of dog meat, or bags of sugar, or pasta, or anything else he could find as a snack. Cue closed kitchen and stuff on high shelves. Food got locked away and the cupboard was under lock and key. Twenty months of life with Tobby after Ralf died got me sloppy about locking food up, but Effel my foster dog broke into the room one day and a habit was born. All food is now back under lock and key.

Owner Fail #6: not ensuring my dogs are left alone safe in a temptation-free zone.

Tilly is a scrounger, a scavenger, a shameless bin-dipping floozy; I daren’t tell you some of the more disgusting things she’s retrieved. Treating the cat litter tray like a hot snack buffet is the most publishable of her dirty sins. For that reason, bins are outside in what functioned as the dog pen for the previous resident of the house. If dogs can’t get out, dogs can’t get in. It still didn’t stop her sneaking up to lick out the cat litter trays or root around the bathroom for tasty non-flushable items.

Owner Fail #7: not ensuring bins are dog-proof. 

Despite all of these Owner Fails, I generally operate a safe environment, especially where foster dogs are concerned. These days, I’m much wiser.

But how many dogs are sent to the shelter or banished to outdoor pens where they have very little human interaction and virtually no stimulation at all, simply for doing what dogs do? How many dogs end up in yards because they haven’t been taught rock solid house manners? Banishing your dog for peeing on the couch is easier, is it not, than teaching a dog not to eliminate inside. Banishing your dog for counter surfing is easier than teaching them to stay out of the kitchen unless they’re with you. Leaving your dog in the yard because they eat the walls is easier than thinking they may be suffering from an illness, they may be bored in your absence or they may have separation anxiety.

Looking through the photos on a popular dog shaming site, all I can see are dogs who’ve not been taught better alternatives. Dogs who haven’t been taught where to eliminate. Dogs who haven’t been taught what to chew. Dogs who are bored when home alone. Dogs with possible separation anxiety. Dogs with poor manners around their humans or around other dogs. Dogs with too much freedom and owners who think dogs should know better than to counter surf. Dogs who don’t know how to behave around other dogs. Dogs who don’t know how to behave around children. Dogs who are unsupervised. Dogs afforded trust to be alone that they have not earned. One pair of dogs were “shamed” for chewing the cat basket when the owner was out. She says the day before they’d destroyed their own beds. If you ask me, it’s not the dogs who should be ashamed, but the owner who is not only giving her dogs far too much space and freedom when unsupervised, and not giving them the right things to occupy them, like a stuffed Kong or an interactive toy, or a marrow bone.

It makes me really sad that dogs are given so much freedom and so few rules. It’s not the dogs who should be ashamed. It’s the owners. I’d be ashamed to post a photo of my dog having eaten the Christmas tree. All it shows is what a knob I am for leaving a dog unsupervised around something dangerous, or for not teaching my dog to leave stuff alone. For all the things I do wrong with my dogs, all the owner fails, many have consequences that could end up at the vet – or worse. The dog who gets shot accidentally for having poor recall. The dog who gets run over when straying. The dog who eats rat poison and ends up at the vets.

There’s another thing too…

Chewing stuff we’re not supposed to, barking, digging, chasing stuff, peeing where you’re not supposed to, destroying stuff, playing, jumping up, counter surfing, escaping, poor recall, poor behaviour around other dogs, humans or children… they all have one thing in common.

They’re all things we need to teach our puppies not to do, or to do appropriately. They’re all things that lead to dogs being abandoned in shelters and things that lead to returns. If we want our dogs to fit into our lives and if we want them to be easily adoptable should the worst happen, we need to start when they are puppies and stop expecting them to grow out of poor behaviour. They’re all things that are simple to teach puppies, but time-consuming to teach an adult dog. Wouldn’t it be nice if our dogs grew up without us failing them quite so badly? When I talk of “Dog Fails” these days, what I mean is “the way we fail our dogs.”

It would be nice if instead of failing them, we addressed those very simple behaviour problems instead. It would be even better if we did it when they were puppies and they never learn how much fun the other stuff is.

 

 

My Top Ten adoptions of 2016

My Top Ten adoptions of 2016

When I started volunteering here in November 2013, there were two types of dogs here: long stay and short stay. There were almost 100 dogs who had been here more than three years in 2014, almost half of our residents. With growing links in the wider community, a network of amazing people means that we have one dog – one dog! – who has been here since 2014. That’s Kayser We have twenty-seven dogs who arrived in 2015. I think that is seriously cool. I mean – just wow. Think about it. Not one single dog who was at the shelter when I first arrived is still there.

Most of our long, long-term residents left in 2014 and 2015. Smoke, with 11 years of shelter life under his belt. Ufo, with 7. Dalton with 6. Nichman with 5. Paulo with 5. One by one, those dogs found homes. When we started 2016, Douggy was our longest-termer, with five years to his name. Elios was not far behind, with four years. It’s not going to surprise you that their names are on the list.

The dogs on the list are some of our longer residents, dogs who waited a long time for their home. They’re also some of the most difficult adoptions, with complex behavioural difficulties. Some of the dogs are just those who touch your heart because they’re such sad cases. They’re the adoptions that have really made me pinch myself because I couldn’t quite believe it was true. I confess that I wait, holding my breath, those first forty-eight hours and cross my fingers that there aren’t any problems.

This is a list of the adoptions this year that have really made me smile. They’re the adoptions that give you faith in people and give you that fuzzy, warm feeling that is so vital when you’re involved in rescue. They’re also the adoptions that represent the work that we do and the dogs who come to us, be they old or young, in good health or poor. They represent the destinations of a lot of our dogs too, be they adopted in France or elswhere. I can’t tell you how hard it was to pick out only ten!

#10 Brook

Brook was found wandering the street. This gentle, sweet old lady was clearly so attached to people and to find her on the streets in such neglect was really sad. Despite some early offers of adoption, someone in a neighbouring area thought Brook was her dog that she’d lost over three years ago. Problems with transport meant that Brook had a wait for the lady to come and identify her, but it was not to be. Happily, one of the couples who’d originally contacted me for Brook came a couple of hours to come and get her. Although there are other oldies on the list, what touched me most was that the couple had not long since lost an old dog themselves. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye when people, despite their grief, choose to pick up another oldie whose life expectancy is perhaps not so good.

#9 Jet

Arriving at the refuge as a puppy in summer 2014, Jet was unceremoniously returned here as a two-year-old. What chance was there for this poor dog who had been given little by way of training and had suffered as a result of a change in circumstance in the house. Luckily, his good looks won over his adoptant, and although he has still a lot to learn about walking on a lead, he’s doing superbly well. I know I must drive people crazy with my naggings when they adopt a puppy – but there’s nothing worse than getting a puppy back when they’ve had their best chance at life stolen from them.

#8 Dawson

This is one of my favourite adoptions, because Dawson was such a lovely guy – so overlooked because of his age. For our dogs between 7-10, they are neither fish nor fowl: not young enough for those people who want a juvenile, and not old enough for those who want an oldie. As a result, our diamond dogs wait an eternity. I can’t tell you how hard it was watching Dawson ageing at the refuge, even though he was only here 14 months, those months took their toll on this sweet, sweet dog. Dawson went to a partner shelter in Germany where he was adopted within hours. Happy New Year, Dawson!

#7 Carlos

Carlos was another diamond dog like Dawson who suffered for his middle-age manners. Another of our boys to go to Germany, he was quickly adopted and we get regular photos of this wonderful dog enjoying life to the maximum. His son Tyron was adopted locally and we get lots of lovely updates from his family too. Good to know these boys are treasured as they should be. Carlos was one of my twelve advent calendar dogs in 2015. The advent calendar seems to bring lots of luck, although I never heard of anyone adopting one because of it! I like to hope it gives them all a little Christmas magic.

#6 Guapo

Arriving with his sister who was quickly adopted, Guapo suffered the fate of many of our young, big, energetic dogs: an endless wait. Loved by all the volunteers, he was quick to come for a cuddle, glad for any affection and a dog that seemed destined to stay for a long time. Happily, 2016 brought him a forever family. Seeing him bouncing on the trampoline or sitting in front of the Christmas tree no doubt brought a tear to every volunteer’s eye. He even has a husky neighbour who’s virtually identical!

#5 Ushang

One day in summer, a landlady brought in a transport crate with an animal inside it that had been left by one of her former tenants. At that point, we couldn’t even tell if it was a cat or a dog, and it took some attempts to get the dog out. Ushang was chipped, having been registered in Réunion, but his owner had died some years before, leaving her apartment and dog to her son. He’d run up debts and done a runner, leaving the dog behind. Ushang clearly hadn’t had any care for years. He was blind and deaf. This poor little guy found the refuge enormously stressful and we knew we needed to get him out of there urgently as he wasn’t eating. But who would adopt a blind, deaf dog? Luckily, a very kind family stepped in and Ushang went to his new home. After a couple of big operations to clean up his mouth and teeth, Ushang, now renamed Truffles, is living out his retirement in the most marvellous style with his Weimeraner girlfriend.

#4 Loulou

Poor Loulou was another one, like Jet, adopted as a puppy, brought back at 8 months, adopted again, brought back. In the end, he had three failed adoptions behind him, and all because – guess what – he’s a dog! His penultimate adoption was vetted carefully. She had experience with terriers, liked Loulou, heard all about what he needed. However, she failed to heed that advice, let him off lead within 5 days of having him and then was upset when he chased a deer. Loulou is another of our dogs who went to a smaller shelter in Germany, where he was subsequently adopted – hopefully by people who either use a lead or don’t mind the odd Dear Hunter moment.

#3 Teddy, Zakari, Zouzou and Zoe

In 2015, the refuge was called to take seven dogs who’d been kept in unsanitary conditions, suffering from neglect and very poor socialisation. The seven included six spaniels. Suzette and one of her daughters were quickly adopted, but Zakari, Teddy, Zouzou and Zoe went on to rack up some hard adoptions and returns. In the end, despite the fact it would make them difficult to adopt, the refuge decided they could only go as pairs. To cut them off so completely from the world they knew was divorcing them completely from any sense of safety. Zoe and Zouzou were adopted first, in April 2016, and their progress was slow but steady. Zakari and Teddy were adopted by one of our regular volunteers who really understood exactly what they needed. It takes a very special soul to adopt such damaged dogs, and although you count progress in minuscule steps, these four can finally begin to live for the first time.

#2 Elios

Despite his lovely nature, Elios had chalked up over four years of refuge life. Despite being okay with males and females, he was lost in among all our other black labradors. This boy saw over 2000 other dogs adopted before him, countless changes of companion. Finally, a family came for him and it was his turn. I can’t tell you how hard it is to return a dog to an enclosure when their companion is adopted: to do it as many times as we did with Elios was just heartbreaking. I don’t have to tell you that the video of him playing Fetch was the best thing I saw all year. I could watch that video a hundred times. An amazing, amazing dog who was just so long overlooked. I’m sure life must be strange now without any companions at all!

#1 Cleo

Along with Elios and Carlos, Cleo was another of my twelve advent dogs for 2015. He was also the oldest of the three. He was quickly reserved to go to Germany, but a skin infection turned out to be more complicated and we couldn’t let him travel without a clean certificate of health. So Cleo waited. As the year dragged on, spending his time with a shy dog meant Cleo too took on a little of that reticence. He withdrew into himself and his smiley, happy face, even for a treat, was rarely seen. Trip after trip went off to Northern Europe. Cleo was never on it. Finally, just before Christmas 2016, Cleo’s truck rolled up. He was adopted directly and seeing his photos now, I can see his happy face has returned.

Some of these dogs have been adopted in France, some by English-speaking residents and some in Northern Europe. It goes to show that we depend so very much on an international group to help us home our dogs. It takes a lot to go from so many long-term residents and it has involved a huge amount of international marketing, promotion and advertising. Our staff and volunteers work constantly to find homes for our dogs – gone are the days when dogs spent years waiting for a home. It’s not just marketing. The staff and volunteers at the Refuge de l’Angoumois also work hard to ensure that our dogs are promoted to the people who arrive at the shelter looking to adopt. So many people form the beating heart of the Refuge de l’Angoumois that it is impossible to single any one out individually: we work because there are so many of us who are tireless in our efforts for the dogs (and cats!)

I think that is truly worth celebrating.

I’ve not included any post-adoption photos – if you want to see how our dogs are getting on, come and join us in our Facebook group Refuge de l’Angoumois, Charente 16 where you can see videos of Guapo on a trampoline, Cleo on a couch, or Elios playing fetch.

I think as we move forward into 2017, it’s important to remember how far we have come, that we are far from the days of Smoke and Ufo, of the big scary boys at the top of the block, of Nichman, Dalton, Wolf, Darius, Salma, Alaska, Fairbanks… names that all our ‘old’ volunteers know by heart. I love it that our new volunteers fall in love one week and I have the happy job of telling them that the dog has been adopted next time they come to walk our dogs. I feel very proud of our shelter and what we do here. 2017 may bring sad dogs and traumatised dogs, thousands of kittens and hundreds of stray cats. It may bring disappointing legal victories and new prosecutions filed.

I hope that 2017 brings adoptions for our remaining long-stay dogs: Kayser, Hagrid, Estas, Amon, Aster, Junior, Pilou, Dede, Diabolo, Kody, Doggy, Sam, Gaston, Jafar and Fifi. Although with twenty new dogs on the books to photograph this afternoon, I’m always sad to see places filled as soon as they are emptied. Thanks very much for your support in 2016 – our dogs depend on it. These ten adoptions are by no means the only ones that make my heart swell with joy. The adoption of every single animal, whether they are here for a day or a year, helps fight the tide of neglect, abandonment and abuse. On behalf of all our adopted animals, thank you.

Why I won’t judge you for buying a dog from a breeder

Why I won’t judge you for buying a dog from a breeder


Having looked at what a puppy needs in its first few weeks of life, and why a puppy might not be the most suitable choice for your home, you’ll probably be surprised to hear a staunch rescuer say that one of the phrases I never say is “Adopt, don’t shop!” Kind of ironic, I know. I’ve never shopped. I never will. But why do I wish people would be less glib about peppering posts with this phrase when people are looking to acquire a new pet? And why is the “B” word such a dirty word?

One of the most popular (and controversial) articles on a popular dog website is a commentary from an adopter about why she judges people for buying puppies from a breeder. It’s always a topic that causes polemics. Good traffic for websites, if not very understanding, sensible or kind.

I have a confession to share as well. Once, a woman contacted me to make a statement about how she was ‘unliking’ my Facebook page because “our ethics were not aligned”. Why? I had posted a link to my friend’s dog training page. She’s an excellent trainer, by the way. Like frighteningly good. She’s a positive trainer – so why were my ethics not aligned to the woman who contacted me? Here’s why. My friend has five dogs, and has had two litters of working cockers in the last two years. When I received this snooty message, I was being judged for endorsing the business of someone who breeds one carefully planned litter of working dogs once a year. Somehow the eight puppies that my friend has caused to be brought into the world in the last two years makes her responsible for our shelter having eight hundred dogs through our gates? I don’t get it.

If you are a die-hard “Adopt, don’t shop!” comment-maker, please try to make it through to the end of the post before you tell me that our ethics are not aligned and cut me off though.

Quite honestly, there are a couple of reasons that I’m tired of hearing “Adopt, don’t shop.” The zeal and fervour of the self-righteous Rescue Radicals also makes it impossible to have an honest dialogue about some very important issues to do with what makes a good dog and why a rescue is not for everyone. If you work in rescue, you’re probably afraid to even mention the B word. Even my favourite trainer of all, Nando Brown, justifies his own choice of a “bought” Malinois by countering that he has done his fair share of rescues; indeed, he has two rescue dogs himself. So why does he feel like he must justify his decision to own Fizz and remind us of the great work he has done? Why are we at the point where our top animal professionals feel the need to remind us that they do rescue too? Is it that they feel the burning eyes of Rescue Radical Judgey-ness upon them?

Two people at the shelter have recently had quiet conversations with me about how they would love to breed dogs but are afraid of the reactions they would get. Despite the fact that they love particular breeds, and breeds that are popular for good reasons, breeds in good health with few known genetic issues, breeds not represented in French shelters, these animal lovers are afraid to promote the dogs they love. Instead, they do a bit of work for breed-specific rescues and try to keep quiet about how they wish they didn’t just have to deal with damaged versions of the dogs they love. Do these people know how many dogs there are in refuges? Of course they do. These people WORK in animal rescue. They’re the ones picking up dogs and cleaning up the mess that people make. Of course they know how many dogs are in rescue. Does it mean they don’t love Shelties or Salukis? No. They own muttleys. Or they own damaged versions of the breeds they love. I guarantee you that they own more muttleys than you do and that they’ve taken on dogs with so many complex issues that you wouldn’t think it possible. But they are afraid to breed, to promote a breed, to even mention a breed. It’s a dirty secret that is more difficult to talk about than many other topics. The Judgey Brigade has made it impossible for us to even talk about the B word. Somehow it’s okay to rescue a Beauceron or a Malinois, but not okay to want to have one any other way.

It’s clear to see why. Here’s a nice, sanctimonious, time-wasting example. Some lovely person with too much time on their hands (and a dog they themselves bought from a breeder) contacted me to ask me if I knew that one of our volunteers actually had puppies for sale? Shouldn’t we be adopting and not selling?! That volunteer is a member of a Neapolitan mastiff rescue group. She personally rehomes more mastiffs than anyone else in France. When a mastiff comes in, if she can’t place it, she pays for its stay, she walks it, she trains it, she tries her damnedest to make it adoptable. She does pre-visits and post-visits. She lives and breathes mastiffs. She is the most invested person – a breed ambassador. And the do-gooder who thought our volunteers shouldn’t be involved in breeding needs to consider one thing: the volunteer doesn’t actually have puppies “for sale”. She has over twenty homes lined up before the actual mating. Her puppies are never “for sale”. They are homed before they are even conceived. I wish every dog born had a breed ambassador like this.

Let me make this clear. Breeders are not contributing to shelter problems. Our shelters in France are not filled with pedigree dogs. We don’t have Shelties, Salukis, Springers and Samoyeds for adoption. Not ones with papers. That’s not to say we don’t have ones without papers, but they usually don’t come from anyone I would class as a responsible breeder. This is a really important distinction. Breeding dogs covers the people who pay thousands for the parents’ DNA, who have health screening, pages of heritage and don’t really care about Crufts, as well as those who churn out over seven hundred dogs a year or those whose labrador gets out when she’s in season and runs amok with the village ne’er-do-wells.

Backyard puppy farms are definitely responsible for our problems. Accidental breeders are really, really responsible for the dogs in shelters, but responsible breeders aren’t. People who think their girl should have a litter before she’s spayed with some mate they found on Facebook are also partly responsible for our problems. Anyone who thinks the world needs more brick-headed labradors is not a responsible breeder. Anyone who has three or four breeds up for sale at any point is not a responsible breeder. Effel, the pedigree beauceron with me in foster care didn’t have a responsible breeder. If you sell an energetic beauceron puppy to an elderly disabled lady, and you don’t answer her calls when she goes to a retirement home, you aren’t a responsible breeder.

Responsible breeders are not the problem. By and large, when we get a pedigree-registered traceable dog in through our doors as an abandonment, many of the breeders will come and pick it up that same day. When one of our American Staffordshires was at risk of being put to sleep because he couldn’t cope with refuge life and he’d bitten someone in excitement, the breeder did a ten-hour return journey and placed the dog in a really good rehab programme because he didn’t have space himself to take him back.

Good breeders hate the idea that one of their dogs is at the shelter. You wouldn’t believe how few pedigree dogs come to the pound in the first place, and how very, very few of those are unclaimed. Responsible breeders’ pups leave with birth certificates, chips, addresses for emergencies. They are traceable and trackable. Dogs from responsible breeders don’t often even make it through the shelter doors. Look on Seconde Chance if you don’t believe me. It aggregates dogs for adoption across all the shelters in France, and is searchable breed-by-breed. When you look at the seven Dutch Shepherds available, five are mislabelled. One is clearly a mali cross. Three are seniors (which is an issue in itself) but only two even look like Dutch Shepherds. None of them are LOF-registered, meaning they came in without microchips, tattoos or birth certificates. You’ll find this with breed after breed. Airedales on the site: 4. Proper ones who look like Airedales? 0. Akitas on the site: 4. Number who are proper Akitas: 2. What about a really popular breed, the French Bulldog? 22. Proper Frenchies: about 15. Responsible breeders did not cause this issue. You can bet your bottom dollar that not a one of those Frenchies came from a breeder that only bred Frenchies.

Do we get dogs that have come from puppy farms, unchipped and unvaccinated since birth? All the time. They arrive unchipped, unregistered, unvaccinated and without paperwork. Huskies, Czech wolf dogs, Malinois, hunt breeds, labradors … we get a lot of popular types of dogs who arrive without a chip or tattoo. No responsible breeder would let you leave their home without the pedigree of the dog (if they’re pedigree, which I’ll come back to later), the dog’s birth certificate, copies of the health tests of the parents, (for pedigree dogs) and a microchipped animal that has had its first vaccinations if not its second. Those first vaccinations and a microchip can cost up to 120€ so you can imagine why some breeders wouldn’t give them. It wipes out a big chunk of “profit”. Dogs that are microchipped don’t cause the same problems for us.

So how many of our dogs conform to a pedigree standard? A lot. They’re what we call ‘type’. They look like a breed without us really knowing if they are. Because they’re not chipped, there’s no way of knowing if either parent were pedigree or not. We get a lot of ‘type’ hunt dogs who don’t have paperwork, but they’re working dogs and they’re not “field trial” kind of dogs who need both hunting abilities and Kennel Club papers. We get Anglo types and Ariègeois types, beagle types and terrier types. A good number are not hunt dogs but are popular breeds that people don’t want to pay a lot of money for, like Yorkies or Labradors.

The vast majority of our dogs are not French Kennel Club dogs that have come from a proper breeder in the first place. Their dogs are what we call ‘race’ or ‘breed’. They conform to a breed standard and have Kennel Club paperwork. One or two of our dogs have these papers, and by and large, these are not dogs found as strays but dogs handed over by an owner. A number of those dogs are Category 1 or 2 dogs whose adoption depends on that paperwork. Pure pedigree dogs who’ve been chipped and vaccinated are usually surrendered because of changes in the owner’s circumstances. Most breeders on the documentation refuse to take the dogs back because – guess what – it’s actually fairly easy to predict who will surrender a two-year-old dog, and if you don’t care about that, you aren’t going to care if the dogs end up in the shelter. Luckily, most pedigree dogs (except for Amstaffs and rottweilers, which are subject to breed-specific regulation) leave the shelter quickly, even if their breeder thinks so little of them to care what happens.

And we’re a rural shelter, so we accept a good number of working dogs. That’s not to say all hunters are evil barstewards who kick out their dogs though. Many have dogs who are BOTH tattooed and microchipped. Most of them also have an orange collar with a mobile number on it. I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores of hunting with dogs, but hunters who are out every day don’t have muttley hounds without paperwork. Sure, a dog is a financial commodity. That’s the reason why they have pedigrees and field trials. No. We’re talking about some random country “agriculteur” who sells “breton spaniels” on Le Bon Coin for 250€, not a premium setter going for 500€ just for breeding rights. Those random country guys who sell hunt dogs cheaply are sadly far too frequent. Their dogs are not so good at hunting and not worth finding if lost, so they pass over to us. We get A LOT of these dogs. Wire-haired fox terriers, wire-haired dachshunds, griffons, pointers, setters, spaniels. That makes up an enormous number of our entry numbers. So do you think these come from people like my friend, whose next litter are already homed even though the mating hasn’t happened yet?

On the whole, we aren’t getting in dogs from registered, licensed breeders. Nor can we say we get a lot from proper hunters. One ‘breeder’ brought one of her breeding bitches in herself and handed her over, saying she was dominant. I suspect that, at four, the female was hard work. The woman currently has four different breeds of dog on sale, so let’s not call her a responsible breeder. The dog had all the paperwork and I’m no GSD judge, but there was no way she was anywhere close to a breed standard. And if you want to see my neighbour’s 400€ allegedly pedigree “Labrador”, you’ll be surprised to see something more akin to a pointer. But hey.

So where do our dogs come from?

Accidental matings. Yes, even those dogs sold as a ‘cocker’ from a LOF mum, where the father is perhaps the collie from up the road. This is why matings are declared with the Société Centrale Canine, a birth certificate is issued, and then the offspring must be seen by a judge as the dog matures.

Dogs sold on the internet without papers. “Type” doesn’t mean “Race”.

Farmers or “agriculteurs” breeding indiscriminately and trying to make a quick buck before drowning the rest. I’ve been to three farms in the last month to investigate this joyful practice.

Purposeful back-yard breeders who want to make 200€ without incurring costs.

Hunt dogs without papers. Most are muttleys or sans papiers.

Back-yard breeders or rural ‘agriculteurs’ used to be responsible for a lot of the adverts we saw. Not so much anymore since advertising dogs has become much stricter in 2016. But it’s easy to see the ten local “breeders” offering popular breeds at cut prices or to find groups on Facebook where French bulldogs sell for 300€. When you look further, you see their adverts for shih tzus, spaniels, GSDs and French bulldogs… If they can’t provide details of DNA health tests for the parent dogs, or they have more than two breeds on site, you’re probably talking about a back-yard breeder. And yes, they can show you mum. But it doesn’t mean they’re a responsible breeder.

In reality, we aren’t getting so many of the 80,000 Kennel-Club-registered dogs born in France each year. One or two. But not thousands. There is NO causation, then, between responsible breeding and shelter numbers.

There IS a high causation between irresponsible breeders whose dogs leave unchipped and unvaccinated and the number of dogs in shelters.

This is why the law in France has changed. The laws changed as a result of input from vets, shelters, charities and breeders.

Not any of these groups want irresponsible or accidental breeding, or puppies on sale for 200€. If the bodies who write our laws are saying there is a correlation between backyard breeders and numbers in shelters, why are so many people still on the “Adopt, don’t shop” bandwagon treating responsible breeders as if they are the cause of the large number of dogs abandoned in France each year?

When you look at the books of shelters in France, it’s clear to see what the problem is and where the problems lie.

Do I agree with pedigree breeding? That’s a whole different question. With a Mali who had crippling arthritis and an American cocker with chronic ear infections, food allergies and eye problems, you may see what my viewpoint is based on. I wish people would care more about the personality of their dogs, and people bred for personality rather than looks. There’d be fewer crazy-energetic brick-headed labradors about.

But there IS a certain something to knowing the breed type and their behaviours. Tilly, bred in the US, is up and down the same dog as my Nana’s American cocker, bred in the UK, in the 80s. Seeing her on the table that first night was like seeing the ghost of Sunny. They look alike, sure, but they have a lot of similar behavioural quirks. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called Hagrid, a mali cross at the refuge, Tobby. They even do the same door nudge “double tap”. For all of those who say that breeds don’t have particular qualities, I’d like them to come and meet a few Anglos, a few fox terriers. But by and large, the behaviours that dogs have in common go wide across the species, and the quirks and foibles are only noticeable because they are unusual. We fall in love with breeds and I hate that we do. We generalise about breeds and I hate that we do that too. We see humans as individuals and animals as ‘species’ and we have prioritised looks over personality in our dogs. I wish we loved mutts as much as we love pedigrees. I know my heart melts for the gentle Amigo souls with their dubious heritage and their deliciously gentle natures. My own personal jury is still out on “type” or “muttley”. One gives you a bit of an idea what you’re getting. The other, well, it’s pot luck really, unless you know both parents. I’d much rather someone took two nice muttley dogs and said, “Do you know what? These dogs would make lovely kids between them.” Throw in a few health-checks and that’s how I wish dogs were ‘made’.

So do I think all dog breeders are causing the problems in shelters? No. Only the ones who do it for money. Do I think pedigree dogs are okay? Hmmm. That is a very complicated question indeed. Just because I may not agree with pedigree or closed books at kennel clubs doesn’t mean I think breeders cause problems in shelters.

Do I think that you should ALWAYS adopt and not shop? No. No I don’t think that at all. Will I judge you for buying a pedigree dog from a reputable breeder? No. Will I judge you for buying a cut-price unvaccinated unchipped dog from some woman on the internet? Damn straight.

But it’s not just a question of heritage and kennel club papers.

Why shouldn’t you adopt a pedigree? Should we give up our breed fancying?

In all honesty, if you want a breed, you may find one in a shelter somewhere. Like Westies? Get in touch with a rescue Westie association. People do give up their pedigree dogs all the time. Births, marriages, divorces and deaths mean there are often adult pedigree dogs available. If you want a breed-standard rescue puppy, you might have to wait, but you might find one of those too. You don’t have to give up on pedigree to rescue a dog. That said, finding a Weimaraner in a French shelter will be tough, and that goes for any number of “types”… unless you like labradors or griffons, beagles or anglo-français, and you don’t care about kennel club papers.

Nor do you have to give up on adopting a puppy.

That comes with a massive, massive caution.

You’ve seen or read Marley and Me, I’m sure. In that, the owners realise what a mistake they’ve made when they see Marley’s dad, who is something of a nutcase. Well, with rescue puppies, you can’t see that. You have no idea if the parent dogs have great personalities or not. Not only that but in-vitro stress, inherited fear levels, removal from mum before they’re weaned, poverty of experience between 5 and 7 weeks… all proven factors in the development of a “stressed puppy”. And yes, that means that our puppies MAY be a harder adoption than you might think because we’ve no idea what they are bringing with them.

By the way, this is also why I wouldn’t buy a puppy from a back-yard breeder since the same pre-natal, neo-natal and post-natal conditions exist for those puppies too. That’s the one time I would say “Adopt, don’t shop.” After all, if you’re running the Russian Roulette of cheap puppies, you might as well support your local shelter. They’ll probably be less traumatised than one from a puppy mill.

The facts are simple. If we want well-adjusted dogs, we need two well-adjusted parent dogs living in calm, well-adjusted homes, going through pregnancy untraumatised and raising puppies in optimal environments. You can’t guarantee that with a rescue puppy or a backyard breeder puppy. Now I don’t know who my dog Heston’s parents were, but he was abandoned at a day old and hand-reared. He’s a very good dog. Not a great dog, but a very good dog. He’s still reactive, but he’s not the only one of his litter to be so. He’s smart and he’s healthy, but one of his sisters died because her blood didn’t clot after a wound. Heston has not been an easy pup to raise. He has made me have to be the best I can be, and I’ve made huge lifestyle changes for him. Raising him is probably why I will never raise another puppy again. Give me the old giffers who walk in and crash out within ten minutes. I love Heston, but he is precisely the kind of dog who end up in refuges at two years old, because they are highly energetic, smart, big, muttley and male. How many other people saw a dog like this up for sale or adoption and felt like they had their work cut out for them? How many give up a dog that had such an unknown heritage? The answer is easy to see in the dogs handed over to shelters, the dogs found on the street. Unplanned parenthood for dogs isn’t just about the NUMBER of dogs that result from that mating, but the QUALITY and PERSONALITY. Accidents would be okay if the dogs that had bred had well-balanced personalities. But they’re not the kind of dogs that get out and go a-wandering when it’s season time are they? Dogs with high energy, nervous dogs, fearful dogs, reactive dogs – those poor-quality accidental matings – are what seems to be behind a large number of dogs handed over to our shelter at the very least, to say nothing of the unsuitability of homes that puppies are given to. Let’s be honest: if your dog has got pregnant by accident, do you really care that much about who has these puppies with their crazy personalities? I’d had four dogs by the time I got Heston. I’d owned animals all my life. I grew up surrounded by dogs. I have a big garden, and I am at home for large parts of the day. But I was unsuitable. I kind of muddled through but there were a lot of times it was really, really hard work. He made me get good. He still barks at people who come on the property. I managed 1km without a lead lunge today and that is as good as it gets. He knows several heelwork routines, can find the scent of gun oil or oregano over 200m of dense, distracting territory and he is handsome as dogs can be. But I had a lot to learn with him and I’m lucky I had the space and time to do it.

My shelter adoptions and fosters of adult dogs have been relatively easy, behaviourally speaking. But then I had to choose carefully because I’ve little support if it doesn’t go well. Sadly, I couldn’t take on the dogs who need a lot of support – a true rescue. Amigo wasn’t really a ‘rescue’, and neither Tilly or Ralf. They were adoptions. Those dogs settled in days. Tobby, he was a ‘rescue’ with his mouthy ways and separation anxiety. The truth is that many people pick up a rescue dog (or puppy) and are not prepared for it. These are adult dogs with poor experiences and a past they may never come to terms with. I don’t want people to be so guilted out by “Adopt, don’t shop” messages that they take on a dog that they simply can’t cope with simply because they’d love a dog but they feel too guilty to choose one from anywhere else but a rescue.

The truth is, we like dogs. We want dogs in our lives. If we rely on puppies from back-yard breeders, raised in terrible conditions, or accidental muttleys, all that’s happening is that we’re creating more and more and more dogs who have problems. And if we put pressure on people to adopt, the people who will take a great, well-adjusted dog are reduced. If we turn dog breeding into something that ethical, honest dog lovers turn away from, we leave it wide open to idiots who’ll mate brothers and sisters in the name of pedigree. We look at the GSDs at Crufts this year with an attitude of disgust. The breed pool and closed books of kennel clubs have become so narrow that the dogs are clearly in very poor physical health. Talk to a Dobie owner if you don’t believe me. And we’re not talking about years and years of breed narrowing. We’re talking about a couple of decades, and the “slopey” GSD is what you get for a pedigree GSD. We have been very effective in the last 50 years or so at making pedigree dogs into dogs with genetic health risks, and we’re only just taking steps to try to weed out those problems. But some of the best people I know who SHOULD be rearing GSDs aren’t doing so because they also work in rescue and they’re worried about the way they’ll be viewed.

The truth is that few people other than great breeders think about the mental health or personality of dogs. Few people think “this dog is a well-balanced, healthy individual” and thinks to breed puppies who will also be well-balanced and healthy. A responsible breeder considers personality as much as looks, but we are discouraging breeders like this and leaving the “market” wide open to unscrupulous people who couldn’t give a monkeys about personality, health or DNA tests.

We are effectively encouraging the proliferation of dogs with behavioural problems if we discourage responsible breeders or if we discourage breeders who are breeding great dogs who don’t even have paperwork or breed.

And where does that end? If every single person who bought a dog in the next year went to the shelter instead and no puppies were born at all, I guarantee you the shelters would not be empty. Not in the least.

Some shelter adoptions are HARD. I mean, really hard. They take persistence and determination, years of work and expensive rehab. Take my lovely Hagrid. We’ve been working with him on the mouthiness, but that dog is not a dog for every home. I can’t bring him here because he doesn’t do male dogs. He needs people with great experience of handling shepherds, who have plenty of time and secure land for him, who will continue to teach him and train him with his mouthiness, who aren’t afraid of him, who will spend a big proportion of their day on him and will make the same kind of time-expensive changes to their life that I have made with Heston. A one-dog or two-dog household with no children, no grand-children, experienced owners who’ve had wily shepherds before. I’d possibly take him if I had no other dogs, and only now I’ve learned more about wily, bitey shepherds from Tobby. Then again, I’m not sure I have enough time and resources for a Hagrid in my life. But we have many other dogs like Hagrid, Julio, Gaza, Gilda, Loyd, Larry, Sam, Jack, Daluk,  … these are not dogs for first-time dog owners, people who work, people with children, people without dog experience, people without ten-foot fences. Of those dogs, ONE has paperwork, by the way. Of our twenty-six dogs who have been at the refuge over a year, how many even look a little “type”?

Want to play “Guess the Breed?”

Does this look like a problem caused by breeders or even by backyard breeders? Or does it look like a problem caused by people whose dogs had accidents? It sure as hell looks like our poor sixteen long-stay dogs are more accident than design. Do you think the average person wanting to adopt a dog could cope with some of these dogs? By the way, there’s not a one I wouldn’t adopt. But there are twelve of the sixteen I can’t adopt because they don’t do males. With the best will in the world, if these sixteen represented all rescue dogs, I’d have my work cut out finding one that suited my home life and skill level. Do you think any breeding at all went into the ‘making’ of these dogs?

It’s not just our unruly or hard to home dogs that have issues, either.

Take Zouzou and Zoe, adopted some months ago from the refuge, so traumatised that they have developed a range of bizarre guarding behaviours, resistant to touch, to comfort, always a flight risk… Take our nervous hounds who tremble at the slightest touch and run away the moment anything spooks them… Take our destructive dogs who can’t be left with blankets… Take our old dogs who need palliative medical care… our boisterous dogs who’ve never had a lick of training… our unsocialised dogs who hate others… our dogs who kill cats and other small furries… our dogs who are scared of children… our high-energy dogs… our category dogs who need owners with licences and training….

Our dogs left at the refuge for months on end are sometimes here because the number of owners who would be a good home for them are really, really few and far between. That’s not always true – we have a number of dogs passed over because of age, colour, size and gender, but it is generally true. Often, our highly adoptable, well-trained, well-adjusted dogs walk out of the door within days.

When people who think that it is more “noble” to adopt rather than shop take on a dog, they often do it for the wrong reasons. You have to know that you are at a good point in your life for a RESCUE dog. Because that’s what these dogs are. They aren’t cheap dogs. They aren’t the “ethical” choice. They aren’t the Fair Trade equivalent of animals. They are RESCUE dogs. Some of them are very damaged. A number come with a risk of separation anxiety, with aggression issues, with a past. A lot escape that, which is great. But if you think that if my friend stopped breeding and I started putting “Adopt, don’t shop!” on posts that are nothing to do with me — if you think that this will find homes for the sixteen dogs above — have at it and tell me why.

Sadly, misguided ethical adopters are on the rise. I think this is because of a number of reasons. If you choose a dog because you have convinced yourself that it is the ethical choice, the moral choice, then you are soon going to find the stench of burning martyr strong upon you as you are faced with complex behavioural issues or requirements.

Hagrid, Gaza, Zakari, Teddy and Daluk don’t need owners making an ethical choice, they need owners who are not blinded by their own moral goodness. They need owners going into adoption with their eyes fully open, completely prepared for any eventuality, otherwise that adoption will fail. I’ve seen these dogs returned from well-meaning owners (and occasional idiots) and “the ethical choice” is the very last reason you should adopt. If you feel smug about having a RESCUE, then you have gone about it the wrong way. Feel happy to have a dog that’s right for you and you’re right for it. If that is a dog you bought, so be it. If that is a rescue, so be it.

In the meantime, I’d like to see fewer articles by smug people whose only connection to the rescue world is that they have adopted a few dogs.

Don’t adopt a dog because it is the ethical choice. Adopt a dog because you fell in love and you know you can provide a home that is right for that dog.

And stop blaming the breeders.

Blame your neighbours who don’t sterilise their dogs. Blame the back-yard breeders who’ll sell a “knock-off” pedigree. Blame the people who keep them in business and buy from pet stores rather than homes, who prefer to buy a Yorkie for 200€ off some dodgy website rather than pay 1000€ for a Yorkie whose parents aren’t related to each other and who’ve had a suite of genetic tests. Blame the cult of pedigree dogs. Blame people who walk into Dogs 4 Us and think that they can buy a dog here.

Tell people to “Shop Better” rather than “Adopt, don’t shop”. But don’t think that a rescue dog is for everyone, or that a person who buys a dog is immoral. If people “shopped better” and bought puppies from great homes (regardless of paperwork, pedigree or price) rather than “buying easily and cheaply” then there would be fewer dogs in shelters.

And if people who couldn’t ensure their muttleys wouldn’t reproduce got them sterilised, then there would be fewer dogs in shelters too. In fact, if people stopped letting their dogs have accidental litters, our shelter could probably close. If people stopped thinking that you can buy a great dog for 300€ from Facebook and if breeders cared enough to register and track the dogs they cause to be brought into the world, we’d definitely close.

So I will never judge you for buying a puppy from a responsible breeder. I will never blame you for wanting your puppy to have the absolute best start in life, great genes, a great early experience. How could I blame you for that?

But… I will also say that despite their questionable heritage and their poor experiences, a rescue dog can prove that much of this doesn’t matter. We have great dogs walk through our gates every single day. There are times when I feel like I should say “Adopt, don’t shop.” But instead, I’d say “Before you buy, check out your local shelter… and your not so local ones. Maybe you’ll find a dog that fits right in. But if you don’t, good luck and please make sure you shop responsibly.” Many, many of those misshapes, mistakes and misfits make great family pets. I know. Ralf was just about the easiest adoption ever. Amigo is a dream of a dog and I wish I could have fifty with his sweet, sweet nature.

Stopping saying “Adopt, don’t shop!” will not only stop alienating people, it has other benefits too.

That way, we keep the conversation open between responsible breeders and shelter workers, and we keep our eyes open about what makes a good dog after all. And then, maybe then, we’d have an honest conversation about whether Kennel Clubs are a good idea at all and why pedigree dogs are perhaps causing so much heartbreak with inherited diseases, quirky behavioural throw-backs and genetic dead-ends. There are battles to fight, people, but guilting people into rescue isn’t one of them.

Hopefully you won’t be unliking my page and thinking that our ethics aren’t aligned now you understand a little about where I’m coming from. A little understanding and acceptance would go a long, long way.

A tale of Tiggers and Eeyores, or why puppies aren’t always for every home

A tale of Tiggers and Eeyores, or why puppies aren’t always for every home

We’re often told that puppies will fit right in to our household, but is that really true? Is a puppy always the right choice to make when it comes to a multi-dog household? An emergency vet visit and an afternoon of puppy cuddles got me thinking about how adding a puppy into the mix isn’t always the best decision. Reading a blog post from the Dog Lady, Theo Stewart, got me thinking about how hard it can be for an older, established canine resident to accept a cute bundle of loveliness into their life.

A couple of weeks ago, the story of a tearful visit to the vet with a five-month old puppy who’d been attacked in a moment of excitement by an adult dog brought it home to me that puppies are not for every home. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an adult dog wounding a younger one. Sometimes, those wounds have been fatal. The story of a nine-month old mauled to death by an older dog is an unfortunate result of a situation that is not always the joyful experience it should be.

And to my right, the seven little wriggly dachshund x terrier pups remind me just how much at least one of my woofers would have hated these little fosterees. Tobby, my ancient Malinois, literally took to the streets when I had puppies here. Puppies were not for him. Randy Wobbly Tobby, so delighted when I turned up with hounds or arthritic old lady labradors, delighted to see poodles or bichons, happy as Larry when I brought home stinky old ladies, would have found it very tough to accept seven velvety beans. Not only did I have to manage all the puppy play and land-sharking, mopping up and random acts of chewing, I had to keep an eye on Tobby, who would slip off during a quiet moment, slide out through a badger hole in the fence and trot off up the road in search of a home where there were no puppies, thank you very much.

Whether it was the lack of quiet, the fact that puppies need constant reminders of what’s to play with and what’s not (including Wobbly Bob’s tail and arthritic legs), or the fact he got less attention, we can only speculate. The fact was that he was not a fan of puppies, not one bit.

And Amigo’s not arsed either. I mean he doesn’t mind telling puppies off, but they never take any notice of him, even when he’s snarling in their face. It’s like being told off by Richard Briers, to be fair, but even so, my gentle old guy and I sit with our feet up out of reach on the couch and try not to get cross about the ankle biters. Effel growled at the boxer puppies here last week. Even Heston had a grump. My four-year-old collie cross is usually so very happy to have a roll about with some bitey babies, but those puppies were not his cup of tea. What a change from 18 months ago when I had to manage the growls of Tobby and Amigo, and Heston’s joyful baby-sitting. Would I trust him with a puppy? Absolutely. Does he still enjoy puppies? Not like he did.

Tilly, so happy to play with puppy Heston (and the only time she ever played with another dog), spends all her time putting puppies in their place and grumbling if they disturb her peace. Heaven help any puppy that got near her food bowl. Separate meals for any puppy who spends a dinner time here. It’s not often I have to do that with the adults.

I mean, part of it is that puppies don’t learn easily, do they? Irascible, tenacious little beggars. I spent forty-eight hours watching Margot the nine-week-old boxer cross biting her brother Olly so hard that he was squealing and squealing. She played tug of war with his tail, chewed his ear, rode his back. So much for puppies learning from other dogs that their bite is hard or they are playing too rough. Little Ayan, here with me now, engages in some quite heavy-duty hazing of her brothers. Mama, the young labrador who had seven puppies at the shelter in the summer spent the last three weeks of their time here looking to escape from her babies having had more than enough of her offspring’s insistent attempts to play and mug her for milk. Little Nellie is at the same point with her six-week-old offspring. She literally couldn’t be any further away from them. Her job is done. Time to move on.

So, small puppies with their lack of social boundaries can be hard work for adult dogs, even if they are your offspring. And so many people choose a puppy because they have difficult dogs who won’t easily accept other adult dogs. We adopt a puppy because we think that our older antisocial dogs will adapt to them. One lady was telling me that she wanted one of the puppies I have here now because her elderly fox terrier won’t accept other dogs — she thinks the dog will ‘mother’ a puppy. We have many misconceptions about how puppies are accepted into family groups, but if the reason you want one is that your existing family pet is intolerant of adult dogs, is it really sensible to think that they’ll like a small puppy who might learn how to behave in ways that don’t annoy the older dog? And what if they don’t? Even if they do, they’re subjecting a dog to a life with an antisocial misery — is that going to make any creature in that house happy apart from the owners?

So why might a puppy not work with your own very social dog group? My dog group might not look like the most social of all families, but they put up with some shit. I’ve had over thirty dogs and pups stay the night here in the last year — some for longer than that. Tilly might grudgingly accept them through the door with a bit of a bark. Amigo might hide behind me. Heston might show us just how fluffy his tail looks and Tobby might have licked them to death, but the adult dogs were more easily accepted than the pups.

Part of it is just the energy levels. I mean, those puppies can be like crazed land sharks on speed.

Having a new crazy land shark about reminds me very much of the incident in The House at Pooh Corner, where Eeyore falls into the river.

“How did you fall in, Eeyore?” asked Rabbit, as he dried him with Piglet’s handkerchief.
“I didn’t,” said Eeyore.
“But how–”
“I was BOUNCED,” said Eeyore.
“Oo,” said Roo excitedly, “did somebody push you?”
“Somebody BOUNCED me. I was just thinking by the side of the river–thinking, if any of you know what that means–when I received a loud BOUNCE.”
“Oh, Eeyore!” said everybody.
“Are you sure you didn’t slip?” asked Rabbit wisely.
“Of course I slipped. If you’re standing on the slippery bank of a river, and somebody BOUNCES you loudly from behind, you slip. What did you think I did?”

Sadly, outside of children’s books, animals can’t talk or reason, and no post-BOUNCE analysis takes place when a younger animal BOUNCES a bigger one. Being bounced is not acceptable for dogs and they can’t fall back on words to sort it out. Eeyore was absolutely right to be grumpy that a bouncy creature should come into his corner of the world, especially when he had the whole of the forest to be bouncy in. That doesn’t have to be a puppy. My foster Effel is a fairly bouncy dog as it is, despite being seven years old. Tobby didn’t much like being bounced by him either. And the fact is that dogs, like Tiggers, are prone to bouncing where there are other dogs.

So a couple of weeks ago, when a man arrived home from work, setting off the excited bounces of his new five-month old pup, the resident adult dog didn’t much care for that excitement. The outcome were some fairly serious bites, from a dog who had never bitten before. Joking and Tigger comparisons aside, rambunctious, excited behaviour which is hard to control for a young dog can be precisely the kind of behaviour that other dogs take exception to. It’s going to happen at flashpoints where there’s high energy, and unlike Eeyore who begrudgingly accepts his bouncing, your older dog just might not.

But it’s not all about flashpoints and making sure your young dog is safe around your older ones. It can’t all be sorted with crates and playpens. Much of it is also about energy levels and frustration tolerance.

That was very much evident at a local dog play day. Two young dogs were left playing long after the others had run off their energy. One was nine months, the other eighteen months. Play, although it can continue into adulthood in dogs, doesn’t always. And play, like with other species, is often more exuberant and even more necessary when you’re young. Even the six-week-olds sleeping next to me know about toys already. In fact, one has woken up and is already mouthing a chew toy whilst his siblings sleep on.

The question to ask yourself is whether your adult dogs can handle a puppy who needs to play and wants to explore the world. A puppy who might bounce from time to time. Whilst you might feel goo-ey and parental when a puppy comes along, you know how tiresome the land-sharking can be if you’re not in the mood. You can’t choose when a puppy will decide to sink its teeth into your boots, or chew your laces, or trip you up. Your adult dog can’t choose when a puppy wil sink its teeth into their ears, or chew their tail, or run through their legs. And whilst you have all the love in the world for your new addition, which you understand is just learning the rules and needs a little help, who’s to say whether that’s evident to a dog or not, especially when, like Tobby and Amigo, you have told that puppy off over and over again about bouncing you into rivers. The difference is that as a human, you can manage your emotions. You can go out. You can find some space. You can invest in a puppy pen and supervise from a safe distance. Those aren’t choices your older dog can always make if owners have just blithely thought the older dog would accept a younger one.

For that reason, your adult dogs may prefer you adopt another adult dog rather than a puppy. An adult dog’s personality is already formed. Their behaviour patterns are more established. It’s easier to find a dog who matches your own adult dog’s size and energy levels. An adult dog may be the sensible choice. They are better at managing their behaviour and also managing the behaviour of others. It’s easy to see those ones who’d accept every single dog who ever crossed paths with them.

Another reason that people adopt puppies is to replace a dog who has died. Sometimes it’s for companionship for their own dog, or to stop separation anxiety. Sometimes it’s to fill the hole the old dog left in the family. It’s for this reason that many people feel like it would be very hard for an adult dog to join their family, as the family group has already been established and they think that their existing adult dogs won’t accept another adult. Or they think that dogs are more accepting of puppies, who will learn to fit into the group more easily. Whilst this can be true, there’s no reason to think that dogs like or accept puppies any more than they would like or accept an adult dog.

Sometimes, people feel that they don’t want to adopt an older dog because losing the last was very painful. They think they will have more years with a puppy, which may or may not be true. This morning, I read in one group of an eight-month-old wire-haired pointer that just dropped dead on a walk. No dog is immortal and space between losses doesn’t make it any easier, I’m afraid, even if you think it will. Some people like to stagger the ages of their dogs, so that they won’t end up with a geriatric group, or a group who need a lot of care all at the same time. There are many reasons why people choose to adopt a puppy instead of an adult dog.

But the sheer number of young dogs abandoned at the shelter tells you how hard youngsters can be. Over 80% of our dogs are less than 4 years of age. A very short socialisation window, a long adolescent period where you may not be able to exercise the dog physically at a level that is compatible with their energy levels for fear of muscular or skeletal problems, youthful exuberance, lack of time to train and work with your adolescent dog… and you have every reason why young dogs can be boisterous and bursting with energy. Are these things you are prepared to cope with? If you don’t have time and energy yourself, a puppy may not be the right choice for you or for your existing dogs.

Take Heston. He’s four and a half. He has so far enjoyed playing Uncle Heston, and he has very much enjoyed working with young puppies up until these last guys, although to be fair, he’s not been as relaxed as usual having a big bouncy boy with us in foster and following a few other changes in doggie personnel. He’s generally a great dog to introduce to young dogs. He self-limits well, never being rough or over-exuberant. He has great body language and communicates well with puppies. But even he seems to be getting tired of puppy play. I think sometimes of getting a younger dog to be his companion, since my canine family group is very much an ageing one. But would a puppy be the right choice? Certainly, my other two dogs would find it tough. Amigo is very deaf and not tolerant of puppies. Tilly is a dog who just likes to be undisturbed. Would a puppy work with this group? At the same time, am I happy with an ageing group?

The best answer has come from my foster dogs. Heston’s most favourite was a game young lady called Galaxy, a similar age and size to him, female, playful and fun. She was two at the time, to his three and a half. Although I would love a puppy, a dog like Galaxy would have been the best option, I have no doubt. She didn’t upset the oldies, didn’t have excessive training needs and came here with an energy level that suited all of us. Her personality was already established and because I could see the adult her, I knew what I was getting.

A Galaxy wouldn’t end up bouncing my oldies, wouldn’t give me as much of a runaround, wouldn’t have an energy level that caused my other dogs to pack their bags or to spend their days on guard in case someone comes to bite their legs or steal their bed. She’d also give my ageing group a bit of vitality without being a nutcase about it.

But if you want to introduce a puppy into the mix of your older pack, there are many benefits to that too. Dogs are social learners so having an old hand around the place will help with rambunctious younger dogs. At the shelter, we really don’t like for people to adopt a puppy as an only dog: these dogs are so often returned at the adolescent stage having had no real or meaningful interaction with older dogs. I can spot you a dog who’s lived out its life as an isolated, often unsupervised puppy a mile off. They have poor bite inhibition, low frustration tolerance, exuberant behaviour and often very coarse social skills with other dogs. Julio at the refuge is one such dog, having arrived after nine months of isolation. Maki is another. When you adopt a puppy and you don’t have another dog, you have a lot of work to do to keep it socialised. Although genes have a large role to play in how social your dog will be, the difference between a well-socialised husky and a poorly-socialised husky is bigger than the difference between a terrier and a spaniel. If you are picking up a puppy known for independence and pugnaciousness, like a terrier or bull breed, or a puppy bred for seeing off intruders, like a shepherd, it is your absolute responsibility to ensure they are socialised if they live on their own. And that is not always easy to do. Puppies like these really benefit from having supervised and mindful guidance with older dogs in the home.

Ultimately, whilst you may have been hoodwinked into the myth that older dogs will more readily accept a puppy, it is not true and it can lead you into very dangerous territory where your own dogs’ sense of security is destabilised. And just because your dog will accept a non-hormoney-smelling nine-week-old, can you predict safely what will happen when your puppy comes of age? Just because they know each other certainly doesn’t mean that they won’t fall out. Indeed, some of the worst fights (usually to the death, or to very serious injury) have happened between an older dog and a dog on the cusp of manhood or womanhood. That’s why, hearing of an SBT killed by a shepherd, seeing “nine months old” told me pretty much what had happened. Early sterilisation is not without its risks, and if you are doing so to keep the peace, you still might never avoid the problem completely.

You may also be under the illusion that puppies can easily learn not to chase cats when in fact, an older dog with a modicum of training and no reaction around cats at the shelter is a much better choice. Your young puppy only has to learn ONCE how fun it is to chase a cat (and how natural it feels!) and you have a young animal with very poor impulse control around your other treasured pets. Can you really supervise your puppy until it is at least six months old around running cats? And even if you can, can you stop the little green light of “that looks like most marvellous fun!” coming on in your puppy’s eyes? As an owner, you need to be absolutely on top of your game with that.

So if you’re thinking of picking up a little bundle of fluffy loveliness, think of your existing doggie dynamic. Think of how much time and training you can offer. Think of whether you have the time and skill to mould a dog whose behaviour is exemplary. Too often we assume that a dog is rambunctious or unmanageably energetic through some fault in their background, in their breed, in the parents. Yet I can show you littermates whose behaviours are so completely opposite that you would never believe they were siblings. You have to invest time to get the dog you want. If you don’t have the time, wait until you do. I will, in all probability, never have a puppy again. Having to mark out four months or so of being at home or finding puppy sitters, getting in all the socialisation and making sure I do everything I should… it’s exhausting. Plus, I could pick up ten dogs today from the shelter who come with far fewer needs and would settle in minutes, not days.

So, if you have an older family group of dogs or cats, don’t accept at face value all the times you’ll be told that a puppy will be accepted by the group. Whilst Tiggers might be acceptable to laid-back Winnie-the-Poohs or motherly Kangas, or super-social Rabbits, they certainly don’t make life easy if they keep bouncing the introverts by mistake. Sure you miss out on all the cute puppy moments, but puppies are only puppies for a very short period of time.

In the next post, I’ll tell you why you’ll never hear me use the phrase “Adopt, don’t shop!” and why I think there are times you might be better to shop for a puppy than adopt from a shelter. I know – controversial!

Puppy Power: getting your puppies off to a great start

puppypower

Watching a video that Nando Brown posted of his Malinois Fizz, I couldn’t help but compare her to Hagrid, our resident shelter smart boy who’s now one of the dogs who’s been here the longest. Fizz has had everything right: good breeding, a great upbringing, an owner who more than understands the demands of the breed, who did absolutely everything he could have done to raise a great puppy; Hagrid has had nothing right: accidental breeding (he’s a Mali x GSD with no pedigree), an upbringing that didn’t teach him a soft bite (kind of essential with mouthy Malinois!) and who ended up in the shelter, aged 4.

It made me sad for Hagrid, because despite all those things against him, he could do everything Fizz was doing: spin, twist, sit, stand, down, through the legs, stay, play dead. Well, almost all. I never got him to jump on my back. It’d be like trusting Hannibal Lecter with the cooking. He is who he is despite everything. I wonder who he could have been if he’d had a great upbringing.

Having two puppies here on a 48-hour stay also reminds me just how important it is to do right by your dogs. Like it or not, puppies are like amazing little sponges, yet most of us teach them one or two appropriate behaviours and they learn five or six inappropriate behaviours all for themselves. The windows of opportunity are short with puppies, and some of them are downright contradictory. There are also a lot of things that you have to depend on someone else to do, even if you get your puppy at six weeks as I did with Heston (he was found in a box at one day old). For this reason, it’s vital that you work with the foster home or the breeder as much as you can before you get your puppy. So many of those windows of development are closed by the time most breeders are happy to hand over a puppy at eight weeks or more.

Neonatal period (0-2 weeks)

For puppies in the neonatal period, most of what they experience is with touch, since they are unable to see or hear. Even their smell is very poor. They also respond to warmth as well. Contact and warmth are vital for neonatal puppies, and you should expect the breeder or foster carer to spend considerable time with the puppies on them as well as on mum. Pups like to huddle, so spending a couple of hours every evening with a puppy resting belly-down on your chest is a great way to start getting them used to you before they are too old to be scared. It’s a good way to start that contact, touching all parts of them, especially ears, legs and feet. It’s a great way to start a puppy off in life if it is already used to human touch by two weeks. Very young puppies may easily be physically harmed, but because they cannot hear, smell or see, they cannot be easily harmed psychologically. Anything you can do to start off touch and warmth will help build a great foundation for later. This helps puppies learn that humans are safe.

Transition period (2-4 weeks)

This is the period when adult dog behaviours begin to appear, and watching puppies at this age is amazing. You get to see all those canine instincts appearing. In the third week of life, puppies begin to orient themselves, beginning to find their way around and explore. As their eyes develop, they become more interested in objects at a distance. Growling and play fighting will start to emerge, so it’s vital that puppies have contact with others in their litter to learn how to play. They also begin to hear sounds in this period. Teeth start coming in around twenty days depending on breed, so you really want to start handling your puppy before then so that they are used to it before the bite instinct kicks in. Since puppies can hear from this point on and will move towards things other than their mum, you can also start to call them or encourage their approach. Puppies will also sit at this point, and you can start off rewarding them for this simple skill too. At the end of this period, you should be rewarding your puppies for calm behaviour, sits, settles and helping them to learn that humans are safe.

Socialisation period (4-6 weeks) 

This period of a puppy’s life is marked by a lot of interaction and surveillance. If you thought you were tired before, this is when you need eyes in the back of your head, especially with a big litter! There’s a reason this period of a puppy’s life is called the socialisation period – it is the age at which they learn social play and the age at which they form social relationships with humans as well as other dogs. Their curiousity is really high but their fear response is minimised. Meeting and playing with other dogs is vital during this time – but since puppies are unvaccinated, many breeders and vets are unhappy to do this. It’s a big risk. On the one hand, you risk a number of infectious diseases or fleas being transported by the other animals, and on the other, you risk them learning to associate other dogs with feeling afraid. Even seven-week-old puppies can quickly learn to be very afraid of other dogs, trembling and yelping at the slightest contact, or taking much, much longer to interact with them.

During this period, it is absolutely vital that puppies have handling and contact.Puppies become fearful of handling around five weeks of age, and if they aren’t habituated to handling during this period, they can become very fearful. Like feral kittens who will remain feral if not handled around the three week mark (or at least be very, very difficult to socialise), the same is true of puppies. By fourteen weeks of age, the socialisation window is almost entirely shut, but even at seven weeks, puppies can develop a fear response to human handling. What they need now is handling, and lots of it.

At this age, puppies will also start to eat more solid food. There is no reason at all they should be eating from bowls (except to learn how to eat from one – and remember to vary the materials you feed them in from plastic to metal or porcelain!) and so you can use their food needs to build up that bond with you. The pleasure centre of the brain is part of the reward centre too, so all food and contact combined will teach a puppy how great human contact is. A food bowl with puppy food is a wasted opportunity. Burying treats in a snuffle mat, using them as rewards for approaches, teaching the puppy their name (or to respond to “puppy!”) and you’ll quickly find yourself working your way through their food needs for the day.

It doesn’t help with toileting though, if puppies aren’t getting three bigger meals a day, so this is the time that you need to take regular outside breaks and if you use rewards for toileting outside, you can use them for that. Smell and habit are much stronger tools for puppy house training than reward, so be vigilant with mopping up, change the mop water regularly and make sure that puppies go outside the moment they are awake, about ten minutes into active play and before they nap. Even at this age, puppies will build up toileting habits and routines that can be pretty hard to break.

Around 5 weeks, puppies will also start behaving as a group, following one another about. It’s important at this point to have one-to-one time with each puppy and continue individual contact and handling. Puppies who have little exposure to people and a lot of exposure to other young dogs can become very ‘dog-focused’ and can find it more difficult to form attachments to people. For some types of puppy (some terrier litters, for instance) from 7 weeks, you may find them targeting one individual of the group – which is why it becomes vital that group play is supervised. A puppy that learns early that picking on another weaker dog is fun can learn some very indesirable behaviours. The last thing you want to allow is a young puppy to learn that bullying or hazing is fun. This is especially important with breeds that have been selected for tenaciousness, like terriers or bully breeds.

Puppies also learn in this period to use chewing as a method of investigation. Mouths are like hands, and if toddlers are grabby, puppies can be little land sharks, sinking their teeth into absolutely everything. It’s vital at this point to start to swap “bad” chewing for “good” chewing so that puppies build up a preference for what you want them to chew. Towards the end of this period, you will want to be teaching bait-and-switch, where puppy will swap a toy or whatever it’s chewing for a treat or for another toy. Giving up a toy or something they’re chewing should always bring reward.

This is really the period that you want your puppies to be beginning to experience the world, without overwhelming them and traumatising them by constant, unplanned exposure, but they still need to be with mum and littermates. They are also unvaccinated. That’s a big demand on breeders and fosterers, requiring almost a twenty-four hour presence, eyes in the back of the head, lots of exposure to new things, lots of contact with humans and other animals. Since puppies should not leave their littermates at this time, if you’re interested in buying or adopting a puppy, getting really involved with them at this age will not only help out the breeder but also familiarise them with you.

Juvenile period (6-24 weeks)

This period is marked by learning all the things that are nice and all those that are frightening. Helping your puppy develop their attention spans, building in frustration training and learning motor skills is important. It’s also the period at which serious psychological damage can be done. A single event can cause a fear response and it can take some enormous counter-conditioning or desensitisation to get over it. Take, for instance, the puppy whose first experience in a car is a terrifying one. How many trips in a car where there is a positive association does it take to get the puppy to see the car as a temporary event before something very pleasurable, or a negative association where they see it as a temporary event before something very unpleasant (like the vet). It also covers the period in which puppies move from their family unit to their new family, so it’s vital there is good communication between the breeder or fosterer and the new home.

There are several really important things your puppies need to learn during this period, alongside the usual obedience programmes.

This period is marked most by the fear response, so teaching your puppies how to handle the introduction of novel experience is key. What you really don’t want (even if you are teaching a gun dog or a SAR dog) is a puppy who investigates without checking in with you. Puppies who learn that humans decide when things need investigating and when they don’t are puppies who end up as safe dogs. Even hounds, gun dogs and SAR dogs need to know a cue to investigate. Take it from me… puppies who investigate everything without your supervision are puppies who become Hestons. My collie x retriever had some amazing self-taught investigations during his formative weeks, and although that’s bloody marvellous for an independent dog, it’s a recipe for disaster. He may be the best tracking dog in the town, but it took me a gazillion years to teach him to investigate on cue. “Find it!” is a great cue for dogs of breeds who have great eyes, noses or investigative sequences. “Leave it!” is also incredibly useful!

It’s also the period when puppies get vaccinations and meet the vet, which makes it vital to make that experience as positive as possible. Sadly not all vets are as keen to help you habituate young dogs to the vet, so choose a vet and a surgery that has minimal stress for your puppy. The movement for fear-free veterinary care is only just in its infancy – kind of strange when you think about it! – but if you think of how hard dentists had to work to overcome their fearful reputation in the 60s and 70s, it’s the same with vets now.

Vaccination health is not the only crucial health care you need to begin at this age. Puppies should also get used to having their teeth brushed. Seriously! If I were starting again with a puppy, it’s the one healthcare routine I would build in from the beginning. Dental hygiene is so fundamental to other aspects of health that you need a dog who has a clean set of gnashers. The toxins from mouth bacteria can get into the bloodstream and cause all sorts of health problems, including problems with the heart and kidney failure! So many people are obsessed with what they feed their dog as a way to prolong their dog’s life and extend a healthy lifespan without taking into account that the biggest difference you can make to the lifespan of your dog (other than long-lived parents and grand-parents) is dental hygiene! Unlike the “raw food/biscuit” debate which will rumble on until proper longitudinal surveys have been completed on both sides, there is no debate about dental hygiene and its importance. Handling your dog’s mouth will also help with “mouthiness” as well. The last thing a vet needs is a bite for looking in a dog’s mouth! Just make sure you use specialist dog toothpaste! Minty breath is not for dogs. This from a girl who used to laugh at her neighbour for brushing his cat’s teeth! Now I think it’s the most fundamental aspect of health care.

No article about good starts for puppies would be complete without a mention of food. Although you may think that a packet of dog biscuits from the supermarket is suitable, puppies need specialist foods for their age and also for the size of dog they will become. It’s vital that large breeds or those prone to dysplasia or muscular issues don’t grow too fast. It’s also essential that the balance of energy and protein is just right for a puppy. This is why home-made meals are not recommended by your vet. Indeed, early research on a litter of Bernese mountain dogs showed that their home-made raw diet had left them with severe nutritional deficiencies. There are plenty of good freeze-dried, pre-packaged raw diets or biscuit diets for puppies constructed by veterinary nutritionists that you can buy from internet stockists. But the packets sold in the supermarkets are unlikely to offer the nutrition your puppy needs. One thing is also for sure: one size does not fit all. The biscuits for a small breed dog are not suitable for an older dog, and young dogs have different calorific needs and nutritional requirements than an adult dog.

You can also follow Kikopup on Youtube for lots of great videos. She has some great videos about teaching calmness, settling, sitting, following and not teaching other skills that encourage excited behaviours. Ian Dunbar’s excellent books on Dog Star Daily are free and vital for everyone with a young puppy. He has free books for “Before you get your puppy” and “After you get your puppy”.

If you haven’t booked your puppy in with a really great force-free positive trainer to learn a reliable recall as their flight instinct kicks in, I can’t stress this enough, especially if you have dogs who are led by their eyes or their noses. Okay….what I should say there is ANY dog! All dogs, even ones bred for territorial behaviours, can get into real trouble if you don’t have a recall that has been tested every which way you can. For dogs who are particularly territorial, such as shepherds, you also need to get that socialisation in. This is also very true for dogs who are bull or terrier breeds. Top notch manners around other dogs are absolutely crucial for independent dogs, especially if they have an instinct for the tail end of the predatory sequence. If you get off on attacking moving objects, is there anything more important than learning how to behave around cars, small furries and small humans with faces in the bite range? I couldn’t help but see all those rehoming announcements yesterday for shepherds who need homes without other animals and without children and think that there is a lot to be said for more careful breeding and for the right socialisation to combat latent behaviours that you don’t want to encourage. The cattle dog that nips at children, the collie who stalks bicycles and the shepherd who bites passers-by are all examples of dogs who really, really needed their owner to teach them when it’s okay to do these behaviours and when it is not. All dogs are individuals and all can be very poor examples of their breed, but you owe it to your dog and the people around you to know what floats their boat, effective ways to channel that behaviour and effective ways to focus it in the right way.

That said, all dogs have sets of behaviours that are incompatible with good manners. Biting, jumping up, mouthing, barking and helping themselves are also all behaviours that will need a bit of work.

This is why it’s vital you get your puppy from a breeder or fosterer who knows what they are doing, who knows more than the average human being about dogs. It is their responsibility to do everything necessary until the dog passes over into your hands. The best breeders and fosterers will actively encourage you to help them out in that four-eight week period, or will be happy to do those things themselves. Then it falls on you to take up the reins.

It’s also why a puppy is not for everyone, and not for every period of your life. If you don’t have the time or the skills to take on a puppy, you might want to consider an older dog. Next week, I’ll tell you why.

 

 

 

 

Why 2017 is the year to volunteer

Why 2017 is the year to volunteer

volunteer

I’m not going to lie to you. Volunteering can be emotional and it can be messy. Somewhere between the people who come once and make a big song and dance about how magnanimous they are on Facebook, and the volunteers who always, no matter what you ask them, and who say yes time and time again, there are the regular volunteers who are the lifeblood of any charity.

These are the volunteers who come up with new ways to raise money, who offer new ideas. They’re the volunteers who are there on a quiet Friday morning or a lazy Sunday afternoon. They’re the ones sharing on Facebook and helping out behind the scenes. They’re the ones quietly drip-feeding the world around them, keeping the name of your charity in everyone’s minds. Sometimes they’re the volunteers who come in and get their head down and get on with it. Many times, they’re the quiet ones. Often they’re the ones who bring a smile to the world-weary, the ones who turn up and make the impossible into something that’s – well – possible.

In animal rescue, these are the quiet guys who turn up and walk the dogs week-in, week-out. They’re the ladies who you see in the vet’s with a carrier full of sick kittens. They’re the names you see on facebook who run groups and make sure lost pets have the best chance of finding their owner. They’re the faces you see day after day, offering advice to adoptants, doing home visits, helping move animals from one place to another. They’re the people who come up with fundraising ideas and muck in at events, the people with grimy hands who’ve spent an afternoon sorting out assorted bric-a-brac to sell at a car boot sale or yard sale. In between the Armchair Warriors who paste a thousand petitions on their feeds and the weary full-timers, these volunteers are the mainstay of any organisation. And all organisations depend on volunteers like this to keep going.

So why should 2017 be the year to volunteer? What’s holding you back?

Many people think they don’t have enough time to volunteer.

I confess I had a silent tut to myself when I saw someone saying they didn’t have enough time to volunteer because they had ironing to do and a car to clean out. I’m just going to share with you the life of one of the ladies I most respect: six kids, a business, studying a masters degree, 17 chickens, 10 sheep, 4 dogs and two cats… and she runs a rescue voluntarily. I would say this lady lives life to its fullest, but she’s not sacrificed her own life for work or rescue.

Most people don’t have quite that life (and if you do, you’re forgiven for taking a bit of a back seat!) but don’t think you don’t have enough time to dedicate to volunteering. Some roles take three or four hours, an afternoon maybe. Some people give an afternoon a week. If everybody did three hours a week, charities would be cock-a-hoop. If you have a hundred volunteers who give three hours a week, every week, that’s three hundred hours. That’s only fifteen volunteers per day. Only! But it equates to almost eight members of staff. That three hours a week for a hundred volunteers works out at a budget of almost a quarter of a million euros. Small drops make big oceans.

Some people think they couldn’t handle working with animals. They think they’re not strong enough or that they can’t handle the emotional intensity of animal rescue.

Believe me when I say there are jobs for everyone. You’ll have seen, no doubt, the video of the lady in her nineties who volunteers every day in the UK. We had our own nonagenarian, Louis, who was our “petting therapist”. Every day, he’d sit in reception with a dog who needed cuddles and companionship. Big or small, they hopped up next to him and he spent the afternoon giving some of our dogs the attention they craved. If you can sit, then you can pet.

Other people do other kinds of jobs if they can’t work with animals directly. Some do admin jobs. One volunteer comes in every single time our shelter computers break, which is pretty often. Seeing Florian under the desk is a pretty regular thing. He designs logos for associations as well. Just because you haven’t got time when the shelter is open or you don’t feel able to work directly with animals doesn’t mean there’s not a job for you to do.

Some people feel that language is a barrier – here, in France, if you’re a retiree or a mum who spends most of her time with other ex-pat mums, it can be quite understandable that volunteering can be a bit of a stretch. For that, having bilingual members of staff makes a huge difference. But, where there is a will, there’s a way. I can’t count the number of times our shelter directrice has come up to me and said “I smell a rat!” – I don’t know how much English she ever spoke in her life before so many English speakers descended on her shelter, but I do know that I’ve never seen so many French speakers who aren’t confident with English trying to speak to English speakers who aren’t confident with French. I think that is pretty cool. And, let’s face it, there are jobs that require no interaction at all, if you’re the antisocial type. We have 200 dog bowls that need washing, and 30 cat litter trays to clean out. Grunting is more than adequate. Volunteering in France will definitely help your language skills. Believe me. When you’re trying to explain the consistency and colour of diarrhea, you’ll find your language expanding miraculously. And there is always someone to help you.

It’s not all about what’s in it for the shelter, though.

What’s in it for you?

Volunteering in France is a great way to learn the language and to become truly part of something. It was through volunteering that I actually – after five years of living in France! – found actual, real-life French friends. Not clients or people I work with. Not mums from school. Actual friends who invite me to their houses sometimes. If you live in the Charente, you’ll know that this kind of stuff usually doesn’t happen unless you have known someone for fifty years or you accidentally married a French person.

You learn a language and make friends because, guess what, volunteering is great for building a sense of community. Doing good things makes you feel good too. It reduces depression and it gives you a purpose. The routine is vital for those who are suffering with depression, and feeling part of a community is a big part of great mental health. It brings you in contact with people you would never have met in any other way and it forges friendships that would never have happened in a world beyond volunteering.

When you volunteer, you meet people. If you’re like me and you work too, that puts you in touch with a whole new business market. Don’t get me wrong, I’m tired of the cynical sellers connected to the pet industry who want to use the shelter as part of their plan to branch out to new customers. Be they pet food sellers, dog trainers, photographers or kennels, there are definitely some pet industry professionals who are in it for clients. But there are plenty who are pet industry professionals because they love pets, and more clients are accidental by-products of volunteering. If you come at it from the angle of “this will expand my target audience”, you’ll fail miserably. If you come at from “I love animals!” that will stand out a mile. And you might be at odds for how this will help you if you’re in an unusual business. I can’t count the number of times I’ve pushed my crafty friends in the direction of one of our volunteers who also runs a craft business. Personal connection is everything for word of mouth, and volunteering gets you out of your usual circle of contacts. You just don’t know what other volunteers get up to in their day jobs, but you can bet your bottom dollar that once they find out what you do, they’ll be happy to recommend your services.

Volunteering is also a way to improve your confidence, especially if you’re more wallflower than party animal. Most of the volunteers at our shelter are fairly extroverted, but there are plenty who are shy guys or prefer to just get on with it. It’s great for reminding you what you can achieve, especially if you’re feeling unsure of yourself.

It can also help you learn new skills, or apply your skills in ways you never did before. Take me. I’d studied photography, but had never really done much between landscapes and travel photography. Now I have 30000 photos of dogs and kittens on my laptop. I’ve had to use Photoshop and editing programs like Inkscape in ways that I never had before. It also got me interested in how animals learn. I’ve got a masters in how people learn and I loved psychology at university, but now I am loving having this mid-life turn of focus. I still love teaching English Literature. It will always give me a thrill to get teenagers to the point where poetry isn’t horrible anymore. And I still love writing. In fact, it’s given me something to write about! But volunteering is also the reason I’m studying further, and almost half way through a canine behaviour and psychology course. I’m really, really looking forward to writing my dissertation and blending all that I know about changing people’s mindsets with working with animals. So many dog behaviourists say that the owners are the problem not the dogs that I’m looking forward to exploring the shadow side of working with human clients over dog problems. Volunteering has invigorated me and given me an opportunity to bring what I know to a different arena. That’s pretty exciting. My book list is enormous, and it’s all about animals – so much so that I have turned into a colossal bore, I’m sure. I was talking about altruism in birds at lunch yesterday. I’m sorry to the people I was with. Luckily, they tolerated my enthusiasm and we ended up talking about sweary parrots on Youtube.

Volunteering also allows you to give back to a cause that you believe in. For so many years, when I worked full time, my donations were financial. Now I’m really enjoying the practical side of volunteering and a chance to do something a little different. It also turns you into an advocate. How many of us have been convinced to adopt a shelter animal by someone who worked with or believed in second chances for animals? That’s pretty powerful.

It can be fun too. I mean belly laugh kind of fun. You’d probably not think that working in animal rescue could be fun. A few weeks ago, a member of staff enlisted me for a pick up in a dodgy part of town. We had a nervous Amstaff and a Malinois who hated the Amstaff to pick up. And a cat. It was pretty horrendous, and it was pretty sad. The poor Amstaff wouldn’t get in a crate at all, so we had to drive kind of holding her over the seats, and the Mali was so distressed that she did a massive poo in the transport crate. When we got back, there was shit everywhere. I mean everywhere. And you can’t leave that shit for someone else to clean up. Nope. That is YOUR job. Well, the unfortunate member of staff hadn’t got the hose pressure just right and ended up getting a back spray of dog shit. I cried laughing. It just couldn’t have been any more shitty than it already was. We both ended up crying laughing, and it was absolutely the best medicine. If you don’t have people to help you find the ridiculous in amongst all the shit, helping work is pretty flipping miserable. In the rain, in the mud, the sight of two volunteers wearing bin bag skirts and silly hats just turned the whole sad misery of life in an animal shelter on its head. Now I know that dogs appreciate laughter more than tears or anger, and our laughter is vital to the animals’ mental health. That’s what I tell myself. I can even show you studies about tone of voice and what’s going on in a dog’s brain when we smile. Smiling volunteers are essential for sad dogs. Fun and laughter is good for our souls as well as for theirs.

And if, just if, you find a dog or a cat that you fall in love with? Well, who’d argue with that?

So go on, I dare you. Make 2017 the year you volunteer. Stick it on your New Year’s resolutions list. Sign up today. Don’t put it off a moment longer. We need you! Dig out your Yellow Pages and find somewhere – anywhere – that needs a helping hand. I guarantee you’ll start 2018 feeling really glad that you did.

 

 

Killing Me Softly: Why a dog’s safety should be our number one concern

Killing Me Softly: Why a dog’s safety should be our number one concern

safety

Shelters have difficult choices to make when it comes to the animals in their care. You may have a number of volunteers who care deeply about dogs and about rescue, who want to do their absolute best by the animals. Unfortunately, although we may all say that animal welfare is our number one priority, there are certainly times when we need to step back and make a reasonable and rational decision based on good dog science. Caring for animals and understanding animals are not always things that go hand in hand.

Before I go any further, let me clarify. I don’t expect every dog lover or dog owner to be super-knowledgeable about dogs. I don’t expect every shelter volunteer to have a masters in animal ethology. Most of the time, we humans and our pets get along just fine. We’ve had thousands of years of collaborative interspecies learning. Some would argue that dogs understand us a whole lot better than we understand them. Most of the time, caring for animals and loving them with your whole heart doesn’t put animals’ lives at risk.

But for certain dogs, certain breeds even, they need us to have a higher understanding of what it means to be a dog. Caring for them isn’t enough. Couple our kind and caring hearts with a love of a breed type and you have a potential recipe for disaster, especially if that love for a type isn’t paired with much breed knowledge.

That’s most clear with dogs like Flambeau, on the right. Flambeau is a husky. I think that much is evident. And people generally know enough about huskies to know that they have certain physical needs as well as certain inbuilt behaviours. That dense undercoat makes them less suitable for life in a warm house. Imagine being stuck in a centrally-heated house in a fur coat that you simply can’t take off. How long would it take before that becomes cruelty? Huskies are one of the land animals who can use up the most calories in a day for their size – sometimes over 11,000 a day in sled racing. They have stamina and speed in their blood. Who would disagree with the fact that it is cruel not to give them the exercise for which they have been bred?

Flambeau came to the shelter having been surrendered. He’d been living down at the bottom of a garden for 4 years. Nobody would disagree that this is cruel. Dogs are social animals and whether they need sheep, people or other dogs around them, they don’t thrive on their own.

But Flambeau, as other huskies, attracts interest of many people who don’t put animals’ needs first. Living in an apartment, working full time, not being able to take him out for a good load of exercise every day… sure, it’s a home. But is it a good home? Many volunteers would celebrate the adoption without considering how suitable a home that is for Flambeau.

Dogs adapt. It’s what they do. But should they have to? And does that come without cost?

The cost of adapting to an unsuitable life can be high for a dog. Dog behaviours are likely to “pop out” as they struggle to adapt. They vocalise, howling, barking, whining. They chew. They may bite. They dig. They may suffer separation anxiety or boredom. They might sleep more or stress drink, pace or become depressed. These are often behaviours that cause an animal to be surrendered.

That’s why I’ve had four offers for homes for Effel, my foster beauceron, and four times had a conversation where I’ve had to explain about a dog’s needs. Effel has very mild separation anxiety. He enjoys human company and dog company. He also feeds off movement energy like many pastoral dogs, and has nipped. A home with children, or on his own, or left to his own devices is as cruel to me as a home where he is left at the bottom of the garden. If shelters think with their hearts, they may allow dogs like Flambeau and Effel to go to homes that are making high demands of adaptation that the dog may never be able to reach. If we think with our heads, we are often accused of overlooking good homes. I can’t count the number of outraged people I’ve seen on Facebook moaning about how they were turned down in the adoption process. Like, how very dare a shelter care enough about an animal that they might have a standard?!

Sometimes, yes, those expectations are unrealistic. I would like Effel to go to a home where he has a big, bouncy mid-aged, well-trained, playful girlfriend. He needs a secure garden and I’d prefer it was a big one. He also needs owners who don’t work, or who work from home. His attraction to movement and mouthy reactions mean it is essential they don’t have children in his future home. I appreciate that those things are unrealistic and I’ll have to compromise on his behalf. That said, I am not going to wet my pants if someone who works all day, has children, who has an old setter and no secure garden offers him a home. Maybe I’d think differently were he in the shelter rather in foster, but he has needs too and I need to be rational about those. To what extent can I expect him to curb his nature? How will doing so manifest in adjustment issues?

And do you want to know something? I am not at all sad that I’ve pissed a couple of people off by suggesting Effel is not the right dog for them. Anybody who can’t see that they are an unsuitable home for him doesn’t really care about him. Do I want him in such a home?

For other dogs, we can care so much that we ignore their needs. This is why we need to be so careful in how honest we are about the dog’s needs and in our screening process. If we don’t understand the dog’s nature and we don’t find a home that is a good match for those needs, we are putting the dog’s life in danger.

Take Hagrid. He’s the toothy GSD x Mali on the left. He’s been hard to rehome and we’re just starting to consider homes in other areas to help him find somewhere. One thing is for sure, rotting in the shelter is doing him no favours. But caring too much and not understanding his needs could very seriously put his life in jeopardy. His behaviours are such that, if they are not understood, he runs a risk of biting. Once out of the shelter, we have no way to ensure that his owners don’t decide he’s unworkable and take him to be put to sleep. 

Then we could all shake our heads and blame his former owner for not teaching him a soft bite, or try to be compassionate and say things like, “well, they couldn’t risk him biting the children!”

Much better to accept that some dogs will be just hunky dory in a home without small, flappy, unpredictable humans. That is especially true if the dog gets all big-eyed around stuff that moves. The predatory sequence is part of any dog’s genetic heritage. Some of those behaviours have been suppressed though selective breeding. Some have been accentuated. But all dogs have the capacity to do those things. Scan, eye, stalk, chase, grab-bite, kill-bite, dissect, consume. Even your little poodle cross may find himself swimming upstream after a family of ducks, not quite sure what he’s doing there or how he got there. Like it or not, some of those natural predatory behaviours can pop out when a dog is excited or stressed, even if they have never done before. And if they are nearer to the surface and more easily apparent, then we have to be careful where these dogs find a home. A dog whose aim is to stalk and chase is going to find recall difficult. Can you imagine this dog in a home without a fence? Put them in an unfenced home on a main road with lots of traffic and you can see why this wonderful rehoming would turn out to be a death sentence. A dog like a terrier who was bred to enhance those grab-bite/kill-bite skills… if they find it hard to control those impulses when excited, do you want them around children? My old woofer Tobby was one of those. Add pain and old age to the mix and you can see why it was vital that he went to a home without children and with adults who knew what they were doing. His Malinois “chase-grab/bite-kill/bite” skills were close to the surface but very rarely popped out. By this, I mean we both did a good job of managing his life so that he didn’t have the urge or the opportunity. That couldn’t be guaranteed in a home with kids or kittens.

Back to Hagrid. Now, I’m not going to be all starry eyed about him, or put my rescue coat on and think that all dog adoptions are shiny-happy-marvellous. In fact, I’ve found myself explaining so many times to people about his behaviours that you’d think I wanted to keep him at the shelter forever. The trouble is that often, they are homes where he is going to be face-to-face with things that bring out his predatory drive, which he isn’t always successful at managing.

Because he’s not successful at managing these natural, instinctive, normal dog behaviours, it absolutely needs us to be on his behalf.

So what are those behaviours, and what security measures do we need to put into place to find him a suitable home?

I’ve done the C-BARQ and Monash Personality Questionnaire for him. It looks like this:

haggers

The grey is an average of all dogs who have a profile on the C-BARQ assessment. That’s interesting in itself. You can see that “non-social fear” is fairly high, as is chasing. There are things wrong with owner-reported surveys, of course, but the C-BARQ has high reliability.

What does this tell us?

Hagrid is an energetic, excitable and touch-sensitive guy. He has issues with movement and a desire to chase moving things. He’s also not a dog who tolerates other dogs in his space. Nothing that’s news to me. He can be left alone, which might give him the makings of a guard dog, but he is not aggressive towards humans and he is not afraid of humans, which makes him a rather crappy guard dog. I mean, what use is a guard dog who doesn’t scare people off?

The kind heart in me is saddened by how long this magnificent dog has spent waiting. I’m desperate for him to move out of the shelter. I love him. I’d have him in a shot if I didn’t have other males. If you ask me, he is one of the smartest, keenest dogs in the shelter.

That said, I think it’s absolutely vital that he go to a home where he is understood and where his needs are met. For HIS own safety, he needs an environment with little chase potential and no opportunity at all for him to get out. He needs a home where he never comes in direct contact with children and where his owners are both kind and experienced in channelling a dog’s energy.

If his safety is not met, it could likely put his life in jeopardy. One bite may be all it takes for him to realise that screams and flapping arms from children is the most fun he’s ever had. Whether he hurts a child (or an adult) or not, a home that does not pay attention to his safety is a potential minefield. A ticking time bomb. Safety means freedom from the risk of injury. That goes two ways. It’s not just safety for the people who keep him, but Hagrid’s own safety too. Few vets will have an issue with euthanising a dog who has bitten. Making his environment risk-free (as much as possible) is how we keep him safe.

Let’s be clear. Biting is only an issue in that it may cause injury to other animals or to people. Biting is not an issue for a dog. It’s a natural canine behaviour. They experience the world with their noses and with their mouths much more than we do. There is no need to put a dog to sleep because of it. There is a very great need to secure their environment. There is also a need to stop thinking with our hearts and to be sensible about canine behaviour. Not every dog can or should fit into every home. It makes no sense to me that people would accept huskies need to live in homes where they have space and exercise, but then think that there is something horribly wrong with suggesting herding dogs or terriers may not find living in a home with children to be an environment that is safe for them. Accusations fly in some circles if you so much as suggest a Jack Russell terrier or a collie may not be the perfect dog for young children, that a bull terrier or a Malinois may find it impossible to constantly be on their best behaviour around things that move.

We expect so very much of dogs that we forget how much we are asking them to control their own impulses with those tiny neo-cortexes they possess. When humans lose control on Facebook so easily where animals are concerned, and insults fly fast and free, it amazes me that we write off our own impulse control yet expect so much of dogs.

For this reason, we need to care for dogs by understanding them.

Only in putting their needs first can we ensure that they are in a home that is right for them. We also need to stop romanticising dogs and rescue work. Some dogs, like Hagrid, have complex needs that cannot be easily met. It doesn’t mean we should stop looking, but it doesn’t mean a home at all costs. Cooing over dogs and their plight, or taking risks through lack of assessment and understanding puts dogs’ lives in the balance. Loving dogs means we do need to consider the world from their perspective and accept that there are times that we ask too much of them. Coming to terms with a dog’s limitations and inability to adapt perfectly to human expectations is essential. Only then can we truly say we care for them.

So when I say a dog’s safety should be our number one concern, I’m not referring here to keeping them from chocolate and grapes, or having doors that lock or harnesses in the car. I’m referring to the fact that we must consider our dog’s needs first and ensure the world around them suits them as well as possible. Only by truly understanding dogs and adapting the world in which they live can we truly say they are safe.

The Woof Like To Meet Guide to Successful Marketing of Shelter Animals

The Woof Like To Meet Guide to Successful Marketing of Shelter Animals

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Whether we like it or not, social media is a gift to shelters across the world, and it’s up to us to market our animals in a way that not only gets attention and shares, but is also marketing them in an ethical and honest way. Whilst many shelters are really faced with “euth” lists, ethical and honest ones won’t play on your sympathies to find a dog a home. Not even if they are a kill shelter.

There’s an amazing New York Rescue that I follow on Facebook. I have no doubt at all that they have some real issues to face, but they never, ever use emotional manipulation to get an adoption. Yes, they have dogs on “Kill Lists” and they will say that they are dogs with an expiration date which is why they need a foster home or an adoption, but they never, ever post photos of dogs behind bars or dogs on concrete.

I am so totally with them on that.

Sure, you can be honest and say what the situation is. Just because you are faced with a problem doesn’t mean you can’t admit what is likely to happen and say why a dog is urgent.

But no, you should not take advantage of people’s good natures by playing on that situation alone. The consequence is that many good people are taken advantage of and go on to adopt dogs that are unwell, unhealthy or unsuited to the home in which they are placed. I see these all the time from certain European shelters and it makes my heart hurt.

“This dog WILL BE EATEN by the other dogs at the shelter if YOU don’t save her…”

“This dog will be KILLED in this shelter if you don’t give us money…”

“This dog needs emergency adoption or SHE WILL DIE!!!!!!”

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You know these appeals. They have LOTS OF CAPITALS AND !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They also have Facebook pages with thousands of followers, who all share their posts religiously. Sadly, these adverts rely on making you feel bad rather than relying on finding the best home for a dog. Any home will do.

The adverts are usually grainy, grey photos with sad looking dogs lying on concrete floors with bars behind them, or broken up wooden kennels. You don’t have to look far to find these photos. This is one of my own, by the way. I don’t take many shots like this and I never, ever stick emotive words on the photos because – well, we have different (and very successful) marketing strategies. It would be completely unethical, and it would be a complete lie.

In fact, when making up this photo, I realised that I have only a handful of photos with bars out of the thirty thousand I have taken in the last two years. Really, it was hot, he was sleeping – he was totally chilled out. I took the photo because it was the end of the day and I was seeing how far I could walk down our main block without setting the dogs off barking. But I can quite easily stick a manipulative message on there and pull on your heart-strings until I’ve got a thousand shares.

Good shelters don’t need to share photos like this, even if they face impossible circumstances.

Despite the vast problems we face, the most successful marketing is ethical through and through. For instance, we too have a number of dogs who have never lived in a home. These are hunt dogs that are hard to place in homes. Some of our dogs are incredibly fearful and need very particular homes. It’s not to say they can’t live in a home, or they wouldn’t like to, but I am not ever going to allow them to go to a foreign country to live with an unknown family in an environment that could be incredibly stressful for the dog. That is not to say I wouldn’t allow them to go to a family with whom I’ve had lots of long and serious conversations, but I won’t just package them up, bundle them over the channel and wipe my hands of the whole thing.

Yes, good shelters want homes for their dogs just as much as those who use less ethical marketing strategies.

No, I’m not ever going to lie or manipulate people via photos and appeals just to do it.

That’s why you will never see me share a photo of a dog behind bars. I’m not going to take photos of dogs in places that look like war zones. In fact, I’ll crop out anything that looks remotely scruffy, sad or heart-breaking and deliberately use background blur to avoid showing you bars or concrete floors.

The fact is that some bits of our shelter were pretty unkempt. They are all tarted up and beautiful now, thanks to a great bit of DIYing. But I was never going to take photos that deliberately captured that and then say “well, it’s important people know what it’s like.”

I’m pretty sure most people can imagine what a shelter is like. And you probably imagine many of them as being worse than they are.

Our shelter, for instance, is just like a very, very big boarding kennel. Less shiny, less well-lit and less warm maybe, but then our “guests” aren’t paying 10€ a night to be here. But it’s not any better or any worse than some private kennels I’ve seen where people happily pay to keep their dogs.

If I wanted, I could easily present dogs in a grubby, cold environment and tug on your heartstrings.

But that does both you and the dog a disservice.

So you will get a lot of this instead:

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Because the day this little lady can’t look at you and melt your heart is really the day I need to show her on concrete behind bars in the rain.

Yes, there are urgent appeals. There are always urgent appeals. There are dogs who can’t cope in shelters and who need an immediate home. But an honest and ethical shelter will save the heart-rending photos for when it’s really needed.

And do you know what? It’s not dogs like the one above who need me to take sad photos. In fact, it’s the dogs who’ve been in for ages who need them. And they are the kind of dogs who, to be honest, even concrete and euthanasia notices aren’t going to help on appeals very much.

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See… Junior is a prime example. He’s just not as cute. No big eyes, despite his happy face, his lovely lolling tongue and doggie smile. He doesn’t look sad or confused. But he looks like a nice dog. A nice, happy dog who is confident and sociable. I really want Junior to find a home, but taking a sad-looking photo of him behind bars isn’t the way to help him find one. In reality, he is just not that kind of a dog. I won’t say that he’s desperate or going to be put to sleep just because he needs a home. He needs the right home, and he depends on our adverts to give him the very best chance of finding one.

So how can you put together an ethical, honest advert that finds homes for your dogs without relying on heart-breaking photographs or emotive text?

The first thing to accept is that there are dogs whose feet aren’t going to touch the floor. You don’t need to market them. They could have the ugliest personalities on the planet but they are going to walk out of the place. If my dog Tilly was at the shelter, she’d be adopted in hours. I don’t need to promote her. To do so would be a waste of my time. Little, cute, blonde, female, pedigree… she’d be gone before the ink was dry on her microchip form. She is a hoardy, guardy, antisocial madam with severe health issues but she needs no help in finding a home. Market if you like, but accept that you will spend hours fending off callers who are pissed off because the dog has already gone.

The second thing to know is that a good photo will definitely draw the eye. But all your photoshop talent is wasted if you don’t have a good write-up. And yes, cute dogs will go first whether they look happy or sad. It’s important to accept that you will have categories of dogs who move more easily than others. That can be based on gender, age, appearance or breed, colour, size or personality. Know where you need to invest your time and don’t worry that the reason you haven’t rehomed a dog is because it doesn’t look cute enough or sad enough.

For us, small, young females under 10kg are going to walk out of the shelter. Our big, middle aged houndy dudes over 25kg are going to be sticking around. If you add in other factors like introverted or nervous natures, a dislike of other males, fixations on cats or rough behaviour around children and you’re talking about factors that will severely hamper a dog’s adoption chances. Not impossible, but harder.

A photo is just a mug-shot, and you can have the best photographers in the world taking pictures of your dog, but if your dog has certain requirements, these are the things you need to be honest about. It is simply no good not to be honest. If you’re honest, you narrow down your target market, but at the same time, you pinpoint the people who tick all the boxes you need them to tick. One happy-looking photo is all you need. People can imagine that happy-looking dog being happy at their house.

The write-up is crucial. Absolutely crucial.

First, you have all the necessaries: male or female, age, size, breed, colour.

For my foster dog Effel, that goes like this: seven-year-old castrated male black-and-tan beauceron. 

Then you have all the big factors to help the dog find the right home: whether it gets on with other dogs, and if not, which dogs it does get on with. A good write-up won’t say “dominant” or “submissive” because good dog people know that hierarchies are flexible. They might say “has rough manners at first” or “can be a bit of a bully”, or “doesn’t like dogs who are over-excited at the beginning”. They’ll also say whether they get on with cats maybe. A good advert will also say if the dog would be happy on its own or needs to go to a family who have dogs. Shelters can see this. This afternoon, one dog spent the whole afternoon crying because she didn’t have a friend. Another dog snapped at every single other dog that went past. It’s not a leap to say that a “home on his own would be preferable” or “needs other doggie friends”.

I can then add to Effel’s profile like this: okay with males and female dogs although he would appreciate the companionship of a similar-sized playful female. Great at greetings but needs a home where owners will ensure he doesn’t get over-excited as he gets to know your other dog(s). Effel would hate to be a lonely dog, so a doggie friend is a must. 

Sure, there’s a bit of spin. I have put a positive light on the fact he is too rough with smaller dogs or older dogs. Nobody wants a rough dog. Lots of people might want a playful dog to go with their existing playful dog. I’m also not going to say that he has mild separation anxiety which is why he needs a companion. That is something I can explain to people if they’re interested, since it is not so horrible as to be unmanageable, but it would frighten some owners off unnecessarily. I don’t need to say “he’s rough, can’t live with other small animals and he’s got hyper-attachment issues”. Firstly, I don’t know if those things are always true, generally true or only true in my circumstance. Secondly, they’re all things most dogs can live with and I’ve hundreds of videos of him with a variety of other dogs where he isn’t rough and he cried as much when his friends left at an event last week as he has ever cried for me. In fact, that’s a cute and sweet thing to know. I can add that. In my opinion, a home for Effel without dog friends would be a miserable one for him, and I want to tick that box for potential adopters.

Effel is so sad when his friends leave that he sometimes has a little cry. Life is miserable for Effel without friends. 

If you’re a potential adopter without other dogs, you’d hopefully skip on by to the next candidate. And if you have other playful dogs, maybe you’re reading on.

I can also add a bit about size, health and other physical and medical details. That’s important too. Honesty counts, especially where medical health is concerned. If it’s not relevant, I leave it out. He has a small scar on his eye from years back. Does it affect him? No. Does it need treatment? No. Will it need treatment? No. Do I need to disclose it? No.

He is a big dog, at 70 cm and 50kg, so if you want a chihuahua to slip in your handbag, you’d better have a giant-sized handbag. Effel likes to stretch out and enjoys space. 

If possible, dogs should be tested around children at the shelter, and a statement made about this. It’s not a crime to say a dog needs a home without small humans, especially if that protects both the humans and the dog. Take my foster. He’s met children and he seems fine with them. But…. but he herds the lawnmower and sometimes he tries to herd me. He’s nipped me three times, and I’m sedate at the best of times. Add a flappy child who runs like a maniac and I can’t guarantee he won’t find that super-stimulating. To be safe, I’m going to say “no small children”. Sure, it’s sad and it maybe rules out potential homes, but if I have small children and I am intent on the dog anyway, at least I know what the issue is and I can consider how to work around it. What I know I can prepare for.

You also need to say things about energy levels. People don’t care much about education, and most will be okay with a dog who doesn’t know ‘sit’, but you do need to say if the dog is energetic or highly agile. They also need to know if the dog will need a lot of education, or if the dog tries to escape.

Effel is a good boy in the house, and he never goes off on his own to find himself a pastime, like dismantling your slippers. But he doesn’t have basic commands. Effel won’t be winning obedience medals any time soon. That said, he walks well on the lead. He will need a secure garden at first because his recall isn’t fantastic off-lead. He’s having far too much fun bounding about. Boy, does this dog like to bound. You thought bounding was something that Tiggers did? Bounding is his favourite thing. He doesn’t bound near people and he never jumps on you, but he loves to stretch his legs and he loves to run. For that reason, a home with a large secure garden would be just perfect.

You can see that you don’t need to be harsh about it, but you do need to say what kind of home would suit him. 

I always like to add if the dog likes to play, if they seem like they would enjoy obedience or agility classes, cani-cross or swimming. We just rehomed a husky named Guapo who just loves the water. Paddling is about his favourite thing to do. Why wouldn’t I share that?

After this, I use basic statements about whether they are an introverted or extroverted dog. That’s easy to do. Do they move towards new things or away? Are they social? Do they come for affection? Are they demanding for affection?

For my super-tough-to-rehome dogs, I will also use the University of Pennsylvania’s C-BARQ questionnaire. That told me very little I couldn’t work out, but for Effel, it allowed me to say that he has mild attachment issues and needs an eye on his behaviour around dogs that he is becoming more familiar with. For my old mate Hagrid at the shelter, it allowed me to say that he probably needs a home on his own away from other dogs. Nothing that 14 months of shelter living won’t tell you.

And I also use the Monash Canine Personality Questionnaire to help me describe the dog’s temperament. It’s always a tough call to describe a dog’s personality, but knowing that dog feelings pass quickly and that what you have from day to day is more likely to be a reliable guide to personality, this can help you. I’m not going to say things I can’t say for sure, so if I think I’m just embellishing, I leave it out. This questionnaire rates the “Big Five” personality types, from extraversion, motivation, training focus, amicability and training focus. With adjectives like friendliness, nervousness, attentiveness, independence, intelligence and fearfulness, it helps draw up a more complete profile of dogs for me to share with their photos. It also helps me make decisions about the kind of home the dog will need. A nervous dog will not fare well in a home with many family members and lots of comings and goings. Similarly, an intelligent and independent dog is going to make her own entertainment if she goes to a home on her own with owners who work eleven hours a day.

Although Effel will need a home where owners are more often present than they are not, he is happy to accompany you wherever you go. Sure, he doesn’t look like your typical pavement café kind of dog, but he wants nothing more than to be by your side. He is attentive, intelligent and alert. To leave a dog like this to his own devices for hours on end will not make him happy, as being with you is what makes him happy. Effel is reserved at first but forms quick bonds with both humans and other dogs. 

And that’s how the MCPQ-R helps me write adoption profiles.

Some people, by the way, are worried about the effect of shelters on personality and canine reactions, whether these descriptions are true. Both the C-BARQ and the MCPQ-R have been tested in different situations and are reliable tools. Early research shows that most dogs adapt quite quickly to shelter life: what you see here isn’t going to be massively different than in the home on the whole. The exception are nervous or shy dogs who may build up confidence. Some shepherd breeds also seem to find kennel living stressful. That is also true of some uncastrated males who may find all the scents to be totally overwhelming. These dogs are the exception though, rather than the rule. You will of course notice differences in energy levels, but it is rare for a high-energy shelter dog to become a low-energy house dog, or the other way around.

So that’s it…. the way to write adoption profiles that are individual, interesting, honest and ethical! You don’t need to rely on WILL BE EUTHANISED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! or BEING ATTACKED BY OTHER DOGS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Neither do you need bleak and depressing photographs. When it comes to adoption, we should be encouraging people to think with their rational side, their heads, not their hearts. This way, there are fewer returns and fewer people who have trouble with the dog that they have.

I truly believe there are homes for every dog. It is this belief that has driven the adoption of many of our “unadoptable” dogs and placed them in homes where they have gone on to be rehomed without comeback calls. In fact, one of our “tough to rehome” guys had gone on adoption and I’d not heard anything for 48 hours. When she called on the Sunday, I was convinced it was going to be a return. No. After five years of shelter life, over three-quarters of his life on concrete, he had settled in without a single hiccup. Sure, he was a great dog, but in any other home, he could have been a real problem.

Finding the right home depends on how accurately shelters market their dogs. Pepper that with a bit of humour, a bit of fun, a lot of the dog’s character and a few photos that show the dog’s nature, and you have a winning combination that takes the pressure of you for lengthy pre-adoption screening and also provides you with a template for the questions you ask at adoption interviews.

And there you have it: the winning formulas for finding your dogs their home for life.