Not the dog I adopted

Life with dogs is a constantly evolving blend of management and training. As trainers, we have a profound assessment of our dog’s view on everything in their life. We mould our dog’s life around everything they love and minimise everything they do not. If we cannot eliminate the things they can’t cope with, we work on changing how they feel towards those things, step by step, day by day. It takes weeks, months or years. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We sometimes think about giving up.

I’ve always thought I had a profound understanding of what makes my dog tick and what will tip him overboard. Dogs running 10 metres away? Beanie goes back on a lead or he’d run over to torment the other dog to play with him. Evening out with work friends at a non-dog-friendly restaurant? Beanie stays with a dog sitter or neither of us have a good time. My boy cat storms into the lounge, fixated on giving Beanie all the rubs and rather-painful-but-playful nibbles? I call my cat away within seconds to give Beanie space before he loses it at Moo. Moving something that looks like a stick from one room to another? Show Beanie where to wait before walking past him at a distance. Every dog is different. I have a database of knowledge of specific procedures for specific circumstances for every single dog or cat I work with from the RSPCA to my own home. Our lives work like clockwork because we know exactly how the other behaves.

But I lose sight of the changes over time.

“Train the dog in front of you.”

This is such a profound statement that has taken new meaning for me lately. It has always meant that I must meet the dog where they are at their skill and emotional level in that context. In reality, it has typically meant lowering or letting go of my expectations and starting afresh. Recently it has meant recalibration and letting go of a dog that I used to expect in order to create a richer world for the dog I now have.

I forget that there was a time when Beanie had to go back on a lead about 100 metres away from a running dog before he’d teleport to that dog. When I couldn’t leave him alone for 3 minutes, no matter who stayed with him, to run a supermarket errand. When the mere sight of one of my cats walking towards him metres away was enough to make him growl and stand up. When he would freeze in the middle of the corridor in an impasse because I was carrying the vacuum cleaner from one room to another.

I used to focus so much on management and slow, structured training at his pace that outside of minute attention paid to criteria and very technical deconstructions of antecedents, I lost sight of the big picture. I spent all my effort in keeping him in the spectrum of “normal” and not over-threshold that I have no clue when he actually became increasingly normal in increasingly challenging situations. Maybe he’s ageing. Maybe it was the training. Maybe he’s just settling down. Maybe it’s just sheer luck. It’s probably a combination of all four.

Life has been very different lately with lots of travel, change, long working hours, unexpected vet visits, planned workshops and new environments. Lots of things intentional or otherwise that would not have been OK for the dog I adopted three years ago. I have prepared for the worst in all those situations but my dog has been stellar in every single situation, much to my surprise and that of those who see him through my eyes. I realise there is less need for management now, less cocooning, less stress for me. I can move the goalposts and let go of the dog whose life was so carefully structured. I am learning to live with the dog I now have and redefine our boundaries.

It has opened up whole new experiences – enjoyable, memorable and filled with learning for both of us. His world is now bigger, as is mine. It’s still not the world of the most sociable, well-adjusted, confident dog. He is still changing his views about many things, some for the better and some not.

I suppose this is why we put days, weeks and months into changing behaviour. Why we keep logs in notebooks and in our heads. Why we don’t just avoid all triggers and cocoon ourselves, as tempting as it might be. It is to grow the world for our dogs and for ourselves. It is to make more of the world more enjoyable. I am never going to stop being that hovering, over-worried, over-planning guardian but I can finally change my opinion of what is normal for Beanie and expand our bubble wider. I can sign up to more workshops, volunteer at my vets and my local rescue, walk through a sudden herd of sheep and not worry about whether Beanie will cope. I have enabled him to learn and he has done the same for me.

6 tips for travelling with a velcro dog

Beanie’s separation anxiety is a cornerstone of my relationship with him. Everything we do now from training to travelling, from day to night, the courses I teach, the people I know, the entire dog world I now inhabit, all of that was born out of Beanie’s inability to be without my company. I made a pact with him that I would never leave him alone for a moment more than he can handle. In return, he could… relax.

So we just started doing everything together. Motorbike holidays became walking holidays. Cocktail bars became dog-friendly pubs. Dresses became waterproof trousers.

Beanie’s separation anxiety at home is almost non-existent now. I don’t actively work on it anymore. We have resolved it through a mixture of management and desensitisation. It took six months to teach him to be able to sleep for 4 hours alone in the evening through carefully constructed circumstances that are very clearly defined and well-rehearsed over thousands of successful increments. He continues to go to daycare during the day and, even though it is no longer necessary, he is pretty much always kept company by someone he trusts during the evening.

But his worry rears its head when we go on holiday or to just a new place, triggered by the new context, new smells and new routines. It so happens that we have had a lot of travel together lately on holiday and for various workshops, which made me think about articulating my methods of ensuring a smooth transition from home to hotel. I don’t do all these steps now, nearly three years and numerous holidays later. So I’ll compare his needs on our first trip away from home to where he is today to reflect on how far he has come.

Advisory: None of what I am about to write takes the place of a structured desensitisation and counterconditioning protocol to resolve separation anxiety in the long term. This article is simply about what might work for you if you have the dog I have when travelling together for a short period away from home or moving to a new place until settling in. My tips are all predominantly about effective management with antecedent arrangement and a little bit desensitisation. Please note this is not the cure for separation anxiety but can form part of the treatment plan. Get in touch with a force-free behaviourist to address the condition as a whole – Emma Judson and Malena DeMartini are both experts I recommend. This article best applies to dogs who become anxious about separation from their owner(s) when out and about.

Just like home

I want Beanie to feel exactly at home the minute he rests his head on his bed and closes his eyes. I want it to smell the same and feel the same. So I carry his bedding with me. This ranges from a folded cotton towel to settle in a cafe that has been conditioned for a default settle behaviour to two giant double duvets for a longer stay.

Cafes are for curling up and snoozing.

There was a time when we had to travel with Beanie’s 42” crate because that is the only way in which he could happily sleep overnight, just as he did at home. He can now sleep anywhere without confinement, evolved slowly by introducing variability to that overnight routine to the extent that remained comfortable. All he needs now is very, very comfortable bedding. It does not even have to be from home anymore.

Plug in an Adaptil diffuser

Adaptil diffusers mimic the effect of the Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) given out by a nursing mother to calm her litter and make the pups feel secure. Whilst it is not a standalone solution to cure anxious behaviour, some dogs like mine do respond well to it and it forms a component of the whole package alongside other changes.

There are a number of products such as Pet Remedy, Rescue Remedy, Zylkene and other over-the-counter calming supplements which all work in different ways but so far, Adaptil has the most scientific evidence. My key recommendation is that you test the product in advance and monitor your dog’s behaviour to inform whether or not it is effective for him before relying on it for a longer trip. In my experience, Adaptil has been the only effective over-the-counter supplement for Beanie.

Bearing in mind that the diffuser takes many hours to permeate the floor with the synthetic pheromone, I plug it in as soon as we arrive in the new place and I position it in the lounge where we are likely to spend most of our time.

I don’t use Adaptil in this context anymore as Beanie is now sufficiently confident about changes in the environment that he doesn’t need it but there was a time when it certainly made a difference between a pacing dog and a snoozing dog.

Unrestricted night access

Beanie sleeps in another room at home unless there is reason to have him in the bedroom to keep a closer eye on him. For a long time, worried about creating unintentional habits and mixed messages, I used to set up his crate straight away in a room that appeared most similar to his room at home. This did not work well overnight and in retrospect, I realise I would have been simply asking too much of any dog, let alone a dog who suffered separation anxiety. It is unethical to leave a dog to cry alone in another room in a brand new environment and forcing him to not be able to seek out human company for reassurance if he needed it. Dogs are excellent discriminators. I haven’t had any issues with Beanie’s sleeping arrangement at home even though he now always sleeps somewhere in the same room as me on holiday.

Overnight sleeping arrangement in a brand new place, photo taken from my bed.

For the first few trips away from home, I had to sleep on the floor right next to Beanie for the first couple of days or he would whine in the middle of the night despite being in the same room. That is not necessary anymore as Beanie happily settles in his bed wherever it is placed in the room. But I do occasionally wake up in the middle of the first night in a new place with a Gothic long face staring inches away from mine, easily resolved by a quiet request to return to bed. He has to check if I’m still there, hours after the last substantial movement. There I am. Time to sleep again.

Shadow dog

Forced separation is a terrible idea. It doesn’t teach the dog that all will be OK. It only teaches the dog that what they want does not matter and is physically impossible to achieve. That’s not a realisation that I would wish upon anybody.

I don’t close fully any door behind me in a new place, so Beanie can push a door open if he wants to check if I’m still there. I actively give him a heads up if I’m leaving one room to go to another because I want to avoid the situation of Beanie falling asleep in one room, feeling secure that I am right there, then waking up and not finding me in the room anymore. That would result in panic within seconds for him and affect his ability to fall asleep the next time. The fact that he knows where I am is instrumental to him not worrying about where I might be.

We recently stayed in a three bed bungalow on a farm where I disappeared out of sight for the smallest errand in such a big place. Even though Beanie always had the option, he certainly followed me far less often, sometimes choosing to sit in the lounge with a pricked ear even if I flitted to another room. Invariably he follows me less and less over the first few days to not really caring anymore by the end of the holiday unless I am physically away for more than a few minutes.

Beds with benefits

Sighthounds seek comfort. You can pretty much point a sighthound into a room full of furniture and guarantee that they will find the softest, plushiest bed in the vicinity in no time. I make use of this, especially in cottages where one bed does not give full view of the entire property. I position multiple comfortable beds in key locations around the house where there is good visibility of a portion of the house and I give Beanie full choice of where he wants to hang out. Some beds are naturally more comfortable than others. Some beds get direct sunlight. Some beds have a great view out into the garden. Some are cosy and tucked into a corner. Each of those beds is going to be closer or further away from me as I flit around the house through the day.

That spot is worth more than following me into the house (photo taken from indoors through a window)

During the first few holidays, bedding didn’t matter to Beanie as much as company. He could be physically exhausted from a whole day’s hike and yet he would pick himself up and wander to another room just to make sure I didn’t vanish. That isn’t true anymore. Invariably I find Beanie picking the more comfortable spots despite me walking around, choosing to remain in one room as I go to another.

An active cue to wait

The simple act of going to the toilet becomes an issue when you have a Velcro dog, even if your dog can stay with someone you trust for those two outrageously-long minutes it’s going to take for you to return. Teaching the dog to actively wait for your return in one place is not the cure for separation anxiety but it does help for when you need to step into a shop to buy a bottle of water or ask for directions or use the toilet.

Teach this at home, then in your garden and then take it on the road. Remember that if your dog is unable to wait for you to come back, no matter how near you still think you are, and he chooses to follow you or shows other behaviours like whining even if staying in position, chances are you’ve asked for too much and his anxiety has gotten the better of him in that environment or he just didn’t understand the behaviour well enough in the first place.

Two years ago, I could not have gone to the toilet even in a familiar cafe without some level of panic on Beanie’s face. Two weeks ago I left him in a brand new hotel with the receptionist he has never met before to rush to a shop to buy some emergency late night dinner. He didn’t bat an eyelid. I regularly ask him to wait for me as I go to the vet’s back office to wash my hands after our training and I have filmed his behaviour in my absence. He simply sits down and watches the direction I went until I return, exactly as I had taught him. Every single successful repetition where I return before he worries is one more in the trust bank before the next one.

Finding your way

Living with a dog who experiences any degree of separation anxiety is hard work and simply life changing when done right. Human guardians absolutely need a break and dog-friendly holidays are an excellent way to achieve that with your dog. The most important goal for me with my dog is to ensure I am not drawing from the trust account into which I have spent years making deposits. A crucial step to curing separation anxiety is to ensure that the dog has no reason to be anxious in the first place, never left alone for any more than the dog can cope with. Achieving that goal has taken trial and error through minute variations made from one night to the next to figure out what works best for my individual dog based on both of our past experiences.

I go on many trips with Beanie now and he is a seasoned traveller. With every passing trip, I can see him settle quicker and quicker into a brand new environment. I don’t need a dog who doesn’t care about whether or not I am in the room. I am happy with a dog who can let me out of his sight and fully trusts that I will come back without any doubt that I might not.

Fast asleep mid-hike

Building optimism one click at a time

Beanie and I are just home after attending a wonderful sighthound workshop organised by my friend and behaviourist Claire Martin of Chrysalis K9. Some dogs who attended were shy, some bold, some barky, some bouncy. As much as there were pervasive traits across the breed, there were just as many behaviours that were as diverse as possible. Food for thought.

Anyway, both of us had a whale of a time and I’m writing this today as Beanie is fast asleep, catching up on all the naps he missed out on yesterday.

The weekend was filled with novelty for Beanie. An unusually long drive, a new hotel room with loud corridors, a brand new outdoor workshop environment filled with new dogs, new people, caravans, lakes and toys that he had never encountered before.

So Beanie air scented anyone walking past, dragging me to the different equipment in the field to sniff and mark, gathering as much information as possible about all this novelty whilst still making sure I was always at the other end of the lead.

Now I have a shy, glass-half-empty dog. If we were to label his behaviour in environments like this, we’d reach for “lacking resilience”, “sensitive” or “fragile”. Beanie lets the world whirl around him as long as he can find a predictable little corner with me in all that chaos.

Very few people expect the dog who emerges the moment my training pouch comes out.

Every single structured activity we did at the workshop was novel in some way. Beanie ran through three hoops in a row at hoopers. He went into an agility tunnel and came out the other end in the first attempt. He stood on planks, tires, platforms, peanuts with back legs on and off and pivoting around. He tripped on a platform stepping back, looked at it, turned back to me and kept going. He learnt to freeze on a coin during scent work. He learnt a bow and it was so reliable in minutes that I could already add a cue, working amidst all those sighthounds, clickers, people, dogs and equipment. I was genuinely so blown away by how well he took to the day that it got me pondering on the drive back. Due credit here to Sarah Owings for inspiring this train of thought many months ago.

Beanie’s first tunnel

The Beanie who worked with me all day was an optimistic dog. One who has had roughly one hundred thousand moments marked and rewarded over two years and eight months of his much longer life. One who understands that if I ask him to do something, it was probably doable and he couldn’t really go wrong. Every moment of success is right around the corner for that Beanie.

Optimism is built from a matrix of successes and failures. If every action pays out in some way, that builds optimism that the next action is also likely to pay out. If actions are met with punishment, that builds pessimism that the next action might also result in punishment.

The sheer power of positive reinforcement training is what we saw when my glass-half-full Beanie ran through those hoops or stood on a wobbly board, having never done either of those things before in his life. He trusts the framework. He believes it will work out because it has in the past. As long as I keep structuring those experiences to remain achievable, I am building a juggernaut of confidence, one click at a time. The longer the history of success, the lower the fallout from a single failure.

A dog is optimistic about a human’s presence, a vet clinic, a bath, being alone, being crated, meeting another dog, going to a cafe, being outdoors or walking on the street if that context has continously brought about desirable consequences for that dog. A confidence-building exercise is really just a moment where the dog was right.

So let us not label a dog as “pessimistic” or “shuts down easily” and write him off. That dog needs a high rate of success through hundreds and thousands of moments of being correct over and over again. Every time a dog is being told that he made a mistake is chipping away at the reservoir that we spend years building up.

Then let us watch that dog come out of his shell and do something he has never done before like it was nothing new at all.

My dog does not do what I say

Yesterday I called my lurcher to me when he was about ten metres away. He looked at me. He shifted his eyebrows in a dance. Then he went to sniff a blade of grass. If that isn’t the definition of “stubbornness”, I wouldn’t know what is.

But it actually made me smile. And here’s why.

When I went to adopt Beanie, I had glorious visions in my head of a dog whose tail would casually wag when the wind blew, when people walked past us on a walk, when we made eye contact on a lazy Sunday, when we visited the dog park for glorious frolics with other dogs whose tail also wagged for nothing at all. He’d just be a dog with joie de vivre.

But I got a dog whose tail remained droopy, wagging only when he saw himself in the mirror and, three years on, still only wagging tentatively and selectively through the day.

For a very long time, Beanie had no opinions about the world except “I cannot live without you” and “I love dogs”. So much so that when I started clicker training him, rewarding absolutely anything that he would offer me, he would still only do something that he was sure I wanted him to do. Beanie was off lead far quicker than I might have envisaged letting loose a sighthound — he simply walked right in my footsteps, not one step left or right.

Like this.

So the fact that he actually had an opinion yesterday to go sniff a blade of grass over returning to me is a glorious sign of his independence. He wasn’t scared to tell me that he had a mind of his own and I couldn’t be happier.

The stubborn dog

Grass is more interesting than me.

I spend a lot of my time with “stubborn” dogs. Dogs who walk the other way when you call them. Dogs who refuse to come back in after a night time pootle in the garden. Dogs who leap and tug at their lead despite “knowing” that they have to calm down if they want to go for a walk. Dogs who scream and bite when you just want to lift their paw.

I love those dogs because it tells me that they feel comfortable enough to voice their opinion. I am not intimidating them into submission. They are taking the control I offer them and telling me that something else is more worthwhile.

I would rather have a dog who tells me what he thinks than a dog who doesn’t dare voice an opinion. I would rather give the dog the choice and find that he takes me up on my offer because doing what I would like adds value to his already rich life.

I don’t want a well-behaved dog. I want a dog who loves having me around and has plenty of opinions he would like to share with me. I don’t want a dog who hears an “or else” in my voice with a threat of violence, sexily wrapped in a little electronic button that I can use to remind him of my power over him. I want a dog who tells me that I’m not worth his attention because when I am, it’s that much more special to me.

A “stubborn” dog is really just one of two things:

  1. A dog who doesn’t understand what I want — did I actually teach what I thought I taught? Does my dog even remember what I taught?
  2. A dog who has something better to do than listen to me — am I being scary? Why should he give up eating that rabbit poo and come to me instead?

So every time a dog says no, be happy because he feels confident enough to tell you what he thinks and that you now have the choice to listen to him. Then think about why he is saying no. Think about what’s in it for him if he does what you’re asking him to do and think about how you can make it worth his while. Every dog who refuses to listen to you is making you a better teacher. How boring would it be to live with someone you can never disagree with?

Your dog has a voice. Giving him the ability to use it makes you a better person.