Puppy Class Success (at Last!) - Persistence Pays for Shula
Houston, we have a problem
From almost as soon as we began taking our border collie puppy Shula on walks, she showed signs of discomfort around other dogs. Attempts to meet and greet would, more often than not, result in her nipping or growling and anything that barked (even from across a field) would set her off joining in. At first I couldn't understand it as she'd come from the best of breeders where she was socialised well with her five siblings. I guess I'd always thought if you do everything 'right' from early on in puppyhood, you'd end up with a dog that was fine around people and other animals. It was a huge lesson for me around the individual, quirky nature of every single dog (and I'm much less likely to judge other owners of dogs with 'issues' as a result, which is probably a good thing.)
By the time she was four months old, walks with Shula had become fairly stressful. Due to lack of transport options on weekdays we have to walk her locally and there are a ton of dogs near where we live. Finding quiet locations to walk her in wasn't an option, and besides, I desperately didn't want an antisocial dog! Whilst hunting for local puppy training courses, I received an additional blow - an email from a trainer firmly stating that reactivity in the form of barking wasn't tolerated in her puppy classes. The day I got that email I was upset and angry. How could my dog be 'too disruptive for puppy school?' The email went on to recommend one-to-one sessions with a dog behaviourist. I reacted defensively at first and rejected the idea completely, planning to find alternative puppy classes without such strict entrance requirements.
My research led me to a local lady who was offering small classes in her back garden. She ran drop-in classes, currently with only one other puppy booked in, which sounded perfect for Shula. The 'one other dog' turned out to be a young Dachshund named Rouge who, according to the trainer "liked the sound of her own voice". In fact, I could hear her yapping as I pulled up in my car outside the trainer's house and she did not stop for the next hour. The garden wasn't very big and, with no escape, Shula spent the majority of the session barking and lunging at Rouge with me trying desperately to distract her and apologising to Rouge's owner for my dog's behaviour. It was 'hate at first sight' - a complete disaster.
Back to Square One
Looking back, I guess I did learn a couple of useful things from that first puppy training class experience. For starters it was the day I first discovered Shula's passion for 'squeezy cheese', as the only periods of respite from her barking and lunging at Rouge were when she was surgically attached to the trainer's tube of Primula! (We've found it particularly handy to use for grooming purposes ever since.) But overall it felt like another failure and I was getting less hopeful by the day. On walks with Shula, I became hesitant about approaching other dogs in case she barked or nipped at them, yet I didn't want to avoid them either, as I knew this wouldn't serve Shula in the long term. Quite simply, I didn't know what to do for the best and so I reluctantly took a look at the website of the dog behaviourist who'd been previously recommended.
Rhona to the Rescue
From the outset I got a really good vibe from the website. Rhona was trained in modern, positive methods and had had personal experience with her nervous, reactive (rescue) collie named Jake. Things had got to the point where I was feeling anxious myself on every dog walk and I was painfully aware that Shula could pick up on my feelings which wouldn't help the situation. Quite the opposite in fact. So I called Rhona.
She came out to assess the situation and talked to me at length before we went out into the field, to introduce Shula to a stuffed stooge dog. Rhona was incredibly positive and uplifting, reassuring me I was doing all the right things training-wise and we just needed to work together on Shula's nervousness around other dogs. She gave me concrete strategies to gradually build Shula's confidence and once I knew what to do when we encountered other dogs - which ones to approach, how long for, what to do if Shula nipped or barked - I felt much less anxious. At last I felt we had a game plan which empowered me. I was determined to help Shula get past this issue.
In the end we had three sessions with Rhona, including meeting her own calm dog, Mia. I began to feel this woman was our guardian angel! I learned so much about dog behaviour and body language along the way and we implement Rhona's teachings to this day. It was, without question, the best money we ever spent on our pup.
Shula was four months old when we first called Rhona in for support. By six months of age, due to the recommended strategies and ongoing support provided, Shula was at last becoming less nervous and having some positive encounters with carefully selected other dogs. My confidence was also growing and walks were less fraught. Progress wasn't linear and sometimes set back by owners who allowed their off-lead dogs to bound up to us. I won't pretend I always kept my temper when this happened (and I still don't.) But the way I see it, my job isn't to be liked by other dog owners who have no control over their animals; it's to stand up for my puppy's needs and temperament.
Playtime with Queenie
Over the next few months we got to the stage where Shula was curious about and keen to meet other dogs but didn't always enjoy being 'up close and personal' for very long. The icing on the cake came at seven months old when Shula responded positively to a play request from Queenie, a young collie cross we had seen regularly in the park. Queenie and her owner Mandy have been instrumental in Shula's confidence building journey, and the two dogs are now firm friends. The first time I felt able to drop Shula's long line to let her race round in circles chasing Queenie, I actually cried with happiness and relief. (The second time, I made a video to send to Rhona!)
Better Late than Never
To bring things up to date, this week heralded another milestone - Shula and I are finally ready for puppy classes! We have begun attending 'Puppy Lifeskills' training at a totally new venue and, at nine months, Shula is by far the oldest 'pupil'. We are not there for the basic training commands like most - which are a breeze for Shula thanks to a consistent family effort - but to learn to focus with the distraction of nearby dogs and be comfortable meeting puppies Last Sunday's session, the first of a five-week course, felt like such a huge achievement for my girl. I am so very proud of Shula and how she handled herself in that class. She didn't bark once - not even when the retriever began barking at the pigs in the next field - and managed at least 85% nip-free encounters with the pups. Progress indeed.
From here, I'm confident it will be onward and upward for Shula. As Shula's sociability improves, I am relaxing more and more into the pleasure of owning such an incredible dog. My calmer state means she feels more at ease and it's becoming a wonderful virtuous circle! (A stark contrast to the vicious circle of anxious-owner-anxious-dog which was beginning to emerge just five months ago.) At long last walks are enjoyable and the whole family is on board so it's a true team effort.
It's been quite the learning journey for us all and we continue to take things one day at a time. I've let go of many of my previously-held beliefs about dog behaviour and (on the whole) felt a great deal more compassion and understanding for fellow dog owners. I've also realised how vital it is to reach out for help when you feel out of your depth and would encourage anyone thinking about hiring a behaviourist to seriously consider making that investment in their dog.
Real names have been used with permission or changed where appropriate to protect privacy.
If like Andrea, you are struggling with a fearful or anxious dog then help is at hand! Please contact me via the website or on 07976 620840 to discuss how I can support you to achieve your dog walking/training goals!