Dogs Monthly Magazine
Behaviour Case - December 2017
You might recognise this little chap as Charlie, featured on our case study page. He became 'Noel' for this article, to make sure his wonderful family had complete privacy until he was fully settled and they were ready to share his story.
And if you would like to find out how Charlie is doing one year on, just click the yellow button at the end of the article!
Life for Noel was pretty tough last year. Still just a young Bedlington, he had already moved to one new home after biting someone over a piece of food; and on Christmas Day life sadly repeated itself when he went to bite various members of his second family. The home didn’t feel comfortable with him staying in the house any longer, even with a safety management plan. Fortunately, Bedlington Terrier Rescue (BTR) stepped in to find him an emergency rescue space in kennels (no mean feat over the Christmas period and especially for a Charity run entirely by volunteers). A week later, Noel was in his third home, but this time as a BTR foster placement so he could start to learn how to live more safely in a home environment while a new permanent family was identified.
Bedlington Terrier Rescue carefully select qualified, experienced behaviourists to support dogs like Noel and, even more importantly, to support their new guardians and this starts even before the decision is made to place a dog into a new family. I first met Noel’s potential new ‘Lovely People’ in March this year to discuss their approach to (and hopes for!) sharing their lives with a new canine companion, and also the specific support that Noel would need to help him develop into a confident and happy Beddie! Offering a home to a dog with known behaviour difficulties can be hugely rewarding, but also quite daunting, and in this case also carried some safety risks which meant they would need to follow a very strict programme of work initially to ensure everyone, including Noel, was safe. It was a brilliant moment when, after some careful consideration of the plan I had outlined to them, they came back eager to start their learning journey with Noel and with me.
Dogs’ behaviour is affected by lots of things, from genetics and breed-type to environment and experiences and understanding what caused Noel to show such threatening behaviours in particular situations was key to being able to help both him and his new Lovely People. An assessment showed that Noel was fearful of people when food was present and particularly if that food was on the floor. Dogs are opportunists and most will happily pick up food or other interesting objects without any concept of whether or not it is supposed to be ‘theirs’, and it is quite normal for them to want to eat or hold onto the nice things they have found! Teaching your dog to ‘swap’ for something else helps your dog understand that they don’t need to hide or ‘guard’ things from you as giving them up usually means they get something even better in return. We know that unfortunately Noel’s very first home had been given some poor advice from an unqualified trainer and as a result they had punished Noel when he had something they didn’t want him to. They had also taken things away from him by force to try to show him that he had to give things when they asked for them. Noel started to anticipate that being around food might result in a person doing something that frightened him and he learned that growling, snarling and eventually biting would make the scary person move away. Over time, he started to do this with less warning and he showed signs of worry about interacting with people in other situations, for example if he had a toy he wanted to keep or sometimes with close physical interaction. A difficulty that appeared to be predominantly about food was, in fact, much more about the breakdown of trust and communication with people.
This makes it easier to understand why Noel had such a meltdown on Christmas day in his second home. It can be a difficult time for even the best-natured family pet with all the extra noise, excitement, visitors, decorations, edible goodies left at nose-level, presents to unwrap (theirs and everyone elses!) and the disappearance of any normal routine. For Noel, this would have been absolutely overwhelming and particularly so soon after moving to a new environment, which had been done against the advice of BTR.
By March, Noel was doing much better in his foster home, under the watchful eye of the BTR team, but only with super-strict management around food (and to some extent around toys). This meant the foster home had a system of gates to ensure he couldn’t get into any rooms where there might be food crumbs and he was only fed ‘low value’ kibble (dry food) by hand through the day as part of training exercises. These first steps were brilliant for Noel as they formed the first foundations of him enjoying a reward-based relationship with people in a home and they prevented him from being put in a position where he would feel the need to snap, but of course such stringent management is very difficult to maintain and a mushroom that accidentally rolled out of the fridge nearly caused a serious incident. This isn’t sustainable long-term and we needed to address the underlying cause of the behaviour by helping Noel build a really positive association with food and people so that he just didn’t need to worry what would happen if he found something!
When Noel moved to his new Lovely People (his fourth home!), I was there to meet them as he arrived so we could get them off to a safe and happy start. At this stage, we of course still needed all the strict safety measures, so the system of gates was installed, we agreed a list of rules around food and ran through the ‘emergency plans’ in case he got hold of something! But although we made sure this was in place, the focus of this first session (and most of the following ones!) was actually all about communication. The first step was helping the Lovely People to be able to read Noel’s body language and behaviours and understand how he might perceive their actions and behaviour. We also introduced a clear communication system so Noel could understand exactly what his Lovely People wanted him to do and predict how they would interact with him, so he didn’t have to worry so much. Perhaps the most important thing of all was helping Noel start to understand that he can influence what happens to him by adjusting his own behaviour - good choices have good consequences! Equipping Noel with the skills to make these choices himself meant his Lovely People could focus on having fun with him rather than always managing unwanted behaviours. I call these principles the 4Cs…. Communication. Consistency. Choice. Confidence. They are at the heart of building great relationships and a key foundation for improving almost all behaviours.
We continued to feed Noel his dry food throughout the day, but found lots of creative and fun ways to do this through a mixture of games, play and clicker training – activities that Noel would really enjoy so that he started to associate food with pleasure and fun if people were around, rather than stress. We also added in lots of different types of treats so that food became a less scarce (and therefore less valuable) resource, although we had to do this in a very careful and structured way to ensure everyone was safe. Noel was incredibly stressed about food and simply making it ‘fun’ wasn’t going to change this on its own. Initially we had to set each exercise up so that he was far enough away from us to be comfortable, ensure that only one piece of food was delivered at a time so he never had to worry about there being something left over that we might find when he was nearby and we had to work outside, away from his day to day living space until he was starting to feel much more relaxed. Gradually we developed each of these different games so that he started to see people approaching as a predictor that he would get ‘more’ food, rather than worry about it being taken away or that he would be punished. We also helped Noel feel confident and relaxed about being stroked and touched and able not only to share his toys and enjoy some proper good fun playtime, but to calm down quickly afterwards too.
Four months later, and Noel has made fantastic progress. Or should I say, Noel’s Lovely People have made fantastic progress – their enthusiasm for and commitment to their learning journey with Noel has been absolutely inspiring. Their reward is a gorgeous bundle of Beddie fluff who loves nothing more than sharing his ‘best stuff’ with his new ‘best friends’: whether it is bringing them an antler to hold while he chews it, settling on their laps with a filled Kong, offering his favourite squeaky toys and knowing how to say he wants a game of tug or fetch or just being a dog who can potter freely about the house with them offering gentle, loving companionship. The very best part of my job is seeing relationships like this blossom – and I have no doubt that Christmas this year will be a very different one for Noel indeed.