The Kiki Diaries – Life With A Reactive Dog – Part 1
Hi, my name’s Annie and I have a reactive dog. There, I said it! I put it that way deliberately because, as I say it, I feel many of the emotions I imagine an alcoholic must feel at their first AA meeting – ashamed, embarrassed, scared, like a complete failure, a social pariah and desperately hoping I’ve found a safe space where people won’t judge me.
There’s no such thing as a bad dog, just bad owners, right? It’s all about how you raise them, how you train them, that’s true isn’t it? So, it must be my fault then - I’m not firm enough, I’m not enough of a leader, I need to dominate her, to teach her who’s the boss. I’ve heard it all because everyone has an opinion, even if they don’t have a dog. I’ve seen the looks, heard the tutting, felt the hostility and judgement - it all screams at me that I’m a bad dog owner because I should be able to control my dog. Right again? Well, no!
So how did I get here, sitting at my computer typing my first blog post about my life with a reactive dog? (Which, by the way, is a big step for a Luddite who spends as little time as possible on a computer when not having to use one for work!)
I am a self-confessed dog addict; I have been obsessed with dogs since I was a child. Apparently as soon as I could talk when asked what I wanted for Christmas and birthdays the answer was always a dog. I have no idea where it came from: I didn’t grow up with dogs, nobody in my family had a dog and I don’t remember friends having dogs. But I was desperate to have one, it was all I dreamed of, I didn’t care what sort of dog, it could be any dog, I just wanted a dog. Then when I was about 11 my friend Debbie got a German Shepherd – it was love at first sight. Her name was Tandy and to me she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. From that moment there was only one breed for me, I wanted a GSD. (I never did get that childhood dog by the way!)
Roll forward some years and I was married, with a steady job, a house with a garden and a husband who had grown up with dogs. Finally, it was time!!!
Only it wasn’t because the one breed he refused to have was a GSD - he was scared of them having been bitten by one as a child. So, I thought about it and went for my second choice, a Springer Spaniel. Enter Jasper, a beautiful black and white English Springer. From the moment I brought him home he was devoted to me and followed me everywhere. He was very undemanding, not wanting a fuss, just content as long as he was by my side…….. and that was the problem. I went out to work and he couldn’t cope. He had free access to the garden and I would come home every day at lunchtime but he just couldn’t cope with being left. These were the days before dog walkers and doggy day care and every time I came home, I never knew what damage I would find that day. Sadly, my marriage broke down and my circumstances were such that I had to leave him with the husband. It broke my heart, but it was the best thing for him. I swore I would never have another dog until I could be home with them, resigning myself to the fact that I would probably have to wait until I retired to have another.
Roll forward several more years, I’ve relocated for work. I’m now living a long way from my friends and, if I’m honest, missing their dogs as much as them (in some cases possibly more!!). One day the village newsletter dropped through the door announcing that Dogs Trust, Dog School would be starting puppy classes on Saturday mornings in the village hall. ‘I wonder if they need any volunteer helpers?’ thought I, and so, the following Saturday, off I trotted to the village hall to volunteer my services.
I loved working with the dogs and their humans and, dreaming that maybe one day I could be a dog trainer, I started to read every book I could lay my hands on, by any one I had ever heard of. I started with the likes of Victoria Stilwell (a bit of a hero as the first positive-only trainer I ever saw on the TV) and Cesar Milan (yeah, ok, that one went in the bin) and they lead me onto others like John Fisher, Sarah Whitehead, Karen Pryor, Alex Horowitz, Clive Wynne, Bruce Fogle, Patricia McConnell, the list goes on. I also signed up to study for an online diploma in dog behaviour training. I was determined that when the glorious day finally came, I would be ready.
Then suddenly in 2020 the world changed, not just mine but everybody’s - covid happened.
I’d never wanted to work at home, living alone I thought I would hate it as it would be too isolating, but in March 2020 I was forced to. The Prime Minister sent us all home and told us to stay there; and we did. Much to my surprise I found I liked it. No more leaping out of bed to switch off the alarm at 6:30 (I’m not a morning person so it has to be the other side of the room or I would switch it off and sleep on). No more staggering bleary-eyed downstairs to switch on the coffee maker, jumping in the shower to try to wake me up, trying not to poke my eye out with a brush as I put on my make-up and falling into the car by 7:15 to make sure I was in work by 8 because otherwise the car park would be full. No more putting up with all those really irritating habits of your colleagues that drive you nuts. It was heaven, I loved it. By late summer it was clear that this wasn’t going to be over soon and a plan was hatched……
My job had previously involved a lot of travel, being out and about at least 2 days a week. I started checking the job ads and changed roles to one that was purely desk-based. I was determined that I would never go back to the office any more than I had to. I figured we would have to go back some time, but I guessed it was 12 months or more away. The time was right to finally get my long-awaited GSD.
I started researching breeders, looking for one in my area – when I got my puppy I wanted to avoid adding a long car ride to the stress of being taken away from home. I spoke to a few and got my name on their waiting lists. One had just had a litter, but they were all reserved. Then, a couple of days after Christmas 2020, I had a message from the breeder with the litter - he had a bitch puppy available, did I want it? I didn’t have a preference for sex so of course I said yes! Over the next few days I practically interrogated him (so much so I actually apologised!) – I was determined I wasn’t going to get caught out by anyone dodgy. He was completely open, answered all my questions, sent me the details of all his dogs so I could look them up on the Kennel Club website, sent me photo’s of the health test certificates for the parents and sent photo’s and videos of his 5 dogs. I was visiting family over Christmas but as soon as I got home I went ant saw the pups (by then 4 weeks old). I saw them with mum and was happy with what I saw so I signed a sale agreement and paid the deposit. He then added me to the Facebook Messenger group for the litter where he posted weekly videos of the puppies’ progress.
On 9 February 2021 I collected my 8-week-old puppy, a beautiful little bundle of fluff and mischief that I named Kiki.
The breeder used crates and so when I brought her home and introduced her to her crate, where I put a toy and blanket that I had taken to the breeder a week before, she settled in beautifully. That night, I put her to bed and went to settle on the sofa in the next room where she could see me through the door. She cried and I talked to her and after about 5 minutes she settled. The second night she cried less and the third night barely a murmur. On the 4th night I decided to set up the baby monitor, go upstairs to my bed and see what happened – not a peep from her. I thought I’d struck gold.
The next few weeks were pretty typical – settling into her new home, toilet training, lots of biting (I now know from painful experience why GSD puppies are called land sharks!) and getting her used to her harness and lead ready for going on walks. I also started to socialise her, driving her to places and sitting with her on my lap giving her treats as she watched the world and letting a few people say hello. The breeder had said she was an independent, determined character and she seemed completely unfazed by it all. She was very bright, learned quickly and never took or chewed anything she shouldn’t (partly due to good management, but also because she’s just not a chewer).
Once she had completed her vaccinations it was time for our first walk. I was so excited! Out we ventured into the close where we live, and she trotted along beautifully. It was all going to plan until we got to the end of the close to the road through the village and a car went past – she wanted to chase it. That was the first sign of what was to come……….
The Kiki Diaries – Life With A Reactive Dog – Part 2
So, there we were, Kiki was 12 weeks old, fully vaccinated and ready to start going for walks. I was so looking forward to it. She had been getting more and more hyper and I thought getting out for a walk would burn off her energy and calm her down. Oh boy, was I wrong!!!!
I didn’t follow the 5 minutes per month rule, I wasn’t going to stare at my watch, checking the time as we marched up the road for 7 minutes and back again; instead I kept to very short distances, letting her take her time to explore. Our first few forays into the big, wide world were just a couple of hundred yards round the close where we live. To begin with all went well. She met the neighbours, who all cooed over how cute and adorable she was, and 5 other dogs who lived in the close. She was a bit nervous to begin with but her confidence quickly grew: she’s always been a confident, independent dog. Then one day we headed out of the close towards the road through the village and she saw her first car……… and tried to chase it. That was it, from then on she wanted to chase EVERYTHING. Cars, people, other dogs, birds, cats – you name it, if it moved, she wanted to chase it.
I wasn’t too concerned; she was only small and with her harness on I was able to keep her out of trouble without worrying about hurting her. I knew this sort of things was common, and I’d read all about de-sensitisation so I knew what to do, it would be fine. Wrong again!
Walks became hard work and instead of being tired after them, her energy burned off, she was a nightmare. I let her set the pace and it might take us half an hour to make it a hundred yards and back, after which she would be absolutely hyper. I would let her off the lead in the garden when we got home and she would go nuts, charging round like a lunatic and completely ignoring me. After a few mornings starting work late because I couldn’t get her in, I soon learnt not to let her off in the garden after a walk.
Over the next few weeks we gradually ventured further, eventually making it all the way out of the close and along the road through the village to the pub around the corner, a total of about 400 yards. The pub is on the main road past the village where we live – not exactly a major route but busier than the quiet road through the village. It’s set back, with parking in front, and I thought it would be ideal for working on her car reactivity. For the next few weeks off we trotted, armed with a pouch full of yummy treats. We stood outside the pub and walked up and down, rewarding her each time a car appeared if she stayed calm. On other days I would put her in the car and drive to another pub nearby, close to a much busier road, and work in their car park where we could work further away from the road. We made some slight progress but not the miraculous turnaround all the TV shows lead you to expect. She’s not a foody dog and when something got her attention even a piece of chicken or sausage on the end of her nose wouldn’t distract her – so much for all those videos showing the dog totally focussed on the piece of chicken in the trainer’s hand!
When she was about 5 and a half months old her harness broke (it was a second hand one, given to me by a friend so it owed me nothing). I had heard a lot of good things about the Perfect Fit harness, so I went on their website and found a local stockist, called and arranged an appointment to get Kiki fitted. It turned out the stockist was a dog trainer who ran a shop at the premises where they did their classes. We went along, got Kiki a smart new harness and had a chat. By this time I was getting concerned that the de-sensitisation to traffic wasn’t working and she was getting more and more reactive to other people and dogs. I was beginning to realise that I had a reactive dog and needed help. The trainer’s approach was purely positive, which aligned with my ethos, so I took their details and said I would be in touch to arrange some one-to-one training.
By this time I was glad I was working at home and my colleagues couldn’t see how many times a day I cried, and I had lost so much weight even I thought I looked dreadful. With no friends or family nearby to help I was struggling to cope and desperately hoping the trainer would have some new ideas. I say nobody to help, of course everybody was willing to help – friends, family, neighbours, fellow dog walkers, everyone had an opinion they were more than happy to share, no matter how inexperienced and/or ill-informed they might be. I have a friend who has her 3rd GSD who kept telling me I just needed to be firmer, I should use a check chain and scruff her when she was really misbehaving, grab her by the scruff, lift her front legs off the ground and wait for her to go limp. (For the record, the one time I was at all rough with Kiki, when she was very young, diving me nuts and I was at the end of my tether, I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck. Literally all I did was get hold of her, I wasn’t particularly rough and I certainly didn’t pick her up or anything, but she threw herself on her back, did a massive wee and looked at me with huge whale eyes, clearly terrified. I was horrified and swore I would never do anything like that again, and I haven’t.)
A couple of weeks later, in late June 2021, off we went for our first session with the trainer. By this time I was getting pretty overwhelmed and frustrated: I couldn’t understand it, I was doing everything the books and my training course said to do but I was getting nowhere. I had this bundle of energy going nuts at everything, and she was growing fast. When it was just the two of us, at home or out in the fields round the village, she was a joy. She never ventured far from me, checked in regularly and followed me if I changed direction, but as soon as there was someone or something else around I might as well have not existed. I tried toys and every yummy treat I could find but nothing would get her to focus on me. I knew the reactivity wasn’t fear or aggression, as well as being a big softie she’s always been very confident, it was pure excitement. To me it seemed that she was bored at home, which was why she got so excited when she went out. I live alone and was worried that life with me must be pretty boring, especially with me working; I felt like I was letting her down. I know GSD’s are intelligent and need mental stimulation, so I kept coming up with new enrichment activities and spent time training her every day, just short sessions a couple of times a day. Walks were still short to avoid damaging her joints, but I have a large garden that she could run around. My friend she kept telling me I needed to do more with her, she needed more exercise and more stimulation, but I didn’t know what else I could do. I also realised there was no point fighting what was genetically ingrained in her, the desire to chasse, so instead I thought it would be better to give her an appropriate outlet for that urge. She LOVES a ball, her Scooby Doo squeaky balls are her favourite thing, so I started teaching her to retrieve and I got her a flirt pole. As usual, in the garden she would be completely focussed, out on walks she would completely ignore them. (By the way, I would highly recommend the mud-brown classic Barbour with the poacher’s pocket to anyone with a dog. You can fit everything you need, balls, long line, etc. in the pockets and when you’re covered in mud after laying on the canal bank or the side of a ditch to retrieve a lost ball the neighbours can’t tell that your caked in mud when they walk past you on the way home!)
The first session with the trainer was an assessment to see what was going on. We met at a secure field behind some houses on a busy main road. We talked a lot, she asked me lots of questions about Kiki’s daily routine, she had us walking around in the field and finally we ventured towards the road so she could see how Kiki was with the traffic. At the end of the session she described Kiki as ‘not the worst I’ve ever seen because at least she’s ok at home’ – hardly reassuring!!! She couldn’t believe how much I was doing with Kiki, saying it was far more than most people would ever even think of. She said at this point with most people she would be saying their dog needs more stimulation and talk to them about enrichment, but with me I needed to do less. She said I was trying too hard and overcompensating – it turned out in trying to give Kiki a happy life I’d given her ADHD. She gave me a plan which involved doing less enrichment, more rest and down time and basically carrying on with the same approach to desensitisation that I was already doing. So, in terms of the training, nothing new.
Over the next couple of months I followed the plan and had sessions with the trainer every few weeks. We didn’t seem to be making any progress and I didn’t feel I was getting the support I needed from her; quite the opposite, it seemed everything I did was wrong. My timing was wrong; when I took along a favourite toy I kept for walks only - I had devalued the toy by only using it for one thing; next time I tried charging a toy by playing with it before we went to the session – I had devalued it by playing with it before the session; I shouldn’t play with balls or the flirt pole with her, all I’d done was teach that chasing things was fun. It seemed I couldn’t do anything right. I wasn’t seeing much, if any, improvement and when I asked if it was normal for it to take so long all I got was ‘not if I’d seen her sooner’, ‘if you’d come to me when she was a puppy’, ‘if she’d been socialised better’ etc etc. It seemed her positive reward approach to training didn’t apply to the human end of the lead. During one session she described Kiki as hysterical and suggested a vet check, claiming she’d seen one like her before and it had turned out it had some brain damage. (I’ve since learned this is a pattern with many dog trainers – if their techniques aren’t working and they don’t know what else to try, blame the owner and/or dog.)
During this period I was trying to move house. I moved to the northwest for work, but all my friends and family are down south, so visiting means overnight stays. During lockdown I went months without seeing them and it really hit me how far away I am. I decided it was time to move closer, put my house on the market (lots of viewings also meant she got to meet people) and started to spend weekends driving to Gloucestershire house hunting. I had been taking Kiki out for short car rides from the time I got her and she was absolutely fine, she would settle down and sleep on the back seat, her harness securely clipped into the seatbelt clip. Then one day as we were on our way to a session with the trainer a car went the other way and she went nuts, it was a good job she was restrained.
By this time she was about 7 or 8 months old and adolescence was kicking in. She was getting bigger, stronger and more difficult to control. The training didn’t seem to be making any difference and I wasn’t getting the support I needed from the trainer. I couldn’t walk her through the village because it meant walking close to the road, so I’d been driving her to a safe place where we could walk away from the roads, but now I couldn’t do that either. I felt trapped, a prisoner in my home whose life now revolved around this dog who, I felt, gave me nothing in return. I finally had the dog I had dreamed of for so many years, but the dream had turned into a nightmare……….
The Kiki Diaries – Life With A Reactive Dog – Part 3
By the August 2021 things were going from bad to worse. The training didn’t seem to be having any effect and I felt like we still weren’t bonding. I was following all the advice I’d been given and doing everything I could to be more interesting than anything else when we were out on walks, running round like a lunatic with a tug toy in a vain attempt to get her to be interested in me. I have no idea what the other people in the park must have thought but I’m sure I entertained them, especially the day I actually managed to get her to play with me with a long tug toy with sheepskin on the end, which was sodden from the heavy morning dew and her slobber when she lost grip, it pinged back and I got a face full of soggy, slobbery sheepskin! I was also hand-feeding her meals as reward for checking in with me, something the trainer had suggested it and I’d also read in several books. They all said start in the house, then the back garden, front garden gradually making it more challenging and in a couple of weeks you’ll be able to take your dog to the park or the woods or wherever their favourite place is and they’ll be totally focussed on you for their meal – yeah, right! I live in the quietest street in the quietest village you can imagine but we could be in the front garden for over half an hour and even if she’d eaten virtually nothing all day she would still completely ignore me and the bowl of food. It was an absolute rollercoaster. (The books also say that your dog won’t want to play with other dogs etc. if you play with them, they won’t need to as they’ll be happy playing with you – another load of *********!)
I kept a diary and looking back on 9 August at lunchtime it says ‘I feel like she’s seriously limiting my life as I can’t take her anywhere. Spent about half an hour out front and she basically ignored me, feeling totally s**t today.’ Later that evening I had been doing some focus training out front again and wrote ‘really good session, it’s a rollercoaster’. From tears to smiles in one afternoon, so a fairly typical day.
After a few more weeks and a session with the trainer about which I recorded in my diary ‘OMG it was a nightmare, an hour of fighting to control her’ (I remember that session well - the trainer had an assistant with her, neither of them could control her either, the trainer called her hysterical and I cried!) I was at my wits end and decided another approach was needed, so I called the breeder.
I had some reservations about contacting him for two reasons – I was concerned he would judge, thinking he’d made a mistake in letting me have one of his pups because I was doing such a rubbish job, and I wasn’t sure about his methods. The instructions/guidance he’d given when I collected her included some very outdated dominance-based instructions, like always eating something before feeding her, not letting her walk through a door before me and always being in control of how much I handled her, it being my decision when to stop not hers. But by this time, I was desperate so I decided to give it a try.
He came round and at first Kiki seemed really excited to see him (but then she’s always been excited to see anybody!). At this time she still had a tendency to excited wee when she met people, so I always did greetings in the garden. Once she calmed down a little we went into the conservatory and he bent over her for some reason (I don’t remember why) but all of a sudden she cowered and did an enormous wee all over the floor. I couldn’t believe it, she’d house-trained really quickly and hadn’t had any accidents inside for months. He seemed impressed, boasting that she remembered him and it was submission. She started to back away and then ran and pushed her way behind the sofa and wouldn’t come out, something she had never done. I was thinking ‘yes, fear-based submission’.
We discussed what was happening and he said he wanted to take her out to see it. He put a check chain on her and off we went. We got out of the close and a car went past – he yanked the lead really hard and shouted ‘no’ at her really aggressively – she immediately froze and turned to look at him. This happened 3 times and then she stopped reacting to the cars. I’ll admit it, while I wasn’t happy I was relieved that it seemed to work and it had only taken a couple of goes. I was so desperate I wasn’t as horrified as I should have been and, much to my shame looking back, decided to give it a go. My friend asked how the session had gone and was really pleased that I had been shown that a check chain would work and encouraged me to get one. I was persuaded to try and, after a trip to the pet shop, off we went for a walk.
I really struggled with it; the shouting wasn’t so bad, I didn’t like it but figured it wouldn’t hurt her and if would stop the problem it was worth it, but I just couldn’t bring myself to yank the lead the way he had. Even so, I was embarrassed and wanted to cry each time I shouted at her, desperately hoping nobody would see. For the first walk or two it seemed to work but by the third time it wasn’t having any effect; and then when I shouted at her she cowered and looked back at me with whale eyes. That confirmed it, this wasn’t the way (although my friend tried to convince me it wasn’t fear, it was confusion because mum had suddenly got firm). As soon as we got home the check chain went in the bin and I promised her that no matter what happened I would never again listen to anyone who said I should use anything but purely positive methods. I felt terrible, I’d been determined to be positive only but had allowed myself, in my desperation, to be persuaded to compromise my principals by people who were convinced it was the best way. It was a mistake that I corrected very quickly and served only to convince me that such approaches do nothing but damage the relationship between you and your dog.
So, back to the drawing board………….
The Kiki Diaries – Life With A Reactive Dog – Part 4
By September 2021 Kiki was 10 months old, growing rapidly, getting stronger and her reactivity was continuing to get worse, despite everything I had tried. The trainer hadn’t helped and neither had the breeder, so what next?
I called the head coach from Dog School, who I used to volunteer with, to see if she could offer any advice or recommend anyone. She offered to come and see us to see if there were any other ideas she could suggest. A couple of weeks later she came round for a cuppa and spent some time with us. I told her about the first trainer suggesting a medical check as the only other dog she’d seen as bad as Kiki had had brain damage. She disagreed, saying she didn’t think there was anything medically wrong, Kiki was just struggling to cope with the world. We spent some time at home and then she suggested a walk to see what Kiki was like when we were out. I put her harness on and off we went to the fields. Once we got to there I put the long line on and we started to walk. There was nobody around so I dropped the line, as I usually did - the fields are flat and open and Kiki has always been good at staying close and regularly checking in. With a significant height advantage I can see anyone else coming before Kiki spots them and get her back close enough to get hold of the line and, if she isn’t coming close enough, work my way to her and put her lead on. However, what I didn’t know was that around the corner there was a tractor ploughing.
As we were walking along it suddenly appeared out of nowhere and Kiki was off. We tried everything to get her back, calling her name, jumping up and down, squeaking her favourite ball and running around. She ran back and we thought we’d got her but at the last minute she turned and ran off again, straight towards the tractor. I was frantic as she ran up and down alongside it, terrified her line would get dragged in and I was about to lose her in the most horrific way. Thankfully the driver saw her, stopped and we were able to get her back, giving her lots of fuss for coming back to us. I was shaking like a leaf so we headed straight for home, where I gave her a big hug and burst into tears.
The coach gave me her ideas, which were basically the same things I was already doing – feed her meals as reward for check in, work on the traffic etc. etc. I followed the advice, kept going and saw some improvement, but again the change was minimal.
Sadly, some of my neighbours were really not helping. One day we were out in the close when one of them came along with her dog. The close has a road that goes in a circle round a central green, with the entrance at one end. This particular neighbour lives exactly halfway round the close, so it really wouldn’t make any difference which way she walks. As soon as I saw her I headed home to get Kiki in the garden and back from the road to give her space. She saw us and walked straight towards us with her 2 dogs. Kiki immediately fixated and I couldn’t brake her focus. As they came closer, Kiki started to lunge and my neighbour kept coming, saying ‘she only wants to say hello’. As they got closer Kiki was going absolutely frantic and I had to drag her away – a rotten end to a session that had been going really well.
The next day I went and spoke to her, explaining the difficulties Kiki was having and what I was doing to try and help her. I asked her if she would please give us space if she sees us and perhaps she could walk the other way round the green or even cut across it – you would think I’d asked her sell her soul to the devil the way she looked at me. She refused, stating bluntly that she wasn’t prepared to do that. Thanks! What can you do with people like that?
One of the things I have learned is that people who have dogs are just people who have dogs. I always thought people who have dogs must be dog people, i.e. people who care about and are interested in dogs, who learn about them, understand them, train their own dogs and wouldn’t want to upset someone else’s. Turns out I was wrong. From watching other dog owners I have come to realise that most of them know very little about even their own dogs, have no idea what their dogs are telling them and couldn’t care less about anyone else’s dog. If your dog is having a meltdown, it’s your fault for not being able to control them.
In October 2021 Kiki had her first season. She coped with it really well. She kept herself very clean, was a bit more clingy than usual and went off her food but generally wasn’t all that different from her usual self, except for one week when she just couldn’t settle and was pacing constantly. Afterwards I noticed some improvement in her behaviour: she seemed to have grown up and calmed down a bit, she was certainly calmer around the house.
Out and about though was a different matter, she was still reactive to everything and her reactivity in the car seemed to be getting worse.
In December I spoke to the coach from Dog School again and she recommended a friend of hers who was planning a class specifically aimed at dogs like Kiki who struggled to focus outside. She gave me her details and I contacted her. She said the class would be starting in the new year and that she would let me know when. She also said it would be outdoor and so weather dependent.
I was getting increasingly desperate and didn’t know which way to turn. I felt that I needed a behaviourist to help me so the first week after Christmas I took Kiki to the vet. I asked for a thorough examination to rule out any medical cause and a referral to a behaviourist. The vet I saw refused to examine her, saying it would be ‘too difficult’ and that it was a behavioural problem. He said he would have to speak to his manager about a referral, as he didn’t know if they did that, and would ring me. A couple of days later I had heard nothing, so I rang to follow up. The person who answered the phone said they would look into it and get back to me. About an hour later I had a call back saying they didn’t do referrals. I lost it! I explained, as calmly as I could, that I was desperate, I had a reactive dog, I needed help and had come to my vet, but they were apparently unwilling to help me, had refused to examine her and wouldn’t refer me to someone who could help so just what were they going to do? Turned out the answer was basically nothing so I told them I would be changing vet.
A few days later the head vet rang and we had a long chat. He said they didn’t do referrals as they had never had good feedback from a referral, only unhappy clients who had paid a lot of money and not got what they wanted. However, he said if I found someone he would be willing to refer us. So while I waited to hear about the class I had signed up to I started researching behaviourists near me.
The first weekend after new year was wet so the class was cancelled, but the second weekend saw me loading Kiki into the car and heading off for class, about a 45-minute drive away. I had been told to bring a blanket, frozen kong or lickimat, a favourite toy, lead and long line.
By the time we arrived Kiki was already completely over threshold from the drive. We parked outside the hall where we had been told to meet and I left her in the car while I went and spoke to the trainer. She explained that the class would start in the car park and then we would work in the park opposite. She allocated each of us in the class a corner of the car park, to maximise the space between dogs, and told us to put down the blanket and just try to get our dogs to focus on us. I got Kiki out of the car and she was frantic, pulling me all over the place, trying to sniff everywhere as fast as she could. I put down her blanket, the kong and lickimat, some treats and the toy – she completely ignored everything, including me, and it was all I could do to hang onto her. When we went across the road to the field it only got worse as a bird came along and she tried to take off after it, almost pulling me over. Kiki was checking in with me but her check ins were fleeting, she wasn’t responding to her marker word and ignored my attempts to reward her. After about 40 minutes I couldn’t take anymore and was struggling not only to hold onto her but also not to cry. I put her back in the car and went to talk to the trainer. She was absolutely lovely, saying she was concerned about me and that Kiki would hurt me one day. She refused to let me pay for the class, saying she couldn’t do anything for me, but she knew someone who could and that she would send me their details.
A few days later she sent me Danielle’s details……..
The Kiki Diaries – Life With A Reactive Dog – Part 5
Having realised I needed the help of a behaviourist, I did some research and ended up with a shortlist of 3. I contacted each to ask about the support they provided and, having decided that what Danielle offered sounded best for Kiki and I, I filled in the questionnaire, printed the referral form and booked an appointment with the vet to get it signed.
Once again, my vet excelled themselves. This time I saw the head vet and realised he was the one who had been rude to me the first time Kiki ever went to the vet (I asked for advice about what I could do to help to build a strong bond with my puppy and he gave me a lecture about having to get to know her personality and expecting her to be something she’s not is what causes behavioural problems – I should have changed vet then!). After criticising me for having her on a harness and not having the lead on her collar, he made a half-hearted attempt to approach her before stating that it wouldn’t be possible to do any ‘meaningful examination’. He filled in the referral form and I left, knowing that we wouldn’t be back. When I got home and looked at the form I was appalled to see that the reason he had put for the referral was ‘unable to control’ - I was mortified and furious. Clearly this supposed animal professional thought I should be able to ‘control’ my dog, with no recognition of what might be going on inside her. The next day I was on the phone ringing round vets who had been recommended to find a new one.
I sent the completed forms to Danielle and on 10 February 2022 we had our initial consolation. It was a revelation!
Danielle was absolutely lovely. She said she had read the forms, had seen what the vet had put (to which her reaction was ‘we’ll ignore that’), and told me to just talk to her. She said that for the first 20 minutes she wanted me to pour my heart out and tell her everything; so I did! It was pretty emotional but, much to my amazement, I didn’t cry. She was so supportive and non-judgemental and it was such a relief to talk to someone who understood.
After I finished downloading she asked loads of questions about how Kiki behaves, such as what she does when we walk across a field with a path through the middle, does she run all over the field or back and forth along the path: the latter. It was clear from the questions she was asking, and the way she asked them, that she really understood what was going on. She also said that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, that it was perfectly normal not to see any progress for several weeks, explaining that it can take months, possibly a year, to help a reactive dog like Kiki – finally! If only someone had said that to me before. For the first time I felt like it wasn’t all my fault and I wasn’t failing my dog.
Danielle talked about Pat Tagg, saying she’d learnt all about GSDs from her, and showed me some of her videos on You Tube. She explained why it’s common for a lot of GSDs to struggle with traffic and the way she talked about the breed it was obvious that she knew a lot about them. She talked about them being a sensitive breed, which Kiki definitely is – if I make any loud noises, like dropping a baking sheet in the kitchen or shouting (probably because I dropped a baking sheet on my foot!), she runs straight to her crate and curls up right at the back.
She explained that rehab for a dog like Kiki involves weeks and weeks, possibly months and months, of really, really boring work. She agreed that I had probably been doing too much and overstimulating her and that she needed to learn to cope with being bored. She explained that yes, they are intelligent dogs and need stimulation, but they are also good couch potatoes, explaining that when working they would spend a lot of time just laying around watching the herd in between bouts of working – it made so much sense. She recommended 3 weeks with no walks to bring her hormone levels down and to watch, and then practice, ‘if in doubt, chill out’. She recommended teaching her to track, and to just sit in the garden and see how long it took her to come and chill out with me. She also gave me some new ideas for how to improve her focus on me when out, such as planting food in places before we went and pretending to find it, making her think that near me is a good place to be because I find all the good stuff - cunning!
Her basic approach was the same sort of positive reward approach as the two trainers I had worked with before: reward the behaviour I want and manage situations to avoid her practicing her reactivity. The biggest differences were that she understood what was going on and was able to explain why Kiki was reacting the way she was. She reassured me that none of it was my fault and that I was doing a lot of the right things, we just needed to make some changes and keep going. To have her say that it was normal for it to take months made such a difference, giving me the confidence to believe that we would get there. For the first time I didn’t feel alone, I had someone to turn to who understood.
Over the next few weeks, we went back to basics. As instructed, we didn’t go out for walks and I did loads of work around the house and garden on improving her focus on me, as well as practicing the chill out and teaching her to track. I noticed her overall arousal level slowly coming down and she started to become a much calmer dog. We progressed to working on focus and tracking in the front garden and then onto the green in the close where we live.
It wasn’t the sort of miracle transformation you see on the telly, far from it! She’s not foody and at that time she would sometimes go several days eating very little, hardly touching her meals and not responding to even high-value treats like chicken and sausage. She isn’t very toy focussed either and any interest in tug toys or her flirt pole would require lots of running round like a lunatic on my part and only last a minute or so. The only thing she really wanted was to chase a ball, which is not great for trying to keep her focussed on me or for being calm. (She still loves a ball more than anything, especially a squeaky ball, but it’s not a great training aid: she gets so fixated on the ball she tries everything to get it but her brain doesn’t engage so she doesn’t learn.) By this time she was over a year old and in full blown adolescence. I had days where nothing seemed to be having any effect and I felt totally overwhelmed. I felt like I had no value for her as there was nothing she wanted from me. I was worried she wasn’t getting enough exercise but didn’t know how to give her more when I couldn’t walk her round the village (the paths are very narrow so we were too close to the traffic) and I couldn’t drive her to a park or secure field because her reactivity in the car was so bad. She had quickly picked up the tracking, but it just seemed to be another thing that got her over-excited – I would go out and lay tracks and as soon as we went out and she realised what was happening she would be frantic and it would be a battle to control her as she pulled like a train to get to the tracks. She also started reacting to things when we were in the house and I had to put frosted film on the living room windows.
Over the first few weeks there were some tearfully-typed messages to Danielle. There was one particular exchange when Danielle said it sounded like she was struggling to cope with her emotions, to which I replied ‘she’s not the only one’! Her advice was, once again, to do less and stop worrying about her not getting enough exercise. She understood that it goes against everything we’re usually told about dogs needing exercise, and reassured me that less was what Kiki needed.
Sure enough, over time I noticed that she started to take treats from me, including lower value ones and sometimes even kibble if we were in the garden. Then one day towards the end of March, after lots of chill out practice, we went out onto the green in the close with a picnic blanket, a pouch full of treats and a chew. I put the blanket down, sat down and rewarded her every time she checked in. It was quite a busy day by village standards, with several people in their front gardens mowing lawns or chatting to their neighbours. After about 10 minutes she laid down and calmly settled to enjoy her chew – woo hoo!!!!!!! It was our first real breakthrough, and I was so proud of her.
I knew we had a long way to go, and that it wasn’t going to be easy, but I finally felt like we were getting somewhere.
The Kiki Diaries – Life With A Reactive Dog – Part 6
So, how have things been going since the end of March? I’d like to say that the transformation is incredible and I now have the dog of my dreams……… I’d like to but I’d be lying!
Danielle wasn’t lying when she said it would be a slow process, with weeks and months of boring work ahead of us. Progress is slow, and sometimes it feels like 3 steps forward, 2 steps back (or even 2 steps forwards, 3 back at times!), but we’re getting there. It’s hard work and emotional, at times I despair of ever having a ‘normal’ life with her, but when she makes a breakthrough it makes me so proud of her and motivates me to keep going.
We’ve carried on doing LOADS of work on focus, check in and settle in different places – different rooms in the house, the back garden, the front garden, the close where we live and on walks. As she’s got better at that we’ve moved onto impulse control, playing the games in the videos on the website. Walks are still hard work and limited as she still struggles to control herself around her triggers. It’s difficult to manage or work on this as the village where I live is so quiet, we could stand in the close watching the road through the village for 10 minutes and not see a car, another person or a dog. The village pavements are very narrow and if I try to walk to somewhere busier and a car goes past it’s too close and she loses it. She’s very unpredictable though. On the corner of our close is a post box on the edge of the pavement by the road. If she’s checking out the pee-mail and engrossed in sniffing something interesting (probably one of the handsome young boy dogs from the village!) a car can pass within inches and she won’t react, but a few minutes later we can be out in the fields and she’ll spot a car on the road 150 yards away on the other side of the field and try to take off after it.
Her biggest difficulty is the car, where she seems to have no control at all. From the moment we get in she is on high alert, sitting up on the back seat, staring out of the front windscreen, watching everything. I’ve spent weeks trying to teach her to settle in the, rewarding her for laying down and being calm. We started off sitting in the car in the garage with the engine off and the garage door closed, then garage door open, then garage door open, engine on. She seemed to be getting better, so I progressed slowly to driving out of the garage and reversing straight back in, going to the end of the drive and back (my garage sits at the back of the house, so I have quite a long drive), doing a loop round the close etc etc, you get the picture. However, as soon as I got to the end of the close she’d revert back to being hyper alert.
In June I had a holiday booked with my best friend and her German Shepherd (Storm, a neutered male) and another friend and her Springer Spaniel (Blue, an entire male) – a few days away at a cottage in Lincolnshire in a village not far from Skegness. It had been booked months before and as the time approached I got more and more nervous, Kiki having not made the progress I had hoped. She had met Storm a few times last year and they had got on really well, but it had only been for a few hours each time and she had been much younger then. However, I’ve known Strom since he was a puppy and he’s the most chilled out, laid back dog ever so I wasn’t too worried, but I had never met Blue, and Kiki had never met either of them. I had no idea how they would get on. My main concern was that her excitement might get too much for the other two, who might get fed up with her jumping all over them wanting to play. I was also worried about the journey given how bad her car reactivity was.
As the date approached, I talked to my best friend about my concerns. We agreed a plan to manage things, involving taking our baby gates so we could divide up the house to give separate them if needed, and she suggested talking to the vet about sedating Kiki for the journey. That sounded like a good idea so I took her to the vet, who they agreed and gave me some tablets for her.
The day came, I gave Kiki the tablets with her breakfast, packed the car, told myself we could just com home again if it didn’t work out and off we went.
She did really well in the car, laying quietly on the back seat, just sitting up every now and then for a look around before laying back down. We were the first to arrive at what I found to be a beautiful cottage right at the end of a remote farm track – it was perfect. We had a good look/sniff around and unloaded the car while we waited for the others. Storm arrived first and we took them both into the garden on leads. They had a quick sniff and seemed relaxed, so we took the leads off and let them go – they were absolutely fine together. A while later Blue arrived and again we introduced them all in the garden on leads and then took the leads off. I needn’t have worried, Kiki was absolutely fine with both of them (I think still being half doped helped, lol!), the only slight tension was between the two boys who both wanted to be the boss!
The next few days were absolutely lovely. By the time we sat down for dinner that first evening all three dogs were happily settled next to their respective human round the table. When it came to bedtime, Blue went up to bed with his mum and Storm and Kiki (who are both downstairs only dogs) were settled in the kitchen, Kiki in her crate and Strom on his bed next to her, with their bedtime treats. She had recently started having a brief barking session when I put her to bed at night so when she started to bark I wasn’t too concerned. It did go on for a little while, and I was ready to execute the plan we had formed in the event that she wouldn’t settle, but after a short while she stopped and was quiet until about 6:30 the following morning.
That day we went for a local walk through the village and it was a nightmare, with her giving a full display of all her most excitable behaviours, pulling like a train on the lead and reacting to everything. By the time we got back I was exhausted and crying. However, later that evening we went for a quiet walk up the track next to the cottage and into the fields where there were no roads. I had a feeling she wouldn’t stray far from Storm, who has really good recall, so I put her on the long line and let it drop - sure enough, she followed him like a shadow. However, she kept an eye on me, checking in regularly, and responding when I called her. I have used a whistle to teach her an emergency recall, which generally works well, and I’ve discovered that when all else fails the one thing that seems to work is if I run away, so I had recently started pairing that with an ‘I’m off’ cue. I tried them both, wanting to test them but without making it too difficult. I tried the whistle when they were not too far away and she came to me so I got brave and tried the ‘I’m off’ cue when they were moving away. As I turned and ran, my friend watched and said it was really interesting – apparently Kiki stopped and looked round when she heard my cue and saw me running away, Storm kept going in the opposite direction, she looked towards him, hesitated, made a step in his direction but then turned and ran after me – cue massive fuss and a jackpot reward, I was so proud of her.
The next 2 days we decided to drive to a beach. We checked the maps and found beaches that were dog-friendly and located on the edge of a town so they, hopefully, wouldn’t be too busy. The car journeys were a challenge but once on the beach she was as good as gold. The first day I put the long line on her and let it go. We kept an eye on what was around and kept a good distance between our group and any others, but she was having so much fun playing with Storm and Blue she barely looked at any other people or dogs. As she had done so well, the second day I just put a lightweight lead on to make it a bit easier if we needed to grab her, but again she was as good as gold and again I practiced calling her away from the others and she did really well. We spent 2 hours on the beach, playing in the sea, after which she was so tired she slumped down on the ground with her head in her travel water bowl, too tired even to stand while she drank! After the dogs had had a good drink and a towel off, we walked up to the pier for an ice cream, where sat between my legs as good as gold ignoring everything around her, even staying calm when some people asked if they could come and say hello. She was so tired that when we got home she demonstrated that an exhausted pup who doesn’t want to miss any fun with her friends can manage to fall asleep standing up!
The following day was home time so again I sedated her and we left, both happy after a lovely few days away. The holiday had shown me how much she enjoyed being with other people and dogs, and that when she has a playmate she’s not bothered about anyone else, so I headed home resolved to try to find her a friend.