The Kiki Diaries

1 Part 1
2 Part 2
3 Part 3
Part 1

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……….

Part 2

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……….

Part 3

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………….

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