Category Archives: Dog behaviour

Humber Bridge

Paddy Driscoll

The very, VERY high Humber Bridge

I am afraid of heights. Big time.

I’m not entirely sure how it became the issue it did, but on Sumer holidays as a child my parents learned that it was ill advised to try and make me go up to the top of castle battlements or up precarious steps. On one notable occasion at Norwich Castle I nearly passed out, went green and more or less had to be carried down to ground level. I avoided anything that involved heights for many years. Funfair rides, lifts you could see out of, high bridges…I just did not go on them. I chose to drive through central London just to avoid going over the new extremely high bridge at the Dartford river crossing. A couple of near misses, finding myself on bridges high over rivers or roads reminded me that the fear was still there.

Lincoln

Fast forward to my move to Lincoln some years ago. I was asked to do some work the other side of the River Humber. I didn’t really give it much thought, but as I drove up the approach road to the Humber Bridge it gradually dawned in me that it was probably quite high and it might be a bit scary. It was only at the point of no return I realised what I was doing. To say I was stressed was an understatement…I moved into the middle lane to get away from the edge, froze with my hands tight on the wheel. White knuckle ride? Now I understood what that meant! I couldn’t change gear, couldn’t look in the mirror, and I swore all the way across and I do NOT swear! I couldn’t get above 30 mph. How the other drivers must have hated me, but if they were hooting and trying to bully me into going faster I was oblivious to it. When I got safely over I stopped, and was literally shaking. I burst into tears. I do not cry! I had never been so petrified in my entire life.

Making choices

I had decisions to make. How much did I want the work? A lot. Not just for the money, but it was getting me into lecturing and teaching, which was something I very much wanted to do. I was a dog trainer. My job was to change behaviour. So this really ought to be fixable if I applied what I understood about behaviour. I had worked with those problems and fixed them in dogs – how much harder should it be with me? So that’s what I did.

Safe options

First of all I needed a safe option to allow me to choose NOT to cross over if I felt it was too difficult. That was easy, if more costly and time consuming. I was able to take a much longer route along the river, crossing the river near Goole. Not over a high bridge. So the next few visits I did that. Each time I travelled up there I allowed myself to consider my choices before I reached the Bridge and then make an active choice – to go the long way around, or to opt for the Bridge. Sometimes I even stopped in a layby to think about which I was going to do, and to take a deep breath and get myself calm.
If there was little traffic to hold up I opted for the Bridge, I stuck myself in the middle lane, took a deep breath, focused myself on just driving (a familiar and easy task) and gave myself permission to swear. And over I went. Very slowly to start with, but with time I became more confident and eventually I was able to drive at normal speeds.
I rationalised it too. The chances of the Bridge collapsing at the very moment I was driving over was pretty remote. The chances of me losing control of the car and swerving, crashing through the metal barriers (designed to stop the many heavy trucks that travelled across the bridge every day) and pitching myself into the river below was also a tad unlikely. I decided that statistically I was pretty safe and I told myself repeatedly that my fear was irrational.

Sometimes I opted to choose the long way around. When the weather was bad or windy, or if there were too many big trucks. Or if I was just feeling less able to cope with it or not wanting to put myself under the pressure of going over the Bridge.

And guess what? I DIDN’T fall off the bridge when I crawled over it. I didn’t find myself inexplicably turning the steering wheel and plunging though the barriers into the cold grey river below. The sky didn’t fall in just because I drove over the Humber Bridge. I began to drive like a ‘normal’ person over the Bridge, not a shivering, gibbering wreck in danger of coming to a frozen halt in the middle.

Bold and fearless

It took well over a year but I ‘trained’ myself to drive over the Humber Bridge without batting an eyelid. Now I don’t even think about it if I have to go over it, although I suspect my heartrate is slightly elevated. It’s just a road with a brilliant view. It taught me a lot about how to change behaviour. Dogs can’t rationalise fears statistically the way I was able to, but we can offer them choices, weighting them subtly in favour of being bold and fearless, but not so much that we put too much stress on them and frighten them into not wanting to even try. Allowing them to opt out if they feel they need to. Let them learn through sheer experience, safely and carefully managed by the trainer, that potentially scary events aren’t dangerous after all. That the sky doesn’t fall in just because they took a risk. That they might gain something from it as well.

Is your dog friendly and sociable? Please, please read this….

Sometimes I can be quite grumpy. This is one of those moments. I have news for the owners of friendly, sociable dogs …it’s not YOUR job to socialise mine or give me advice about how to train or manage my dog.

I am really pleased if you have friendly sociable dogs. We need more of them. Really. But the way to do it isn’t to just let yours go up mob-handed to grope and sniff and loom over other dogs that happen to visit “your” park. It isn’t your job to teach my dog how to put up with your dogs molesting them. If and when I want my dogs to be sociable and interact with yours I’ll let you (and them) know and I’ll check with you first if you are OK with it. Isn’t that simply good manners?

Why do I mind it happening? Well, sheer good manners aside about intruding unasked into other peoples’ space, I can’t know if your dogs are as friendly as you think they are. I can’t know your dog won’t guard the ball that is dropped at my dog’s feet. I can’t know that they have never ever attacked or barked at a dog in their lives. That they are always polite and friendly even if my dog objects to their attention.

And you can’t know if my dog is nervous. You can’t know if she or he has a history of being attacked by other dogs so can be defensive if they get into his face or stand over her with hackles up and tail rigid and wagging. You can’t know if she hurts if other dogs bowl her over by accident, so she gets worried when they get too close.

You can’t know if I have had a dog attacked by dogs that behave like yours, or I am worried I’ll get knocked over, so I too might be scared if I see a large dog (or worse a whole bunch!) come charging over to say hi. You can’t know that I mind my dog looking worried by your dogs.

I wonder if you know how many people cannot walk their dogs in “your” park, or sit in the park café peacefully minding their own business, because of the way you let your friendly off lead dog behave? How many dogs and owner are intimidated by them? How many dogs don’t get the opportunity to mooch about minding their own business in “your” park because their owners are too worried your dogs will intrude on them?

Please think twice before letting your dog or dogs go up to other dogs uninvited. I am pleased for you that they are friendly and you never have to worry about their behaviour, but that doesn’t mean I want my dog to be best mates with them. It doesn’t mean I don’t want my dog to have fun, or be friendly, I simply want it to be MINE and MY DOGS’S decision when thaty happens – not that of a random stranger who just happens to be in the same park as me. I wouldn’t want random strangers to come up and molest me – why should my dog have to put up with it?

So please don’t be offended if I ask you nicely to keep your dog away, or less nicely, if you have already let your dog upset mine, or interrupted what I am doing with my dog. If you care about the welfare of other dogs as much as your own, then you will not let it happen. Although, to be frank, whatever my reasons are for not wanting it to happen it’s none of your business. I shouldn’t have to explain or justify not wanting my dog to be pestered by yours. Ultimately who my dog socialises with (and when) ought to be my and my dog’s decision, not yours.

Grumpy person can now take a rest…:-)

I’m a Lumberjack and I’m OK…

Older Brits will recall the cheery Monty Python Lumberjack Song. “I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK…” is how it starts off. Visions of plaid shirted friendly toilers of the earth (well, forest) wielding axes may not seem like an obvious analogy to help us understand dog behaviour, but bear with me.

Imagine…you are in a strange place. A man appears. You pause to observe him. He looks at you. He is waving a VERY large axe about. What happens next? Do you go to him and say hello in a friendly fashion, or run away screaming?

How do you decide if he is a friendly lumberjack just limbering up or a mad axeman intent on parting your head from your body?

THAT Is a situation we might be putting our dogs in every time we take them out and they meet other dogs.

The extensions to this analogy are numerous. If you live in Canada, in a forest, and you know your neighbours employ lots of men to chop down trees you are already going to be predisposed to believing any axe-wielder is a safe and friendly lumberjack, not an axe murderer.

But if you are visiting a strange place – say an empty and isolated old house in the middle of nowhere, not expecting to meet anyone, then your first responses might be very different. What if you had seen the film the Shining? Images of a crazed Jack Nicholson clearly focused on you, heading in your direction, chopping through doorways in his attempts to reach you, are likely to produce primitive fight/flight responses!

What influences our responses is complicated. Our past experience – good and bad, make a difference. If we are raised to believe all people wielding axes are friendly lumberjacks, we could come very unstuck if we go up to the one who is a ‘Mad Axeman’ to say hello. But on the other hand if we believe all axe-wielders are ‘Mad Axemen’ and react with aggression to get him to stop his attack then we are in danger of assaulting every lumberjack we meet.

If in the past we have had personal experience of being attacked by a ‘Mad Axeman’, and KNOW (for a fact) that some men wielding axes can be highly dangerous (OK – I accept the analogy falls over a bit here as its doubtful you’d survive the experience to learn anything much from it…) then the chances of us feeling kindly towards anyone we suspect might be a ‘Mad Axeman’ are slim.

We need experience of observing and judging the difference between the two, safely. We need to know which are the safe axe wielders, and the unsafe ones. Whilst there are few ‘Mad Axemen’ out there, we (as are dogs) are hard wired to be suspicious of things that we haven’t learned are safe.

But therein lies problems in handling our dogs in the real world where they see dogs without knowing if they are the doggy equivalent of a ‘Mad Axeman’ or a nice friendly lumberjack. It perhaps raises more dilemmas than answers. Should we expose our dogs to ‘Mad Axemen’ in a safe way so they observe and learn not to go up and to not give them a friendly hug? Or learn what signs of aggressive intent mean, delivered in a less extreme way? Or do we want our puppies to grow up naively unaware that there are bad guys out there?

In theory in would be great if our dogs knew they were safe because they’ve learned to put their trust in the human holding the lead – but in reality most reactive dogs have learned the hard way that human judgements about such things often fall short of ideal and they (we!) make mistakes.

Helping a dog that appears to believe all axe wielders are ‘Mad Axemen’ to realise there are in fact a lot of friendly lumberjacks out there is an invaluable lesson. That the ‘Mad Axeman’ is the exception, not the rule. The trouble is they largely (understandably) don’t want to hang about or prolong the encounter in order to find that out. Usually we cannot know why these dogs perceive other dogs as ‘Mad Axemen’ and sometimes its hard to know if they are truly scared since signals when dogs are aroused can be confusing and unclear.

But one thing that our dogs must learn from us is that they are safe when they see what they believe is the doggy equivalent of a man wielding an axe – that whilst it will be helpful to learn the difference so they don’t need to panic any more, they need to know their owners aren’t going to force them closer or expose them to them in a way which neither allows safe, thoughtful observation nor the possibility of escape.  Allow neither then don’t be surprised if he reacts just as you would if you found yourself trapped in a room with a Mad Axeman!

 

 

Small dog syndrome?

We hear it a lot when small dogs show aggressive behaviour – its ‘small dog’ syndrome. But why do some dogs, simply on the grounds of size, earn a label for showing what in almost any other dog would simply be described as ‘aggressive’ behaviour?

I guess it doesn’t really matter though what it is labelled so long as its not forgotten that dogs are dogs – whatever their size. All dogs can show fear. They can all feel threatened. They can all get angry and frustrated. We know quite a lot about aggressive behaviour and we know a lot about what triggers it. Hands going to touch dogs near their food or bed, being physically corrected or punished, being handled in a way the dog is unwilling to accept, intruding into their ‘safe space’. are the most common.

Although the evidence is unclear if there is any direct relationship between aggressive behaviour and breed (but tends to suggest there isn’t), there is even less evidence that there is a relationship between aggressive behaviour and the size of the dog. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a relationship of course – it just means scientific studies haven’t identified it as existing. It might be that no one has asked that question, but it also be that because small dog bites are generally less damaging or threatening to people they get under-reported.

There is also no evidence to suggest that small dogs responses to bite provoking ‘stimuli” (as they are called in the trade) ie to the things that in general trigger dog bites is any different to larger dogs. Most, if not all, appear to reflect a dog being threatened in some way. Not just in the obvious ways of being scared – fight or flight stuff – but its ‘resources’ being under threat of being removed; its safety being put at risk

We have very little evidence about what works to reduce those emotions or change how dogs feel in those situations but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you’d rather take a ‘flight’ option and try and hide away somewhere (probably wisest if you are a tiny dog in a BIG peoples’ world) but can’t because you are being held, or are on a lead, or in a carrier – you are left with trying to look fierce and aggressive to get people to back off. But because, to be frank, small dogs are simply less scary than your average huge <insert type of a LARGE dog that most scares you>, you probably have to show – pro rata- a whole lot more of it to get it to work.
Add into the mix genetic tendencies towards being more vocal (not scientifically studied – but anecdotal evidence is pretty strong) and the ease with which small dogs can be picked up and carried, so reducing even less their ability to take up a ‘flight’ option, and you have a perfect recipe for making the large, scary world even more difficult to deal with that it might be for a large dog. I imagine if you are the size of a person’s foot you become very aware, very early on in life, that you have to act in some way to stay alive around peoples’ feet! It is not possible for a person to tread on and kill a Great Dane or a Labrador. It is with a tiny dog. Far, far too easy.

So maybe there is a ‘small dog syndrome’, but if there is its because we large people, make it so, because we are not heeding what our small dogs are telling us sometimes – that it can be a scary world out there inhabited by GIANTS. If dealing with the threatening or scary things in that world that means barking and shouting a lot, and showing aggressive behaviour to keep the giants away then that’s what we have to do. If we have to bite to stop people trying to touch us when we are being carried and trapped in our owner’s arms or handbag – then that’s what we have to do. All the reasons LARGE dogs have to bite are probably magnified at least tenfold in small dogs.

Wouldn’t it be better if we learned to keep them OUT of difficult situations instead of forcing them into them then? Teach them to welcome the approach of strangers? To teach them to feel positive about giants looming over them or going near them? Or putting out a hand that is as big as they are to touch them? That when we pick them up to keep them safe (which is perfectly reasonable when there are crowds of people about who might tread on and kill your dog – people just don’t see small dogs sometimes) we make sure they are safe and are not then molested by some passing stranger who wants to fuss the cute little dog?

Keeping small dogs safe by picking them up, having them on our laps or carrying them in bags to keep them from  being trampled underfoot is essential sometimes, but we do need to make sure we are not then taking away their right not to not be molested or ‘threatened’ by well meaning BFGs who want to stroke them or don’t notice when they are too close. We should respect their right to feel safe when they are on the ground and teach them to move away or ask to be picked up when they feel intimidated rather than leave them to fend for themselves and bite the ankles of the giants!