Behaviourist SUE KEWLEY is called in to restore household harmony when two senior Border Terriers don’t take kindly to a new addition joining their family
The below article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of Dogs Monthly.
George is an adorable, spirited Jack Russell. It was easy to see why his owner, Nikki, and her partner had chosen him to join their family. But the problems began the minute she brought George home. He treated the two resident Border Terriers as he had his sevenweek-old littermates, jumping up at them and biting their ears. Earl managed to avoid the puppy, but Red became aggressive and tried to attack. Nikki felt she had to separate George to keep him safe, confining the puppy to a pen unless supervised.
Puppies are short on impulse control; they mouth everything and their dog-to-dog communication skills are a work in progress. George saw Earl and Red as readily available playmates, but he wasn’t mature enough to invite them to play in a way they understood. Red and Earl saw George as a physical threat. Earl had undergone cataract surgery and could not tolerate any pressure near his head. Red had lost confidence around dogs since being attacked two years ago. He had become so anxious, in fact, that he’d attacked another dog himself. Now, he had to contend with George.
Nikki had sought help on the internet – advice like holding George’s muzzle gently closed until he calmed down, yelping in an imitation of another pup when George’s teeth met her skin, shouting, walking away, even flicking him as physical punishment for his behaviour – anything that might deter the pup from his spiralling rough play.
By the time I visited the home, George’s behaviour towards Red and Earl had worsened and he was spending more and more time in a playpen. Not only would he bark, growl and bite at Earl and Red, but he did the same with Nikki and her partner.
“We try to play with him, but it always gets out of hand,” she explained. “He gets into a frenzy, biting us, tugging at our skin, and he won’t let go.” Bruises, bite marks, blood, torn clothes – Nikki wondered what on earth she’d done, bringing this puppy into the house.
In keeping with Coape’s practice, I set about doing an emotional, mood state, and reinforcement assessment (Emra) on all three dogs, enabling a deeper understanding and leading to a more holistic approach to behaviour modification.
Alongside Emra, I also looked at the quality of life each dog was experiencing. Every dog has specific activities they find intrinsically rewarding — things like hunting, chasing, digging, chewing, and eating. We needed to find ways for all of Nikki’s dogs to access more of these kinds of pleasurable activities and to raise their overall mood state.
George’s overexcited puppy behaviour was showing his emotional need for social interaction – he was just having trouble staying within the guidelines acceptable to both the canines and humans in his family.
All puppies use their mouths to explore their environments – biting people’s clothes and skin is normal for them. While George was especially persistent in these annoying behaviours, keeping him in his puppypen so he couldn’t practise them at all frustrated him and caused him to be under stimulated. He then became increasingly frenetic, with a growing intensity to his chaotic racing around, over-enthusiastic approaches to the other dogs, biting and similar behaviours.
Without knowing it, Nikki and her partner had actually encouraged these nuisance behaviours by telling the puppy off, or punishing him in any way for over-the-top play-biting. Being told off might not have been the social reinforcement George wanted, but he’d rather have some kind of attention for his actions than none at all.
However, reprimanding a dog verbally or physically is a risky business. Dogs that are punished for doing what we humans perceive as wrong will sometimes learn a few other things along the way. For example, they may conclude that people’s hands are to be avoided as they can perform unpleasant actions, and that humans cannot be trusted. Owners using punishment in a desperate effort to protect themselves from a puppy’s razor-sharp teeth reduce the pup’s positive associations with them. The puppy may even come to perceive the owner as a threat.
It wasn’t only George that needed behaviour intervention. Red was generally anxious and could not be trusted around the puppy, and Earl was showing signs of stress too. It was easy to overlook Earl, whose quiet withdrawal in the face of George lacked the urgency of Red’s threats of attack, but both dogs needed an overall mood boost. My first job was to install some management into the household to enrich the dogs’ environment and create more harmony between them.
The easiest way to provide more mental stimulation and mood-enhancing activities for the dogs was to do away with their food bowls and feed all meals in Kongs, Kong Wobblers or treat balls. Scatter-feeding, in which you spread food across a floor or garden, is another great way to increase mental stimulation, as this activity requires the dogs to forage, using their noses to seek out treats.
Seeking activities would focus George’s active brain and redirect his attention away from biting Red and Earl. More importantly, seeking behaviour creates a surge of dopamine in a dog’s brain, raising their overall mood levels. Higher dopamine levels were just what were needed for the older dogs, too, who required elevated mood states in order to cope with the stress of a new puppy.
In conjunction with behavioural modification, I also suggested that Nikki use a commercially available product that diffuses a synthetic version of dog appeasing pheromones into the home. Designed to send a comforting message to dogs and puppies, they help them feel safe and secure at times of stress. Finally, we introduced a prescription food available through dog behaviourists called BreakthroughDog, a diet designed to help dogs cope with the stresses of life. Luckily, Nikki reported that the dogs seemed to like the new food. “It went down a storm,” she said.
George had begun associating his playpen with isolation, so we needed to change that and to create a fantastic puppy den. I suggested it be stocked with toys, special treat balls, favourite objects and anything else George valued. We would need an equally stimulating room in the house where all three terriers could play together happily, so Nikki got busy transforming the conservatory into a play zone. She filled the space with ball ponds, tunnels, interactive toys, a ‘rag box’ to dig through, and treat balls.
This new dog play zone became a fantastic space for the terriers to go when Nikki needed them out of the way. Rather than feel punished when they were left in the conservatory, they were excited by what they would find there.
“The trouble is getting the terriers out of it now,” Nikki laughed.
George was showing us that he preferred rough-and tumble games and that they elevated his mood, so I suggested that Nikki play with him, using tearing rags and tug games. He also had to learn how to become calm, so I showed Nikki easy games that helped lower George’s arousal, too. As for the biting, the important thing was not to focus on stopping the biting, but on training George to do something else instead. This is where the clicker, plus a whole
lot of toys, treats and games, came in.
“We are going to use clicker training to help your puppy understand that if he behaves in a different way, then good things will come,” I explained. Nikki needed to make time for George to exercise and play. The clicker helped her communicate to George when he was playing in an appropriate manner by marking the good behaviour with a click, then rewarding George with a toy or a treat.
Learning to use a clicker takes practice, and I suggested that Nikki use it to help Red. As he’d been attacked in the past, he was often worried by other dogs on walks and became reactive even at the sight of them. I explained how she could help Red gain confidence by rewarding him for staying calm, clicking and treating before the threshold at which he became fearful and started barking.
As his focus moved from worrying about dogs to getting the reward from Nikki, it became possible to move closer to other dogs, letting him experience good rewards in the presence of strange dogs he formerly barked and lunged at. These walks became more and more pleasurable for Red, plus they provided a special time for Nikki to be with him on his own.
Many people add a puppy to their dog family, believing that their older dogs will teach the puppy how to behave. However, it doesn’t always work that way, and much older dogs in particular can feel very stressed by a youngster. However, by enriching and transforming her dogs’ environment, Nikki discovered many ways to boost her dogs’ moods and quality of life.
They also became mentally healthier and happier, plus physically calmer and better mannered, as she asked them to work in order to access their favourite things. Red’s confidence while out walking increased, too, all due to the power of positive reward. As for George, his behaviour toward the dogs and humans in his household is becoming much more manageable.
Team Terrier seems to be getting along better all the time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Kewley is a training and behaviour consultant, with 30 years’ practical dog handling, training and breeding experience. She has a German Shepherd Dog, a working-line Labrador and a working Cocker Spaniel that keep her busy with agility training.
A CAPBT committee member, Sue holds a Coape Diploma in Companion Animal Behaviour and Training and is undertaking further study with Coape. She is a full member of the APDT, has studied as a TTouch practitioner, and is also an Absolute Dogs Naughty but Nice Pro instructor.
Based in north Suffolk, she runs the Sue Kewley Practice, offering individual consultations for behaviour and training problems, as well as workshops for Naughty but Nice dogs of all ages called Confident Canine Classes.