This is a lovely account of the first few days for Hetty and Ludo who are taking part in the Thinking-dog Online Programme. Hetty (above) is a very excitable Saluki x lurcher who barks at anything that triggers her giddiness! Ludo is a lurcher x collie who can be highly fearful of new dogs and is anxious around high levels of people.
The diary is a very honest account from their mum and shows the highs and lows of starting to work with reactive dogs. You can see how frustrating things can feel when you're working with a dog who is either reactive or excitable, and how issues can be overcome by taking things one step at a time and slowing things down.
There are a couple of things of interest that came up when I was reading it, such as Ludo eating grass one day, which made his mum worry that he may have an upset tummy. Dogs often 'grass swipe' when they're feeling anxious and need a bit of a stress-buster, which is why Ludo was fine later that day with no stomach upset.
The other thing that is interesting, and something people often experience, is where Hetty finds it difficult to take treats on some days. We talked this through when I chatted with their mum in our second Skpe session and it appeared that Hetty wasn't doing it for the reason I expected. Usually dogs are unable to take treats because they're too stressed or excited (as happened with Ludo later in the week) But Hetty is one of those dogs who can be very selective about what she wants to eat when she's outside. She is only up for really high value treats on walks, because she's working hard and needs something that feels really good. Anything less than that just won't cut it for her! When you're working with reactive dogs, it's a good idea to experiment with different treats if you find that your dog seems unwilling to eat the ones you have taken out with you. But always consider your dog's levels of arousal and be aware that she may feel overwhelmed and either need distance from a trigger or to be taken home for a break.
Many thanks to Ludo and Hetty's mum for allowing me to share their experiences with you all.
Thursday 11 th : Did a short loose lead walk with Hetty and left Ludo at home.
He howled the whole time we were out! Unusual for him.
Hetty responded to the loose lead walking well. Connected well, and we didn’t
see many triggers. Only went to the end of the road.
FEDB: I suggested that Ludo was left for even shorter periods, with a stnuffle mat or lickimat so that he was able to deal with the separation.
Friday 12 th : Walked both dogs separately. Ludo responded well to the loose
lead routine. We did get in a dog sandwich and he did his usual freeze! I couldn’t
turn round cos someone was coming up behind us, so gave him space and MT
every time he connected with me.
Hetty walked well again. More potential triggers on this walk but no reaction,
just looking. Moved her away when she looked at me and she continued sniffing.
FEDB: The early days on the Thinking-dog Programme tend to have quick results, but as you'll see, things can then escalate in following days! This is because the dog is processing new information and is finding it difficult to work out how things go now that her family are helping her change her behaviour. She's learning new systems (some dogs are learning completely new ways of living) and that can be challenging. As a result, she may either become very over-excited, possibly over-stressed and some dogs will revert to old behaviours to see if they get the old results from their owners. Staying consistent during these days takes patience and a wee bit of courage!
Saturday 13 th : Ludo was fine with the loose lead walking. I left him with a
snuffle mat this time and he was calmer being left.
Hetty has decided she doesn’t like hotdog sausages or the new treats I got! She
would look and I marked and then she wouldn’t take the treat!! More alert on
this walk, so we kept it short.
Second walk: Ludo fine! Excited initially as S took him, but soon calmed when S
followed the protocol.
Resorted to squeezy cheese with Hetty. Much more connected, although a little
too focussed on the cheese!! She coped well with some children riding their
bikes, and kept looking at me after initially checking them out. I need to work on
my timing!! Sometimes I’m a little late.
Sunday 14 th : S at home today. Both dogs were very excitable pre-walk. Waited
until they were calm. Played connection game with Ludo before he went out to
try and calm him. Hetty has been very attention seeking, with barking and
demanding to go out. After letting her out and doing some sprinkles in the
garden, I then ignored her.
Hetty walk: Again, only responded to squeezy cheese! Definitiely felt I’d lost my
groove with her. Took a while to get back into her walking on a loose lead. She
was definitely on her own agenda today!!
Have come back and reread the guidance, and I think I need to be clearer when
I MT, and not let her get ahead or cross me.
Ludo was fine to begin with, then became less engaged towards the end of the
walk. Need to remember if he pulls to the end of the lead, turn round and walk
the other way.
Second Walk: Ludo pretty good. Even saw other dogs but checked in, and kept
going. Slight issue when going for a wee or a poo and pulling to get there. Pulled
more when he got to our street and was nearly home.
Hetty: Used Natures menu dog food as rewards. Much better.
Hetty was fixated with sniffing a car when we left the house!! Think there had
been a cat about. Was doing ok once I’d moved her away until we saw a dog. I
crossed the street, let her watch, me facing the other way, then the other dog
growled so she barked, then checked in with me. Then saw a group of 3 dogs and
she carried on sniffing. She was very fixated on sniffs this walk and started to
get quite agitated so we headed home. Note to self: Make sure you have enough
FEDB: The good thing about this is that both dogs are sniffing more on their walks and are less fixed on triggers. Sniffing is used for so many things. It can be used as a calming tool when a dog is feeling tense, frustrated or excited. It can also be a way of avoiding thinking about a trigger. Sometimes it can be a good indicator to an owner of a dog's arousal - if a dog becomes highly sniffy and can't reconnect or look at anything other than the ground, it's generally a sign that she is struggling to calm down and needs to go back to a place where she can calm down again.
Monday 15 th April:
Hetty was very excited before the walk so I put her in her crate. She came out
calmly and put her harness on with no fuss, so we went straight out.
A much better walk! When we left the house we met the neighbour which got
her excited but she soon calmed when we walked away. I was much stricter
about how much ahead of me I let her get and she cottoned on much quicker as
to where she should be. By the end of the walk she was self-correcting!!
Ludo needed lots of turn arounds, lots of dogs and people about. He then saw
Hetty and me in the distance and struggled to regain focus. Even when we had
been out of sight for 3 minutes Ludo was struggling not to pull toward home, no
matter which direction we were walking. 20 turn arounds in about 150 yards.
This evening my walk with Ludo started well and was going pretty smoothly until
something unseen must have spooked him. After this he was constantly pulling or
looking behind him, he wasn’t accepting treats when he did the right thing and
so we came straight home. It was a very tense walk home, and he wouldn’t take
any further treats. I was starting to think he was feeling unwell, as he kept
trying to eat grass. All appears fine now.
Hetty also had a disrupted walk. She was fine initially, but then we saw some
children on bikes and she got spooked, twirling on the lead ad jumping at me. I
turned and walked the other way and waited until she checked in and gave
multiple treats. Very short walk!!
FEDB: Some walks can feel really difficult when you're starting to change how you walk with your dog. Avoiding triggers is the best way to reprogramme a dog's brain so that she can learn to deal with them effectively as things progress. But sometimes it's almost impossible to avoid them and your dog can become completely upskittled. This is the moment to end the walk and go home so that she can decompress. Some dogs may even need a couple of days off from walks entirely, especially if they have a bad experience. Hetty's mum gave both dogs exactly what they needed in this situation.
Tuesday 16 th April
Ludo and I had a lovely first walk. He responded well to MT and when we saw a
dog was happy to walk past, albeit checking in with me regularly. The next time
we saw a dog he didn’t even respond, just went about sniffing!!
It feels as if Hetty is getting a bit frustrated with things. She was not
connected with me at all. Refused treats, and was on her own agenda again! It’s
tricky as walks have not been stimulating as they have been so short… but want
to crack the connected bit!
Oops! Forgot Wednesdays!
Thursday 18 th April
Ludo is a dream to walk!! Love our little plods! Still gets over fixated by some
sniffs, but when I turn him around, he soon remembers what he has to do. We
did see a dog and he began to crouch down. Keeping the lead loose has made me
more able to read his body language. When we were away from the dog he soon
referred back to me and we carried on.
Hetty and I managed to walk further today!! She is much better with me
starting round the back of the house, and waiting until she is calm till we set
off. We walked past a Labrador: only 1 bark and then she checked in with me.
She had a great snuffly walk, until we saw 2 very intense frenchies. Even though
we crossed the road, she wasn’t able to look at me. I even wandered up a random
driveway to try and give her more space, but we had to wait until she couldn’t
see them any more. We weren’t far from home at this point, so we came
straight back. She may have been tired too.
FEDB: It's amazing what a change of routine can do to create a calmer dog. Starting walks from a different door (back instead of front, for example) can go a long way to setting-up new, calmer behaviours.
Friday 19 th April
Lovely first walk with both dogs. Ludo was focussed and relaxed. I was able to
let him off lead for a snuffle, and we did some offlead heelwork. He was a star!
Hetty was much more relaxed. We saw some neighbours and after initial
excitement, she calmed quickly and was able to just snuffle around while we
talked. She kept it up for about 10 minutes, then I moved her on as I didn’t
want to push it. It seems squeezy cheese is needed to get her focus back on me,
but then I played some games to get her more relaxed and taking the kibble.
Great run in the paddock later, although it was a new one so they spent most of
the time checking the new sniffs!!
FEDB: Love it that Hetty's mum kept her chat with the neighbour manageably short for Hetty. Giving our dogs what they need, even if we're enjoying doing something, makes a real difference in terms of the progress they make.
Saturday 20 th April
Ludo was not at all focussed on his walk! Even darted over to see a man we were
passing, which is not like him! We kept it slow and steady, and short!!
I’m beginning to be able to walk Hetty further. We were out for 25 minutes
today. She does lose focus very quickly, but stopping ad playing games seems to
do the trick. I can tell when she’s had enough as even the cheese won’t cut it!
We saw a couple of dogs, so I turned and walked the other way, but she was
waggy tailed, but no barking.
Sunday 21 st April
Tricky walks. Very busy out and about so both dogs struggled to focus. Mum
came round for lunch today. Interesting to see how the behaviour was different
with someone new in the house. Hetty was very jumpy initially, but quickly
settled. As was Ludo. They kept trying to get attention though, but I’d asked
Mum to only give it to them if they ’asked nicely’. Apparently they asked nicely
FEDB: The Thinking-dog principle of "No eyes, no voice, no hands unless there is Calm" is paying off! It can feel really hard to do this, especially if we're in the habit of reacting to everything our dogs do by looking at them and talking to them, but this can feed busy or excitable brains, so learning to not respond to every little movement, mood or bit of attention-seeking goes a long way to teaching our dogs to be calm.
Monday 22 nd April
We cheated and went for a walk along the railway line. Kept it short. Hetty was
better with cyclists and walkers, but absolutely rubbish connection from both
dogs. Went back to the car park and played the connection game, which was
tricky!! Neither seemed particularly over stimulated, just lots of other more
interesting things around.
FEDB: New places can mean that our dogs become much more interested in the environment around them. This is often a good thing, as long as all their exploration happens on a nice loose lead. Keeping walks in new places short and only doing them once a week, or once a fortnight, means that they will learn to create a habit of being connected and responsive to you - it just takes time with lots of practise at home and in familiar places. Some dogs may need a break of no walks for a couple of days (with lots of Sniff Games to replace the walk) so that they decompress after the high stimulation of going somewhere new.
Tuesday 23 rd April
Back to work. I really stressed about the best way to walk them, and then
realised that if I was stressing that wouldn’t help anyone! Decided to try both
dogs together. Ludo was very eager and we had to do all our turn arounds
because of him. Hetty is not a morning girl, and just plodded along. She
seemed less ‘wired’ with Ludo there, however we only saw one other dog, and
there was a good sniff at that point so she didn’t even acknowledge it!