Providing opportunities to make choices is essential for building confidence and resilience, as well as helping our dogs feel in control of what happens to them. In this blog, I will look at a couple of the challenges I faced with my touch-sensitive dog, and how choice and consent helped us to overcome them gradually.
Having waited until the age of thirty-three and two-thirds to have my very own dog, finally, Trigger came to live with my husband and I. As it turned out, he was aptly named and, had I known then what a “trigger” was in dog training terms, I would most probably have given him a very wide berth and looked for a dog with a far more sensible name, like Steve, or maybe Nigel.
Trigger was a very timid but boisterous dog; a tri-coloured tornado of adolescent hound who was all legs and ears, yet very unsure of everything. With his previous family, he had spent much of his young life left home alone for long hours, and was often tethered by his collar in the garden. Understandably, Trigger was very collar-shy, and would have a complete meltdown if his feet were even accidentally touched; I can only assume that he was tormented by the young children, so extreme were his reactions to touch. We had a lot of work ahead of us!
Trigger’s immediate response to anything that he disliked was to bite, and to bite hard. Doing anything at all with his collar was a no-go and, while he would visibly enjoy being stroked one minute, his feelings would change in a split second and he would bite. We had a hands-off rule for quite some time so that Trigger would learn that we were to be trusted, and then we carefully introduced consent testing. This involved petting for just a few seconds, then stopping to see whether he invited a further fuss, or moved away. This worked so well that we are frequently presented with a reversing bottom that is extremely insistent on a good scratch, or we might receive a swift paw poke to the chest if we aren’t providing an adequate service. A recent development in his repertoire of requests is that he starts to sing quietly, so it is barely audible, and then gradually crescendos until we can no longer hear the telly, and stop what we are doing to oblige his whims. He has two very well-trained humans, I can tell you!
Eight years down the line, certain memories are quite comical to look back on now, such as the time that Trigger was playing with an old blanket which he liked to chew on. Trigger had managed to create a substantial hole in the middle, and the blanket rather resembled the snowflakes you can make by tearing strategic holes in the paper. Somehow, Trigger managed to get his head through the central hole he had made and ended up wearing it like a poncho. Well, when he realised he wasn’t able to get it off again, he became most upset and started to growl at my husband. What a dilemma! On the one hand, we were seriously wondering how on earth we were ever going to be able to get him out of it, while also laughing because he looked like a very angry Mother Theresa. However, much to our relief, Trigger somehow managed to back out of it and peace was restored, thankfully!
Trigger making himself very at home, on holiday in the Lake District
Another memorable moment occurred early one morning, when we were about to return home from a holiday in the Lake District. We got up really early in an attempt to beat the traffic, and so it was still quite dark. Trigger and Jack were just doing their last minute wees in the yard before we loaded them up, when I suddenly spotted that Trigger appeared to have a shadow, just like Peter Pan. Alarm bells started to ring, and my stomach sank. On closer inspection, Trigger was now wearing the hanging flower pot which had been suspended on the fence, but was now firmly hooked onto Trigger’s collar. Oh, my goodness! How on earth did he do that? Trigger was most unhappy, but would not allow us near enough to help him. He looked extremely uncomfortable and sorry for himself, and I very carefully attempted to lift the pot up from as far from the sharp, pointy end as I could manage, but it was fruitless. Time ticked past as he wandered around the yard with his new “friend”, and I began to wonder whether the hanging plant pot would have to come home with us and become a permanent feature. Alternative names for Trigger ran through my mind: Little Weed, or perhaps Bill, or Ben? Anyway, to cut a long, stressful story short, we were just running out of hope when the hitchhiking plant pot magically detached from Trigger, and he was free! Sighs of relief all round, and we set off home, albeit much later than planned.
"Nosey? Moi?! Never!" Trigger looking for holiday mischief.
Needless to say, we have spent a LOT of time working on making things as easy for Trigger as we can by providing him with choices, and always working consensually and cooperatively. His feet sensitivity was quite a challenge, but over time, I managed to desensitise him so that he was comfortable with having his paws handled, and to allow me to clip his back nails. For the front, he really enjoys using the scratch board.
The collar sensitivity also took a long time to work through. We always practised in the same place so that Trigger would know what was going to happen, adding verbal cues to my actions, and over time it became routine. We have reached the point that, when it’s time for walkies, Jack and Trigger actually run to queue up down the side of the house, waiting to have their kit put on. Jack is first, then he trots up to the gate and stands patiently, wagging his tail, while I get Trigger ready. It really is quite funny to watch, and you’d never guess that Trigger would once have bitten us for even attempting to put on or take off his collar.
It's never too late!
Regardless of a dog’s age, it’s never too late to help them feel more comfortable with the equipment that they wear, having it put on and taken off, and with being touched and handled. Thoroughly conditioning any new kit before use makes a huge difference, as well as working at the dog’s pace, however slow that may be, to resolve any handling issues. It takes time and effort, but reducing as much stress as we possibly can for our dogs is so worthwhile! Trigger is a totally different dog from the one we brought home (no, we didn't swap him!), and is testament to the power of cooperative care, taking things slowly, learning to recognise and understand what your dog is communicating, and listening to him.
Our earliest photo of Trigger. Butter wouldn't melt!
If you are encountering similar problems yourself, it is highly recommended, as always, that you enlist the help of a qualified professional to guide you, in order to keep everyone safe. If you are at all in any doubt, please do seek help.
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