Earlier this year I arrived home and found a note attached to my door. The note was a plea for help and a request to contact the owner of a one year old Welsh Terrier called ‘Bailey’. I immediately contacted the owner and arranged a meeting.
I met a lovely lady who was very distressed and at her wits end, ‘Bailey’ had been punishing her and inflicting nasty bites. What surprised me was the fact that I knew this little dog and had no idea of the double life it was leading. I had encountered her whilst out with my own dogs. The dog that I had observed was a pleasant and confident dog, albeit one that was noticeably very independent. However, I had no idea what was occurring behind the scenes.
Following an initial consultation with the owner it soon became apparent that this was a situation whereby a dog was controlling the environment and more significantly the owner through physical force and aggression. The owner had reached a crossroads and had no idea which way to turn. This was further complicated by the actions of the dog walker and also guidance provided by a local trainer.
The dog walker held the view that all dogs should know their place and be put there physically. Sadly, this is also still the view of many that operate in the dog industry; however there is a vast difference between calm effective leadership and physically forcing a dog into submission. This position was further exasperated by the actions of a local dog trainer, who provided advice, guidance, and instruction that resulted in an escalation of the dog’s aggressive temperament.
A clear lack of knowledge, experience, and professional training, resulted in extremely poor advice being given. The individual instructed the owner to tackle her dog’s display of aggression with a rolled up newspaper and charged her for the privilege of such outrageous advice. Using physical punishment to deal with a dog already learning to be aggressive is quite simply a recipe for disaster. Meeting aggression with aggression generally leads to one party getting injured and the intensification of behavioural problems.
This was a straight forward case of people misunderstanding how dogs learn and failing to recognise breed traits, if you fight a terrier there is a strong chance that it will fight back. After all they are game dogs that were bred to tackle, badgers, otters, foxes, and other creatures once considered vermin.
‘Bailey’ had simply learnt to defend herself against anything that she considered unpleasant. However, she had also become accustomed to redirecting her pent up aggression on her loving owner. She was being the dog that she was bred to be, fearless, bold, and game, but she was expressing her anger in the wrong direction and with significant consequences. When she became intolerant or bored she became feisty and attacked her owner. This was demonstrated through several unpleasant encounters that resulted in superficial injuries. The position was untenable, the relationship damaged beyond repair, and urgent action required.
The owner truly cared for ‘Bailey’, but sadly she was unable to meet the needs or control the demands of her terrier and it soon became apparent that a new home was the only likely successful outcome for this young dog. A new home would be a chance to start afresh with strong owners who understood the needs of the dog and more importantly could meet them.
Before attempting to find a new home the people who bred ‘Bailey’; were contacted. They formulated the opinion that the owner was too soft and should take a firm stance with ‘Bailey’. This opinion they formed without any observation or assessment. They also criticised the owner for seeking external support from The Way of the Dog, but then stated that they would euthanize ‘Bailey’ if she returned to her breeding home. The owner was heartbroken; she knew that she had to find a new home or continue to suffer the punishment from ‘Bailey’. She could not support the breeder’s views or their suggestions of euthanasia. She had tried her hardest to engage with ‘Bailey’, but the damage was done.
Notwithstanding all the unnecessary sadness, this case has ended well. I can happily report that some months on ‘Bailey’ lives in a new home with new owners and other dogs to provide her with guidance. The early days have not been without incident but she has slowly learnt to trust again and is progressing very well indeed. Her new owners manage her carefully reducing any opportunity for her to practice being aggressive.
They have taken ‘Bailey’ very much to their hearts and have provided a stable home and environment in which she can now flourish. Each week that passes is a step in the right direction and the new owners are committed to meeting ‘Bailey’s’ needs and maintaining a safe and structured environment. ‘Bailey’s’ former owner is delighted that ‘Bailey’ is now happy and safe.
From the many cases that I have dealt with the case of ‘Bailey’ epitomises the extent to which routinely treating a dog with physical force and punishment can lead to real and serious damage for both dog and owner. It also highlights the extent to which damage can be caused by enlisting the services of poor trainers.
What happened next?
Olla arrived at my family home, shy, nervous, and worried. He was fearful of anything that moved and any large object. Having spent his life to date with his brother he now found himself with the responsibility of having to process the world around him and make his own decisions. He was out of his comfort zone and could no longer rely on being a follower.
During the early days I questioned my own thought process in separating the dogs. I was worried that Olla couldn’t cope. Running water frightened him, logs, fallen trees, large boulders, rustling bags, trees blowing in the wind – all caused him stress and anxiety. He was unsure of people and he wasn’t sure about me. Other dogs unsettled him; aggressive dogs terrified him to the point he would scream, whilst nervous dogs brought out a reactive response. His world had changed drastically and his brother was no longer available to help him process this world or protect him from the things that worried him. I started to wonder whether it was right to allow a dog to live in such way. Should a dog have to experience daily fear, stress and anxiety? My options were limited; returning him to his former home and his brother was an option, but not the answer. This would possibly see him passed from home to home with potential owners being charmed by his impressive appearance, but probably failing to cope with his view on the world.
I’m not afraid to admit that, several months in, I felt exasperated by his irrational fear and high levels of stress. It was time for me to consider whether I’d been defeated and accept the work of Mother Nature. An unwitting breeder had allowed these brothers to leave the litter together and be homed in the same family, with the family unaware of the potential pitfalls. Whilst there is limited scientific research on the side effects of raising litter mates together, dog experts generally accept it as a bad idea due to the different behavioural problems that can occur, which in some extreme cases can include fighting each other to the death.
Not willing to admit defeat, I gathered my thoughts and focused on the positives. A change of diet was starting to yield results. His coat was fantastic, his appearance healthy and he’d gained 10kg. Obedience work was improving daily and heading towards competition standard; his agility was getting better as his body strength increased; search work kept him focused and happy with his big bushy tail swishing to and fro excitedly as he searched for the object. All in all he was making steady progress. I needed to stick with him and allow him time to make sense of his new world.
I looked at all our hard work and the glimmers of hope now evident. My family had supported me through all and were becoming increasingly attached to Olla, but they understood the difficulty of the situation. Desensitisation and counter-conditioning had been effective and Olla was clambering upon felled tree trunks, jumping natural obstacles, and walking along raised surfaces, ready to receive praise and reward. The stream running through the woods where I exercise him was becoming a pleasant place for him to play and no longer something that caused him concern. His confidence and sense of security was growing on a daily basis. There was no way I could think of letting him go.
Olla has been with us now for just over 7 months and has become very much part of my family and has grown in popularity in our local community. He is going from strength to strength with his ability to cope with unusual situations improving all the time. Fellow local dog walkers comment on how he has changed, and how the stressed and anxious look has turned into a happy, confident one. Only recently he attended his first training class as my working partner demonstrating exceptional obedience and outstanding behaviour.
Due to his life experiences it will be necessary to manage Olla carefully for the rest of his days. He is a highly sensitive dog and is capable of exhibiting high levels of stress, or indeed demonstrating intense exuberance. For now he knows where he is at and is comfortable with his routine and his position. I would not choose to be without him. During our time we have built a strong and secure bond and it’s great to see Olla confidently negotiating his world.
Can Olla reach his potential?
Following my departure from the RAF last year, I was looking for a dog to support me and work with me. I had toyed with the idea of obtaining a puppy, but had also given serious consideration to rehoming a young dog from a shelter. Then my wife was made aware of a family who were experiencing trouble with two young German Shepherd Dogs and were looking for a suitable home for one of them. I was open to all possibilities and I’m a huge fan of the breed, so I visited the family and met Olla (formerly known as Ole) for the first time.
Olla shared the family home with his brother from the same litter. Both dogs were strikingly handsome and, on the surface, appeared to be well behaved. However, the truth was that the family had reached the end of the line and felt compelled to release Olla. The dogs were just over two years old and had become extremely difficult to handle during the past 6 months. The problems had developed to such an extent that the owners could no longer exercise the dogs together and were also starting to experience issues in the home.
I spent a few weeks accompanying the owner so that I could observe the dogs’ behaviour in public and decide whether Olla was the dog I was looking for. What I observed was a pair of dogs that shared a very strong bond and enjoyed each other’s company, however their view on the world was somewhat distorted. It was great to see them enjoying play together, but it was uncomfortable watching their inappropriate reactions to the environment around them – largely borne out of fear and uncertainty.
Watching these dogs in action it was evident they should be separated at the earliest opportunity due to their irrational and inappropriate behaviour when together. The fears and anxieties that they shared were perpetually reinforcing. The family were very caring and responsible dog owners with much experience of the breed, however the strong bond formed between the dogs meant they were out of their depth. I decided that I wanted Olla and the family felt that I was the right person to take him on this journey.