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Keystone Veterinary Behavior Services
Better Behavior is the Keystone to a Better Life With Your Pet
"Just Dougal" By Lynne C., Sellersville, PA
Over the years I have owned many dogs, both singly and
in multiples. There were always dogs around in my family and in my
twenties I owned, bred and showed dogs in the UK. So I pretty much
felt that I "knew" dogs.
I made the decision to get another dog when my current Flat Coated Retriever (now 8) took ill last year and the prognosis was not good. I decided on a Gordon Setter - hence Dougal.
As we watched Dougal develop with his litter, some things were noticeable. He often showed signs of unusual vigilance for a young puppy (barking at noises, for instance), but as he was also by far the biggest and tendedto be more advanced and adventurous than the others in a lot of ways. If these were warning signs of things to come, we missed them. We thought it was "just Dougal."
We had always obedience-trained our Flatcoats, so when Dougal showed signs of being a bit of a handful, we weren't too worried. We thought we knew what we were doing...but it didn't work with Dougal.
Dougal did not respond well to the standard methods of training... "correctional" methods where the dog is shown what a command means and is chastised (usually via a collar-check) when he "gets it wrong." We had watched a lot of Cesar Milan and we tried showing ourselves as "dominant" by alpha-rolling him when he got really out of hand. Dougal's response to this type of chastisement was pretty straighforward - hysteria. In a pretty fast downward spiral, Dougal's behavior became destructive, over-bearing and eventually, aggressive. This, we thought with sinking hearts, is who he is. This is Dougal.
He would "demand" attention - 24/7. If he didn't get it, he screamed, jumped on us, mouthed and gnawed at our feet, hands and arms. The result of trying to calm him down was usually a wrestling match and if you eventually succeeded in getting him to leave you alone, he resorted to destruction. Destruction meant serious attacks on expensive objects (like glasses, an iPod, the couch). He started to show signs of possession aggression, so rescuing objects about to be destroyed became a matter of risk as well as a matter of speed. In greater and greater desperation, we thought, "This is who he is, this - for better or worse - this is Dougal."
Dougal started to see us as people who simply spoiled all his fun. He began to guard anything he got hold of - whether he got it by fair means or foul. This finally came to a head when my husband John tried to pick up a biscuit that Dougal wasn't eating and seemed not to want. Dougal bit him...twice. So - not acceptable - but maybe this also was Dougal.
Dougal was developing some other issues too. Besides the general bad behavior, the resource guarding and the aggression, he had developed a fear of strangers and a phobic, hysterical response to anything unexpected. Now that he had shown a willingess to bite, I feared that this was inevitably where these other issues were going to lead us. It was chaos. The household was in turmoil. The older dog was getting stressed-out and unhappy. It was - quite simply - impossible to live with Dougal.
But, we loved him. Despite all this, we loved him. He is funny and engaging and he is stunningly beautiful. We also believe completely that having accepted an animal into the family, you cannot simply discard it when things get difficult. We began to realize that all animals aren't the same and that maybe we had been lucky before, with dogs who were better able to cope with life, who seemed to understand the concept of "people pleasing" and who could be taught to reliably obey commands. Unlike, of course, Dougal.
The light at the end of the tunnel was Dr Bergman. My own vet (who I have been using for all my animals for the past 7 years) suggested that we try behavior therapy and introduced us to Dr Bergman. We booked Dougal in to see her and when the time came took him for a long consultation. That single act turned our lives around. And not only our lives, but also Dougal's!
Dougal obliged 100% when we arrived for the consultation. He tore the office up, jumped around, bit at the door and other objects in the room and climbed all over me. After observing Dougal closely for an hour or so, Dr Bergman told us was that Dougal's behavior was not "bad" behavior...it was anxious behavior. Dougal suffered from "anxiety attacks" and with no coping mechanism, was looking to the humans (and specifically me) for reassurance. Hence all the attention seeking behavior and resorting to more and more desperate measures when it didn't work. Trying to discipline him out of this situation was just about as successful as you would expect. The human equivalent of treating an anxious, phobic child by telling them to "snap out of it." We had, it seems, been misunderstanding him all along. Poor Dougal.
Dr Bergman wrote up her findings and gave us a stack of information, including an action plan for Dougal, before we left that night. Now, you might say, "Oh yeah, that's perfect. Take this spoiled rotten, badly behaved dog and reason him out of his behavior." I will admit my husband was openly skeptical on the ride home, even though we had seen some of the exercises working with Dr Bergman during the session. My husband's feeling was this may work on some dogs, but it won't work on Dougal.
I started immediately on the exercises Dr Bergman had sent home with us. It is no exaggeration to say that by the end of the first evening one of Dougal's worst behaviors - the climbing and gnawing - was over. It disappeared that first night and has not been seen since. No kidding. If there was anyone happier than the family at the resulting peace in the evenings, it was probably Dougal.
Engaging a Veterinary Behaviorist has helped us understand that no matter what we can achieve with Dougal he is, first and foremost, himself. Just like all of us, he is entitled to be an individual; so long he does it in a way which doesn't disrupt everything around him. It helped us learn to "read" him, to understand why he did certain things and to avoid situations which would make undesirable behaviors inevitable. It helped us to understand that we can't expect Dougal to manage situations. We have to do that for him. Most importantly, it gave us a "language" with Dougal.
The aggression is almost gone. We are still working on his fear of strange people and unexpected situations, but his response to these things is no longer overtly aggressive. We also know what to expect and can avoid placing him in situations he perceives as dangerous. We can easily take things away from him now, because the behavior modification has taught him two important things.
All around, much better for us and much better for Dougal.
As well as Dr Begman's diligent follow-ups (via e-mail and visits) I also went on to engage a trainer recommended by Dr. Bergman, someone who specialized in the "hands-off" training method. Dougal is now a different dog. He is happy, we are happy and our old dog Cooper, is happy. Is it perfect? No. Does it require work, consistency and dedication? Sure. Do you have to open your mind to some new concepts? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Yes. Yes. YES. And that is not just me telling you that. It's also...you guessed it...DOUGAL.
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