Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Notes from the Kennels: Irresponsible Rehoming

Today we got a visit at the kennels from a woman, her 14-year-old daughter and a whippet called Charlie. She came apparently for advice, but really, it soon transpired, because she needed someone to take a decision for her. The whippet had been with her for a few days, but it was not working out well. He was not getting along with her other two dogs, a yorkshire terrier and a jack russell, frequently trying to mount them. He peed indoors and also displayed severe separation anxiety, especially with her daughter, who he had apparently become intensely attached to. They'd both had to sleep on the sofas in the living room to keep him calm, despite crating him.

Now the first questions were, of course, where she had got the dog from, and if it was neutered. It had come from a local “rescue centre” (in fact it bills itself as a “sanctuary” on the website) but it was not neutered. It did not have a vaccination certificate, nor had it been micro-chipped. Alarm bells started ringing at this point regarding what kind of “rescue” organization would allow dogs to be rehomed without these provisions, especially the vaccination (although I also believe all rescue dogs should be neutered). Neither was there really any history on the dog, but whether this was because the kennel was not forthcoming or the lady never asked, was unclear. She appeared to have simply turned up at the kennels, chosen a dog, and taken it home. Most tellingly, perhaps, there had been no home-check done, to ascertain her suitability. 

By her own account, this lady already had some problems with her existing dogs. She clearly had a big heart, and the best intentions, but little dog-sense. It turned out that the yorkshire terrier, aged ten, frequently peed in the house. She let him out in the garden, she said, indeed, he had a cat-flap and could go out whenever he wanted to, but he often just would not go out, especially if the weather was bad. She didn't walk him very often. He got up at six, she said, and she didn’t feel like walking him then, so he peed in the house. When it was suggested she take him for a walk around the block on the leash later in the evening, to let him empty his bladder and to stop him getting up so early, she said she didn’t want to leave her daughter alone late at night. However, it soon became clear that a major reason she didn’t walk him was that he had aggression issues with other dogs, which he had developed since being attacked by a group of dogs as a puppy. Her subsequent efforts at socializing him at puppy class had failed, she said, and now he flew into a rage every time he met another dog. Unsurprisingly, he did not take to Charlie.

When asked if her other dog, a jack russell bitch, also peed indoors, the answer was a tentative no, at first. Well, only in her dog-bed – well, only on soft furnishings, like the other dog’s bed – and, perhaps a few times, on the lady’s own bed. Amazingly, this lady believed she had done everything she could to work with the problems she had with her two dogs. I do show my dogs that I am in charge, she declared, I always go out of the door first! – having clearly watched a few episodes of the “Dog Whisperer”. She undoubtedly loved animals, and I genuinely don’t think she realized how badly she was failing in controlling her dogs. She had lived for seventeen years with a Siamese cat with reflux, she said, and had cleaned up sick every day, so she was not one to give up on "problem" pets. 

She had somehow realized, however, that she would have a hard time settling Charlie into the home. She wanted to know if castration would solve the problems she was experiencing with him. Well, she really wanted to know that castration would solve the problems. She didn’t want to give the dog up, it was already so attached to her daughter, and she to it. She also realized that the kennel it had come from was probably not a great place, and did not want to return him there. Neither did she like the idea of leaving him with Croftview Kennels, as she thought he needed a “proper” home.

At this point it was clear that although she obviously very genuinely concerned about the welfare of Charlie, he would be better off not staying in her home. After much discussion, arrangements were made for the JR Whippet Rescue organization to find a foster home for him, which they are hoping to do in a few days time. It struck me that the lady had really come to Croftview for someone to take the decision to rehome Charlie for her, as she was unable to take it herself (she said she had attempted to call some whippet rescue centers, but had been told they were full), seeing herself as a doggie good samaritan.

In all this, although this lady clearly had little clue about dog behaviour, it was obvious she meant well, and that she was relatively happy with her existing dogs, and the way she lived with them. I guess those two dogs could have been much worse off, but filling your home with dogs you can't properly control isn't helping them, and I think she understood that after getting Charlie, and with him, a lot more trouble. However, she should have been advised against adopting him in the first place. What really surprised me was that she was able to go out and get another dog, one that had already needed rescuing, so easily, and without the basic provisions and precautions. Perhaps the argument is that any kennel that attempts to rehome dogs, allows unwanted dogs have some chance of a better future, but I am unconvinced. Most of all, I fail to see, how, if you decide to take on the task of rescuing and rehoming dogs, you can go about it in such an irresponsible fashion with a good conscience. 

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Cassie and The Sheepskin Rugs

This episode took place a little while back now, but it’s been on my mind to write about, under the topic of interesting behaviour.

Some background information is necessary before I get to the actual incident. Cassie had been with us for about five months, and had settled in amazingly well. She was confident, independent, slept quietly in her bed from the first night, and had never peed indoors.

Our house has two levels, joined by a set of very narrow stairs, typical of British Victorian houses. The dogs don’t go upstairs. This is partly because we don’t want them to, and partly because they don’t really like the stairs. Well, they can go up without greater difficulty, but coming down is a bit fraught, because the stairs are quite steep. Having tried this a few times the dogs are a little weary of the stairs. Eddie more so than Cassie, who has gone upstairs a few times on her own, when we have been away, setting off the alarm in the house by triggering the motion sensor in the study. However, this has only happened once or twice. Having rushed back to the house, I would find her on top of the stairs, apparently somewhat frightened to come down on her own.


My friend A., who is an extraordinary cook, was coming over to make dinner for some friends and us. He arrived at our house in the afternoon to start preparing the feast. A. had met Eddie and Cassie before in our home, and had also accompanied us out on a walk on a previous occasion, so they knew him. He is very relaxed around dogs, he likes them, but doesn’t overdo affection or attention, and isn’t averse to telling them off if they invade his space or misbehave. On this occasion he greeted the dogs as he came, and had a cup of coffee with us all in the living room, I seem to remember, before starting work in the kitchen. M. and I then went out to buy some last minute supplies for the upcoming dinner party, leaving A. and the dogs at home on their own.

When we came home, Cassie was peering down at us from the top of the stairs. Surprised, I asked A. if he knew why she was up there. He told us that when we left she had been a little unsettled, and had come and whined at him in the kitchen. He had opened the back door for her, but she wasn’t interested in going out. Unable to figure out what she wanted, A. continued to go about his business in the kitchen, ignoring Cassie. She disappeared and he could hear her walking around upstairs. He had gone to see what she was up after a while, and found her lying on the landing, apparently settled down, and so he left her there.

I wasn’t convinced she would have been settled up there, and my misgivings proved right as I entered our bedroom. We have two sheepskin rugs, one on each side of the bed. Cassie had peed on one (M.’s side) and chewed, and ripped the fleece off a portion of the other one (my side). I must add that meanwhile Eddie was apparently unperturbed at events, and sleeping in his bed in the living room. Both dogs had been exercised and would normally be resting at this time of the afternoon.


I was, and still am, intrigued. Clearly, Cassie was unsettled by our departure and A.’s presence in the kitchen. I expect the fact that he, not a stranger, but an outsider, was clearly “owning” the kitchen, bustling about in it, must have had an effect on her. The kitchen is where the dogs eat, of course, and thus a central place in their lives. In addition, I guess, it is where food for all the pack is kept and “comes” from.

My first thought was that maybe she was looking for us, the rest of her pack, perhaps to warn us about the intruder. Saying that, when she knows we are at home, she doesn’t come upstairs. In fact, the times I can remember that she has gone upstairs have been when we have not been there – we have either been downstairs, or out of the house. I don’t think she was hiding, as she is not a nervous dog, and she had been in with A. in the kitchen trying to get his attention before going upstairs.

What is clear is that she marked the area that must smell the most intensely of us – our bedroom. Maybe she was trying to reinforce her bond with the pack in the face of the kitchen “enemy”. Maybe she was trying to assert her place in the pack in the face of a new member that was clearly occupying an important position, controlling the food. But then she also chewed one of the rugs – I can’t but wonder if the choice of rugs to pee on and chew had any significance or was random – which I would usually see as a sign of frustration or boredom.

A friend suggested she may have been angry at us for leaving her at home with a stranger, and was “punishing” us by soiling and attacking our rugs. I doubt that is the case, although Cassie must to some extent have been aware that what she was doing was “wrong”. She knows not to pee indoors or chew items that don’t belong to her. In fact, there are usually chews available to the dogs, which they use when in the mood, so simple boredom is unlikely to be the reason, either. However, she clearly did not do something “wrong” out of spite, but because the impetus to do these things was stronger than her conditioning not to.


I expect Cassie initially felt some frustration with A. not paying her any attention, and occupying the kitchen. She started by trying to get his attention by whining. When that didn’t work, her now increased frustration drove her upstairs for some reason. Maybe she went there because Eddie, who was in the living room, did not give her what she was craving – attention or reassurance. She must have been pretty anxious by this time to pee on the rug, as marking territory is often as sign of anxiety. Anxiety in dogs often also, of course, finds an outlet in “destructive” behaviour. Hence she went at the rug. This is the tentative explanation I have come to. Please leave a comments if you have any alternative theories, I would love to hear your ideas.

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Saturday, 12 February 2011


“Wait” is one of what I consider the trio of “super-commands” – come, down (or sit) and wait – that all dogs should know in some form. In fact, they are not so much obedience commands, but cornerstones of communication with your dog, making both your lives so much easier and safer. Communicating with your dog is as important as communicating with anyone else you share your house with. You can't expect your dog to know what you want them to do, if you don't tell them. These easy commands are a versatile way to let your dog know what you expect of them in a range of situations.

I use wait many times every day, at home and out and about. Wait is a different command to stay for my dogs. Wait means stop where you are and stay put, don’t move from that spot you’re in, until I tell you to. During wait I may move around, but I do not disappear from my dogs’ view, or only very briefly (to the next room). Stay, on the other hand, means stay there, while I go away, out of your sight, but don’t worry, I will be back soon. During stay they can move about, of course. I tell my dogs to stay when I leave them at home, in the car, or outside a shop. What is important about wait (which is the tricky bit, too) is that they do not move. This makes it incredibly useful, however.

I have described elsewhere how wait is a part of the feeding routine in my house, when the dogs are made to wait in the down position before they go to their bowls. I often practice wait in the down position, but it is not necessary for the dog to be down to wait. The most useful waits are usually standing. I ask my dogs to wait as I open the door to go out with them, so that they don’t rush out before me. Due to the setup of my front door, it is easier for them to exit before me, but wait allows me to retain control, as they only go out when given the go. Very importantly, I ask my dogs to wait before we cross a road. We all stop, and they stand next to me, until I say go, and we all go. I also, and this is invaluable in the wet London winter, tell my dogs to wait in the hallway just when we have entered the house after a walk. They stand in their places allowing me to take my wet shoes and coat off and then dry their paws, so that the don’t they walk all over the floor with muddy feet!

There are many impromptu waits during the day. If my shoelaces come undone on a walk, I say wait, and Eddie and Cassie patiently wait while I tie them up again. You can imagine other such moments. I also use wait as a way to calm my dogs down if they are getting too excited when on the lead. If they pull, whether it is because they are in a hurry to get to the park in the morning or because they have seen a cat, I tell them to wait – that is, stand still, with the leash slack, until I say go. This allows them to calm down somewhat, before continuing walking. I have to admit, however, it often has to be repeated a few times.

Wait is not a difficult thing to teach a dog when there are no distractions around and / or you have the leash as a tool. If they are leashed, and walking next to me, I say wait as I stop, for example at the curbside. If the dogs do not stop, I correct them with a sharp “ah-ah” and a gentle, short, but firm, tug on the leash. I do not keep the leash tightened, as I don’t want them to stop because they are physically restrained, but because they listen to my command.

If they are not leashed, usually indoors (although I also practice this outdoors where there are more distractions, to reinforce) I stand in front of the dogs, and say wait, as well as hold my hand up, palm facing the dogs. I then move away. Inevitably, to start with the dogs will try to follow. I correct with a sharp “ah-ah” as well as moving my body towards the dogs until they stop, and if necessary, gently but firmly pushing the dogs back to the original position. Again, I don’t restrain the dogs in any way.

These simple waits are repeated again and again each day, so the dogs quickly get the hang of it, but my dogs are as excitable and impatient as any others, and every day they also have to be reminded. Nowadays, usually my sharp “ah-ah” is enough to stop them in their tracks.

Then there are the “higher level” waits, where I want my dogs to stop and wait while off leash, outside, usually ahead of me. These I train in conjunction with recall, starting with asking them to wait at the end of an extended normal length leash, moving on to a longer training lead. I use the same technique as at the roadside. I also practice down and wait in the park, where I move away from the dog and then recall them, using the method I use indoors. Again, I must admit, these more difficult waits, especially the wait when they are off somewhere into the distance, are a work in progress. Eddie is fairly good at them now, but Cassie needs more work. She, a more energetic dog, seems to be in either coming or going mode, and struggles to appreciate the wait at a distance so far.

Nevertheless, the wait is one of my very basic commands, which is entirely indispensible to my life with my dogs. As with all commands repetition is key, as is a consistent method, but you are never finished teaching a command, really, just as you can't ever stop communicating with you dogs. I notice very soon that if I don’t tell my dogs to wait by the roadside or by the door, they simply don’t. Well, why should they, if I don’t ask them to?

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Muzzles (Learning by Trial and Error #2)

I try to learn from my mistakes, as I said in my recent post on crates. In that case things worked out pretty well without crates. When it comes to muzzles, the learning curve was a bit more dramatic.

When I first got greyhounds I had the same reaction to muzzles as most people seem to have, seeing them as an imposition, a last resort for very aggressive dogs. You know, for the Rottweiler down the street, not this lovely, elegant creature, the Greyhound. I know now, of course, what a stupid view that is, but I also realise, remembering my own stupidity, how difficult it is to make people understand how important muzzles are to greyhound socialization and care. Yet it is key. I hear stories at the adoption kennel of how many greys have been returned because of problems that could so easily be solved by a muzzle, such as chewing and nipping. People object that they don’t want to muzzle their dog because it is “cruel”, but what is more cruel: muzzling your dog or giving it up for adoption again?

I have made two muzzle mistakes. Really, only the second made me realize how wrong I had been going. My first greyhound Eddie is a bit of a bully. He is fairly dominant, but he also does not really know how to play with other dogs without nipping. What seems to start as a harmless game of chase, can, with submissive dogs, end up in an overt display of dominance where Eddie goes for the other dog’s neck. He is only marking, but with smaller dogs this isn’t a pleasant experience for the underdog, their owner, or me. Needless to say, he could easily hurt a smaller dog. In addition, if he goes for another dominant dog, he gets into a fight, of course, which on one occasion resulted in a wound that needed stitches.

Now, had I been a more experienced greyhound owner, I would have made sure Eddie kept wearing his muzzle in situations where this scenario could arise. Like many na├»ve greyhound “virgins” I kept his muzzle on him for a few days, as advised, but as he didn’t display any obvious signs of aggression, I left it off from then on. The vast majority of the time this was perfectly fine. Only sometimes, of course, it wasn’t. I pondered how I could best make Eddie understand that nipping little dogs was not a good thing to do. He didn’t do it on the leash, and when he did it in the dog park he was usually quite a distance away from me, so it was difficult to try to correct or distract him. Besides, I expect the behaviour, as so many others, held its own reward for him, reinforcing itself.

In the meantime, I got my second greyhound Cassie. Again, I only muzzled her for a brief period, and she has proven not to be a greyhound of the nipping kind. Eddie and Cassie seemed to get on fairly well. There was virtually no aggression between them, although Eddie did show signs of “jealousy”: reverting to puppyish behaviour, mouthing and jumping, to get more attention. Then, being keen on them becoming playmates I tried to introduce toys. This did end in fighting. Eddie was very possessive, even with new toys. So I took the toys away, and, again, there seemed to be no aggression between them.

Then, one evening I was in the dog park with the two, and another dog walked past the fence. Both Eddie and Cassie started barking, and as the other dog barked back, the tension soon escalated. Suddenly Eddie turned and went for Cassie. He was in a real state of aggressive excitement, and I guess as he couldn’t get at the dog outside he went for what to him still was not really a member of his pack, Cassie, who was also barking and growling. It was quite a bite and she had to have six staples. I put the incident down to over-excitement, and made a mental note to intervene before my dogs got to that state in a similar situation. Alas, I did not muzzle Eddie.

Some weeks later I started introducing toys again. Eddie isn’t really interested in toys at all, he was simply showing who was boss earlier on. Once he had accepted Cassie, and she had learned her place, showing deference to him, he didn't seem to have the need to show his ownership of the toys. Ed will on rare occasions play with toys, mainly stuffed ones, for a few minutes, but he soon tires. Cassie, on the other hand, turned out to have quite a thing for squeaky rubber toys. I started using the squeakies to train recall with Cassie as she was more motivated by them than food treats. She loves to zoom around with the toy in her mouth once she gets them. All was well for a while.

Then, on one walk, as Cassie was running around with her toy, Eddie started chasing her, and did his usual nipping routine. Now, if she’d been a thicker-skinned breed, nothing would have happened, but as greyhound skin is as it is, he managed to make a hole in her again. Another trip to the vet, another stitch. Finally, the penny dropped. I really needed to muzzle Eddie when he was loose and running around with other dogs, until he learned not to bite. To alleviate my own issues with muzzles I got some lightweight ones, and started carrying them around on walks. When I let Eddie off I would muzzle him.
Now, I still don’t want to muzzle my dogs if I don't have to, ideally. However, the muzzle in itself has acted as a training aid, allowing me to be able to tell Eddie off when he is misbehaving, without taking any risks. He has therefore toned down his bullying and nipping quite significantly. I have over time stopped using the muzzle on Eddie as much – I trust him with Cassie now. However, I usually carry muzzles with me, so if there are small dogs around I can be on the safe side.

With any future greyhounds I would certainly extend my use of the muzzle if they displayed any problem behaviour, especially when being integrated with other greys. Accidents will happen with greyhounds, as they have such fragile skin. However, because they do, it is wise, I now know, to keep the muzzle on just a little bit longer, and to use it as a tool in training your greys in the intricate ways of being a pet dog, both at home and in the dog park.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Notes from the Kennels (Week 3)

I have had another two days as a volunteer kennel-hand at Croftview Greyhound Rehoming kennels. Although the tasks I perform may seem simple and monotonous, actually there is a lot to take in and learn. Just handling the dogs is a learning curve, practically, intellectually and emotionally.

The most important lesson I have learned so far is that when you have to take forty dogs out, clean their kennels, feed them, take them back in, take them out for exercise and bring them back in a few of more times, before cleaning kennels and coating the dogs up for the night, there is simply no time for any kind of “dog whispering”.

A dog behaviourist will tell you that the way to discourage an over-enthusiastic dog from jumping up at you is to ignore the behaviour and reward the dog, with your attention, only when it is calm. Great in theory, but there simply is no time to implement this on nigh on forty greyhounds, over-excited at the prospect of a much longed-for bowl of food or run in the paddock. Neither is there time to gently, with patience and treats, gain the trust of the few shy and fearful ones. You simply have to put the slip-lead on and take them where they need to go.

Some dogs respond to a firm “back off” delivered together with a posture that leaves the dog with no doubt about what I am saying. You have to physically stop the dogs from exiting the kennels before you have them leashed (I have sometimes failed, and had to deal with, to my great horror, a greyhound escaping). This means either simply standing in their way, pushing them away physically, or somehow trying to impress on them that you mean business and they need to stand back. Under the circumstances the latter is not an easy feat.

Inevitably, over-excitement will be reinforced, as it is always rewarded by some kind of interesting break from the dog’s confinement in its kennel. There is little time to spend with the dogs if you are not taking them to food or exercise, to change this cycle. For a kennel dog, usually, any kind of interaction is exciting and rewarding in itself.

The case with the shy ones is perhaps a little better, as they should grow more confident when they get to know their handlers and realize no harm will come to them when taken out of their “lair”. There are, however, some cases of dog so nervous, that they really need special attention to deal with their anxiety. Unfortunately, there is practically little time for such special attention in a large rehoming kennel, the more the pity for the dog, as it is less likely to be adopted if it displays excess fear. Although I am hoping to find time to perhaps try to work a little with one such dog, a beautiful brindle bitch called Alex, I am not sure that any work in kennels will be enough. Really she needs a home environment and twenty-four hour attention for a long time.


Considering Alex, is the first time I have actually thought that psychopharmaca may be a fairly good option. I am still on the fence when it comes to treating behavioural problems in dogs with anti-depressants. It makes me somewhat uneasy, but I can see that in extreme cases there may be an argument for it. In Alex’s case, I wonder if anti-anxiety drugs (administered under the supervision of a veterinarian, of course) may not simply improve her chances of being adopted, and getting into an environment where underlying causes of her fear may be properly treated. I am unlikely to find out, as I doubt the kennels have the financial resources to even consider this route.

In the meantime, I am left trying to learn how to best deal a variety of dog behaviours in a situation where time, space and money is scarce. It isn’t easy, but it sure is a good experience. 

Feel free to comment, if you have any experience or ideas for how to work with dog behaviour in a kennel environment.

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