8 Aug 2011

Happy Gotcha Day, Noodles!

It’s hard to believe that it has been a year today since we adopted Noodles. He’s come a long way since then but he still has some difficulties adjusting to his new life and I believe he always will. Whilst we were prepared for some of the immediate problems that an ex-stud/kennelled dog may face, there have been many surprises along the way. We anticipated a steep learning curve with things like housetraining, traffic and everyday noises, lack of basic obedience training etc but pacing when stressed, problems with reflective surfaces, fear of water were unexpected.
We were delighted to discover that he enjoys the company of other dogs and he has many good pals. What we were totally unprepared for was his distrust of people. When we met him he was very friendly, jumping all over us, seemingly pleased with the attention. He was also eager to please, a trait that has continued and flourished.  It was when we had our first visitor to the house that his problems became apparent (see previous post). Noodles is still very nervous of people and I can only attribute this to a lack of socialisation as a puppy. I’m afraid that my opinion of many breeders and the way they treat their dogs has diminished seeing the long term effects this can have. I know there are responsible breeders who treat their dogs well, but they seem to be in the minority. I have spoken to many other people who have adopted ex-breeding dogs and our experiences have been remarkably similar. These dogs find their new lives bewildering and stressful at first. Owners are sometimes unprepared and struggle to help the dogs acclimatise. There is often a lack of information from the rescue agencies. Not their fault, as they aren’t aware of the full extent of the problems themselves.

Although some ex-breeding dogs end up at their appropriate breed rescue, many are sold on directly from breeders. It seems to me that they are often not classed as true “rescue” dogs but their needs  and problems can match or far exceed those of the "traditional" rescue cases we are more familiar with. Whilst I would always advocate adopting a rescue over buying a puppy I realise that this is not appropriate for everyone. These dogs can be hard work but with patience, kindness and lots of hard work it is truly wonderful to see them flourish. The next time you think about sharing your life with another dog, please spare a thought for those ex-breeding dogs who, like Noodles, so deserve a second chance.

1 Aug 2011

Noodles vs Visitors

Although Noodles loves dogs, sadly he doesn't feel quite the same way about humans. We discovered this early on when my mother first came to visit. On her arrival Noodles barked incessantly and kept running towards her, then laying at her feet, almost touching her. No amount of distraction with treats or toys made the slightest difference. If shut in his crate or confined to another room he became even more hysterical, pacing and barking and I felt that this wasn't really the best solution as it wasn't actually addressing the problem itself. We took him out for a walk and then returned home. He was absolutely fine with her while we were out but the minute we got back inside the house he started again. I noticed that if we sat in silence, he did quieten down but the barking seemed to be triggered by her voice and any movement or gesture she made. He kept up this behaviour for hours, and eventually we had to sit in separate rooms, me with Noodles and her with the TV for company. Not a very successful first meeting.

Over the next few weeks other visitors tried and were all greeted with the same response. The one exception was T, owner of Molly the Irish Terrier. T came with us when we adopted Noodles and he has always been very fond of her. This gave me a small glimmer of hope as it proved he could like some people, not just J2 and myself.

We consulted two different behaviourists who were both helpful, giving us various strategies to try. These included:
  • Thoroughly wear him out before the visitor is due to arrive. Not always practical for the unexpected visitor.
  • Stuff a kong with his dinner (avoiding high protein food), freeze it and give it to him when the visitor arrives. This was partially successful but he still found time to bark between licks.
  • Remove him from the room using a houseline every time he barks. Wait a few minutes until he stops barking, reward, and then re-enter the room. Repeat as necessary. Not as easy as it sounds. In reality this means walking in and out of the room constantly and it almost becomes a kind of dance routine.
  • All visitors are asked to ignore him, no looking, touching, or talking to him. Easier said than done when he is right in your face barking at top volume.
  • Ask visitors to throw treats on the floor, still ignoring him. He still continued to bark between mouthfuls!
The second behaviourist actually visited with my mother since she seemed to be the person Noodles disliked the most. Within about 10 minutes she had him under control using a combination of treats, a firm voice and a houseline. She made it look so easy! Since then Noodles has reached an uneasy truce with my mother. Personally, I think he now tolerates her because she brings him sausages on every visit.

We discovered that when the doorbell rang, if we took him to the front door on a houseline to see the visitor, he seemed less agitated, although he did still bark. We only invited dog-experienced people to visit during this first phase of training and he was rewarded the minute he stopped barking, but timing was crucial here. Visitors were encouraged to throw treats on the floor for him, still not looking at him. The danger with this is that he stops barking at them as a visitor, but begins barking, demanding treats instead.

Some visitors tried disobeying the rules about ignoring him and giving him commands such as "sit", "down" in exchange for treats. This can work well, if the person is confident and has good timing with giving the reward.

We also found that we reached various plateaus where he was slowly getting better but couldn't seem to progress any further. Then we had to rethink and perhaps try something different. Our most recent change of strategy  involved borrowing his pal Molly the Irish Terrier for pre-arranged visitors. Molly loves most people (except postmen) so we were hoping she would have a positive influence on Noodles. On arrival, visitors are again asked to ignore Noodles (who still barks, but less manically) and make a big fuss of Molly. Noodles can't resist investigating and cautiously approaches the visitor, who continues to ignore him. At the moment we are only inviting people that we know Molly particularly likes to avoid any negative reactions. This has had the most immediate response as Noodles calms down much quicker and on our last attempt was able to lay down with Molly in our front room without barking. Obviously we cannot rely on Molly every time we have a visitor, but I think if we try this a few times he may eventually learn that visitors are not to be feared especially if they bring sausages. 

I have to say that this has been by far our greatest challenge with Noodles and we went through periods where it was just easier to discourage anyone from visiting at all, as it is such hard work, and the visitor has to be well prepared. It certainly doesn't make for a relaxing evening and it can be difficult to remain calm and focussed. It has been very rewarding to see his behaviour improve since our first few visitors but we still hope to progress further. My guess is that it will only happen with lots of patience and at his own pace.