Mrs Weston was delighted that her son, who is blind, was, for the first time in his life, going to become an independent man. He had just completed his arduous Guide Dog course with his new Golden Retriever, Glynn. Jeremy lived just up the road from his mum and whenever they met it would be at his flat or her house to chat and for general help.
Jeremy has been blind since he was five years old and was completely dependant on his mother and family. But now he had his own flat around the corner and when he heard that he had been accepted for a guide dog course he was elated. Freedom at last. Something sighted people cannot imagine; the freedom to walk anywhere you want, when you want safely guided by a sensible well trained guide dog. Jeremy could not wait to walk to his mum’s house on his own, or rather, with canine not human assistance. Unfortunately, he and his guide dog, Glynn, were in for a traumatic surprise.
Mrs Weston lived in her house with her daughter Miranda and a three year old German Shepherd bitch named Lady, but the name certainly did not fit Lady’s attitude. What the Weston family had not bargained for was the reaction of Lady to Glynn’s arrival. They thought she might be annoyed or a little jealous as she had been the family’s only dog but they were certainly not ready for what they were about to experience.
Lady went berserk and tried to attack Glynn who was taken aback by the ferocity of Lady’s aggression. Fortunately, they were all able to control the dogs using leads and Glynn made his escape from the house with Jeremy who later told me that he feared for Glynn’s well being, but equally realised the impasse they were now all facing. Mrs Weston had tried a number of conventional ways to try to control Lady including Dog Training Clubs but so far had not had much success.
They tried again the next day several times but Lady began to bark aggressively as soon as she heard Glynn walking up the front garden path, never mind entering the actual hallway of the house.
That was the gist of Mrs Weston’s call to me on this particular day last summer so I agreed to visit her at her home and check out Lady. I had already explained to Mrs Weston how to handle the dog on my arrival, but I was not surprised to hear Lady in full flow when I knocked on the front door. She was yapping, teeth flashing and giving out as many “Get Lost” signals as she could manage.
After the initial disturbance I sat down and Lady was brought into the room on a lead and released after a few minutes. I had already observed that she was nervous and aggressive but moreover very dominant in her behaviour towards all the family. Yes, this bitch had learnt how to control and manipulate people to a high degree and her ability to gain attention was equally well rehearsed and effective.
One false move and she would be on me. I have always used my trusty brief case to ward off innumerable aggressively inclined dogs. Lady tried all her well tested and trusted behaviours to get rid of me in particular, one of them being to bark endlessly so no one could hear themselves talking. Eventually she calmed down and we managed to bore and ignore her into silence. Lady was typically over reactive to people, dogs, unusual sightings, sudden movements, indeed, the entire repertoire of the nervous dog driven by fear. The German Shepherd breed seems to have too many nervous dogs. I have met a lot over the years and oddly enough the majority appear to be poor specimens, with slender bodies but this may just be a coincidence in the cases I have dealt with. Excluding one or two pitches towards me Lady’s manner improved with time as she realised that I was not as dangerous as she first thought and, moreover, I had been in the room twenty minutes longer than most previous visitors.
Mrs Weston, Miranda and Jeremy described how they had got Lady as a puppy and that from day one she was aggressive to anybody or animal. As she grew, she became worse no matter what they did to try to stop the bad behaviour developing. The paper boy was a prime target as was any visiting engineer or service man. Miranda is of slight build and she had some bites on her arm inflicted by Lady when trying to hold her still or place her lead and collar on or simply trying to control her. The biting, though aggressive was done in such a way as not to inflict a serious wound but more to grip as Lady had learnt in her frustrations that this was a method which could be used to control humans or, at least, this particular one. She treated Jeremy with much more respect because of his huge size and because he did not tolerate any nonsense from her. However, even Jeremy could not calm Lady down when she decided to throw a strop.
As in all these situations, emotion and unwitting loss of control was partly responsible for Lady getting away with her appalling behaviour. But the puppy’s breeding conditions or inherited behaviour were also contributory factors. Many readers will empathise with Mrs Weston whilst others will wonder why Lady was allowed to become so uncontrollable. Well, if there is one certain fact in dog behaviour problem solving it is that “nothing is certain”. Most people would not deliberately lose control of their lifestyle and allow a dog to drastically effect their movements. Dogs do grow into behaviours, good or bad, and if owners could only see the end result of giving their dog the benefit of the doubt too many times they would, of course, not do so. The ability of dogs to look into our face and obtain endless forgiveness is well documented. Unfortunately, this forgiveness allows bad behaviour to ferment and compound. What I am trying to say is that dog owners, like their dogs, come in a variety of characters and temperaments and in turn perceive different actions by their animals in different ways. What is normal for one is unacceptable to another and whether a dog is a goody or a baddy is determined by our attitude to them.
Having completed my information gathering I said goodbye to all, ignored Lady and left after agreeing to return with Jeremy and Glynn later.
We had previously placed Lady in the garden which is divided by a low fence. Glynn was brought into the garden protected by the fence but as soon as Lady saw Glynn she went off like a demented beast. Glynn, chosen for his calmness, appeared ill at ease though he did not panic and his tail was wagging with anticipatory tension. I had seen enough to begin a plan of action.
I was acutely aware that there was a complex situation before me. There was Lady, a German Shepherd bitch who was nervously aggressive to dogs and people and dominant with her own family group and there was also a young blind man with his new guide dog , Glynn, who could no longer visit his mother but was still dependant on her for daily assistance. Added to this was also a guide dog which I could not allow to be bitten or traumatised in any way but he had to be accepted by Lady. I came home and thought that if I succeeded in all areas it would be a miracle, especially considering the complexity of the characters on this behavioural stage.
Throughout my visits and consultations with the Weston family I had a film crew with me to record aspects of the training course.
I gave Miranda and her Mum a Dominance Reduction Course to follow and apply to Lady. This included barring her from having full run of the house and garden, obedience training and the techniques I specialise in like dropping lead ends over radiator knobs to help secure and control a dog in the home, slamming doors in her face to stop her throwing herself through the gap at visitors, getting her used to a muzzle lead and dog halter (face collar) and ignoring her constant vocal and physical interruptional demands. On top of this I had to bear in mind that Lady had to take on board all these new training techniques quickly because Jeremy had to visit his Mum daily and Glynn had to go too.
The obvious answer was to get rid of Lady so that she could be retrained in less complex circumstances, but that would not be taking into account the emotions of owner and dog which I mentioned earlier.
As I said previously, Miranda was of small build and Lady appeared to know and abuse this advantage so I explained to Miranda how she could get the psychological upper hand first. Then I crossed my fingers and left the entire family to get on with the course. But I was up against a very determined German Shepherd bitch.
The guide dog situation was now dealt with. In company with a film production team the family and I decided to meet in a park to record the events. I accompanied Mrs Weston, Miranda and Lady. Later on Jeremy, Glynn and a second trainer came from the far side of the park. I organised it so that we would merge at a point and walk along parallel to each other with the two dogs apart by perhaps forty feet. Over the next few minutes we walked about four hundred metres gradually converging until the dogs were now only about three metres apart and still on loose leads.
Lady initially reacted aggressively not just to Glynn but to every dog or human being that got too close. However, when she observed how all the family and Glynn paid little heed to her excitable yapping she began to calm down. Remember, Lady would normally have had one family member fighting with her, physically holding her and shouting at her to stop barking; this was the norm. But it was not happening and so Lady was not getting the muddled signals from her handler and therefore the build up and excitement element of the situation had been partly removed.
We repeated this exercise many times until one hour later Lady was sat relaxed next to Glynn and all seemed well. Mrs Weston and Miranda were very edgy and distrustful of Lady and from past experiences, so they should be. I further discovered that Lady was one of those pet dogs that spends its time being walked at 6am in the morning or 12 midnight to avoid other dogs. Apparently there are thousands of these about – people who have given up with themselves, with trainers and behaviourists.
After a few months of gentle introductions Lady and Glynn began to adjust, but very slowly. Don’t forget that Lady, unlike Glynn, had not had the many experiences of learning how to behave properly with other dogs. She had not known what it was like to play, mouth, jump, nuzzle or scent exchange and now we were expecting her to accept Glynn into her world of fear, danger and the like.
Glynn’s fine temperament helped a great deal and though we had a few close shaves, Glynn, like many stable minded males, was not inclined to fight with a bitch. He did not view her aggression in the same light as we humans did and anyhow it was a bitch who was still attractive though perhaps not quite behaving like a lady!
A couple of months later the Westons had to go away so I took Lady into my kennels for further observations. She stayed three weeks and the first week was very hard work as she reacted aggressively to anyone trying to get near her or the kennel space. I decided to ignore her completely and all my staff paid little attention to her noise and paranoia.
Once Lady had settled down I gave instructions to my staff that she was not to be fussed over but allowed in her own time to approach us. This often works and appeared to be going well because Lady could constantly see other dogs receiving affection, touch and play games on the lawns throughout each day and as time passed she became less fearful and more interested in her environment. She was probably wondering why the other dogs were getting attention and she was not.
On day seven she made her first move towards me and my kennel maid and from that point onwards she began to relax although like all nervous dogs, always ready for action. Several small inoffensive dogs were selected to meet Lady on the lawn. They ranged from Cocker Spaniels to Labradors, Crossbreeds, Whippets and Golden Retrievers. Lady was, as always, on a loose lead and the decoy dogs were free. It is amazing how quickly dogs pick up bad vibes from an aggressive dog like Lady and give her a wide berth at first. The fact that she was a bitch clearly deluded some into thinking that the risk was worth it and they got to within three feet of her before the eye to eye contact and the body stiffness she displayed warned them off. We continued this routine until in the second week she was selecting certain dogs to initiate play with. Lady was playing with other dogs and her natural desire to meet and contact her own kind was unfolding before our eyes. This is when working with serious behaviour cases brings rewards to us all. I knew then that when the Westons returned they would be most surprised to see their Lady in an open garden with other dogs playing in a relaxed way.
When Mrs Weston, Miranda and Jeremy arrived to collect Lady they brought Glynn with them. For the first time ever, we released both dogs, after an initial lead controlled introduction, into the garden.
Lady remembered Glynn and they both ran off at full pelt across the lawn and Mrs Weston and Miranda were tense with anticipation for the worst scenario. But it worked. Lady had truly had her image of other dogs changed for good. Though she still barks initially at strange dogs she is so much better and everybody concerned is more relaxed. Lady, of course is getting more positive attention from her owners and learning what to do brings pleasures and rewards through dog training.
I was still unsure about Lady’s attitude towards new people she might meet, especially children and on that subject I felt she was still a danger to people. Moreover, the level of obedience control had to be greater than at present and Lady would always have to wear a muzzle in public places or in situations where her owners were unsure of her reactions.
Originally Lady had been brought to me to deal with her aggression to Glynn and this main problem had been solved. However, I did not feel comfortable about her aggression towards people and I had still not ruled out euthanasia as a recommendation. This, of course, was not what I wanted to happen taking into consideration all the work everybody had done over the past half year so provided they used the muzzle as instructed I felt that they could carry on the course.
The Westons continue with their work increasing obedience control over Lady and Mrs Weston now feels she has achieved the best she can with her. Lady visited me again recently and yes, she is a very different dog. She took to me and remembered us all and is happy with any of the dogs she meets. her innate shyness will always be there but her reactions have been tempered. She appears much more relaxed and confident and her experiences have helped to produce this new calmer manner.
Mrs Weston brought me a video tape of Lady and Glynn playing in her garden. It was immensely rewarding to see both dogs enjoying their time together and they have become very solid friends. But we have another problem developing! Now when Jeremy comes with Glynn to his Mum’s house every day Lady will try to prevent them leaving by barking excitedly and grabbing Glynn by his neck, legs and mouth in a gentle pleading way. Lady cannot cope with his departure because she loves him so much. Dare I say it – women and dogs – you just can’t please them!
By Colin Tennant
Principal of the Cambridge Institute of Dog Behaviour & Training