Dog Behaviour – Teaching Rules and Boundaries

Of the thousands of dogs awaiting new owners in re-homing centres across the UK – the exact number is unknown, but it probably goes into the hundreds of thousands – John and Sylvia chose Harvey, a Labrador x probably aged about 12-18 months old.

Before entering a small satellite kennel attached to a major animal welfare charity, Harvey had been found wandering the streets of East London. Why he was abandoned will remain unknown, but his appealing expression touched the hearts of his new owners, who took him home to their comfortable semi-detached home in Essex. It was as if it was Christmas for Harvey, his every need (or perceived need) was catered for – Weetabix, milk and sugar for breakfast, kibble dog food for dinner and copious amounts of treats in between; he lacked for nothing, that is, apart from a set of house rules, training and leadership.

John and Mary are nearing retirement, their family having all left home, so Harvey was to be the source of companionship, affection and the reason to go out walking. Things didn’t quite work out like that, however.

Harvey soon assessed the landscape, as rescue dogs seem to do after a few weeks of observing the family’s habits, and demanded attention, but when Mary stroked him he gripped her wrist and “gave her the eye”. She felt quite intimidated at times, although the grip never actually became a bite. Harvey would regularly steal articles, particularly personal items and defended them aggressively when told to release them, which he did, but only when he was bored with them. A favourite pastime was to rush around the home, in and out of rooms, on and off furniture at speed and then roll on his back to demand attention, which he duly received, but in exchange, Harvey would mouth the hand and use all four paws to grip and inflict painful scratches.

A few months went by, but Harvey’s behaviour was getting worse. He took no notice of anything he was told and his boisterous behaviour became too much for John and Mary to control. Despite installing a baby gate to keep him within the confines of the kitchen, when visitors came he leapt over it and rushed at them, sometimes knocking them backwards and gripping their hands. When they turned their backs, he leapt higher and several of Mary and John’s longstanding friends don’t bother to call on them any more.

Something had to be done. The home was being used as a racetrack, Harvey pulled for Britain when out on his lead and attempted to attack any dog on sight, plus he was becoming aggressive towards Mary and John to the point that they were becoming fearful of him. Even though Harvey had been designated a comfortable armchair in the lounge, immediately John vacated his armchair, Harvey would jump onto it and refuse to budge when John returned. There was no way that Harvey would move; growling and snarling ensured that he stayed put, which meant that John had to sit elsewhere. Harvey was in control.

Searching the Internet for help, John found a local woman described as a “dog listener” who claimed to be able to solve all their problems. Her lengthy visit left John and Mary exhausted listening to instructions that included ignoring Harvey’s bad behaviour by simply turning their backs on him; always eating a piece of food before giving him his food to indicate who’s boss and keeping him in for two months, that is, no walks or exercise outside their relatively small home and garden. John and Mary were surprised that when they went for a walk with Harvey on lead to observe his behaviour, the woman didn’t want to handle him, but simply observed at a distance.

Trusting in the advice they were given for a substantial fee, John and Mary followed the programme for several weeks, but to no avail. Harvey’s behaviour was worse. His racetrack antics occurred more often and his dominant behaviour simply became too much for them. Denying exercise and mental stimulation that dogs enjoy when taken for a walk or run in the park meant that Harvey had a surfeit of energy that he was unable to expend. Mary likened his behaviour to that of a demented wild animal incarcerated in a cage.

Harvey had to go. They were distraught; there was no way they could go on, but John doesn’t give up easily and when he was recommended to a professionally qualified behaviour practitioner, he knew he had to give Harvey one last chance.

The basic needs of a dog are water, food, exercise, shelter and affection. Without the first four of these elements no dogs can be healthy; affection is ideally reciprocal, but it has to be earned and not given without cost. Harvey had it all, apart from the exercise element over an enforced period of two months prior to the arrival of the behaviour practitioner.

Harvey’s reception for the practitioner was his usual robust welcome, but he was immediately calmed. However, Harvey didn’t acquiesce without a challenge or two and an intimidating stare. Calm, assertiveness showed Harvey that he had no reason to take control; he is no leader, simply dominant because he had been allowed to be since his arrival in Essex. No rules had been set out upon his arrival, so he made he own up as he went along.

When John and Mary were asked for Harvey’s collar and lead, he appeared reluctant and had to be coaxed into leaving the home. A few prompts saw Harvey walking calmly along the road, followed by his amazed owners. He protested a few times by sitting down and refusing to budge, but a few more encouraging prompts saw Harvey walking nicely to heel.

Approaching dogs had always been a real problem for John and Mary, because Harvey would bark, snarl and try to attack any dog of any size. Despite momentarily slipping into aggressive mode when a dog came into view, a firm verbal correction and simple restraint saw Harvey calm and after asking the owners of the other dog if they would mind if he interacted with their dog, the dogs sniffed each other and then went on their way. No aggression, just a respectful introduction, as it should be. Similar meetings occurred with several dogs and eventually Harvey ignored other approaching dogs. John was delighted and to be able to walk with his dog for the first time in a calm manner was clearly evident in his broad smile.

It takes years of practice and experience to be able to demonstrate to unskilled, well-meaning owners, who desperately want to enjoy the companionship that dogs are uniquely able to give. After nearly a year of enduring the trials and tribulations of dog ownership, Mary and John are moving steadily towards enjoying Harvey’s company. He has a new set of rules and is learning to accept leadership from devoted, generous owners.

At the end of the visit, John said that if he had known what he had been taught that afternoon when Harvey first came home, he and his wife would not have endured months of frustration and appalling behaviour from their dog. So, perhaps the moral of the story is to seek out a professionally qualified dog behaviour practitioner, someone who can actually demonstrate and give full explanations of what they advise and why.

Written by Sue Gilmore

This article appeared in Dogs Monthly magazine