My next door neighbour, who has two poodles, recently lent me a book about dog behaviour, The Dog Listener by Jan Fennell.
A few months ago I called in a dog behaviourist for help with our junior staffy, Harry. We got Harry two years ago, when he was three. He'd been rescued from the pound (which is where he'd been desexed - in other words, he'd been an 'entire' male dog for his first three years.)
Harry is a strange fellow. He is both anxious and macho. Like all staffies he is extremely affectionate and people-oriented, wanting to be in a lap whenever possible. He would follow me around the house, never wanting to be seperated. He often barked at the faintest noise in the distance, often in the middle of the night (he sleeps on the floor in our room). He was over-reactive. Out in public he was mostly well-behaved but at home his seperation anxiety, combined with his dominance (trying to control us by barking - he has a loud deep bark) got on my nerves. He bullied our cats, especially the more timid male. I felt like I was constantly shouting "Harry!" in an exasperated or angry voice but not getting anywhere with him.
The behaviourist instigated an infrastructural transformation in the way we treated Harry. Of course, we weren't prepared or able to go as far as she'd have wanted us to. But we learnt some useful techniques which helped us contain the main problems and which have made Harry a much more relaxed and co-operative dog.
The first thing we did was bring his basket downstairs to give him a place of his own. In retrospect it seems ridiculous that we hadn't done this before, as we had with our first staffy, Lot (who is now 12). We got Harry at a time of upheaval (my father's decline and eventual death, buying a house and moving into it, Olle starting school). I was under a lot of stress - it wasn't the best of times for taking on a new dog who was also under a lot of stress. But we've lived and learned.
Now, in the evenings when we all gather in the living room, we tether Harry to the fireplace grate, which his basket is next to. He lies down and goes to sleep. Before, he would restlessly roam around the room and the house, chasing the cats, trying to take food off anyone who was eating, jumping onto laps and insiting on licking our faces in his over-anxious way. It was tiring. Now, he goes to sleep. [Ultimately, he is supposed to learn to do this without being tethered, but we don't have the time to work on that. If we don't tether him, he will not stay in the basket, simple as that.]
We also tether him in the bedroom at night. Now he sleeps through the night. He no longer feels the need to guard us against strange noises.
Next, we began to feed the dogs at random times, instead of at 5pm when Harry began barking, demanding to be fed. We ignored that barking. And when we fed him, we put the food bowls on the counter, picked up a bit of human food and ate it in front of him. The message is: I'm the leader, I eat before you and I decide when you eat. He' s stopped demanding his dinner.
We began putting him into the yard with chewies or bones. Before, the moment he was put out or locked in a room (eg if children were visiting), he'd begin scrabbling at the door frantically, even though he can see us through the glass doors. He'd even bitten into door frames. Now, he stays outside calmly, lying in the sun or wandering around. That's a huge change.
The final change was to try and prevent him from greeting people at the front door. That hadn't been a major issue for us, but the behaviourist saw it as an expression of leadership and we had to make it clear that we were the leaders. I don't think we've been very thorough in instigating that change yet.
However, after I read Jan Fennell's book, I began another tactic. Fennell points out that the leader (she bases much of her theory on wolf behaviour) comes and goes without reference to the rest of the pack. She suggests that humans should come and go from their house without reference to their dog/s. So nowadays, whenever we leave the house or arrive home, we don't speak to the dogs (who do come to the door to greet us.) We walk past them into the kitchen and then we might deign to say hello to them. This is a way for us to establish dominance. Interestingly, both dogs now lie down in their cosy spots when they realise we are getting ready to leave home without them - they don't attempt to persuade us to take them with us (which was another of Harry's persistent traits.)
I don't know if our behaviourist has studied Fennell or if she just happens to take the same approach, but it was a funny coincidence that our neighbour lent me a book which is about what we'd just gone through. Although she's not a writer and there are a few editing weaknesses, the basis of Fennell's book is fascinating. She began to study the behaviour of her own dogs after seeing the famous 'horse whisperer' Monty Roberts in action. She wondered whether there was a 'dog language' that she could decipher and speak to her dogs in. She discovered that it was the language of leadership. It's a truism that dogs are pack animals, but what Fennell focuses on is not the graduated heirarchy of a pack, but the steep heirarchy of the alpha leaders (male and female) versus the Rest. She isolated a number of recurring situations where leadership (and follower-ship) are negotiated in a wolf pack - eating time, when the alphas leave and re-enter the pack after hunting, at times of threat and danger. She watched how her dogs communicated amongst themselves at such times and then began to adopt the physical posture of a leader - which often involves strenuously ignoring the others.
The first half of her book is about her personal story of involvment with dogs. The second half is case histories, dogs and owners she has helped. Within her scheme, Harry's behaviour was clearly that of a dog who thought he had to be the leader of our pack but was very stressed by that responsibility. When we removed the responsibility by explicitly displaying leadership ourselves, he was able to relax back into a subservient role.
It's transformed the way I think about dogs, even though I've had dogs for a large part of my life and read a number of books about the human-dog bond. I think Fennell understands the fundamentals in a way that many other behaviourists don't.
Harry still has some annoying habits and I haven't had time to do all the training that was suggested. But he has improved by 1000 percent and our domestic life is a lot less fraught. I'm really very fond of him now.