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Casey's Story

Be consistent. Start as you mean to go on.

From the start Casey was very difficult. Before Lesley and Colin Harpley brought her home from Chilterns Dog Rescue Society, she had been left in a flat for 12 hours a day whilst her owner worked. She had not been socialised nor house trained at all. In addition, when she showed signs of nervous aggression to people and dogs, while at the same time being quite dominant. Lesley explains how they got over the problem.

Casey was quite nervous when we tried training her at home, and would run off and stand looking at them from a distance. She would also do things like barging through to the front of our pack, snapping and biting at our other dogs on the way in or out of the house.

Fair but firm
We decided to be ‘fair but firm,’ establishing the ground rules from Day One. There was no way we were having Casey bite the other dogs and barge ahead, and anyway, she was far too nervous and unskilled socially to be top dog. So, everything we did was to reinforce her place at the bottom of our pack.

We made her wait to go out behind us and the other dogs, fed her last (but only just after) the other dogs etc etc. If she did bite at one of the others, we immediately put her on her side firmly and pinned her down to emphasise her position and give one of the more extreme calming signals. We were more gentle, of course, with her agility training but still ensured we reinforced the positive and desired behaviours rather than the negative ones.

One evening, Colin and I sat on the grass ‘ignoring her’ for 20 minutes after Casey ran off a few yards in apparent fear. We then rewarded her greatly with treats and fuss when she eventually crept round close to us. It was really hard to tell if Casey was genuinely afraid, or whether she was exhibiting signs of ‘submissive dominance’. Either way, we felt that there was no point in chasing after her, as it would only reinforce the undesired behaviour and she was perfectly safe, if uncertain, standing several yards away.

A further factor is that, of all our dogs, Casey has the strongest 'work ethic' and instinctive herding tendency. We had to learn to distinguish this from her otherwise anti-social behaviour. We tried to separate her instinctive 'sheepdog' behaviour from anxiety induced and unacceptable behaviour.

Training results in behaviour modification
We took her to training pretty much straight away. I realise that some people may feel this is debatable, but we wanted to be quite consistent with her from the start and in our experience, rescued dogs suss out their environment and the ground rules pretty much in the first month, so we didn’t want to go through a second problem phase. Again, we were firm but fair with her and did it in a controlled and safe environment with support from other handlers. It was so upsetting to see Casey so afraid that she would evacuate her bowels literally where she sat when other dogs came through the door at obedience training, but we felt we had to get through that barrier. So, we neither overly pacified her, nor (of course) told her off. It was all very ‘matter of fact’. Thankfully we had some great support from Aylesbury and MAD clubs in this aspect and after two or three weeks she had acclimatised.

In agility, it was more ‘exciting’ of course. Casey would snarl and snap at other dogs within three yards of her and we did make it clear that was unacceptable by making her ‘settle’ and saying ‘no’ whilst trying not to ‘overdo it’ and reinforce the fear. She never made contact with another dog, and often bit her own tongue in her frenzy, ending up with blood all down chest. It took a couple of months but the wonderful thing is that two years on Casey is now so happy and well adjusted and we love to see her charging around with an extended pack in the exercise area with no problems at all.

Follow the leader
At home, we found it helped for Casey to watch the other dogs work first, and sense that they were enjoying it and unafraid. This goes against some advice about training one dog at a time, but it really seemed to help. For example, Casey was terrified of the floppy tunnel and got so distressed when I held her and tried to encourage her through that I backed right of and sent Star in a few times. When Colin held the end open, Casey just followed Star right through!

I’m not suggesting that this formula would work for every dog, since every case will be different. Some of what we did was quite structured, in the sense of positive and negative reinforcement, pack structure and leadership, but obviously a lot of it was quite intuitive too and we probably didn’t even notice a lot of the things we instinctively did.

Casey is much more affectionate now, but a very quick cuddle is all she needs. She is almost like the pig in Babe, where a curt 'That’ll do pig' in the form of a quiet 'good girl' will send her leaping into Colin’s arms. Anything more enthusiastic from us either goes over her head or makes her stressed.

Interestingly, she calmed down the most when we got Mace. That might be a coincidence, but I think she took on the task of the next youngest dog ‘training’ the baby and it somehow made her ‘belong’. Maybe, after all is said and done, it is the other dogs in our ‘packs’ that do so much of the social training for our newcomers and what we do is only the tip of the iceberg.

So how is she doing now?
Before having her spell of slipping weaves, Casey won out of Elementary and Starters in her first few shows. She now consistently gets top ten places in Novice, both in Agility and Jumping, and I was absolutely thrilled to get a first place in a Brace Pairs event with Casey and Star at the RVA show in June 2003. (Colin reckons it was all down to his efficient change-over!) But I think the crowning moment fro Casey was when she passed her Silver KC Good Citizen with Colin in April this year, allowing the examiner to handler her and check her east and feet.

We still have to maintain our consistent approach as Casey is quite prepared to push the boundaries whenever she thinks that she can get away with it! But overall she is a totally different dog to the one we rescued two years ago.

About the author...
Lesley Harpley
is one of the team of Instructors at Aylesbury CTS, where the club has a great variety of rescued and mixed breed dogs as well as some rather lovely pedigree dogs!

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