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Behaviour Articles
By Donna Brander, Animal Behaviourist

<Back to behaviour articles

This information is to be used as guidelines only. Decisions made about the future of any pet should be based on a professional assessment and a course of treatment that is personalised for the pet's individual situation.

When pet and owner are just a bad 'fit'

According to Mrs. Daniels, Emma, the Dalmatian, had created mayhem from the moment they had brought her home. This behaviour was obvious as Emma pulled her owner into my office and then refused to settle. Emma jumped on and cleared my desk twice. All of Mrs. Daniels commands were ignored as Emma crashed around at the end of the lead trying to look out the window, jumping on me and attempting to climb into Mrs. Daniels lap. Emma wasn’t nasty or reacting out of fear - she just did not seem to know how to restrain herself. It was soon obvious to both Mrs. Daniels and myself that we would not be able to have a conversation as long as Emma was in the room so I removed Emma to a kennel in order to start the consultation.

Mrs. Daniels was a quiet, shy lady and admitted she had never raised her voice to Emma. She was deeply embarrassed by the wild behaviour Emma displayed in social situations. Mrs. Daniels could not take Emma out for a walk because she was pulled to every passing person. Emma would then jump all over that person (in the friendliest sort of way!) while Mrs. Daniels clung to the end of the lead. Hoping that more exercise was the answer, Mrs. Daniels hired the next door neighbour's teen-age son to run with Emma twice a day. Being much stronger than Mrs. Daniels, he was able to physically contain her behaviour to some degree but even he admitted to Mrs. Daniels that he was often pulled off his feet and in danger of being pulled in front of cars. Emma loved the exercise but it had made absolutely no difference in her behaviour. She would arrive home panting and muddy and then make several noisy circuits around the house.

Emma had to be confined to the kitchen whenever visitors arrived. Outside noises would “set her off” and she would race around the house, barking and jumping on the furniture. Emma could not be allowed around any food on the table. She had ruined at least one dinner party by jumping onto the table and devouring some of the food. Mrs. Daniels admitted she had tolerated the zany behaviour in her own household because she thought Emma would outgrow it. Emma was now three years old and the behaviour was worse than ever because now Emma was much bigger and heavier. There was no hope of Mrs. Daniels being able to physically control Emma at this stage.

It is very likely that there is a genetic pre-disposition for Emma to be a rather bold, outgoing dog. Dalmatians were originally bred to be energetic, outdoorsy sort of dogs. This trait still prevails even though most of them are bought by the owners to be very attractive household pets. With the right sort of upbringing and a knowledgeable owner, Dalmatians can be delightful (if energetic!) pets.

The main thing that had gone wrong with Mrs. Daniels and Emma was that they were a bad “fit”. It was not that Emma was a bad dog or Mrs. Daniels a bad owner, it was just that there was a strong difference of personality. This can happen with owners and dogs, particularly if dogs are chosen for the wrong reason. I think that is one of the problems when people chose a pet because it is pretty or because it seems so intelligent; e.g., Border Collies. It is essential that the perspective owner thinks through what they want as a companion. It is very possible that you will have this dog for the next 15 years. Make sure, as far as possible, that this is a dog that will suit both your personality and lifestyle.

Emma was never going to be the companion that suited Mrs. Daniels. That was the first thing that Mrs. Daniels needed to understand. Also, in order for Emma to become more manageable it was going to require a big commitment from Mrs. Daniels, mainly through a change of attitude. Emma was out of control because she needed strong structuring and consistent handling. Emma needed to learn new behaviour that was socially acceptable when meeting people and then she needed to learn acceptable behaviour in the house.

Mrs. Daniels began a course of behaviour therapy in which Emma was taught it was never acceptable to pull on the lead. A halti collar was fitted to Emma in order to increase Mrs. Daniels control. Leash training was taught in the context of the household at first, with short sessions several times a day. The same “loose lead” behaviour was then reinforced in increasingly exciting situations.

Emma was no longer allowed on any of the furniture and any running around the house was stopped. Emma was told to go to her bed where she was rewarded with a special toy with which to play. Emma was distracted with a Kong toy filled with food when someone came to visit and she was expected to go to her bed until invited to greet the visitors. Mrs. Daniels was, in general, taught how to take control of situations that Emma now controlled.

Emma was also encouraged to play energetic games with a soccer ball or stuffed toy at least twice a day. It was not probable that Mrs. Daniels would ever be able to exercise Emma enough but she could train her to play “mind” games such as hide and seek to keep her occupied mentally. Utility classes are good for dogs like Emma because they have structured exercise and a support group of understanding dog lovers to help shy people like Mrs. Daniels.

There are now training instructors who are knowledgeable in dog behaviour and have remedial classes for problems like Mrs. Daniel and Emma. These instructors have the resources i.e. calm dogs, knowledgeable “stooge” people etc. to introduce problem dogs to social situations without raising the anxiety and embarrassment of the owner. Pet behaviour counsellors with the APBC can be of help in locating these people.

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