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The case of the agoraphobic dog [25/04/2002]

It was 2nd January when Judi Gunn received an urgent telephone call about a dog based in Glasgow. It's owner had died a week previously, and the son did not know what to do about the 'Pharoah Hound' left behind. Max would not let anyone, not even his deceased owner, go near him with a collar or lead, and, as a result had not left the flat for three and a half years.

When Judi, who runs Thoughts for Hands, Hooves and Paws (a behavioural and animal-assisted therapy service), arrived at Max's Victorian tenement prison, further bad news awaited. She only had four hours to persuade the dog into a collar and lead and to leave the flat, as a neighbour had already contacted the RSPCA. The son wanted the dog to have a normal life, but if Judi couldn't help them, Max was likely to be put to sleep.

Alone in the flat together, Judi sat on the floor at the same height as Max, so he would not feel threatened. Beside them were Judi's bag of tricks: a selection of squeaky toys, soft toys, a small pack of sliced cheese and a packet of rich tea biscuits. Says Judi, "We do not like using food as a reward, but in view of the lack of time, we thought it best to have a little bit of Bribery and Corruption!".

Silently, Judi took out the toys one by one and showed them to Max. After half an hour, he showed interest in a squeaky toy, and gradually came closer and closer until he was further rewarded with a scratch on his chest and at the top of his tail. After about 30 minutes, Max decided Judi was OK, and was content to sit next to her.

After a break, Judi played with Max and the squeaky toy to further relax him – and anyone looking into the window would have had an eyeful of human and dog rolling around together! During this play Judi introduced a quick release collar and began fastening and unfastening it on his neck. Each time he accepted the collar, he was rewarded in the way his natural mother would have.

Next was the lead. Judi used an extending lead and hid the controlling hand behind a piece of furniture, so Max couldn't see that it was attached to anything. Then a slow process of attaching and detaching the lead to the collar, until Max accepted it calmly. However, the first time Judi gently tugged the lead, Max attacked the lead vicously, and kept attacking it. It took twenty minutes of gentle reassurance to resolve this.

After walking all around the flat, Max then faced his biggest obstacle yet: going outside and into a car! For the first time in his life, he was going to feel uncarpeted floors, grass, concrete, and eventually, the wet cobbled yard of Judi's home in the Scottish Borders. The first step out of the flat was harrowing and took a lot of gentle reassurance, but he did it.

By now, their time was nearly out, and with some assistance Judi bundled him into the back of her Subaru, which had been prepped with Max's teddy bear, and Judi got into the back with him to be a reassuring presence for the three hour car journey to the Borders.

Once ensconced into the house, the most incredible journey of Max's life was over, but there was still many new things awaiting him. First, he had to meet the other dogs, starting with Benson, a reliable and caring Gordon Setter, and then the remaining five dogs, one by one.

From then on Max never looked back. His first and only job of the day was to accept that collar and lead, and after a fortnight, he did without any protest, and soon he was ready for his new home. In his flat in Glasgow, he used to chase the shadows of branches on the walls, but now he plays with his toys like any other dog.

Thoughts for Hands, Hooves and Paws is a service that offers Equine and Canine Assisted Therapy for Animals with a variety of behaviour and health problems. For more information, see their website at

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