Don’t ignore the small stuff (or you might miss the bigger picture)

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My husband came home from a walk at the crack of dawn  this week and told me he was never letting Sylvi (18 month old terrible teen Inuit) offlead again. Apparently she’d lost all recall despite there being zero distractions and every time he got near her she moved further away, eventually after about 20 minutes of him trying to lure her with treats and pretending he was leaving, the appearance of a dog pal finally got her back (just as he was about to phone me to come and help). He was pretty annoyed (but he wouldn’t have shown it and would have given a good impression to the dogs of being happy and relaxed, smiling through gritted teeth), he was worried that he couldn’t get her back and it made him really late to get ready for work.

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Sylvi’s recall around other dogs is a constant work in progress (and she’s managed carefully with long line etc normally at busy times) but her recall without the distraction of a fun dog is normally absolutely brilliant.

If we were a different kind of trainer and ‘old school’, we might have told her off for having crap recall, we might have even used something horrible like an Ecollar. Of course we’d never do that as we don’t use aversives. I also knew that a sudden change in behaviour meant there was likely to be an underlying cause (apart from just a recall malfunction).

After quizzing (interrogating) my husband I found out that she’d been moving further and further away and eating loads of grass. This isn’t like her either. She also had a really upset tummy later in the day. It’s more likely she wasn’t coming back as she felt unwell and so wanted to eat grass and also felt she needed to poo and as she knew it was going to be a bad one she wanted to be a long way away from anyone and in private and definitely didn’t want to be onlead! A vets trip later and some tests and we found out that she really wasn’t very well at all (she’s fine now). It just shows that we must consider medical causes for changes in behaviour before anything else and a vet visit should always be our first call.

Sylvi’s example is only a minor thing, a blip in recall and no serious behaviour issue but we should always be looking for reasons why things just aren’t quite right. I think most people are aware that sudden aggression may have an underlying medical cause and are quick to refer back to vets but other more subtle issues can also have medical causes. These dogs are often labelled ‘stubborn’ or ‘untrainable’ or the behaviours are said to be ‘unpredictable’.

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The dog that won’t sit stay may have hip pain, who shies away from an over-the-head harness may have ear issues. We had an issue recently as our new rescue Dalmatian, Lucky, won’t jump in the car, an X-ray later and we discover he has a problem with his spine. Some things are easy to link, like Lucky and the car but others are more subtle, like Sylvi running away and need careful investigation.  We aren’t, as behaviourists, medically trained and it isn’t our role to diagnose health issues but we are trained to look for the behaviours that just don’t fit and for things that may need the attention of a vet. It’s so important that we analyse every aspect of a dog’s life when we are working with them, the seemingly unimportant things can be crucially important.

This is why we get so concerned about aversives- how many dogs that are subjected to aversives as reward based training ‘didn’t work’ were unwell or in pain?

This is also why it’s essential that behaviourists work on veterinary referral and a close relationship between vet and behaviourist is really important

Don’t ignore the little things as the small things can make big things happen!

(c) Laura McAuliffe, Dog Communication 2017