Dusty’s journey – rehabilitation of a horse with kissing spines

Today I present you with something slightly different to my usual written blog post… a vlog!

I have made a couple of these before – you can find them on my YouTube channel if you scroll back a little way. They usually end up being longer than I originally intend (and that’s after I cut out all the mistakes).

This one is all about Dusty’s diagnosis with kissing spines and how we have worked with him to improve his condition. Enjoy!

 

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Animal training – knowing when to take a step back

There are some days when I set out to work with one of the animals, and from the start I can just tell it isn’t going to work. It could be that they aren’t listening, they’re tired or just simply not in the mood for training – for example some days when I go into the aviary, Beaky (my cockatiel) will come over to say hello and will be very cooperative… whereas sometimes I simply get hissed at as he retreats into a corner. Recognising the signs and being able to take a step back for a little while is essential to successful training: to continue to push and ask the animal will only result in frustration, a loss of confidence and a lack of enthusiasm in the next session.

I would like to think that I am respectful of my animals’ feelings, and Rusty’s agility training is always centred around her having a good time. If I introduce a new challenge, I alternate between that and something that she finds fun and easy. If she starts to get tired, I get her to lie down and have a breather. We don’t train for hours on end: I always stop before she loses interest, to keep her keen for the next session.

Recently however we had one training session that really didn’t work out, and I thought that I would share the experience (and my mistakes).

Due to me being so busy, Rusty and I hadn’t practised agility for some time. This had been a recurring theme over the summer, and every time I had brought out the obstacles she had flown around them as if she’d never had a break.

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With this in mind, I set up a new challenge that would really require Rusty to concentrate and listen to me. I wanted (and still want to) teach her to differentiate between obstacles as she is running, so I placed a tunnel and jump side by side so that I could start teaching her to take the one I gave the command for.

Rusty was very excited to see the agility obstacles out again, and I noticed that once I brought a toy into the situation (as I always do – she picks up speed when I have it) she became very wound up, leaping up at me to grab it and not bringing it back straight away after it had been thrown.

To begin with I warmed her up with each obstacle and she did them perfectly. Then I took her through the weaves and then chose either the jump or the tunnel – making sure I was handling her from the side that the selected obstacle was on so that she took the correct one.

The next step was to stand in between the obstacles and call her to one of them (I chose the tunnel more often because she prefers the jump and will always take it if given a choice).

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Until this point things were working well, but it was at this point that I should have recognised that she had already been stretched mentally and would either need a break or something easier to do. Instead, I carried on and began to move further from the obstacles whilst giving the same commands. 

Rusty became very confused and after me asking her a few times she started to become a little demotivated. She was still very focused at this point, watching me carefully to try to figure out what I wanted – but she was still hyper from the excitement of it all.

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I returned to standing in between the obstacles but she was very worked up and would no longer run through the tunnel, instead flinging herself over the jump a couple of times each way!

Again, I should have given her some release here, but I continued to ask and this resulted in Rusty trying to jump over the tunnel, causing her to stumble over. I felt awful about this, but she was up on her feet again and coming back to me as if nothing had happened before I even had chance to do anything.

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I slowed down and asked for her to go through the tunnel one more time (with more of a run up and handling her from the other side to remove the confusion) and she went, earning lots of praise and treats from me.

I then lowered the jump and calmly walked her round an easy route through the obstacles, before calling it a day and taking her for a relaxing walk instead.

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Rusty and I have had some fun with the agility obstacles since this incident and it’s safe to say that she has not lost her enthusiasm for it. When I feel that she is ready, I will reintroduce the concept of differentiating between obstacles and will write about it here! 

This experience definitely taught me a lot – it’s not something that I ever want to repeat but I hope that sharing my mistakes will help other people in their training. Always listen to your animals and don’t go into training sessions with huge expectations – take each achievement as it comes.

Rusty’s collar

Rusty has worn a collar for most of her life. We first introduced her to one when she was a puppy and it has rarely been removed, except for when we have been grooming her. 

Recently, she went to the groomer’s to have her fur stripped (this is done about twice a year; when the fur is ready it is very easy to pull out without causing discomfort for the dog). Shortly after she returned, a piece snapped on her collar and we began to talk about buying a new one. However, once we took her old collar off and saw how she looked without it, we began to discuss whether she actually needed it at all.

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A lot has changed since Rusty first joined our family: we now have a fully-fenced garden so that Rusty can be free range without us having to worry about her straying onto the road or disappearing after cats. She is also now walked on a harness as this is much better for her neck.

At this point we decided to try removing her collar and see if it was really necessary for her day-to-day life and safety. Everything seemed to carry on as normal and at that point I assumed that it was the end of Rusty’s days with a collar.

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Around that time, I noticed that Rusty suddenly became very clingy towards me; she was constantly pestering me for fuss and attention, and while she would normally have a few cuddles and then race off to grab a toy for me, instead she was quite happy to sit for lengthy periods of time while I fussed her.

A couple of days down the line, my parents woke up to find Rusty in their room in the middle of the night! Rusty has never been allowed upstairs and this is not a rule she has ever broken. (There have been a couple of occasions when she has climbed halfway up during thunderstorms, but she always stopped and waited for us on the landing where the stairs chance direction).

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Mum sent her back down, but this was repeated several times over the next few nights. One morning I got up at about four to get some water and found her outside my door. It was very bizarre behaviour and we were struggling to understand it. She didn’t seem distressed and there was nothing that could have frightened her. 

This did seem to coincide with Rusty’s collar having been removed, so mum did some research and came across a thread on a dog forum in which people were discussing their dog’s responses to having their collars removed.

There were a variety of different opinions, but a couple of people suggested that the collar may be like a ‘security blanket’ for the dog (especially if it is used to wearing it all of the time).

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Rusty is quite a timid dog, so she have been experiencing quite a bit of stress due to having her collar removed. Long term stress has several detrimental effects on the dog as it causes the digestive, immune and growth systems to shut down: in a fight or flight situation this allows more energy to be directed into the response, but the dog should not be exposed to it on a regular basis as the its body will never fully recover.

After reading this, mum decided that we should put Rusty’s collar back on and see how she reacted.

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Over the nights that have followed, Rusty has tried to come upstairs once. We think that this particular occasion was due to the strong wind outside making quite a bit of noise. Rusty also came up to my room the other day when there was a shooting party close to our house: she does get frightened by this and it is normal for her to seek our company if she hears gunshots.

Apart from these occasions, she has settled back into sleeping in her bed without trying to find us – so we can only surmise that this issue was as a result of her collar being removed. There is very little available information about this, but it could prove to be an exciting prospect for further research.

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We will be buying a new collar for Rusty soon, but it has lead me to reconsider how I will use collars on any dogs I own in the future.

Overcoming Rusty’s fear of gunshot noise

When Rusty was about a year and a half old, we moved to a more rural area with lots of woods and fields surrounding us. There are many more bird-scarers and shooting parties in this area, and we often hear them on our walks (particularly in the Autumn time).

I can’t remember exactly when it began, but I think we had been here some time when Rusty began to show signs of fear whenever she heard gunshots.

Initially it began with her simply changing her pace on the walk – if we were heading away from home she would hang back and walk very slowly behind me, whereas if we were going towards home she would run as far ahead as the lead would allow and try to pull.

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Over time the situation escalated until it reached a point where Rusty would be panting, drooling and shaking with her tail tucked between her legs. Sometimes she even tried to crawl into hedges in an attempt to hide.

This was awful to watch and also very frustrating as we didn’t really know how to help her. In the end it took us many months to fix the problem, during which we tried several different techniques to teach her that there wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
In the beginning, I thought that it was best to just ignore the behaviour and carry on as if nothing was happening – the idea behind this being that the dog doesn’t get any kind of attention so that the behaviour isn’t reinforced. Trying to comfort the dog could be interpreted as the owner rewarding it, but becoming angry could convey the message that there really is something to be afraid of.

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This had little effect, so we then borrowed a CD with recordings of gunshot noise and other scary sounds from a friend. This is supposed to be played quietly when it is first introduced to the dog, and then the volume is gradually increased so that they become desensitised to it. I do think that this is a really good idea and if I have another puppy in the future I will definitely use it, however Rusty seemed totally fine with the noises on the CD (a far cry from her attitude on walks!) – I think that this is because the gunshot sounds didn’t have the same kind of echo to them that they do when we are out walking.

We also carried toys on walks so that we could try to distract her – this would work, but only for a limited amount of time: she soon became fixated on the gunshot noise again.

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It was around this time that we were attending agility classes, and when Rusty displayed her fear during training it was suggested that we actually pick her up and hold her. We weren’t supposed to make a fuss over her, just try to make her feel a little more safe. Unfortunately that didn’t work either, and it was at this point that we really did feel stuck! There didn’t seem to be anything we could do to help her.

However, another few months down the line and we had had a major breakthrough… it was spring again by this point, and I can remember one particular walk where I headed over a stubble field with Rusty panting and panicking due to the gunshot noise nearby.
We sat down on a grass bank at the side of the field, and I began thinking about a programme I had watched on TV. It was the ‘Dog Whisperer’ – I imagine most people will have heard of Cesar Millan! When he is working with dogs he talks a lot about the energy we give off, and how dogs can pick up even the slightest changes in our attitude.

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There was one clip that stuck with me, where he pointed out to someone that they needed to be thinking about what they wanted their dog to do, instead of focusing on the things that their dog was doing that they didn’t like.

It then occurred to me that all of my thoughts were revolving around Rusty’s fear – I would walk along wondering why she was so afraid, questioning when it had begun and feeling annoyed that we couldn’t just go for a relaxed walk.

As I sat there with Rusty drooling and shivering next to me, I began to imagine her calmly lying in the grass. We set off walking towards home again, and I worked really hard to only think positive thoughts – I pictured her skipping along next to me, stopping to sniff in the hedgerow and running over to beg for a treat.

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I was completely astonished to find that she stopped pulling on the lead and her shaking subsided… Once home I explained everything to my mum, and from then on we began to use this on walks. It is surprisingly difficult to avoid thinking negatively, especially if at first it doesn’t appear to be working, but with time and patience it paid off.

Now, Rusty is much happier with walking when there is gunshot noise. She will sometimes come over to us for reassurance, but apart from that she no longer seems too bothered.

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This experience definitely taught me how important my thoughts and energy are when working with animals – I use this all of the time now, especially when things aren’t going exactly to plan!

Dog agility – improving the tunnel and weaves

Over the past couple of weeks, Rusty and I have been working specifically on the tunnel and the weave poles.

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She has done so much jumping over the past few years that as a result she is now really confident with it and will automatically run ahead of me to a jump if I give her a clear signal. However she has not had quite as much practice with the tunnel and the weaves due to them taking longer to set up (I sometimes just do jumping).

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To fix this I have begun to teach her that she can move further away from me with these obstacles and that I don’t have to lead her right up to them every time they are part of our course. It will take some time for her to learn this, but we have made a start and I have already seen lots of improvement which is pleasing!

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When I was teaching her to be more independent with the jumps, I would carry her toy and throw it as she left the ground to encourage her to be more forward thinking. This could potentially work with other obstacles too but it does present some problems – for example when she is inside the tunnel she can’t see the ball being thrown, and throwing it too early whilst she is weaving might lead to her picking up bad habits such as skipping the last poles to chase it.

I also don’t want her to rush the weaves at this stage: she is still finding her feet with them and if I ask her to run too quickly she gets confused and sometimes trips up.

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Instead of throwing the ball, I asked her to sit in front of the obstacle and then dropped it at the other end before telling her either ‘tunnel’ or ‘weave’. She still got the idea of moving ahead to the target, but didn’t rush.

Whilst reading on the internet about the weave poles, I realised that I have been spacing them incorrectly. Having moved them a few inches further apart, Rusty’s technique has improved a huge amount (the video at the end of this post shows this).

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Another tactic to give her a bit more energy coming into the obstacle is to place a jump before it. Obviously if we were doing the obstacles as part of a sequence she would already be going fairly quickly, so I did this to imitate that situation whilst still focusing specifically on the two particular obstacles.

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At one point this actually resulted in Rusty skipping the tunnel, as she gained a lot of speed after the jump and missed my directions. I took her back and she completed it the second time round without any problems, however this does show a clear difference in the way in which she treats the tunnel – if there had been a jump there instead I’m pretty sure she would have flown over it without needing much telling!

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I was also pleased to see that at one point she almost skipped the tunnel, but then corrected herself and ran through. The pictures below sort of show this, but I’ve added the clip to the video at the end of this post as well.

You may notice in the video that I did use the clicker in some of the clips (they were filmed over a couple of days). I’m still working on getting Rusty used to this, but this won’t require too much effort as it just means that I have to make sure I always give her a treat after clicking. I clicked too late in some instances – I kept forgetting, so sometimes she had her treat before hearing the click… It definitely gives me something to work on though.

Thank you for reading today’s post on Wild Call; I’ll be back in a few days time for Wildlife Wednesday so stay tuned!

Introducing clicker training

I recently decided to try using clicker training with Rusty; I have always been interested in this method but didn’t really know much about it and always thought that we got on just fine without. Of course, we have managed perfectly well without using a clicker, but I feel that it could prove to be an incredibly versatile tool as I begin to expand Rusty’s repertoire of tricks and as her skills in agility become more advanced.

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The use of a clicker is not confined to dogs – it can be applied to the training of many different animals, including horses and birds (I am hoping that I might be able to use this with some of the other animals too). A friend of mine did a sort of work experience day in a zoo where she got to help out with the big cats: they used clicker training there too. Zoo animals are often trained to present various parts of their body so that they can be examined easily without having to anaesthetise them (for example, to check that their teeth are in good health).

The main reason why clicker training is much better than simply using verbal praise is that the clicker produces a consistent sound which never changes, whereas the human voice will vary in tone and volume, so although we may be repeating the same word it will never quite sound the same to the dog.

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The clicker also enables the exact moment of good behaviour to be understood by the dog – often when Rusty does a good thing I spend a few seconds praising her, which could potentially lead to her becoming confused as to the exact moment when she got it right – but with a clicker, the good behaviour can be marked instantly without interrupting the task being performed by the dog.

Over the past couple of days, I have begun to incorporate the clicker into my training with Rusty. As she has never worked with one before, I am starting off by asking her for simple commands that she knows well, which I reward with a click, followed by a treat. Every single click must then result in her receiving a treat; if this is not done consistently then the clicker will lose its effect.

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As well as really easy commands, I asked her for some tricks that she knows well. The video below shows our first few attempts at using the clicker (I have no objection to showing our journey, but please bear in mind that I am new to this and did make a few mistakes, for example clicking slightly too late). We did some agility obstacles using the clicker, however I didn’t video this. Next time we do agility training I will make sure to take some footage – I feel that this method will work particularly well with the training of weave poles.

Another thing that I would like to point out here is that I worked on this in a couple of different environments – this is to ensure that Rusty knows that the same rules apply wherever we are. We had some builders working nearby in the outdoor clips as well: these provided the perfect opportunity for Rusty to learn not to become distracted and remain focused on me. Over the next few weeks I am also planning to take the clicker on our walks.

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Obviously at the moment I am using commands that Rusty knows well to teach her the meaning of the clicker, but once I start to teach her new tricks, the idea is to use the clicker until she knows the command and responds every time, and then phase it out due to it no longer being needed.

I will continue to work on this and may have a go with some of the other animals as well, so expect to see more blog posts about clicker training as we progress!

A long walk with Max

On Monday I took Max for our last walk together before I headed home for Easter. The weather was incredible and we had a fantastic time, so much so that I just had to write about it!

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As Max now knows me better and is starting to take confidence from me, I decided that we would leave the park and venture out to a new place. However, this plan of mine involved crossing and walking along a couple of really busy roads, so I was a little worried that we might encounter some problems.

I meet Max’s owner near the park, so to begin with we just walked back through past the lake and along the quieter roads: due to the sunshine there were quite a lot of people around but Max was on his best behaviour, which made me feel more confident when we stepped out onto Oxford Road (one of the busiest bus routes in Europe!).

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At the traffic lights Max showed some signs of being anxious – he cowered away from people walking past and initially did not want to cross between the buses and cars that were waiting, however with a little encouragement he then leapt forward and proceeded to drag me until we had reached a quieter area again.

To be honest I was incredibly relieved that that was the worst he did – I had been wondering whether he might revert to his old trick of leaping up and twisting away from me (it is difficult to hold onto the lead when he does that). I do think however that he used to do that because he was afraid to be close to me, whereas now he comes bounding up to me when I collect him, and is happy for me to fuss him.

Once we were off the roads altogether, I let him have a bit more freedom on the lead and he really settled down. The path we were on is popular with cyclists, so I did have to keep bringing him back to me to get out of their way, but he was well behaved and didn’t do anything silly.

We were out walking for a couple of hours, and unfortunately on the way back we got caught up with a load of parents picking their children up from school.

As I walked past a particular group of people, I called out to let them know I was behind them. One woman turned around and instantly jumped away from Max; I could see that she was quite afraid of him. This really made me realise how much he feeds off the people that are around him – he in turn flinched away from her and began to really pull and lean on the lead again.

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On our way back, I decided to stop by at my flat to drop my coat off (I hadn’t really needed it in the first place so had carried it for most of the walk). I’m not technically supposed to take animals into halls, but there weren’t any people around who would have reported me so I snuck him in…

Max had also become quite warm, so sitting him in the kitchen for a few minutes allowed him to cool down.

A couple of my flatmates came in while I was there and they immediately came over to see Max, stretching their hands out to touch him. At first he flinched and tried to back away, but it only took him a couple of minutes and then he was fine – he actually ended up really enjoying all of the fuss he got!

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This was amazing to watch, as when I first met him in November he wouldn’t come near for me ages, and our first walks together were really stressful because he didn’t want to be near me or any other people that we passed. I couldn’t even walk in parts of the park that were close to the road without him becoming anxious.

It is true what people say, building a bond with a rescue dog is incredibly rewarding.