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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!