Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Jamie and the Psychologist...

This week seems to have been all about Jamie. First, many consultations with his vet about why his operation incisions were taking so long to heal? When was it safe to take him out without risking infection or torn stitches? It was decided to postpone taking out his stitches for an extra week. Yesterday he wounded the flesh between two toes and it's been a bitch trying clean it. I ended up dipping his whole paw into a bowl of antiseptic and then trying to squeeze antibiotic cream into the gap. But what a palaver!

At the same time I am consulting a Canine Behaviourist about his car phobia. She has warned me that the tranquilliser she suggested is not to be messed with. "You can't be arbitrary with this drug. You have to give it to him religiously and its effects will only kick in after 15 days. Do not mess around when you are dealing with brain chemistry," she warned me. This has spurred me on to put every effort into his behavior modification programme because it may be my last chance. I do not want Jamie on this drug for any longer than necessary. Everything she advised me to do is specific to Jamie's individual behaviour so it may not work for other dogs.

I have to avoid anything that triggers the fear he associates with the car - like the dark garage.
I now park outside my front gate with the car doors wide open. I lift Jamie from the house into the car while giving him lots of treats, praise and strokes. I try to make a game of it by placing treats all over. He is now beginning to explore the car rather than sitting in a frozen funk. After a short time in the car, he can jump out and is rewarded with a short walk and lots of sniffing (heaven for a beagle). This process must be repeated several times at a rapid pace.

Hopefully he will begin to realise he is safe in the car and nothing bad will happen to him. What's more it means treats and walks! I am trying to do this twice a day with the last session being rewarded with a walk around our complex park. The Behaviourist has said that I need to do at least 4 sessions before every actual trip he takes in the car.

So far we have had one trip in the car and I was thrilled because he did not shake and tremble (his usual indication that he is very stressed). But I must not do anything to blow it. The slightest negative experience could be a set back! Hopefully he will eventually jump into the car voluntarily and travel will become a stress free experience for all of us. But to make this happen is hard work!

The only problem is Jemma who is "dikbek" or pouting at the moment. We decided that her bouncing enthusiasm in the car, where she literally stomps all over Jamie, does not help him calm down. One would have thought that her exuberance would rub off but in fact the Behaviourist felt it may be too much for an already stressed Jamie.

Despite a large tasty bone to chew and the calming sounds of Classic Radio in the kitchen, Jemma created such a racket that I now let her watch from the gate. She still looks glum but at least she is not howling the house down. She does get included in all the long walks.

While talking to the Behaviourist on the phone Jemma and Jamie began squabbling over a bone. It does not matter how many bones or chew toys are lying around, they always manage to fight over the same object. I had to evict them from the room so that I could hear the conversation. I have started getting used to the fact that these two fight and squabble. The Behaviourist said that resource guarding was very common between dogs and not to get too upset about it. I now realise that it is all bark and no bite, but what a show! A concerned neighbour asked me if my dogs were alright because she described the sound of their fighting as "awe inspiring".

I seem to be forever apologising to neighbours about my dogs' behaviour and assuring them they are going through adolescence and hopefully they will out grow it?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The "Ritalin" generation of dogs...

You are probably aware of the controversy around the use of the drug Ritalin in children who are deemed to have attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Many believe that thousands of children are incorrectly diagnosed with this disorder when in fact they are just very active. Figures published in 1996 in Forbes magazine showed a fourfold increase in the rate of methylphenidate (Ritalin) consumption between 1989 and 1994, a rise so dramatic that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency asked the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board to look into the situation. The United Nations released a report in February of 1996 expressing concern over the discovery that 10 percent to 12 percent of all male school children in the United States were taking the drug. I wonder what the figure is world wide today?

Those in favour of Ritalin vigorously support its use, whilst others say that it has become too easy to blame a child's misbehaviour on these illnesses and resort to drugs. In fact there are so many children on this drug, there must be a positive epidemic of inattentive and hyperactive children today.

I believe the same mistake is being made with dogs where the term hyperactive is loosely used without a proper and careful diagnosis by a veterinarian and misapplied to a dog that is simply very active.

I have talked before about the "culture clash" between 21st century city people and dogs bred to be working, active dogs. If dogs are not given appropriate outlets for their energies, just like children, their behaviour is labelled "obnoxious misbehaviour" in the eyes their owners.

There was a time when one only put dogs on a tranquilliser or sedative if they were going to travel. Now it seems that these type of drugs (whether homeopathic or chemical) are becoming the norm. People drop into their vets to collect something to keep their dogs "calm". It is often one of the first options offered to owners who describes their dog as "over the top" and whose behaviour is "impossible". Not that I don't identify with these feelings, believe me I do! I battle daily to cope with two very active beagle puppies and often I do not cope very well at all.

Now, I have just put my dog on a tranquilliser to help him cope with travelling in a car. But it has made me think about how easy it is to go the drug route to solve all our problems. I wonder if the number of "calming drugs" given to dogs is yet another symptom of the way our society deals with stress and anxiety.
Drug the hell out of ourselves, our children and our pets in order to cope!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Jamie all stitched up...

Poor Jamie! I so wished that his testicles would drop so that he could undergo a normal neutering operation. I waited ten months but nothing appeared and the vets could not feel anything. According to the vet if his testicles remained inside his abdominal cavity there is a greater risk that he could contract cancer. So there was no question about him not undergoing surgery.

So I decided to take him in yesterday as I would like him to be fully recovered before we go on holiday. When I fetched him after his operation, the vet said they had really battled to find his testicles. He has two incisions - one in his groin area and one around the the base of his penis. They looked very painful and he came home drugged up to his eyeballs. That night he looked very unhappy and staggered around before eventually going to bed where I had to pile on the blankets to stop him shivering.

This morning he is looking more alert and even growled at Jemma over the new bones made from ostrich which I have bought them to chew. They are large and will hopefully keep them occupied and away from my furniture and other valuables.

Jamie is on a doze of antibiotics, pain killers and a new tranquilliser which will not only help keep him calm after his op but also eventually help him cope with his phobia about cars.

Jamie still hates getting into a car and will tremble and curl into a ball even though 90% of the time, his destination is the park which he loves. The new drug is designed to reduce his anxiety whilst I retrain him using behaviour modification techniques to adapt to the car. This tranquilliser is also supposed to help a variety of situations such as separation anxiety or compulsive disorders such as lick dermatitis (where a dog will continually lick an area raw).

I must say I am always nervous about new drugs whether for my self or my dogs.

But Jamie had to be neutered for the sake of his health and hopefully this new drug will help him relax in the car so we can go to the park more often without all the drama and trauma!

Monday, November 2, 2009

What dog should Obama have chosen?

It was interesting listening to Animal Behaviourist Patricia McConnell's answer to this question on NPR Radio in the USA. Everyone knew Barak Obama had promised his daughters they could have a dog if they went to the White House.
This is a question that people often ask me about beagles. Are they active, are they trainable, are they good with children, are they stubborn? I now realise this is an incredibly complicated question because it all depends on the individual dog and the lifestyle of the owner.

As far as President Obama was concerned, McConnell said it was about how trainable a dog would be in an environment like the White House where there is a lot of activity. There is a lot of coming and going not only of people but of the family itself. Firstly she felt that a dog which had a genetic code for emotional stability (not reactive i.e. over reacting to every little thing that happens) was important.

Secondly, it depended on how that dog was raised from when it was in-utero (interesting that she emphasises this) to its early learning, socialisation and habituation during the critical imprinting period of 4 months. She felt it was less about a specific breed but more about individual personality, genetics and early development and learning.

There is no breed where every dog is the same. Choosing the right dog is a about choosing the right individual with the right temperament and the right early development and learning. However it is not all one-sided. Every owner has to be prepared to accomodate the individual behaviour of their dog.

I often get asked whether my beagles are a good breed to have as a dog. I used to say that generally beagles have tolerant, stable temperaments which is why they are the unfortunate target of many experimental laboratories. Now I am more cautious in my answer having seen how temperament can differ within the same breed and even the same litter.

Of course general breed characteristics play an important role. You have to know what drives specific breeds (beagles are bred to be scent hounds and their sense of smell drives a lot of their behaviour). In most dogs, what they were bred to do is a huge indicator of how they will behave.

But I now believe that any dog can be the "right" kind of dog if it has the right temperament for your situation and there is huge effort put into its first four months of life to try and guide its future behaviour. (And according to McConnell how the mother is treated during her pregnancy will also affect the litter. Science has proven this with pregnant humans so why not animals?)

Many people ask "are beagles very active dogs?"

Well, now I believe almost every breed of dog has been bred to be active and there is no way you can "de-activate" a dog. You have to be prepared to give them outlets for their energy in order to have a contented dog. McConnell says that dogs are usually most active in the early morning and late afternoon. There is a rhythm to their life - active, sleepy and active again.

My dogs start getting restless at 3.00pm and from 4.00 to 7.00pm it's mayhem or happy hour depending on my mood. If I do not take them out to burn off fuel during this period, I pay the price. This is several noisy, hectic hours when my neighbours get irritated and I need to boost the volume of my TV if I want to watch my favourite soapie.

When I take them for walks (usually an hour) they are still very busy for some time afterwards. Some one told me this is because the endorphins released by the walk are still buzzing in their systems. I think its also because 1 hour is not really enough. When my dogs refuse to jump into the car at the end of a walk it's because they want more. The day they happily return to the car is the day I will have really emptied their fuel tanks.
By 7.30pm it is usually lights out for my dogs until day light starts to dawn.

So I think the answer to "What breed of dog should I choose?" is that every dog is individual. It's up to you how much work you are prepared to put into your dog not only during its critical first 4 months but for the rest of its life. That's the deal if you want the "right" kind of dog.