The Scottish PCA has initiated the practice of having music playing in rescue centres throughout the country, to calm the dogs who are wanting a permanent home, because a calm dog is more attractive to future owners than a dog that that is leaping around frantically, which reminded me of how my approach had been used in similar rescue centres, for the same, desired, result.
One gorgeous girl called Pepsi, in the care of an RSPCA centre in Yorkshire, was proving very difficult to rehome due to her habit of leaping around frantically, and I was asked to show the team there how to calm her down.
When I arrived, the Manager welcomed me and introduced me to his team, with whom I shared a little of my approach, and then I was accompanied to the kennel block that housed the ‘problem’ dog.
The dogs in the block were the in the care of a young lady Emily, and I let her guide me to where Pepsi was housed. The kennel block had twelve individual kennels with a central door leading inside, and as Emily and I walked through this door, the problem was obvious; located in the furthest kennel, I could see Pepsi instantly leaping about four feet into the air, barking frantically.
Before Emily was able to take one step closer to the distressed girl, I asked her to turn away and join me outside the block again, and while there I explained to her that we would do this repeatedly until Pepsi realised that what she was doing was getting her nowhere. Only when the dog was able to keep all four paws on the floor, without barking, would we go to her.
I knew that this would take time, but as always, I find that putting in the time would achieve the goal we had for the dogs. The secret to success is to allow an hour for the process and it will probably only take fifteen minutes, if you only allow 15 minutes you will probably get frustrated, and it will take you much longer.
One other thing that I have come to know is that the dogs that display the most severe behaviours are the smartest. These are the dogs that will soon start to work out that it is their actions that have undesirable negative consequences; they simply fail to get what they want. They learn to exercise self-control which is a far better long-term strategy than us trying, with varying degrees of success, to impose control on them.
As Emily and I emerged from the kennel block, minus the dog, there were many surprised looks on the faces of team members and when I explained that Pepsi was not ready yet, many of the team changed their expressions to a knowing look of ‘oh, you can’t do anything with her”.
Fortunately, both Emily and the Manager were ready and willing to work with me and, while the rest of the team walked away shaking their heads, I was able to describe what we had to do to convince Pepsi that she needed to change her behaviour. At that point the Manager left Emily and I to get on with the process.
Of course, on this occasion I did not time how long it took for Emily and I to walk in and out of the block, taking one step at a time, until Pepsi had worked out what was wanted; we wanted her to come to her compartment door calmly, which she eventually did, happily wagging her tail.
Having briefed a delighted Emily on how she would build on this success, I took my leave, reminding everyone that what appears to take a long time initially would soon pay dividends as other dogs would watch, learn, and improve.
About five weeks later I had a phone call from a chap who opened the conversation by saying ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you’, he went on to say that his name was Danny and he called because he had adopted a brilliant dog. He went on to explain that he had visited the RSPCA centre, where he was advised to read my first book ‘The Dog Listener’ and then shown around the kennels. Danny went on to tell me that he borrowed my book from the centre and read it over the weekend. He then acquired a copy for himself, and the following weekend returned to the centre where he returned their copy and took Pepsi home. Danny was now calling me to say that she was proving to be the best dog he had ever had.
At this point I reminded him that for this to continue he had to continue with my ‘Amichien Bonding’ as a way of life, and he assured me that he would and thanked me again.
I was able to use this system again soon afterward when I was invited to the North Shore Rescue Centre in New York, where the only difference was that this time it was a male dog named Beetlejuice, and on the same trip to the US I was able to share my work with a very large rescue centre in Chicago as well.
In Chicago, I was accompanied by my trusted colleague, Mary Lynn, and the noise we encountered at the centre was deafening; the stress level for both the dogs and the carers was palpable.
On this occasion I sat in the staff room with the team and explained how the only way to get a calm environment was to avoid looking at the dogs when the carers were working in the kennel blocks. Looking at the dogs is such a natural thing for people that it takes conscious effort not to do so. Direct eye contact with a dog is a signal that the dog needs to be involved with whatever it being done.
I carefully went through the teaching of self-control and after around an hour, the care group appeared keen to get going, and I was reasonably confident that they had grasped the concepts I had explained.
A few days later I was holding a talk (my original reason for being in Chicago) that Mary Lynn had organised. With the first half of the three-hour presentation completed, I stepped from the stage and made my way to where some refreshments were located, only to see Mary Lynn with tears rolling down her face.
I was startled and concerned until she passed me her phone and said, ‘listen to this message’. I took the phone and put it to my ear and quickly understood why she was tearful, as the emotional voice of the Manager of the rescue centre, told her how peace had been achieved in the whole of the packed rescue centre. We were both delighted as the situation we had first encountered was not a good environment for the dogs, or the team working there.
I have gone on to suggest this approach with all who have asked for my advice since. Enabling the dogs to learn what behaviour will work for them is the core of my method. Something we are all aware of is that if we choose something for ourselves, we are much happier and willing to participate.
I applaud the action taken by the Scottish PCA and while playing music within a kennel block can only help all who live or work there, I find that by changing the whole approach to educating both the dogs, and those caring for them, potential owners will find their experience a pleasure and will be able to meet the right dog for them in a calm and happy environment, where the dogs can also be seen at their best.