Following an unfortunate encounter between her dog and a friend’s cat, Lydia Slater despaired of ever being able to tame her canine companion. Step forward animal psychologist Nigel Reed
This time last year, I walked my rescue greyhound, Maggie, over to the house of one of my dearest friends to exchange Christmas presents. We were chatting in her kitchen when I realised that Maggie had silently vanished from the room. Gripped by a sickening premonition, I rushed upstairs, calling her name – but I was too late.
I arrived just in time to see her jaws closing on my friend’s cat. We rushed the poor thing to the vet, but it did not survive the encounter; and the friendship was badly damaged too –though that, fortunately, did recover. Still, the whole experience remains one of the more traumatic events of my life, retaining the power to wake me up at night in a cold sweat. Experienced dog owners told me there was nothing to be done.
Not only was hunting hard-wired into Maggie’s genes, but as a former professional racer, she had been intensively trained to pursue such small fluffy creatures at 45mph. Besides which, we had never really been able to make her do anything. We had fallen for her the instant we saw her in the kennels.
With her finely muscled elegance, her shiny black coat offset by a gleaming white shirt front, her endless legs, Maggie looked like a dog of kings. As, indeed, she was. But bred to sprawl before majestic firesides, it is not easy to cohabit with her in a terraced London house: she skids on our wood floors, had to be painstakingly taught to climb the stairs, and requires the entire three-seater sofa to relax in comfort.
She is tall enough to rest her chin on the dining table (and frequently does so) and, of course, she can outrun us with ridiculous ease. In short, although we love her dearly, she has remained something of an enigma.
After the cat incident, restraint seemed the only solution, so, as many greyhound owners do, we resigned ourselves to keeping her permanently on the lead when out of the house, and muzzling her at my sister’s house for the sake of her Siamese cats, Stanley and Ollie.
The dog behaviourist Nigel Reed, author of a new book, The Dog Guardian, has a different approach. He has worked with the recalcitrant dogs of supermodels and TV stars, and Derren Brown has described him as ‘a real magician’. He believes that even such seemingly intractable problems can be cured, if owners can be taught to communicate effectively with their pets.
‘The problem is that it’s very easy for a dog to misunderstand the relationship,’ he tells me. ‘It’s important that it sees you as the leader, otherwise for its own safety and survival, it feels it has to take over that role.’ The difficulty is that, rather like the English and the French, dogs and humans seem hard-wired to misunderstand each other.
Cuddle Fido to reassure him before you leave the house, and he thinks you’re anxious. Shout at him for barking, and he perceives you to be joining in. Therefore, in order to tackle Maggie’s murderous proclivities effectively, Nigel explained, we would first need to redefine her place in the domestic hierarchy.
Upon his arrival at our front door, Maggie rushed to greet him with her customary hysteria, skittering round his legs and beating him with her whip-like tail. Utterly ignoring her displays of affection, Nigel shook hands with the rest of us; only when she got bored and took herself off to the sofa did he call her over to pet her. In wolf society, he explained, the leaders are the ones who initiate contact.
He calls this technique the ‘Golden Five Minutes’ (though he has examples of dogs who have continued to pester for over an hour before giving up), and says it’s the one his clients have the most difficulty with. And indeed, it does seem terribly ungracious to ignore such a welcome – though I have to admit that visiting toddlers have been reduced to sobs at the sight of what appears to be the Hound of the Baskervilles bounding at them with her tongue hanging out.
According to Nigel, Maggie’s overt friendliness was more complex than merely an expression of delight at seeing a visitor; it was also an attempt to establish their relative status. ‘You know those owners who come in and slobber all over the dog, and just say “Oh, hi” to their family? No wonder the dog gets the wrong idea.’
I found myself blushing guiltily. From now on, I resolved, I would fondly embrace my daughters before planting kisses on Maggie’s smooth, serpentine head.
To discourage her from barking, or hurtling to the front door whenever the bell rings, we were instructed first to praise her for raising the alarm, and then to stride assertively to the door ourselves, to show her that we could be trusted to deal with it.
On to the food. As her handspan waistline testifies, Maggie prefers to eat little and often, so we had got used to leaving her a full bowl of biscuits during the day. And once again, it seemed, we had been doing it wrong.
Leaders have the right to eat first: so, by allowing Maggie free access to food, we were actually making her feel as though she was responsible for finding her own meals. (Which may explain why we found her standing four-square on the kitchen table the other day, finishing off the breakfast bacon.)
Nigel demonstrated his preferred technique: picking up her bowl, he ostentatiously ate a handful of her dog biscuits (substituting a piece of chocolate at the last minute – dedication only goes so far). Then, he put the bowl down and walked away to indicate it was her turn.
Once she had eaten her fill, the biscuits were instantly removed. Over the next few days, we put this all into practice. Maggie certainly learnt to speed up her meals when she learnt that the bowl didn’t hang around, though I didn’t notice any diminution of her desire to pinch scraps from the table.
But the difference at the front door was startling. After a couple of days being ignored, Maggie began to herald the family’s arrival home in a much more relaxed fashion; sometimes, a lazy thump of her tail as she lay on the sofa was all I got. And while this lack of canine attention was slightly denting to my ego, it was a lot better for my tights. More importantly, I could see that, overall, she was a calmer, more confident dog.
So now it was time to go cat-hunting. I rang up a (different) friend and recruited the services of her supremely self- possessed and matronly moggy. Nigel’s plan was simple. We would show the cat to Maggie, and the instant we felt her levels of excitement rising, we would walk her away, wait till she calmed down, and repeat the process.
And just to be on the safe side, she would be muzzled, with a lead on her harness, and another on her collar. A good thing too, as it turned out. The instant Maggie spotted Maisie, who was reposing on a chair with her eyes defiantly shut, her ears shot to attention, and she trembled all over. As instructed, I reassured her, and offered her a piece of ham; but it was not this that caused the saliva to drip from her jaws to the floor.
As she gathered herself to leap, Nigel pulled her out of the room and shut the door. We repeated this procedure around 30 times; and each time, we could approach marginally closer to the unflappable Maisie. After half an hour, we were within a couple of metres.
‘Oh, she’ll be fine,’ Nigel assured me confidently. ‘She’s not a hard nut to crack.’ On the way home, Maggie suddenly stopped dead and refused to move. The poor thing must have been trying to process all this conflicting information. I redoubled my efforts. Where I had previously chosen walks to avoid them, I now sought cats out everywhere. I spent hours wandering round and round the church square where a feral pack has its base.
When the cats wised up, we practised on squirrels in the park, or, when truly desperate, the ducks. The technique was always the same: walk towards them till Maggie’s state heightened, then turn around and walk away. Within days, her response to this too had visibly altered. Although I wouldn’t have answered for her behaviour off the lead, when on it, she could walk past a squirrel without raising an eyebrow.
I was astonished at the speed of the transformation; but we were not training Maggie, merely speaking to her in a way that she clearly understood, with Nigel as our canine interpreter.
It was time for the ultimate test: to bring her face to face with my sister’s cats. Ollie, sensibly, was having none of the experiment and immediately shot over the garden wall; Stan scrabbled to the top of a kitchen cupboard while Maggie followed his progress interestedly from the floor.
But eventually, Stan was coaxed down into my sister’s arms, and I led Maggie to and fro past the pair of them. Stan trembled and hissed, but Maggie remained more focused on the cheese I had in my hand than the thrill of the potential chase.
And so, although she remains a work in progress, I truly believe that, by the end of the year, the lion may lie down with the lamb, and this photograph that purports to show Maggie in close conversation with Stan will indeed reflect reality. Though I hope this time, she won’t be licking her chops.
NIGEL'S TOP TIPS
- Watch and listen to your dog’s signals. She will communicate her concerns. If she is attempting to move away from a person petting her, intervene on her behalf and point out she doesn’t like it.
- Demonstrate that as leader, you will fulfil her needs. If she barks when the doorbell rings, or if fireworks are going off, calmly and visibly investigate to show her there is nothing to be afraid of.
- Teach your dog your desired response in stages. For example, when teaching a dog to walk to heel, start at home, then in the garden, on a quiet street and so on until you get to your ultimate goal, which might be a busy park.
- Learn to identify the need behind your dog’s behaviour and act appropriately. If your dog pulls or freezes on the lead, there may be numerous reasons: she needs the toilet, she dislikes the weather, she’s frightened, she hasn’t been taught to walk properly or she believes she should be leading you. Each will require a different response.
- Reflect on your own behaviour – how you behave will influence how the dog behaves. If you raise your voice when your dog misbehaves, this may cause further panic. If you are a calm, convincing, consistent leader, your dog will follow your example.