Karen had adopted an adorable little bundle of yellow Labrador puppy, Max, who immediately stole my heart! Karen was an experienced dog owner, although she had been dog-free for a few years. She also had two children – a daughter aged 20 and a son aged 10. Karen’s son Andrew had been diagnosed with autism.
Karen and Andrew had recently visited friends in South Africa, where Andrew had been introduced to their two labradors. Andrew immediately took a liking to them and seemed to develop a special bond with them. When Karen returned to the UK she decided to get a family Labrador of their own as a companion for Andrew.
Unfortunately as Karen says ‘It was not love at first sight’! Max had come along and turned their house upside down! As a young boisterous puppy he was full of energy and desperately sought out the attention and comfort of his new human family. And to a puppy this means running around, jumping up, biting and mouthing and generally creating chaos. Andrew hated this. He often ended up becoming Max’s favourite chew toy. Andrew had retreated to the upstairs of the house and was avoiding the downstairs which was where Max was. The much hoped for companion dog for Andrew had ended up alienating him. It was heart-breaking to see.
I used my experience with working with families and dogs to put together a plan of action for Karen, Max and Andrew. My priority had to be that both Max and Andrew were happy so that we could start working with them together.
To build Andrew’s confidence, my initial suggestion was some crate training so that Max had a safe place to go. We can teach dogs that the crate is a wonderful safe and cosy place for a rest or just some quiet time. We introduced Max to the crate and he quite quickly took to it. But unfortunately so did Andrew! Andrew decided that he absolutely loved the crate, and if the door was left open Andrew would climb in and settle down. Then when Max also tried to get into the crate Andrew got upset! So we decided to abandon the crate plan and look to alternatives.
We worked on two exercises with Max – settling on his bed, and being comfortable wearing a soft lead in the house for last resort management. Max very quickly picked up the ‘Send to Bed’ exercise and would happily settle down there with a chew or a toy. Now Karen had some options to use with Max if he was becoming too much for Andrew.
I always try to focus on what we would like the dog to do instead of what we want the dog to stop doing, so as an alternative to the jumping up behaviour, we taught Max a quick and reliable ‘Sit’ in a range of situations with a range of distractions.
To make sure Max was happy we looked at the levels of exercise he was getting, both mental and physical, his diet and routine, and his relationships in the family. Max was a working breed dog and very intelligent so needed to be kept busy! With growing large breed dogs we have to be very careful not to over exercise them in case of damage to their growing joints so Karen was sensibly sticking to short walks.
But what to do with the rest of the day?! This is where our mental exercise comes in! Karen had some training exercises to be working on with Max in short sessions throughout the day whilst Andrew was at school.
In addition to this I introduced Karen to activity toys, one of my favourite things for keeping young brains occupied! We got Max a snuffle mat for his mealtimes, and showed him how to forage for food from a plastic bottle or cardboard box. We showed him how to sniff out treats and experimented with different Kong fillings. All of Max’s three meals per day were mental exercise!
Once this routine was in place we added in some nice self-control exercises. Slowly Andrew began to grow in confidence around Max and started spending more time downstairs as he usually would, and we were then able to begin teaching Max some self-control around Andrew with the two of them together.
Young puppies instinctively mouth and bite as they explore the world, and this continues right through teething and into adolescence. It is our job to teach them what is appropriate for them to mouth and bite on, and that it isn’t our clothes or skin!
Typically with young children I will teach them to freeze if a puppy jumps up and mouths them and for adult supervision at all times. Because we couldn’t ask Andrew to follow instructions we decided to take a different route that was perfect for clicker training! We started introducing the clicker to Max with some of the exercises we had already taught him. We taught Max that every time he heard to ‘click’ he would get a food reward straight afterwards because the click meant he had done something right! Once we had done this the clicker was charged or loaded and ready to go!
Next was time for one of my favourite types of training – capturing! This means waiting for the dog to do something we liked and then clicking and treating. We did not need to ask Max to do anything, but each time he heard that click and got that treat he would think back to what he did to earn that and would then repeat it again! So whilst Andrew was downstairs we clicked and treated anything that Max did that we liked. This included standing on all four paws around Andrew, sitting, lying down, settling on his bed, walking past him calmly, sniffing without mouthing, checking in with Karen. Basically anything that didn’t involve jumping up or mouthing! Max was a fast learner and very quickly stopped any jumping up or mouthing around Andrew. He picked this up in a matter of minutes and Karen was delighted. The clicker had saved the day! Now Karen just needed to keep up the good work!
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Following on from our course of home training sessions Karen and Max joined us on our Basic Foundation Course which Max sailed through. He absolutely loved to learn! On the last week of the course Karen showed me a video that she had taken of Andrew and Max which will stay with me forever. Andrew was sitting on the sofa with Max lay calmly at his feet. Every now and then Andrew reached down and patted or stroked Max. He was finally interacting with him in a lovely positive way! This gave me confidence that given time Max and Andrew will be the companions Karen had hoped for!
Nicola Davies BA(Hons.) MAPDT 01059 CAP1
‘Sept 2016 we got our 8wk old Lab, Max, as a companion for our 10yr old, who has Autism, he is completely non-verbal & almost constantly in his own world. It was not love at first sight! Research led me to Nicola, can’t explain what a difference she made. This was not a situation she had dealt with before & each week she arrived with a bucket load of patience as we dealt with newly discovered issues. We’re on track to having a really well behaved dog & that’s down to the one to one at home training & now taking part in training course with 6 other dogs at the training school. Can’t thank Nicola or recommend her highly enough!’