Control and companionship

dog girl companion

Why setting boundaries can be all about negotiation

There has been much debate as to why humans started to keep other species as pets. Most of us these days keep dogs and cats to enjoy their company and to get pleasure from knowing that they also enjoy being with us.    

It is partly because of this that I find very sad when I come across situations where this key element of the pet/owner relationship has been badly damaged.

One such case was that of Monty and Lisa.  Monty a young and lively spaniel could be bit naughty; he would occasionally steal things, and was not always obedient. Lisa needed advice and the advice came from several quarters; from friends, family, neighbours and TV. She was told that she had to be pack leader; that she must be ‘in control’.  Lisa tried, she tried very hard, and Monty’s behaviour got worse. She was told that if Monty did not do as she commanded, he must be physically made to do it. Lisa didn’t feel very happy about this, but again she tried, and Monty bit her!  Lisa was told that she needed to be more assertive. Other people showed her how, but this just made Monty more defensive and more aggressive. 

A dog in this situation could easily begin to experience frustration. In Monty’s case, everyone kept telling him not to do things, but no-one told him what he could do. Worse than this, his fear of being physically pushed around and told off had resulted in him responding defensively, with an aggressive reaction. For Lisa, the fact that her efforts were making Monty worse rather than better had made her feel like a complete failure. Not only couldn’t she control her own dog, she was frightened of him!

Re-homing was seriously considered, and when I first met Lisa and Monty, I also wondered if that might not be the best option. Dog and owner were so wary of each other I wasn’t sure if they could develop any sort of good relationship again. However, and most importantly, Lisa was willing to try.

Changes were made; rather than being told off for doing something bad, Monty was encouraged to do something else instead, and then rewarded for it. Monty started to enjoy this game!  Lisa learned ways of distracting Monty to prevent him from stealing or generally being ‘naughty’. Monty responded very well, because the distraction word he was taught meant something nice was nearby. Being good became fun and rewarding for Monty. By comparison doing the ‘bad things’ became boring and unrewarding.

Monty began to regard Lisa as fun to be with and the keeper of all things good. She was no longer the unpredictable person that he had learnt to fear. In turn Lisa discovered that she need not be frightened of Monty, but that actually he could be a friend and really good company.

As I was leaving the house, after seeing Lisa and Monty for the last follow-up session, she looked back towards him sitting obediently and happily on his bed. Lisa said “The funny thing is, everyone kept telling me that I had to the boss and that I had to be ‘in control’. You never once said that to me, but now I feel more in control than I ever have been”. 

Trudi Atkinson, DipAS (CABC), VN, CCAB

APBC Full Member