I live in the beautiful Wye Valley, amongst rolling hills and valleys, winding rivers and rural communities. The area is stunningly beautiful with mile upon mile of unspoilt woodland and rivers surrounded by rolling hills and fertile farmland with glorious mountain ranges perfecting the picture. There are many small villages and a few towns dotted across the landscape. The biggest town in Monmouthshire has approximately 14,000 inhabitants and most people live in the countryside. You might think it is a perfect environment in which to keep a dog and many people in the area obviously agree, as dog ownership is popular here with many owners having more than one canine companion.
There is however, one problem that results in more behaviour consultations for me than any other issue. There is so much glorious countryside to explore that it is not uncommon to walk for miles without meeting a soul. There are a few popular places where dog owners will congregate, but on the whole many companion dogs spend the majority of their lives isolated from their own kind. I have lived in other rural areas where this isn’t the case as most dog owners chose to exercise their dogs in similar areas, but here the choice of country walks makes it all too simple to remain apart from other people and dogs. How easy to take your dog out without having to worry about how he walks on the lead if you rarely meet anyone! The quality of life for many people living here is such that they can also enjoy large gardens for their dogs to roam in or they live close enough to satisfying walks to take their dogs out without meeting anyone.
The nearest city to me, Newport in Gwent, offers a complete contrast. Many dog owners there wouldn’t even think of consulting a behaviourist if they had a problem with their dog. In some parts of the city clients live in fear because they cannot step out of their front door for fear that their dog will be attacked by yet another status Staffie roaming the streets unchecked. Few dogs that I meet are thoroughly and continually socialised and the result is the same as in the countryside.
The most common issue I am presented with is the lack of socialisation leading to aggression. This is normally dog to dog aggression but on occasion it extends to people.
Conscientious and caring owners bring home their new puppies and faithfully take them weekly to socialisation and training classes, well aware that it is important for their new charge to meet other dogs and people. They usually have a great time chatting with other owners, practising training and watching their young dog having fun. Once the course is complete, the dog returns to its new home and, despite the best intentions of owners, life gets in the way and the dog rarely gets to see others of its kind or many people either. When considering a trip into town, if the pup isn’t calmly walking to heel and relaxed around other dogs then the temptation to leave him at home for convenience becomes too much and the dog has to settle for solitary walks when his owner can find time for him. As many people tell me when I talk with them, ‘We have a large garden and he gets plenty of exercise running around it’. Incidentally, having another dog at home is not a way to solve the problem unless you plan to keep the pair as permanent prisoners in their property.
Not surprisingly, my phone will ring some 12 months later and I will hear the familiar concerned and bemused tones of someone who may even have brought their puppy to my own training and socialisation course sometime in the past, who can’t understand why it seems that Fido has forgotten all his social manners and has started lungeing at any dog he meets.
I wonder how I would feel if I had left primary school and not seen another person to speak to until I was 40 and was then thrust into a rowdy dinner party? I think I’d leave pretty quickly, unless of course I was tied to someone else and forced to stay, when I would probably panic!
So what can we do to stop this happening? First of all, it doesn’t matter how obedient or otherwise your young dog is, he will still benefit hugely from going to training classes, not only to meet other dogs but their owners as well. My advice is to work as hard as you can to train your dog to walk to heel and to sit. With these two vital skills you will have no excuses when it comes to visiting towns and friends with your dog and he will become an integral part of your life, away from home as well as inside it. Take your dog to places where he will meet other dogs, at least once a week. A quick walk through a local park or even walking up an average high street is pretty nearly guaranteed to give your dog social contact. You could contact your friends and get together for walks or join a dog walking club. If you live near Monmouth, bring your dog along to one of my training and socialisation courses, which are open to dogs of any age. As well as reinforcing basic training, learning good manners and establishing social skills, once you’ve completed the course you’ll be eligible to join the F.I.D.O Walks which are held every few weeks around the area. There are usually up to 16 or so dogs of varying sociability, some on lead and some running free. As the walk progresses the more nervous dogs are kept at a distance until and unless they feel able to interact so the group moves along in a straggle of about 100 metres long. It all works really well as the dogs quickly settle into pack mode as they bounce along.
However you achieve it, remember that dogs need social stimulation throughout their lives. It’s so straightforward if we do it from the start and your dog will love you for it.