Book Club: Dogs Have Taught Me About More Than Animal Behaviour, They’ve Taught Me About People Too
Very often it is assumed that those who are 'dog mad' as adults must have grown up around animals. But this isn't always the case. Sometimes the love of the dog is born from something else. From moments snatched greeting the dogs of neighbours or extended family.
For former IT manager turned dog behaviourist Denise Mcleod, her love of dogs developed after being unable to have her own dog growing up and she suspects partly because of this, her interest (and desire) to spend more time with animals than people was born.
It was a family illness that prevented me being able to have a dog as a child. Party because of that limitation I suspect, I decided early on that people were mean and animals were not. So I spent nearly every waking moment of my childhood, avoiding people as much as possible and instead being with animals. I walked other peoples ‘delinquent’ dogs, rode other peoples ‘un-rideable’ horses, rode my own pony or worked on farms.
Photo Credit: Linda Shearman
When I wasn’t riding, walking, milking cows or rounding up sheep, I sat down. Because I was very tired. And as I sat, I observed. I sat in fields, forests, on river banks, in trees and in wild areas, watching animals, befriending wild animals, rescuing injured animals, trying to figure out why they did what they did and what made them what they are. I read every book, watched every film and took every chance I had to meet animals and be with them. I was obsessed. And I suspect, being entirely truthful, slightly weird because of it.
Later in life, probably due to the sudden presence of female hormones in my body, I began to take an active interest in humans too. I observed that many of the things that animals did, humans did too. So now considering humans more animal than human, I began to like them. Wanting to learn more about this curious and strange animal, the human, I studied Psychology, psychiatry, spirituality, mental health, personal development, meditation and a variety of human-based interests.
Photo Credit: Linda Shearman
Throughout this time, I began to realise that more and more often, people would come to me and say 'so and so says that your good with dogs, well I have this dog that is a nightmare. He just…..' And I would go see the dog. And more often than not, I could help both it and its human.
So in 2001 after a successful career in IT, I decided to follow my heart and quit my job and started CaDeLac Dog Training and Behaviour. As a result, I have since come into contact with over 10,000 puppies and dogs and over 15.000 people.
All of them wanting to learn about and understand each other better. As well as running training classes, behaviour clinics and seminars and workshops, I also produced the 'It’s a dog’s life DVD' and more recently I have written a book 'A Dog Behaviourist’s Diary'.
We all have a story to tell, personal ups and downs. And dogs are much the same. This book is about the stories that have made me laugh or cry, that have terrified me, made my heart sing, or left my reeling in despair, depression or grief. It is a story of puppies, dogs, people, life, success, happiness, failure, tragedy, heartbreak and finally about love.
It covers a range of real problems, of real solutions and brings about real understanding. And I am very, very proud of it. So I hope that you enjoy reading one of my personal favourite extracts from the book. It's about one of own dogs, my beautiful Lace, who taught me so much.
In around 1991 I decided to get my second rescue dog, a beautiful Border Collie, called Lace. After a short walk with her, her fate was sealed and she came home with my other dog, Cassie and I to live out the rest of her days.
Photo Credit: Matt Malyan / Pictured above, Lace
There was no history available about Lace other than that her previous owner 'couldn’t cope'. The owner of the shelter advised me that she seemed 'a bit nippy', but that she would 'probably soon grow out of it'.
It didn’t take long for me to work out what 'a bit nippy' actually meant. After two days with me, she had bitten two people.
The first day she bit a stranger who, unbeknown to me, had touched her as we passed in the street, creating something of a scene between the woman and me. I was shocked and apologised profusely. Then on the second day, she bit me.
I learnt a great deal from Lace. The first and most important thing that I learned because of her, though, was about people, not dogs.
Knowing next to nothing about people-biters back then, so assuming, wrongly, that she had little experience of people and perhaps needed some more positive social interaction, I decided to take her into a nearby small town the next day, and here the lessons began.
It became very clear that Lace was a dog who other people wanted to touch. Her delicate, pretty features attracted all sorts of attention and within five minutes of being in town, I saw a woman approach me with a smile on her face as she looked at and admired Lace.
'What a lovely dog,' she said, stopping in front of us, smiling at Lace and blocking our way. 'How old is she?'
'Around ten months, they think. I am her second home so I don’t know for sure,' I replied. I watched for Lace’s reaction. Lace was watching the woman.
The fact that she had had to be rehomed brought a pitying look. 'Aww, poor thing.' And without warning or asking, she leaned forward to stroke her.
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Now, as a young child I was told more than once, 'If you touch a strange dog, it might bite you and no one will feel sorry for you, because it’s your own fault. Never touch a strange dog.' So I never did.
The smiling woman was blocking our passage and seemingly intent on stroking Lace, who was staring at her with a hard look in her eyes. As soon as I realised that she was planning on touching her I said firmly, 'Please don’t touch my dog, she isn’t always friendly. She might bite you.'
Having never experienced this before I expected her to heed my warning, but taking me by complete surprise she continued her reach and replied, 'No, no, dogs like me.' She leant forward and went to place her hand on top of Lace’s head.
Though surprised by her decision to ignore my request, I was still fast enough to react in time and as Lace, reading the woman’s intention, sprang forward, her mouth open and teeth bared, I quickly halted her launch with the lead. Lace reached the end of her lead and thus fell short of the woman’s hand, and snapped her teeth shut in a warning.
The woman reeled back from the leaping dog in horror, fear evident on her face, and looked from Lace, who was now standing back calmly, silently contemplating her victim, to me. Shock evident on her face and in her voice, she said accusingly, 'Your dog went to bite me!'
'Yes, I know. I said she might.'
'Vicious thing. Vile animal, it wants shooting!' She stomped off.
I was bemused. I had told her Lace wasn’t friendly and not to touch her, yet she had ignored my warning and now she was calling my new dog vicious.
Back in those days, it was all a mystery to me how dogs like Lace came to be people-biters. But these days I am very much clearer on these things. In Lace’s case, as with many other particularly attractive or sweet-looking animals, it is a behaviour that they have come to use in order to prevent strangers touching them.
I don’t want strangers touching me, you don’t want strangers touching you, none of us want strangers touching our children, and yet the popular view seems to be that all dogs should allow all strangers to touch them, whenever and however they want. Even if the dog is clearly expressing their wish to not be touched.
Photo Credit: Peter Banister
If you were walking down the street with your young daughter and a stranger said to you, 'Can I touch your daughter, please?', what would you say? What if they began to touch your daughter without even asking? What would you do?
So why do people think it’s OK to touch a strange dog, and yet mostly they seem to realise that it is not OK to touch a strange adult or child? When someone is convicted of child molesting, they can go to prison. However, when someone touches a dog without the dog or owner giving permission and the dog reacts to that touch with an aggressive display or bite, then it is the dog, not the human, that is assumed by so many to be at fault. Why?
Dogs in the home can become this way with their owners and their families too if at home they are the subject of unwanted attention. ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ is a really valuable idea to be shared. Dogs who bite their owners or family members are often found to have had the same problem that Lace had: people want to touch them when they don’t want the attention.
The dog has tried to communicate to their owners that they don’t want to be picked up at random intervals, or stroked in that spot or at this time, or when they are tired, asleep, or feeling achy or ill. But their communications have failed to get through to the owners and the dog may then resort to taking things to a new level.
Eventually, after 'Please don’t touch my dog' and 'If you touch her she will bite you' failed, I became aware that I needed another plan, fast. So I developed a new saying that worked really well, and I offer it to anyone in a similar situation.
'She has bad mange. Don’t touch!' The emphasis is on the words ‘bad’ and ‘mange’. It’s brilliant. Their hand recoils immediately and horror fills their face, and they often turn and go immediately. Sometimes running.
That stopped them.
And then came the crucial learning point, the thing I learnt that has helped other dogs time and time again. Slowly Lace began to realise that what I was saying to oncoming humans who wished to touch her was making them back off and go away. When she realised that I was resolving the problem without her having to take action, she relaxed a lot more around people and if a stranger approached she would look up at me to see if I was going to take action and say the magic ‘mange’ word. As I did so more and more, so she stopped reacting to and displaying at them.
Over several years she made many human friends, adults and children, but always at her pace and in her own way. I understood the crucial learning point here: that dogs like Lace were not nasty, but they had been increasingly pressured into protecting their personal body space, because their owners, including Lace’s first owner and at the beginning me, had failed to support and protect them.
I’ve seen dozens of dogs with this same problem and the solution always revolves around the owner finding a successful way of keeping strangers at bay and keeping their dog feeling safe and protected from people and their prying hands.
Photo Credit: Peter Banister / Pictured above, Lace and Cloud
Lace had done nothing wrong in my view. She went on to be not just a great agility and obedience dog, but also a wonderful companion to me, and a surrogate mum to Cloud. She protected both old Cassie and puppy Cloud from other dogs, and me once from a burglar.
She also went on to be a great teaching dog for my agility students. I often handed her to a student so that they could see where their handling skills were going wrong.
Lace was hugely trainable and highly obedient and responsive, and she helped many learn the art of agility as well as teaching me about people-biting, inter-dog aggression at home (she fought with Cassie), scent work (she was an incredible search dog), and sound-based fears, anxiety-related conditions and many other things. As my friend, she was second to none and I felt privileged indeed to have spent so many years with this wonderful girl who loved me so. She was put to sleep at the grand old age of nineteen. I still miss her terribly.
Run free, little Lace, my wonderful friend. May your legacy live on…
Let sleeping dogs lie. And never touch a strange dog. For if you do, it might bite you and no one will feel sorry for you because it will be your own fault!
K9 Magazine says: We really enjoyed this book and discovering more about Lace, Denise and their bond which will stretch far beyond those they met in person through the pages of this new book.