4 min read

If you have a dog who is sick and fearful you can feel lost and alone. The weight of opinion, expectation and information can be overwhelming. What is right? What is true? What is best?

Merlin came from a good breeder. He had enrichment, socialisation and a heritage of dog sports. Although he showed early signs of being sensitive to sound, Merlin was a happy puppy who fit into our family with ease. His loving nature endeared him to everyone, dog and human alike. The sky was the limit, with Merlin I could achieve the goals I desired as I learned about training. This dog would be my teaching companion, would compete in sports and help take my training to another level. This dog would be THE dog! 

 Only 5 months old

Merlin picked up a nasty stomach bug which lead to ongoing, chronic illness and fear. Rather than long hikes, fun training and exciting dog sports, the next 3 years were spent surviving while I struggled to make him healthy and happy.

The complexity of his requirements was overwhelming; advice and treatment conflicting. What the vet saw were physical symptoms. What the behaviourist saw were mental issues. What I saw was a special dog with a distinctive physical body, unique personality and rich emotional life.

I battled disappointment. I felt grief, frustration and defeat. I was utterly exhausted. How could I help this wonderful dog lead a fulfilled life? What did I need to enjoy my life with him?

There is a lot of information on the internet, many protocols wrapped up in memorable, marketable names. If you have a dog who is afraid or who over reacts you can find a variety of recipes promising a cure. These can be hard to resist when you are desperate to help your dog live a normal life.

Unless you understand how behaviour functions, damage to your training or worse to your relationship can occur. The ability to analyse protocols objectively is essential – how do they work? Why do they work? Most importantly what is the effect on the animal? Effectiveness is one way to gauge a protocol, but the wellbeing of your dog has to be the most important factor.

Many years ago, I learned this lesson when I followed the advice of a trainer and practised a Nothing in Life is Free protocol. Rumble was aggressive to other dogs and NILIF was the trainer’s solution. I did what she said because she was an “expert” recommended by the vet. Rumble became quiet and deferent to me, but aggression to dogs continued.

I felt terrible, that special spark of RUMBLE was gone. I had first-hand evidence of harm done by training based on constructs like deference and leadership. So, I decided to learn all I could about dogs and the science that explains the way they behave.

When this “cure-all” protocol was again presented as an answer to Merlin’s fear of sound, I was able to analyse and reject it as unhelpful. Learning about dogs and behavioural science has given me the ability to observe Merlin’s behaviour and create training plans that promote confidence and choice, rather than deference and discomfort.

Set a compass for direction

Throughout this process I have allowed my ethics to guide me. The individual who is Merlin is at the heart of every choice I make. A relationship of trust and connection is the foundation of our training.  Knowing this I have rejected cookie-cutter formulas with their tones of passivity and control. I have found veterinarians with a more holistic approach. I have learned about gastrointestinal diseases, anxiety and diet with particular emphasis on gut health. I have researched sound training, storm sensitivity, play and creating confidence. I have read everything I could, reached out to friends and experts and exercised my own judgment.

Although once terrified of the car, Merlin now chooses to get in. He doesn’t run from his collar like he used to. He is no longer afraid of the kitchen or metallic sounds. He is not too bothered by a windy day. General environmental noises have stopped frightening him, he can rest alone without constant whining and can relax in the car by himself. He is afraid of the rain but recovers quickly and will leave his safe place to be with us when it clears. He walks beautifully on lead and can run off lead in safe environments. We both enjoy grooming and are working on making his husbandry behaviours worry free. For the last 6 months his gut has been stable, and he is gradually tolerating a more diverse diet. What Merlin and I have achieved may not be spectacular, but to me and my family, it is remarkable.

I stood by my window a few days ago watching as Merlin rolled around on the lawn. His glorious hair flew, and his legs kicked the air. It is so important to enjoy these tiny moments of fun and connection: the nose bump to your leg, the joyful greeting, the long, lush belly rubs. Appreciating and remembering helps you see the undesirable with different eyes. I wanted Merlin to meet my needs. I dreamed of competing in dog sports and showcasing what can be achieved through skilful, considered training. My own goals have had to shift; I may never perform wonderful routines of heelwork or compete in Rally Obedience, but I can use my knowledge to build a brilliant life with the dog I have. 

Our dog trust us to find the best solutions for them and will in return do their very best.

Author: Julie Van Schie

Julie shares her Australian life with her dogs in Melbourne.

She is an experienced teacher and trainer in lifeskills and has studied with Kay Laurence for many years.

Learning long-distance has never proven an obstacle to developing great training skills.

Julie’s Website: Delight in Dogs.

4 Comments

  1. Sharon Zielasko

    Hi there, first I would like to say thank you for looking after Merlin’s needs first. Wondering about the gut issues? Struggle with my BC from about 6 months on. Seeing holistic vet and making progress but always love information. Thanks

    Reply
    • Julie van Schie

      Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for you comments and I am sorry to hear about your BC.

      Great that you are making progress with your holistic vet, it can be a bit of trial and error sometimes, so hang in there!

      With Merlin’s gut, I first did an allergy test and based his homemade diet on that. Fresh meat and vegetables with pre and pro biotics. The pre-biotics were specific vegetables like celery and asparagus (yes asparagus!). I also used a special pre-biotic mix from a holistic vet in the early days of changing his diet. What really turned it around for us was cooking Merlin’s diet, he can’t tolerate raw. A special mix to make is food complete was added in and after this he was completely stable for 6 months – before eating one of the other dog’s raw kangaroo meal (bad me for not watching more carefully!). After this episode it has taken several weeks to build him back up again.

      Good luck with your dog!

      Reply
  2. Iris Maxfield

    Well done for the dedication and commitment you’ve given to finding answers and solutions.
    I spent a long time studying the gut brain connection, looking outside the training box in order to help one of my own dogs, he never suffered any digestive upsets, to indicate dodgy gut health, just a very big confidence issue.
    He was and still is a poo eater “yuk”

    Pre/Probiotics defiantly helped him with confidence, think he is, who he is ,a bit of a worrier, glad to say in some situations now his halo slips, and I’m happy he gets to be a rebel every now and then.

    He is still a big poo eater but I think that is another gut need in his case (while I try to be the one to pick up) looking at the fecal transplants that are being used to treat gut disease and mental illness in people I think there must be a link with what poo eating dogs are looking for, personally I think it is the need to balance the gut bacteria.

    Reply
  3. Julie

    Iris, fecal transplants are a very interesting advance in medical science! I have also wondered whether there is a link with dogs who eat poo.

    In Merlin’s case, I have noticed a link between his fearful responses and those times when he is feeling unwell. Stabilising his gut helped to stabilise the reactions.

    Yes pro and pre-biotics and a fresh natural diet has been a big factor in returning him to wellness.

    Best of luck with your boy!

    Reply

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