Luna is Deirdre’s second dog: she also has a placid, easy-going twelve year old Collie called Bella. Luna is a rescue dog: she had a bad start to life and ended up abandoned as a young adult in the DSPCA sanctuary. When Deirdre heard about her four years ago, Luna had been with the DSPCA for ten months. She had proven to be a difficult dog to rehome because of her nervous and aggressive traits. Her future was bleak.
Deirdre witnessed for herself the problems shown by Luna. Whenever she met another dog, she would bark furiously, alternating between backing away and rushing forwards as if she was going to attack. She caused ructions whenever this happened. Everyone was terrified that she was going to start a serious fight with the other dog. When there were lovely, quiet, gentle dogs looking for homes, why would anyone want to take a disruptive, challenging animal like this?
Luna was also terrified of men, leading to similar behaviour whenever she met a stranger. She’d bark loudly and furiously, and if a man dared to go close to her, she’d bare her teeth, hunching down low as if she was about to attack.
Deirdre realised that Luna had these complicated behavioural traits, but she could see that underneath the nervousness, she was a gentle, sweet dog. Deirdre took time to sit with her quietly, and Luna responded rapidly by being affectionate and calm in return. Deirdre then made the kind, generous offer to take Luna on from the DSPCA as a long term pet. That was four years ago, and since then, it has been a steady process of working with Luna to help her to get over her fears. Deirdre consulted with a number of helpful behaviourists who gave her helpful advice on what steps she could take. She also worked with some experienced dog owners who were kind enough to go out of their way to help her.
The basic principles that are used to get dogs over fears and phobias are known as “desensitisation” (DS) and “counterconditioning” (CC).
Desensitisation means getting dogs used to things that frighten them, by repeated, low dose exposure. So for Luna, that meant spending time around friendly men, with the men not coming close enough to her to frighten her. This is combined with counterconditioning, which means giving her rewards and treats when she behaves in a normal, relaxed way when she’s close to the things that she’s frightened of. For Luna, that meant giving her praise and tasty food morsels when she behaved well around the men who were nearby.
Deirdre was in a fortunate position, as there were two men locally who were prepared to give their time and attention to helping Luna. Deirdre’s brother made a point of visiting Deirdre every day for the sole purpose of getting Luna used to men. He brought treats with him, and he stayed calm and quiet, so she began to associate his visit with good things, and she soon stopped getting fearful, and stopped barking. As well as her brother, she was lucky to have a male neighbour who liked dogs, and he was also very helpful. He dropped into the house regularly, again giving treats to Luna and talking to her quietly. She gradually became calmer and calmer around men.
She is not cured completely: in particular, if she ever sees young men wearing backpacks, she gets very upset, barking furiously and lunging at them. Deirdre is certain that at some point in the past, she was treated very badly by some young male person with a backpack of some kind, and she’s never forgotten.
Luna’s other fear – of other dogs – is still a challenge. Bella is the exception, and she’s now Luna’s best friend. She is an easy going, relaxed dog who never gets upset when Luna gets agitated. These days, if Deirdre ever has to take Bella away (such as to go to the vet), Luna gets very agitated on her own, barking and howling. It’s as if Bella has become Luna’s comfort blanket, making the world seem a friendlier, kinder place. As long as Bella is there, Luna is happy.
Luna’s behaviour is still challenging with some dogs that she does not know: if she meets another dog, full on, she’ll often bark and get excited. Deirdre has learned to anticipate these situations, and she tries to distract with treats and verbal interactions so that she lets other dogs pass by without making a fuss.
Luna has also been fearful at the vet, and I’ve been working with her to make the vet as enjoyable as possible. Deirdre makes sure that she’s hungry when she arrives (e.g. by just giving a small breakfast on that day) and Luna is then delighted when she’s given little treats by the vet. She had to have a small operation to remove a tumour recently, and there was no problem.
Luna is still a young adult dog, and she’s learning all the time. Deirdre is continuing with carefully planned behavioural modification techniques, gradually teaching this fearful dog that there is no need to be afraid any more.
She’s a lovely dog around most people, and especially kind and gentle with children (under supervision, of course).
Luna may have had a bad start in life, but Deirdre is making sure that the rest of her life is as good as it could possibly be.