We’ve had quite a few changes in the Paws Den over the last couple of years and our hounds have reacted in different ways. Any kind of change in a dog’s world will affect her, but how quickly she adjusts will depend on how calm and settled she is in her own skin.
Some changes are things that we can anticipate, so it’s possible to gradually acclimatise our dogs to something like a planned move, or a new baby. Other things can be out of our control, such as illness in the family, an injury either to yourself, your dog, or even to another dog in the family. Troubled dogs are always likely to react to these things, even if they’ve become a lot better in terms of their reactivity with triggers.
It’s not always easy to be able to see why your dog may struggling, and one of the most difficult things to spot is deteriorating eye sight. Our hounds have coped remarkably well with huge life changes that have happened to them over the last two years, but the one who surprised me was Moth.
If you’ve been following us for long, you may have noticed that Moth is doing far less Buddy-dog work than he was. He started to show signs of being uneasy around dogs and people when we were out walking about 8 months ago, but I couldn’t understand why because there didn’t seem to be any obvious trigger.
Alarm bells started ringing when he barked at a dog at some distance away while he was working as a Buddy-dog. He’d been fine with the dog we were working with, but was troubled by one that walked by. This dog was on-lead, carrying a ball, with relatively ‘low’ body language. Admittedly, it looked at him, and the owner was walking very briskly, but they were passing us at a good distance.
I had to sit down and have a really good think about what had gone on for him lately. He’d definitely struggled with the upheaval of the building work we had done last year, in a way that he would never really have bothered when younger. What hadn’t made much sense to me at the time was that we had introduced the builders, both kind and softly-spoken men, really slowly to the dogs. They followed all my instructions about how to behave around the hounds. I couldn’t work out why Moth couldn’t settle when they were around – he’d never bothered about loud noises from tools in the house before and was used to me prancing about with power-tools and whacking holes in walls …
I’d started to notice that he would look very intently at any of us coming home in the evening, as if he didn’t recognise us. Then there would be a sort of ‘oh it’s you’ wag and he would soften.
I was still taking him to work as a Buddy-dog, but started to feel that he wasn’t completely comfortable with it. It’s difficult to explain how I knew, because he wasn’t really displaying anything overt. It was one of those ‘just a feeling’ things. I think the most clear signal I was getting was that he kept putting himself on the other side of me when we were working with certain dogs – but this is something that he has always done to calm a ‘scaredy’. However, I started to sense he was doing it for a different reason.
Then came the day when he started to shake when I put his harness on. He’d been fine the day before when I harnessed him up for his walk, but he knows when he’s going to work and when he’s going for a walk, so the shaking was definitely about not wanting to go to work.
I pretty much retired him on the spot. And berated myself for not listening to my instincts when I first suspected he wasn’t comfortable with some of the work we’d been doing. We began watching him really carefully at home to see what was going on for him. Assessing his sleep patterns, his eating, his movement and gait. Anything that could indicate that he was in pain or ill. Nothing came up, but observing him closely showed that he was uneasy about our other dogs coming towards him too quickly. Any over-excitement between them sent him hiding on the sofa out of the reach of exuberant play. He would look very intently at anyone moving towards him from another room, and it clearly took him a while to be able to process the information he was getting about them.
There were even times when he seemed uncertain looking at me. He’s always watched me closely to work out how I’m feeling, but he was sniffing my face a lot more and looking at me for ages – which was when I started noticing the size of his pupils. They were huge, in anything other than the brightest light.
Pupils dilate in order to let in as much light as possible so that light rays travel down the optic nerve for processing in the brain. Moth’s pupils were working overtime because he was having trouble seeing as clearly as he had done.
There was nothing that showed up on a vet-check. His eyes weren’t cloudy, the usual sign of deterioration in older dogs. He’s also only 8, which is young-middle-age in a whippet (my oldest lived to 18). But there was no question that his eyes were becoming less able to see as well as they used to. And as a sight-hound, it was troubling him.
Whippets and other ‘running dogs’ rely heavily on their sight, much more than they do on their other senses. Moth had started reacting to people knocking on our neighbour’s door, and barking when they opened and closed their front and back door. His ears were becoming far more attuned to anything that he saw as a threat.
But he wasn’t using his nose to compensate for his deteriorating sight! This is a classic symptom in a reactive dog – troubled dogs rely heavily on sight and hearing, and struggle to use their noses to help them assess situations. One of the first signs I look for in a dog that is making progress and turning from a reactive dog into a Thinking-dog is ‘air-sniffing’. This is exactly what it says: when you see a dog sniffing the air. Their nostrils go in and out, they take short, rapid sniffs and often puff out their cheeks to get a second ‘sniff’ with sensory nodules in their mouths. They almost smell and taste the scents.
When I work with troubled dogs I place a big emphasis on nose work – throwing treats on the floor, pinging them across a garden and letting the dog seek them out, and scattering their morning meal across the grass so that they really need to use their noses to find them. Snuffle mats are also a good way of increasing a dog’s ability to use her nose. Sniffing is the way that dogs interpret the world around them, and a dog that uses her nose is invariably a dog that is able to concentrate and be calm.
The fact that Moth wasn’t using his nose made me realise that he was struggling, because his reactivity improved years ago. He has been calm and well-mannered around other dogs for years, but it became clear that maybe his calmness wasn’t as deep as I’d thought. Because he relied so heavily on his eyes to interpret the world.
I realised that he needed several things to help him adjust to his deteriorating eye sight, not least ways to help him deal with the stress that it was causing him. We put many things in place, and you can find all of them in my leaflet Remedies To Help Anxious Dogs (please contact me if you would like a copy at £2.50)
The thing that I knew would help his confidence the most was learning to use his nose more. He’s always had food scattered in the garden (we call it our daily Sprinkles), but I hadn’t really considered the implication of his slowness in finding the treats. I was aware that he gave-up earlier than the others, but he’d always done that (he’s a wee bit lazy!)
After about a month, he was starting to use his nose much more every day. In the last week he has spent quite a long time down the garden seeking out sprinkles with the rest of the dogs. He’s back to being confident and happier in himself, but it’s taken a while.
In the last two weeks I’ve been able to work with him again, after a long hard look at myself. I missed working with him, he’s my 24/7 boy and part of the reason I love my work is because I love working with him. But I needed to know that I was only working with him for the right reasons – it needed to be about what he needed, not what I needed. He’s a working dog, but he’s my buddy and my family and I wasn’t prepared to ‘use’ him, no matter how good he can be with other dogs and no matter how much I feel my business needs him.
He started to tell me that he was ready again – putting himself between me and the stairs when I was getting ready to go out to work so that I couldn’t walk down them and wagging his tail when I got a harness out for one of the other dogs to come to work with me.
I realised that he was missing it as much as I missed him, so we slowly started working with Seren, and today with Nia. He’s worked with both of them in the past and is very fond of Seren.
He won’t be used again with new dogs – it wouldn’t be fair on him, but I do miss his experience and calmness around some of our more troubled dogs.
So he’s semi-retired! And he’s happy. Harnessed into the car, he sits-up and looks out of the window with a smile on his face. When he saw Nia on Sunday he wagged his tail and was keen to get out of the car to see her, after months of not seeing her. Today he worked with a little cavvie who is very sweet with other dogs, and Moth asked him to play, which he hasn’t done for a very long time.
I feel like I’ve got my old boy back. And that little smile and tail wag are enough for me to know we’ve got it right. :)