I’d like to share a story about a Jack Russell terrier with a behaviour problem.
Izzy has a problem with reactivity to other animals. She is highly reactive towards other dogs and shows anxious behaviours if she knows that there is a dog anywhere on our farm, even if it arrives in a car and does not get out. Luckily, she is on a farm and never has to meet another dog. If she lived in town, she could not be walked without having a behaviour modification plan instituted to help her with any chance meetings with other canines.
But she does meet other animals: The farm where Izzy lives backs onto beautiful bushland. Wombats, wallabies and kangaroos abound (excuse the pun), as well as a huge number of other wildlife. A few species would stimulate her to become emotionally reactive. The scent of a wombat caused her to become highly aroused and she would chase them back to their burrow, barking furiously, unable to be called away.
However, after exposure to wombats, she eventually returned to her owner highly aroused with panting and wild eyes, calming down after an extended period of time.
There was one animal that set her off that did not let her eventually down. That animal would protect itself from Izzy’s mad barking and lunging with a lethal bite: the snake. Izzy has fought for her life after being rushed to the veterinary clinic four times after four separate encounters resulting in her being injected with high doses of snake venom.
Izzy has amazingly survived all four battles, after considerable worry and expense, as well as convalescence in hospital on the part of Izzy. She has been treated with four separate doses of antivenine, a blood transfusion, positive pressure oxygen ventilation for hours while not being able to breathe as well as the having her blood pressure stabilised, and her body temperature and pain managed.
Her reactivity to animals and snakes was due to anxiety. She has general anxiety but it is heightened when she senses some species of animal.
Izzy was started on medication for her anxiety and a simple behaviour modification plan was instituted that encouraged her to respond quickly when called and to be able to learn to calm down on returning to her owner.
She is now much calmer on walks. She sniffs at various scents and enjoys running off into the bushland, whereas before behaviour therapy she could not stop to sniff at scents and she ran all over the bush with seemingly no direction to her running. She does not mind kangaroos but enjoys chasing a wallaby for fun, rather than desperate need to make it be away from her. She is still reactive to wombats but can be called away if she has not followed the scent all the way to find the wombat. She can be easily called away for attention and treats when she looks too intent on a wombat’s scent trail. It is always her choice to return, knowing that she may receive treats and attention.
A fortnight ago, the improvement in her anxiety saved her life.
Not knowing that Izzy’s environmental management plan is simply that she is not walked in the hot weather, a visiting friend took Izzy for a walk. When the weather is warm and there is a risk of snakes, Izzy is walked very early in the morning when it is not hot and there is a very low risk of meeting a snake. The friend did not realise the danger and Izzy went up into the bushland in the warmth of the day. Very soon into the walk, Izzy met a brown snake. She went to the snake, interested, but did not bark and lunge at the snake. She was called away and brought straight home.
Due to her history, she was taken to the veterinary clinic and monitored but she showed no sign of a bite.
The change in her behaviour upon meeting the snake was profoundly different from the behaviour she had displayed previously. Because she was not reacting with highly emotional behaviour, she was still capable of responding to her owners. She was able to find a more successful solution when faced with something that usually caused her to become anxious and behave with reactive, uncontrolled behaviour.
Instead of barking and lunging at the snake resulting in her receiving a lethal dose of snake venom, Izzy was first examining the situation and she was easily called away because she has learnt that returning when called helps her gain something good such as treats or attention.
The more often Izzy, returns to her owner for treats in situations that cause her concern, the more that she can learn that it is in her best interests to return and receive a treat and she can predict an outcome that solves her problem in that situation. However, we do not want her to meet more snakes to practice her recall on meeting such a challenge – instead, the recall practice can happen with all other animals that concern her, as well as intermittently while she is on a walk, so that she can generalise the response to snakes.
Any positive reinforcement training exercise is helpful as mental stimulation for pets and training recall is particularly helpful for pets that may run towards an arousing stimulus. Even dogs on leash that lunge towards stimuli can benefit from recall practice because this kind of training helps a dog learn to turn to their owner and focus their attention away from the trigger.