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Article from the BBC website - October 2007

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Training for a Family Dog! by Katy Lewis

Clare Atkinson (née Clare Lang)'s philosophy and methods for dog training and behaviour consultations couldn't be further from the Barbara Woodhouse era of the 80s.

There's no shouting, yanking of choke chains or shrill voices. She believes that dogs learn best when they are relaxed and having fun and therefore her training is done using positive, motivational training methods, using a range of rewards including food, toys and verbal praise to encourage dogs and to reward them when they offer the right behaviour.

At her Redbourn-based dog training and behaviour organisation, The Family Dog, there are no methods involving punishment or harsh handling. She simply helps owners develop their dog’s natural behaviour so that he can become an even better family pet - to be calm and well-behaved when necessary whilst still allowing him the freedom to let off steam regularly - all of which must surely put Woodhouse in the dog house!

We went along to find out more ....

How would you describe your job?

Clare: There's various names for the job. Some people call it behaviourist, but it's also behaviour consultant or dog psychologist but I also do a lot of normal training as well so you could just call me a dog trainer!

I do a real variety of things. I see a mixture of cases right from really young puppies (8-9 weeks) teaching them basic training such as sit and down and helping with things like chewing, play biting, jumping up and getting them to come when they're called right up to the other extreme - severe behaviour cases. These would be dogs with phobias and anxieties, some aggression cases, dogs that are scared of traffic or that are anxious when left alone and destroy the house.

The name of your business is The Family Dog, so that gives the idea that you are trying to help dogs to be pets that will work well within the home?

Clare: Yes, one of my principles is that dogs should fit in with families and be part of the family. I tend not to work with real obedience champions because I'm not looking for military precision in the work that I do and I don't want the dog to behave like a robot, but I'm helping people to get their dogs to be slightly better mannered and to fit in better. I also often help dogs to be happier and less stressed so yes, it's very much just helping them to fit in with the family. But they are still dogs and need to be treated as such.

How did you get into this line of work?

Clare: I've come through a variety of sectors. I grew up surrounded by animals and spent quite a lot of my childhood wanting to be a vet, but veered away from it at the last minute, partly because I am so squeamish! I went to university and studied
engineering and then went into sales. Then I started working for one of the major pet food manufacturers which started to bring me back to cats and dogs. At that point I actually got my own dogs and they came with various behaviour problems so I
started to research that and did some training with them. I found it quite interesting so I started doing some courses and did some volunteer work and then thought about actually doing it professionally. I started part time and then finally made the break and gave up my "proper job" as my father calls it, and I'm now a dog behaviourist full time.

What would you say are the most common behaviour problems that you come across?

Clare: Anxieties are very common, or fears, which encompasses a whole range of problems. I get quite a lot of people phoning me saying that their dog is nervous of people, which can lead to aggression, or is nervous of other dogs which can also lead
to aggression, but I also get a lot of separation anxiety or dogs that don't cope well when left on their own. Sometimes you can get dogs which actually destroy the house when they're left on their own but they are actually just bored, not anxious, so part of the challenge is trying to work out what's driving the behaviour before you actually fix it.

How do you sort it out then? Do you take every case on, do you talk to them first, how does it work?

Clare: I will talk to everyone first and that can be quite a detailed conversation depending on what the problem is. Once I've decided that it's something that I'm happy to take on, something that I can help them with, then for all behaviour cases
I would need them to get a referral from their vet. The purpose of that is to rule out any medical causes for the problem. It's pointless them coming to see me if it's a problem that the vet can fix.    

Once that's done, I ask them to fill in a questionnaire which goes into more detail about the problem, about other issues in their behaviour and about their routine. I then go to their house where a consultation lasts about 2-2 1/2 hours, it's quite an in-depth process. I spend time just getting to know them and their dog, finding out when the problem started, what happened when it started and if there are any other factors. I really just try to identify what's causing the problem and then help them put in place a programme that's suitable for them in order to fix it.

Do you have an example of where a dog has been frightened of something and you've sorted it out?

Clare: I had an interesting case recently with a female Rottweiller. She was 18 months old and a lovely dog, very friendly and very well socialised. She was very confident in most ways but she'd had a traumatic experience when out walking one day. A huge thunderstorm had come over, it had rained hard and a car had gone through a puddle next to them. This had really scared the dog, and she jumped over a wall and hurt herself and the owner hurt her back. After that the dog was terrified to even leave the house and was absolutely petrified of cars, even parked cars on the road. She literally went into a lather, started panting and got really stressed as soon as the owners got the lead out.

How did you help her?

Clare: It took a huge amount of patience and luckily the owners had the time to work with her and the patience to take it really slowly. It was really just a matter of regaining her confidence slowly and teaching her that going outside is actually
a positive thing. We started off by just teaching her that even the lead was a positive thing, getting the lead out and giving her a treat, putting it on, letting her wear it round the house and having a game with her.

Then we started opening the front door because even this would scare her. I use clicker training a lot which is a particular form of training which helps to change their emotions and make them more positive if they do it right so there was lots of clicker training near the front door.

Once she was calm and relaxed there, I moved her outside the door and did the same thing in the driveway. At that point we started introducing the cars. First of all parked cars that were quiet and then parked cars with the engine running and then I got her moving very slowly past the car so it was all very controlled. It was all done at her pace because I needed to move at a speed that didn't scare her. I pushed her limits gradually.

Now they can take her to the park which is 400 metres away and she'll happily run around and then go home again. She still isn't that confident but she tolerates it which after just a month is fantastic.

That must be very satisfying?

Clare: It is, but in that case it's very much down to the owners because they did a huge amount of work and followed the programme exactly. Without the owners doing it right you don't get anywhere.

So you're almost training owners as well in how to deal with problems?

Clare: Yes, very much so, especially in cases like that where it is quite a long haul. Anything where you're dealing with strong emotions like anxiety, fear and phobias is always a long haul. It requires a lot of patience and people often give up too quickly or move too quickly.

Is there anything that you won't touch?

Clare: I am wary of very severe aggression cases. I will take on most but if a dog has bitten really badly, either a human or another dog I prefer to refer it onto an aggression specialist because there are people out there who have years of experience with aggression. Often with the really serious cases the behaviourist is that dog's last chance. In that case I would usually rather give it to someone with a specialist knowledge of aggression because they can help it more.

You also do sessions for people expecting a new baby - how does that work?

Clare: I like to catch people as early on in their pregnancy as possible but usually I would see people when they are six or seven months pregnant. People contact me because they are scared about how the dog is going to react to the baby, and that the dog will be stressed or even that the dog will attack the baby because you do hear horror stories and they want to get it right.

I visit and assess that particular dog just to see what the risks might be but also take them through what they need to think about , things like their daily routine, how the dog will cope with the noise of the baby, how they'll cope with having toys all over the house, how the dog will walk with the pushchair - just to make sure that they've thought about all these different things.

People have been very pleased in that it's got them to think about lots of things that they hadn't thought of before and it's also given them two or three months to do things like teach the dog a leave command, so he doesn't pick up the baby's toys. Also they can get the cot in and teach the dog not to jump up at it, or teach the dog to walk to heel.

What's the most unusual problem you've come across?

Clare: One that surprised me is the lady who had recently been mugged while out walking her dog. Two guys had approached her in an alley put a knife to her throat and said 'give me your dog'. They had actually been trying to steal her dog which was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier. She screamed, shouted and kicked them until someone came round the corner and they ran off, but the dog is now terrified of strangers - understandably. I think that's the most unusual thing I've come across so far.

What's your general advice for people thinking about getting a dog?

Clare: The first thing to think about is whether you really have the lifestyle for a dog and in particular for a puppy. People often don't realise quite how much work a puppy will be because for the first three months you can't leave them for more than a couple of hours ideally. They need taking out a lot and can be quite destructive so you have to make sure that you've got the time and energy to put into it.

You also have to remember that you're going to have to be able to walk that dog for the next 12-15 years, three times a day ideally, and if you're working full time you need to have someone will come in and look after the dog during the day because so many dogs are given up to rescue centres because someone gets a puppy and then goes back to work. You can never guarantee what you'll be doing for the next 12 years but you at least need to think about it.

Then it's really a matter of finding out about the different breeds and don't necessarily just go on looks - you need to speak to people who have lived with that breed before. A dog may be cute but may be totally unsuitable for your lifestyle. People who haven't had a dog before are often amazed by the difference in temperament and personality between different dogs and the amount of hard work some of them can be. It's a huge responsibility - great fun - but a lot of hard work!


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Interview with Clare Atkinson (née Clare Lang)

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