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Monday, 14 September 2009

Trigger happy

I am the proud owner of a lovely caring rescued Border Collie cross. I am a carer to my elderly mother and every time I go to give my mum her inhaler, Murphy jumps up and whines pitifully at us. On most occasions he also makes a beeline for one of his toys. Is this normal behaviour?
Elisabeth Hurley, by email

Carol Price, trainer and behaviourist, advises:
Please rest assured that this is perfectly normal collie behaviour. Collies are an exceptionally reactive breed, and the things that can trigger them quickly into an excited state can range from the doorbell, phone or TV to owners coughing or sneezing or filing their nails, or a broom, mop or food blender. In fact - you name it! The trigger has just got to move quickly or make a distinct noise, or preferably both factors together.
Once excited, many collies will then have an urge to do something with their mouths - eg grab a toy or nip something or, if out, snatch at sticks, grass or even earth. This is purely instinctive behaviour, adapted from the classic offensive/defensive nip reflex sheepdogs need to have in order to work livestock, and protect themselves from being challenged by these animals. This instinct gets triggered as soon as the dog enters a more aroused or excited mental state.
Some collies will be highly reactive on this front, with a wide range of triggers that set them off. Others may have far more limited triggers they react to, or may barely possess this instinct at all. If you are not careful, however, what begins as an instinctive response to a specific trigger can then turn into a longer-term attention-seeking device, once the dog realises how much notice you take of its excitable behaviour.
For this reason it is important to nip such behaviour in the bud, and correct it, by calmly making your dog lie down, and stay still, the instant it starts. If you do not do this then one excitable reaction tends to lead to another and the dog can quickly wind itself up into a totally manic state in this way, drunk on adrenalin.
You do not say how much exercise you give your dog, but the kind of behaviour you describe in him is always more common in dogs who have not been given sufficient daily physical exercise and mental stimulation.


  1. I'm no expert - just a dog owner, but if my dog did that I would think she was feeling jealous & was attention seeking. The whining & the running to fetch a toy sounds like a way to distract attention away from mum.
    But maybe that's a bit simplistic. Does your dog display this sort of behaviour when you do other things for your mum? Could it be the noise from the inhaler worrying him I wonder??

  2. I would say that a high pitched 'hiss' sound from an inhaler is potentially a significant factor. Inhalers that I have used in the past also have a specific scent from the chemicals within! It sounds as if your Collie could be reacting through fear. Jumping up can be a sign of this as can any kind of hyper reactivity. Certainly, I feel you are witnessing a stress reaction linked with the inhaler.
    Instead of initially training 'over the surface', I would begin by simply getting the inhaler out at other times and rewarding your collie for remaining calm (perhaps using a tasty morsel of food, for example). In this way your collie will learn to associate the appearance of the inhaler with a calm and positive situation. Ideally you can build this into a reliable 'stay' over time. Your collie would no longer be worried about the inhaler sound/smell and indeed, be looking forward to it because it signals a reward for remaining calm with all four feet on the ground.