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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

On the watch

My Cardigan Welsh Corgi is always scanning the environment both for things that are dangerous (she has a nervous disposition) but also for things that move or change in the environment. I wouldn't say it is a constant behaviour, she's brilliant one minute but something will trigger her and she gets reactive to everything in the environment and everything seems to be scary/dangerous. Kids are probably one of the biggest triggers for her, I think because they are so unpredictable (screaming, running etc) she has associated them with a negative fear and she has chased a few (mostly barking, she has great bite inhibition though).

Obviously I keep her on lead around kids and use counter conditioning as much as I can but sometimes I won't see a kid or a kid won't be there when I let her off lead and it suddenly appears.

I was thinking of putting her on some valerian mixture as I've heard of good results and hopefully I can use behaviour modification alongside to keep her below threshold.

I've looked at definitions of hypervigilance and I think she has elements of it in her behaviour but there doesn't seem to be enough info on the topic online. I wondered if anyone had ever come across this before?

Thank you,

Anneka Burek, via Facebook

Karen Wild, behaviourist, advises...

Hi Anneka

For those unfamiliar with what you describe, imagine a situation where things feel threatening or unusual and are surrounding you. Any animal (including humans!) will keep an extra look out for potential dangers in these circumstances. This constant searching and looking around can be known as hypervigilance.

When working with stressed animals in practice, we do see them ‘scanning’ the environment in this way when feeling under pressure. You definitely have the correct instinct about your Corgi’s behaviour. Where I think I would differ is that I find hypervigilance to be symptom of stress, rather than a condition in itself. So, the important action for you is to get to the bottom of the safe-dangerous context for your dog. In this way you can reduce her stress by making previously ‘unsafe’ things and situations feel safer and more predictably rewarding. At the moment she could well think that they are predictably unpleasant. She may also feel that she cannot escape from them and is taking choices to make the scary things go away by running at them! The risk of this escalating into a bite is evident.

There are a number of things you can do to help her, and counter-conditioning when done thoroughly can really improve things. In the meantime as you are finding there is the uncontrolled element of ‘real life’ where the risks must be assessed and dealt with. So, for example, if you have a very responsive recall then you can allow the dog to have more freedom, but if you are still at a stage where this is unreliable, then letting her off lead should only be done in an area where you have control over the environment i.e. no sudden entrance points for example. Alternatively using a long line can permit a degree of controlled and relaxed freedom, along with some important safety rules about line usage of course!

Some dogs really do not respond well to children, and although we can work hard to get the dog to enjoy kids rather than simply tolerate them, it is possible that it is always going to be a bit too much for some dogs. In this instance walks themselves risk becoming highly stressful for everyone, so some owners I work with make a choice to avoid those particular walks and situations and choose other ones instead.

Sometimes the whole process really needs picking apart and for this I would recommend you employ a qualified APBC behaviourist with the necessary training skills to help you implement a thorough program, helping you both to reach a long-term solution.

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