6th Aug 2021 @ 8:18 am

Lanzarote Vet Jane Burke talks about the dynamics of bullying between pets and their owners.

I can’t help but feel that much of the misery in our world is due to a culture that tolerates, and indeed to a degree adulates, bullying and greed.

Bullying is not uncommon in the daily professional life of vets and doctors. I am not referring to the iniquitous vile trolling that has touched my personal life recently, nor those who keep poor creatures chained on roofs, in hunting pits or just abandon them. The scum who do this do not see vets at all.

But we do see bullying, and sometimes it’s the owner who is the victim! Many of our furry family members (as well as our children), are well capable of developing bullying tactics when treated with submissive affection or nervous excitement. In fact, in my tiny and very personal practice, I regularly see folks who openly enjoy being barked, grumbled or pestered into doing as their furry family demands. Truly, I have long since accepted that some pet owners enjoy the non-violent demands of their furry family. I am definitely one of them!

Those who know me are well aware that I have happily allowed my elderly Basset hound, (Leah), to insist I rearrange the other dogs so she can sleep where she chooses, since she lost her pack leader privileges within their dominance order.

She is too old and infirm now to demand first feeding and best seat in the house on her own, so she has trained me to understand simple cues so that, at her direction, I am instructed to get her what she wants without her risking any direct confrontation with Nancy (Nancy is a whippet-sized podenco that was thrown from a car in a black bin bag when she was 4 weeks old).

Whilst Nancy is an exquisite and delightful little person, she is nonetheless a physically aggressive pack leader. She badly savaged Leah’s lovely long ears twice as she challenged the older dog, whose strength was deteriorating. During this stressful take-over I watched sadly, weak with distress, as Nancy seized every opportunity to bully Leah in order to establish the new order. Meanwhile, my rescue pointer, over twice the size, had no interest in the war or the outcome. She is what is known as neotenic, a fancy term to indicate a permanent, infantile lack of ambition!

Bullying like this is part of life and largely unavoidable in a pack of dogs. I believe it is imperative to do our best to allow and referee these changes. Dogs have no concept of democracy and the best hopes of a bloodless coup is for the humans to remain unexcited, clearly and consistently calm and not try to impose the established order or equality.

When I am asked for help about destruction, fighting, noise nuisance etc these days, I have regularly resorted to encouraging clients to video each other and their different responses. It is often difficult to see oneself as an initiator of a problem – as a child I watched my parents struggle to coexist with their savagely aggressive dominant Basset hound, loving her despite many bite wounds and the need to restrict friends and family from interaction with her.

With the benefit of hindsight (and a decade of behavioural clinics under the tutelage of Roger Mugford,) I realised she was not a savage bully but was constantly rewarded with food and affection for dominant behaviour. She saw my parents as endlessly challenging her position, (eg ordering her to get off the furniture, touching her feet, making direct eye contact, and then rewarded with deferentially with food, treats and kisses and cuddles.

A video would have shown them asking her to move whilst adopting an apprehensive challenging stance and furthermore offering food reward – supporting her superiority whilst challenging it at the same time. If they then tried to touch her collar or make other unacceptably non-submissive actions, she would resort to violence. She was always affectionately sorry that she had had to bite them to clarify her/their positions in this relationship. It would be the same if my own children ordered me off the furniture, although I promise I have never bitten them!

Fortunately, we have bred most dogs to be less aggressively inclined and many are now placidly disinterested in the hierarchy. These are not the ones usually presented at clinics.

However, even the most unambitious cats and dogs can, and often do, learn to bully their owners into situations that cause over-feeding, noisy excitement, fear of walking exercise, distress in the car etc. These things can negatively affect the life quality of the whole household. Again these things can generally be resolved by learning to reward at the right moment rather than the wrong, and learning not to add your own excitement and noise, (how often have I seen dogs barking madly in the car with adults screaming competitively at them!)

Don’t let behavioural problems escalate and become habits. Speak with your vet or consult one of the excellent dog trainers we have here on Lanzarote. Their language may differ from my own, as ´modern’ behavioural therapy does not like the concepts of pack behaviour applied to our pets. It doesn’t matter. They will be able to assess what is going wrong and hopefully teach you to change your energy /body language/ timing, such that the animal can then be gradually conditioned into a happier furry family.

And never forget that your pets need cool, clean water, always but more than ever this month.

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