CASE STUDY: A ROCKY JOURNEY
Rocky is a gorgeous cocker spaniel boy who trained with us in our Virtual Puppy School (along with his human Mum, Marielle).
Marielle joined our course when Rocky was 3.5 months old. She’d had 4 dogs previously, but always trained them “on her own”. She could see that Rocky showed a fair amount of determination and stubbornness, and she wanted to have a really well-trained dog that truly listened.
How did he go?
As soon as Rocky got started with his training, Marielle could see how much he loved it and lit up when it was time to train. So many people don’t realise that training isn’t just about having an obedient dog…your dog also loves the engagement, stimulation and bonding that comes from it, too! It’s one of the most important enrichment activities we can do with our pup or dog.
Rocky quickly got the nickname “Rockstar” from us, as he and Marielle were doing so incredibly well with his training.
“Mark Vette’s training has made Rocky a super behaved little 19 week old pup. It’s required patience, persistence and repetition, over and over again. But it’s all worth it, honest. Rocky now comes when he’s called even off lead, in a new area; walks to heel both on and off lead when asked; drops to down/stay when I tell him to from a distance; gives his toys including bones (this was the hardest, as he would growl quite fiercely but wouldn’t react at all if I put my hands near his food bowl); waits until I am out the door/gate, he stays when told, even before getting food. He’s happy around other people, kids, babies, bikes, scooters, horses, dogs, cats, sheep. I credit this course with the outcome, but, as you say, it’s hard work but so, so worth it.”
As an added bonus, their 9.5 year old bitch Lillie learned about as much as Rocky did, even beginning to walk to heel which she’d never done before. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing…
At 5 months old, Rocky was diagnosed with a laterally luxating patella, requiring surgery and considerable recovery time. Looking down the barrel of 6-8 weeks crate rest with a seriously active teenage pup was fairly intimidating! Marielle was understandably gutted.
He handled his surgery and immediate post recovery incredibly well. Marielle said all the vet staff and physios wanted to keep him, he was so calm, well-trained and unfazed by the pulling, pushing and prodding with weird machines (a real credit to her early desensitisation work!).
However there was no doubt the surgery and prolonged recovery had its impacts and Marielle could see the experience affecting Rocky’s behaviour. Unfortunately given the timing of Rocky’s surgery in his critical teenage months (when he needed to consolidate and extend this training) despite his great start some behaviour issues emerged.
Because she had to keep him on a super short lead every time they went out, to stop him trying to run, turn, play etc to ensure he didn’t over exercise post surgery, he started pulling like a freight train! Poor Rocky, he didn’t have a good outlet for all that teenage energy.
Cocker spaniels are known to be vulnerable to separation anxiety, though it hadn’t been an issue pre-surgery. But after 5 weeks in constant close contact with Marielle while she tended to all his needs, she described him as having “full blown separation anxiety.”
Given he wasn’t allowed to play, he’d had limited interaction with other dogs. From this, he’d become reactive when other dogs came near. Marielle tried to minimise his lack of socialisation by getting him out and about in a stroller, which is great but it can also lead to increased reactivity if a dog feels like they are more vulnerable in this unusual situation.
Everything had to be highly controlled, and Marielle was seriously worried about undoing all the good work they’d done and ending up with a problem dog.
The key advice we gave Marielle was:
Don’t stress too much
Developing problem behaviours as a reaction to his situation was really understandable and not unexpected, but the awesome foundations she’d put in place would be immensely helpful in getting them through and out the other side with no long-term issues. This is one of the reasons why having solid training foundations is so great – it carries you through tougher times!
Work on graduated departure for separation anxiety.
This is where you slowly and systematically help your pup adjust to being without you, beginning with short distances and periods of time, then gradually moving further away for longer periods of time. Using a clicker to click and reward the pup for remaining calm and non-anxious is essential to help keep him in a learning state and able to progress.
Initially, on a clip station or in a crate, we suggested Marielle stay right beside him clicking and rewarding and doing Zen Sit and Zen Down. Then just move a metre or so away, return and click and reward calm, non-vocal behaviour. Then move a little further, and keeping increasing the distance and time in small increments until eventually she’s leaving the room for a minute, then longer and longer from there. If he’ll settle when given a chew bone or Kong toy, we advised Marielle to do that to allow her to leave him alone for a longer stretch of time. If it was quite serious, we also suggested she consider a treat-dispensing pet camera which would allow her to monitor him from a distance, and dispense treats. This would be helpful for separation distress, and also a great enrichment tool to help keep him amused while still on rest.
Prioritise socialisation, even if limited.
At this age, avoiding all social interaction with other dogs for weeks on end can be really damaging. So we suggested that Marielle find a way to get in some socialisation with calm, quiet dogs as often as possible. Even though Rocky wouldn’t be able to interact and play fully, doing a meet and greet using a clicker and treats then moving on is still very useful. Dog friendly cafés proved to be an excellent spot for this work.
We also suggested practising the “Look” command from a distance, rewarding the pup for looking at other dogs (in a non-reactive way) as a way to encourage pro-social responses.
Onwards and upwards…
In classic Marielle fashion, she threw herself into the training she was able to do to keep Rocky on track, and as expected, given his great foundations and her willingness to put in the time and effort – he bounced back to the calm and obedient boy he had been.
Of course, they still encountered a few teenage niggles – a period of early wakes, and some barking and lunging at other dogs when he was tied up at their highly stimulating holiday campsite! But we were happy to guide Marielle through the training techniques to resolve these issues, and she always gave it the time and effort to resolve the issue speedily.
Rocky now meets and greets other dogs quietly and sociably, comes when called, sits, stays, doesn’t get distressed when she leaves, and generally does all the great things that we want our dogs to do as happy, confident, resilient creatures!
Well done Marielle for being so committed to your beautiful boy! We have absolutely loved having you both in our Virtual Puppy School and so glad we could help you not just through the foundational puppy stage but through those tough weeks of Rocky’s surgery. You both did us very proud.