Lockdown has thrown up some interesting challenges for Ettie. Like everyone who has been bringing up a puppy during the pandemic, I’ve been concerned about her future behaviour. Raising a pup in normal times is a big enough responsibility. Working with additional restrictions and demands can be challenging. Outcomes though haven’t necessarily corresponded with predictions, but more about that later.
Ettie’s lockdown experience coincided with her first season. For me this is always an interesting period in a bitch’s life. I want her to feel well during it. I hope that the hormonal changes don’t elicit unwanted behaviour. And I’m on the lookout for signs of a phantom pregnancy. My concern wasn’t just for Ettie, it included the other dogs in the household and how they might be affected. First and foremost I was determined that she would’t get mated. Given that we had an entire male in the house, cocker spaniel Tablet, this was a legitimate concern. So I took him out of the equation by sending him, and his two ‘brothers’ Yogi and Percy, to stay with family for the duration. Luckily this had been pre-planned so proved straightforward and he had a lovely time. Being able to stay in a familiar place with people and dogs he knew meant that his little holiday gave us all peace of mind.
Left with just her ‘sisters’, Cherry and Ella, Ettie could move around the house and garden without restriction, just as she had before coming into season. And with the bonus absence of the neighbour’s dog (a male collie who may or may not be castrated) her safe and peaceful confinement was assured. Still, I was extra vigilant with keeping all the locks on the all the gates secured. The prospect of her slipping out of an open exit was not one I wanted to contemplate.
Oestrus Induced Changes
Practicalities addressed, I began to watch for signs of change. Oestrus can cause a variety of changes including a reduction in appetite, increased urination and increased guarding behaviours. Ettie’s fuse might be shorter than usual and her social behaviours might become more erratic. (All of which I completely understand!) Her relationship with the other dogs might change and I wanted to ensure that everybody felt supported. Guarding toys or chews could come as an unexpected surprise to the other dogs. This could result in reactive retaliation which could lead to a breakdown in relationships. In my time as a behavioural consultant, I have helped numerous clients through this tricky stage in their girl’s development.
One particularly serious, and potentially devastating, case involved two Welsh Springer Spaniel sisters who lived together and so came into season together. Their previously harmonious relationship quickly flipped as they entered pro-oestrus, the first phase of heat. Minor squabbles over toys, access to their people, beds, over food, escalated into full blown fights. Their human family did a great job in preventing serious injuries, with a few bloody ears being the worst of the damage. I don’t know if you’ve seen bitches fighting but it’s not something they do lightly. It gets very serious very quickly. And with powerful dogs like WSS’s, intervening to break up these teeth flashing, body rippling clashes took a degree of courage.
Luckily, I received the call for assistance after just a couple of altercations. Even then, the whole house was tense, everybody was walking on eggshells wondering when the next fight would happen. In many instances of aggression, unpredictability and lack of planning is what makes it so scary and difficult to deal with effectively. The girls had previously been the best of friends and so had a great core relationship. I was able to help diffuse the situation, define potential flashpoints, put strategies place to prevent further conflict and give practical advice in how to break up any fights quickly and safely. If this family hadn’t called me, or any other experienced professional, in to help address the issues, the relationship between the bitches could have been irreparably damaged. The potential for either dog to be killed by the other, or for the family to have to make the choice as to which dog they had to rehome were options that nobody wanted to contemplate. But they got through this first season and both dogs returned to their previously peaceful behaviour without any behavioural hangovers.
At least I didn’t have the worry of having two bitches in season. One was quite enough. But as it turned out, Ettie sailed through as if nothing was happening. She was fastidious in her cleaning regime. As was I with the blankets that covered all the furniture so that even on her drippiest days she could still snuggle on the sofa with the rest of us. Ettie can be a fierce protector of treats and chews and I was determined that this behaviour wouldn’t be exacerbated by this hormonal flux.
I once had the unfortunate task of looking after a cocker spaniel who came into season the night before she was due to stay with me for three weeks while her person went on a cruise. So heightened was her need to guard that she flew at any dog who tried to set paw into the same room as her, never mind pick up a toy. Needless to say, it was a very challenging, and long, three weeks. Maintaining equilibrium was tricky, and without a cage I couldn’t have done it. I never wanted to go through that again, so was delighted to discover that Ettie’s behaviour was as it was pre-season. No change, no drama.
Exercise turned out to be the knottiest issue. I had three dogs to exercise. Lockdown had caused Ettie’s home alone training to be somewhat disturbed. Now was not the time to leave her alone so walking Cherry and Ella without Ettie was not an option. In normal times I could have left her with a friend. Or had someone come in to sit with her while we went out. But lockdown removed those options. In the past, I’d been able to walk my in season bitch in areas not frequented by other dogs. Using a long line they had been able to run and play safely without fear of being accosted or of disrupting anyone else’s day.
A good few years ago now I recall bumping into a man walking his entire male Vizsla when it suddenly took off across the fields. Within minutes he had jumped a fence and mated with bitch in season who was ‘secured’ in her own garden. Us scentworkers know just how phenomenal our dog’s sense of smell is and I can recall no better example of it than that rampant Vizsla! Hence my care in finding out of the way places to walk. But again, lockdown stymied that plan.
I was left with no option other than to walk Ettie with the other girls on our regular routes. I reduced the walks, only going out on alternate days or picking the odd rainy day in the hopes that most folks would stay indoors. Of course, all this happened during some of the driest sunniest weather we’ve had all year. To help keep everyone healthy and happy, I increased home-based games and training, and used more food-dispensing toys. But nothing beats a run in the fresh air to shake off the cobwebs, clear the mind, eliminate stress.
Except that the walks during those three weeks were miserable. Mostly for me, but to an extent also for Cherry and Ella who noted my tension and responded similarly. Not only was I worried about inadvertently breaking lockdown exercising rules – the unnecessary and factually incorrect vitriol about not driving 2 miles to dog walks was already stressing me – but walking a bitch in season did not make for a relaxing stroll. I’m used to scanning the landscape for fellow dog walkers. It’s one of the many aspects I love about the Fen flatlands. But now it took on a whole new level of seriousness. At least I could pick Ettie up if we did meet a dog. But I felt guilty for walking her.
Balancing her needs with the needs of my other dogs with the needs of strangers’ dogs with my own needs was almost a task too great. But Ettie saved us. Oblivious and unconcerned she continued to revel and delight in the waving grasses, the fluttering insects and the stinky smearings that she found on most walks. She ran as far as her line would allow and rushed back joyfully to get her rewards. Recall is one of the most important skills I teach my dogs, so I didn’t want that to suffer during her season. And even though we practised and reinforced her skills it was still with a deal of relief that post season her recall is as strong as ever.
After our walks, Ettie could settle. With the walk serving both her physical and mental needs, she happily surrendered to her dreams. The rest of us breathed a collective sigh of relief. The dreaded walk being over and the calmness of the rest of the day stretching ahead of us.
As her season ended, I noticed that Ettie had some mammary development. Oh no, was she heading for a phantom, or false, pregnancy? I recalled a frantic call from a client who’s dog had suddenly developed separation anxiety. This isn’t an issue that usually comes on suddenly so I chatted and calmed, drawing out more and more information about the specifics of the behavioural change, about life before and about recent events. The telephone call to me was prompted by the dog destroying a child’s mattress while the family had gone out on a regular shopping trip. They returned home to discover the dog lying in a hole in the remains of the mattress surrounded by stuffing, shredded bedding and the children’s soft toys. Yes, you’ve guessed it, the poor girl was having a phantom pregnancy. She wasn’t suffering from separation anxiety, she hadn’t gone on a wanton spree of destruction.
She had just come out of season and had made a nest for her puppies (the soft toys) from and in the safest place in the house, the bottom bunk of the bed she shared every night with the youngest child in the household. Tears of relief and compassion poured down the phone line as I explained my suspicions. (I didn’t know the dog and had never met her or her family.) We agreed that they would let her continue to use her mattress nest and keep most of the soft toys for the next week or so. There was a time when the recommendation was to remove toys and stop the dog gathering and hoarding toys and material items. The thinking was that this would discourage the bitch from behaving as if she had puppies and so stop the phantom pregnancy. This never made sense to me. I always worked with families to help them understand the behaviour, what was driving it and the distress they could cause by removing the ‘pups’ from the doting bitch. She wouldn’t be left alone and if her mammaries became hard or sore or started producing milk, they’d take her along to see her vet.
Following up a few weeks later, I was pleased to hear that all had gone well. No more destruction, no need to see the vet, no separation issues. Once the dog had lost interest in the toys and the nest, they purchased a new mattress. Life went back to normal, for both the human and canine members of the family. (Find out more about phantom pregnancy here: https://www.bluecross.org.uk/pet-advice/phantom-pregnancies-dogs )
Luckily, bar the mammary development, Ettie showed no similar behaviours and did not have a phantom pregnancy. In fact, the only issue she had throughout the whole of her season was a rash of juvenile acne on her belly. No behavioural changes or deterioration. Zero problems between her and the other dogs. And no loss of training. Tablet and the boys returned home and she welcomed them with licks and nips and chases and snuggles. She remained the same, cheeky, happy dog. Puppyhood was behind her and adolescence lay ahead.
Understanding what is normal behaviour, preparing for predictable developmental change, putting in place practical solutions and empathetic adaptations all helped me, and the girls, through this important stage in Ettie’s life. Lockdown or not, for us lucky ones, life does still go on. We continue to grow and to learn. And to enjoy what we have and what we can give to each other and to our dogs. And the joy that Ettie brings to me is priceless. So come on adolescence, we are ready for you!