Strangers often ask how do I tell my two black greyhounds apart. Renee ( the girl) and Bravo (the boy) are both about the same size and have similar white patches, they are even distant cousins. However almost everything about Bravo’s personality is different to Renee’s. The first lesson we learnt when we adopted our boy was, what worked with Renee didn’t work at all with Bravo. The cuddles and the kisses that Renee loved and the attention from strangers she loved, sent Bravo into a terrified panic. All our training tips went out the window. It was back to the drawing board.
I think the most important thing to understand about Bravo AKA Mr B and other nervous dogs like him, is the importance of taking your time. If you force the pace it can have the opposite effect that you want. Bravo though scared of his own shadow, can be a very stubborn dog, so forcing him can just entrench his fears and reinforce his behaviour. Let your fearful dog come to you. Just go about your normal life and let the animal get used to your routines. Dogs are pack animals, so there is a natural urge for her to bond with you and join your pack. Just let this happen. Be quiet and calm.
At first Bravo liked to stay in the dining room, while we sat in the lounge. He obviously wanted to be with us but found it difficult to let himself trust us. He really wanted to but his hyper fearfulness kept stopping him. He would walk down the hall and look into the lounge, look at us, then go back to the front room. Encouraging him didn’t help. We tried food, treats toys and kind words but none worked. Ignoring him was a better strategy. One day he walked down the hall and popped his head into the lounge seventeen times, until on the eighteenth he struck up enough confidence to come in and lie on the floor with my wife and I. Allow your girl to have somewhere to go where she can hide and let her come to you. Don’t force her into a corner, we did this by accident one day with Bravo, he wet himself with fear. It was pitiful.
Treats didn’t work with Bravo. Though he loves his food and will steal anything edible left around, the stress and fear hormones that flood his body turn off his appetite and the ability to eat. So even if I have the most juicy snack, Bravo is physically unable to eat it. Imagine trying to eat just before an exam, or going on stage. Having permanent stage fright or exam nerves is what life had been like all the time for Bravo. Paula Evans from the rescue team who has worked with hundreds of rescued greys, described him as the most frightened dog she had ever come across. She told me the first time she saw him, Bravo even got up onto his hind legs in order to press himself more tightly into a corner of his pen and try to climb up the wall to get away.
Bravo didn’t like loud noises or sudden movements, so we found that being quiet, calm and gentle was the key. Even plumping up the cushions on the sofa would scare him. However we decided that while we would avoid making loud bangs and crashes it was not a good idea to make a fuss over him when he was scared by normal sounds We wanted him to see from our reactions that there was nothing to fear. I don’t know if this is scientific but we felt it was best to ignore Bravo’s over reaction to normal noises and act as if there was nothing to be scared of. Dogs are very sensitive to our body language and emotions and pick up on them easily. I’ve worked with children with behavioural problems and one of the techniques I’ve used when they are upset or challenging, is to distract and divert. So if I see a problem coming up such as a group of loud children, or a man with a walking stick (all triggers for panics reactions from Bravo) I will start to talk to him, or break into a jog, or take a different path, or do something where he has to look at me.
Bravo was very keen to go out for walks. He would stand by the front door when I picked up the leads and wag his tail. He willingly jumped into the back of the car but once we got to the park he was often too afraid to get out of the car. I discovered that if I opened the boot and Renee jumped out Bravo would jump too, however if there was a delay Bravo would lose his nerve and I would have to lift him out. I noticed after a while that he much preferred places that were secluded, particularly woodland paths. Big open spaces such as the sports fields made him on edge and unable to relax. He was forever scanning the horizon for new threats. Even dogs three football fields away could make him nervous. Bravo’s favourite walk was the Mill Wood. It was quiet wooded area and the paths through the trees and bushes made sure that strangers could only appear from one direction. This made him far more comfortable. Unlike Renee who wanted to be off the lead as soon as possible sniffing bushes, Bravo liked to be on the lead. The lead gave him confidence that I was in charge and was protecting him. The Mill wood became our regular haunt and after a week or two Bravo started to jump out of the car when we arrived at the Wood keen for his walk.
Having super confident Renee has been a big help to Bravo. She is a brilliant role model and her confidence is infectious. Whatever happened, Bravo would immediately follow Renee. If I opened the door so Renee could have a wee, Bravo would follow her out. Though I had to remember not to stand by the door, otherwise Bravo would not run past me. In the winter this became a bit of a problem as I had to open the door to the garden then walk away, leaving it open so Bravo could go outside and again when he ran back in again. Sometimes I even had to go out into the garden and get behind Bravo so he would run away from me but back into the house.
Things slowly began to change. Bravo responded to the stability, repetition and routine we were able to offer him. Slowly he began to join us in the lounge, then one day he decided at bedtime to run up the stairs and sleep in our bedroom. Renee has always had a basket in our room and now Bravo decided that it was less scary being with us than it was downstairs on his own. Just being in the same room as us seemed to help. After a few months we noticed Bravo had decided to sit on the sofa. One day I sat on the other end of the sofa and amazingly Bravo stayed put, then a few weeks after that he even climbed onto the sofa while I was sitting on it. My daughter Isabel unlike the rest of the family is not an animal lover. She doesn’t dislike them, she simply goes about the house and acts as if they don’t exist. She doesn’t stroke them, feed them, or talk to them. It seemed strange to me that she was the first person in our family that Bravo chose to sit next to. However this has been an important lesson. Don’t push or force your affections on your traumatised dog. Affection should be on their terms, not ours. Bravo does like affection but on his terms. I’ve found that it is best to start stroking Bravo just above his back legs and then slowly move the strokes forward along his back until I’m stroking his head and ears. This gives him time to relax into it. If I go straight for he head, he flinches and moves away.
Bravo has always preferred women to men and my wife took the lead with him in the first few weeks. Perhaps it is her calmer quieter voice, or perhaps it is some bad memories of cruel men from his past. We will never know. He is also scared of children, particularly when they yell and scream. His biggest phobia is small boys with sticks. However, despite his fear of men, after a few months he began to trust me. Small steps at first, a wagging tale when I came into the house, a sniff here and there and then some eye contact. A few weeks later he started to really bond with me and follow me around the house, even into the shower and toilet. Bravo is now firmly my dog and trusts me enough to let me pick him up and carry him across the stepping stones at Ogmore without a single wriggle or panic. He wakes me up in the morning with a nuzzle to my face and wags his tail so vigorously when I come home that once he even damaged it.
Bravo will never be the super confident dog that Renee is. He will always be timid and cautious but now I can walk with him without a lead in the countryside knowing he loves to be by my side. And that his life today is a million times better that it was before.