Interview with Kym Lawrence

Kym Lawrence is a Member of the Association Of Pet Behaviour Counsellors UK.

Gill: Firstly may we say a big thank you for taking the time to answer, How did you start in the dog behaviour/training field?

Kym: Well, I hate to admit it, but it was probably due to Barbara Woodhouse’s TV series [guess I’ve just given my age away!!!], and yes, I was initially taught to use the ‘old-fashioned’ approach to training. I had a hand-raised rescued GSDx at that time who displayed anti-social behaviour to other dogs, and sought the advice of the local dog training club – perhaps not surprisingly, I do feel very guilty about some of the methods I used back then, but at the time knew no different. However, it was probably through my work with Rottweiler Welfare and taking on dogs [mainly ‘bull’-breeds] who were otherwise on a ‘one-way’ trip to the vets because of their aggressive behaviour that was the best education in changing my training approach, and encouraging me to learn in much more depth behaviour and learning principles.

Gill: Do you run rehabilitation classes for dog’s and owners that would be otherwise unsuitable in pet dog training classes? If so, can you tell us some more about this please.

Kym: Yes, I do run rehabilitation support groups for dogs who, mainly because of their anti-social behaviour, are unsuitable for the traditional group learning environment. Most of these dogs would be seen on a one-to-one basis to begin the rehabilitation programme, but the support groups act as a means of introducing them back into the ‘real-world’, ie. re – educating the dog to the outside world through simulating similar situations but in a safe environment.

My own ‘Support Group’ consists of eight owners and their dogs who have all gone through the rehabilitation process. They therefore understand both the human and canine problems of owning an anti-social dog. This we call the ‘Core Group’. The owner of the ‘student dog’ [ie. the dog undergoing rehabilitation] is invited to attend at a specific time. This may be with or without their own dog initially – there really is no prescriptive approach in rehabilitation, and the core group members understand they are there solely for the person and, when it attends, the dog itself. Obviously, the core group members have time, both before and after, student dog appointments to work and enjoy their own dogs, but they have often remarked how much they enjoy helping other people who are now in a situation that they were once in. In addition, they have said how much more they learn, which is a very valuable spin – off.

Gill: I believe, with a dog to dog aggression problem you use a 30 foot long line and harness, can you explain the benefits?

Kym: Actually, I don’t think I could train any dog, problematic or not, without the use of a line. Take the recall, for instance, I think we teach a lot of dogs to ignore us by taking them off the lead, and expecting them to return when we call their names. To me, the line is the intermediary step between on-lead and off-lead. In fact, I don’t put my own dogs on-lead until I have taught them how to stay close to me using the line… that way, they never learn how to pull on a lead. That’s because, the most important fact with line-training is that it never goes tight – it should never be used as just an extended lead, but rather as a means of allowing the dog a certain amount of freedom, while the handler remains in ultimate control. As you can probably appreciate, it is a truly valuable tool in the rehabilitation sense, where safety must be paramount at all times.

The harness is generally used in conjunction with the line for safety reasons, in particular, it does displace the tension on the line should the dog suddenly run out, and therefore prevents whiplash injuries.

Gill: What’s your favourite dog book and author and why?

Kym: This is a hard one for someone with over 300 canine related books on her shelves!!! I would probably say my ‘favourite’ is “The Domestic Dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people”, edited by James Serpell as it’s contents is very comprehensive, relatively easy to read and comes in very useful for reference purposes.

Gill: If someone came to you asking for advice as to working in this field and learning, would you recommend a correspondence course, a residential course, working for a rescue society/local dog training club or something else to start them off?

Kym: Oh goodness, this is a difficult one. There are many good courses out there, and much would depend on the individual student and how they prefer to learn. For instance, correspondence courses allow you the time to investigate and consolidate, but can be a lonely way of learning. Working with a rescue society can give you invaluable experience, but you have to be ‘tough’ enough to do it. A residential course can be relatively expensive, but many include more practical experience, as perhaps does the local dog training club, although here, much would depend on the quality of the instructor. Whichever the individual chooses, the content should give an overview, rather than just one person’s ‘this is the only way to do it’ teaching approach.

Whichever, and although theory is invaluable, unless you can put it into practice then you have to question whether you have gained anything from the effort [and money!] you put in. That’s why, on our courses [or workshops as we call them, because we certainly make our ‘students’ work!], we start at the theory so the basic principles are established, but quickly proceed onto the practical elements, either through the use of video footage or by bringing in case studies. That’s not to say I am biased because our workshops concentrate on aggression, [although obviously, when faced with an aggressive dog, the theory often takes second place!!], but purely because I believe learning should progressively give the individual the knowledge and confidence to practically apply what they have learnt.

No matter which is chosen though, the most important element that should be gained is an enquiring mind. Do not be easily impressed just because they have been in dogs for many years, how many books they have written or how good an orator they are – always question, think about, and discuss with others [especially, believe it or not, those not connected to dogs] the different approaches and methods being advised. THEN MAKE UP YOUR OWN MIND, but be confident enough to stay flexible – one day you may meet a dog who needs a completely different approach than you have ever tried before. Whilst we are always being told that each dog is an individual, it is equally important to remember that each person is too. The best learning environment always teaches the students to become selective, and to build on their own individual skills by progressively improving their confidence and understanding of ‘man’s best friend’.

Gill: You mention in your last past you have done a lot of work with “bull breeds” in the field of aggressive behaviour. Do you find these breeds to be more forthcoming in using aggression when faced with a problem than many other breeds? Do you also find “eye contact” with this breed can be a trigger to aggressive behaviour?

Kym: I think the problem with ‘bull breeds’ is their propensity to very subtle body language. As they are not easily ‘read’, they are perhaps likely to be seen as being more forthcoming in using aggression. But, in my experience, most are very genuine, sensitive animals who will not resort to aggressive displays quickly. ‘Eye contact’ can be a trigger, but, again, I have personally found no more so than with other types of dogs. Although that said, I would like to clarify that I have interpreted ‘eye contact’ as a threatening direct stare accompanied with overpowering body language. To me, other kinds of eye contact can be part of the bonding process, but perhaps that’s because there is nothing that I like more than looking deep into my own dogs’ eyes – when they hold my friendly gaze it seems to say they have overcome all their past mistreatment and have learnt to trust again.

Gill: Your rehabilitation support groups sound a wonderful idea. How did you first get a support group together of eight people (your core group) to help you with this? Do you meet in an outside area and if so, does the size of this area make a difference?

Kym: As you are probably aware, I am a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors [APBC] and counselling of the owners is a very important aspect of the behaviour modification process. One of the biggest problems of dogs that display anti-social behaviour is that the owners lose all confidence in their ability to cope with and control their dog, especially as APBC members are likely to be the last port of call when owners are seeking advice. They therefore need more practical support than, say, an owner whose dog is displaying separation-type behaviour, so follow-up sessions are usually indicated. These I used to run on one day a week, with each owner allocated 30 mins, after which, they were, theoretically, suppose to go home. However, it soon became obvious that a very important aspect of these sessions were the times where one session ended and the next was yet to begin – I often found the owners deeply engrossed with each other, discussing their past experiences, the problems associated with living with an aggressive dog, and how they were progressing. With increasing frequency this resulted in the owner of the ‘finished’ dog staying and watching the next appointment, and so forth. Hence the formation of a type of ‘rehabilitation support group’. Eight owners became so engrossed with working with their own dog [or dogs] and helping others that the core group was the next logical step.

As regards training facilities, yes, I do prefer the outdoor working environment – it is generally a more realistic setting to address the problem behaviour, so a secure field of at least an acre is the ideal facility. That said, we don’t live in the ideal world and I have run successful rehabilitation support groups in relatively small church halls, although nowadays I am most fortunate to be able to offer both indoor and outdoor training facilities on one site. Larger areas can be beneficial in some of the more intense cases, but as a general rule, I follow the maxim ‘where there is a will, there is a way’!

Gill: I think the line training is an excellent idea. Can you tell us why you work with 30 foot of line?

Kym: I think initially, the length of line was a result of my Working Trial days – where a 30′ line [or should we be modern and say 10metre!!] is used as a tracking line. However, the length was soon established to be a good ‘litmus test’ on whether the dog was under control at a reasonable distance away from its owner. Indeed, experience has told me that the majority of dogs do stay within this distance when being exercised [how many of you own dogs that, no matter how big the exercise area, will still insist on playing about your feet when given their freedom??]. I’m also a great believer that a dog out of sight is a dog out of control, and, although, that may mean they eventually go outside this 30′ radius, it is a sensible distance to allow freedom at the beginning. That’s not to say, however, that we always use the whole length of the line straight away – that can be extremely dangerous. Very often, only a part of the length is used while the dog is being introduced to the principles of line training.

Gill: Have you ever written any books yourself Kym or are you planning to do so?

Kym: To date, I have written two ‘booklets’: ‘Running Rehabilitation Groups’ which contains advice on how to start your own group, and, with my colleague, Angela Stockdale ‘Follow the Leader’, which is an introduction to Line Training [prices are £5.50 + 75p P&P and £3.50 + 50p P&P respectively, and can be obtained direct from myself, Kym Lawrence, Northleaze, Westerleigh Road, Pucklechurch, Bristol, BS16 9PY]. There are more booklets in the pipeline, which should be in print by the end of this year. Needless to say, they all focus on aspects of rehabilitation!

Gill: Can you tell us more about your own workshops you run. What can the student expect to learn? Where are they held, cost, accommodation etc?

Kym: Oh dear ….this may be a long answer but I think it is important that delegates have a full understanding of what they can expect from attending a course before they commit themselves …. so here goes!!

The workshops that Angela Stockdale and I run appeal to a wide audience, ie. the owner of the problem dog, trainers and behaviourists, and veterinary surgeons have all attended. There are three core workshops [10am to 5/6pm, usually held on Sundays] that progressively encourage the delegate to use their observational and communication skills, consider the options of how to begin the rehabilitation programme, and how to remain a supportive figure to the owner throughout the process.

WORKSHOP 1 is ‘An Introduction to Rehabilitation’ where the ABC of rehabilitation is covered. That being

A: Assessment of the Problem [includes Understanding the Dog, Understanding the Owner, What is Aggression?, Is there really a Problem?]

B: Building Better Bonds [includes What is the right relationship?, Benefits of diversifying, Working at the Right Pace, Pros & Cons of Training Aids]

C: Communication, Confidence & Cohesion [includes Teaching the Owner how to Read the Dog, Establishing Communication between Dog & Owner, Assessing and Increasing the level of Communication, Gaining the Client’s Confidence, Assessing Suitability for Attending the Rehabilitation Group]

WORKSHOP 2 is all about Line Training [Yes, a whole day on Line Training!] and includes The Theory and Principles of Line Training, Observational Opportunities of Poor Line Handling & Trouble Shooting the Practicalities of Line Training, but mainly concentrates on ‘Hands On’ Practical Experience.

WORKSHOP 3 is a unique opportunity to observe the primary stages of the rehabilitation process on two Case Studies, where the delegates take a major participatory role in assessing, interviewing the owner, and diagnosing and advising on the rehabilitation process.

[As it is believed that the Introductory Day and the Line Training Day are vital pre-requisites, only delegates that have attended both these Core Workshops are eligible to continue to the Case Study Workshops.]

Each workshop offers practical experience and delegates receive continuing support in providing their own specialist rehabilitation service.

Completion of the three core workshops entitles the delegate to apply for inclusion on the register of approved members of ART [the Association of Rehabilitation Trainers] that is supplied to veterinary surgeons, welfare societies and recognised behaviourists.

On all workshops the maximum number attending is limited to 15 so all delegates obtain the best possible from attending. Our 2001 programme has yet to be organised but for the remaining part of this year, we have workshops organised in Scotland, Lowestoft, Windsor and Bristol. The price is £40pp. Basically Angela and I recognise there are certain parts of Britain that are not well served by dog-related courses, and have agreed to travel anywhere should anyone wish to organise a workshop in their area.

Gill: How would you go about introducing a second dog into a family with an existing dog?

Kym: Obviously much would depend on the individual characters concerned, and I don’t think enough consideration is given to individual character when many people go out and obtain another dog. Difference in sex, age, breed and character can all contribute to a happy home.

I would, however, adopt the ‘meeting off of home territory’ approach, but this situation is one where I find the indoor kennel invaluable, as it allows close contact in a safe environment. Any ‘free’ association would be closely supervised until I was certain the two dogs accepted each other. Further, although initially I would support the established dog, if it soon became clear the other was the more natural ‘boss’ then my allegiances would change accordingly.

Whilst on the subject of multi-dog homes, I would say, as an owner of at least 5 dogs at any one time, I advocate separating the dogs from each other on more or less a daily basis at differing times of the day [ie. sometimes they are walked together, sometimes not, likewise with sleeping, garden exercise, etc], so that each becomes an individual in its own right. Many of the problems I see are because the incoming dog has its primary bond with the established household dog, and therefore will learn many things from him/her, so I always advise that owners make sure their existing dog behaves to a standard that they personally find acceptable, before even considering obtaining the second one.

Finally, on this subject, if the bond becomes too intense, bereavement anxiety may result if the established one departs first. There used to be two taboos in our culture … sex and death. Nowadays, we talk quite openly about the former, but still have difficulty talking about death …. not so with me I’m afraid … I always try to talk about how best possible to deal with the death of one dog in a multi-dog household. If the dogs are used to being separated, then the departure of one is much less traumatic, ESPECIALLY if the owner takes the added precaution of allowing the survivors access to the body of the deceased. Obviously this should not be forced, but when I lose one of my own dogs, he/she is ‘laid-out’ in their favourite resting place for an hour or two, where the remaining pack members can inspect them if they chose. When we lose a canine friend, we tend to rely more heavily on the survivors] for comfort – dogs are, after all, our emotional sponges. Sometimes, in all the pain, it is easy to forget, that the dogs need help too in coping with loss.

Gill: What would your advice be to an owner that has two dogs in the same household that have started fighting one another?

Kym: This is difficult as, like much of behavioural/rehabilitation work, there is no prescriptive method to follow, and much depends on the individuals concerned, and how much damage they were inflicting on each other.

If the two dogs were fighting when the owner was not present, I would probably look down the rehoming route.

If it was only when the owner was present, then it indicates it is something the owner is doing that is upsetting the otherwise tolerant relationship. In this case supporting the higher ranking of the two can help, by making a clear distinction between the ranks of the two dogs, as can making the owners ‘top-dogs’ [when there is strength at the top, you usually get peace below!!].

Castration in the ‘two-male’ situation can help AS LONG AS it is the subordinate who is castrated, whereas spaying in bitches has not been so well-researched. That said, if the fights only occur around ‘season’ times, then often spaying can be the answer to a harmonious home.

Apart from that, it really depends on the individuals concerned and would therefore be irresponsible for me to give try and give further advice.

Gill: Do you work a lot with predatory aggression? If so, can you highlight your main aims to overcome the problem?

Kym: You may be surprised to read that, to me, when one considers predatory aggression the two words are actually a contradiction in terms! However, perhaps that’s me being pedantic as I understand predatory aggression is an often used classification to describe chase-related aggressive behaviour. And there’s your clue to how I would overcome the problem. Basically by controlling the chase orientation of the animal concerned. After all, the dog is a predatory animal, so better management is the key.

Gill: If your working with a rescue dog in kennels that suffers dog aggression – do you find the rehabilitation process is best started with you in this environment before rehoming, or rehome to an adopter and work with them both together with this problem?

Kym: I have the greatest of sympathy with anyone involved in rescue – time is always their enemy, but, definitely, where possible I would begin and hopefully take through to resolution, the rehabilitation process prior to adoption. In the ideal world, each rescue kennel would have a separate ‘rehab’ block, well away from public viewing. Although, as I have said before, we do not live in that ideal world, with a little organisation, most rescue kennel facilities could be adapted to provide this set-up. The work that Angela and myself have done with different rescue societies, has shown that the staff can contribute greatly to rehabilitating the aggressive dog within the kennel environment.

Gill: Do you have a favourite dog related video you watch? Of so, may we have the name please and your reason for liking it.

Kym: Well, I’m more of a book-worm myself! Although saying that, video does have the benefit of allowing owners to actually see the different techniques being advised, and so the ambiguity of language is lessened considerably. That is one of the main reasons the ART workshops features a lot of video footage. I believe John Fisher had a video, called ‘Training your Dog’ that, I think, complimented his book ‘Dogwise’. I have a lot of respect for John’s work and as an overview of kind effective methods, any of his work, I would heartedly recommend it.

Many thanks to Kym Lawrence for taking part in the interview.