Years ago I worked with mentally handicapped and autistic young adults. I was lucky enough to work with a great team who continued to explore the confusing world of the autistic adult. One of the most difficult things for those with autism to cope with is hypersensitivity to noise, we found that by holding the person tight in a bear hug but without trying to initiate eye contact had an instantly calming effect. The rest of the time most of the group would shun physical contact and in some cases become quite agitated by prolonged contact.
I began to re-evaluate the use of the hated strait jacket, still much in use in mental health institutions at that time. Perhaps for some, comfort was derived from immobility, and the now outdated practice of swaddling a baby in tight wrapping to calm and help them to sleep appears to work on the same principles.
Years later I was fascinated to read Temple Grandin’s book Animals in Translation, Temple was diagnosed with autism in 1950, she has become a best selling author and is a consultant to the livestock industry on animal behaviour in the US. Temple’s extraordinary insight into the mind of cattle has made vast improvements to the living conditions and handling techniques not just in the US, but worldwide. Because she shared with the cattle hypersensitivity to sound and even light patterns she realised that she could suggest ways to reduce the stress and bring about a more humane way to handle large numbers of animals.
When Temple was 18 she built her first ‘squeeze machine’, a cattle crush for humans. When she put herself into the contraption and safely brought the sides in to hold her tightly it instantly brought about relief and a reduction in stress levels – it seems that having a hug really is good for you!
Taking this same idea to help nervous and super sensitive dogs, wraps have been used for a while. Now a jacket specifically designed to provide support has come on to the market – the Thundershirt – which is being distributed by Xtradog in the UK.
I spoke to Matt Wildman about the company’s commitment to helping rescue dogs who would benefit from this special kind of hug. He said: "We want to get the product out to where it is most needed.” And to that end they offer rescue organisations a sizeable discount as well as distributing the few returns they have among welfare societies that apply.
It’s a fair bet that when a dog comes into rescue he will be anxious, restless and showing signs of stress. Anxiety is represented in many ways from the obvious ones like tail between his legs, ears flat and panting to harder-to-read signs of pressure like a furiously wagging tail, baring of the teeth in a ‘smile’ or rigid immobility.
For most dogs this is a transitory stage but no less disturbing for that. Using a pressure wrap can support the dog through this period and for some dogs who need continuing reassurance it helps put them in a calmer state of mind where they can respond to a handler and progress towards confidence.
I have bought a Thundershirt and I’ll let you know how the nervous dog in my care gets on over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, Matt tells me that the firm have been providing the jackets free for several general and breed rescues in the UK. One of these is Jan’s Dog Rescue. A total of 236 dogs have found their way to Jan’s home in Coventry over the last four-and-a-half years, a fantastic rehome figure achieved by this power house of a woman working tirelessly to give dogs a second chance.
Many of the dogs Jan collects would be euthanased if she had not stepped in to help, so from her small home in a suburban street Jan continues to do her bit and chips away at the forgotten dogs finding them homes and a future. To fund her efforts Jan drives a taxi in the evening. She takes neutering and vaccination seriously and strives to ensure dogs and new owner are well matched to avoid a returning hound. Some larger rescues could learn from her methods and commitment in this very important area.
You can read more about Jan at www.jansdogrescue.moonfruit.com.
Another rescue that benefits from the gift of pressure jackets is Bath Cats and Dogs Home, this year celebrating its 75th anniversary. This really is the other end of the dog rescue scale with over 2,500 animals passing through its hands every year. It has recently opened a new block of kennels as a sanctuary area for long-term in-mates and for those who suffer from stress.
It’s difficult work to keep a nervous dog occupied and reduce his anxiety in a kennel situation, it’s almost impossible to change his environment and relying on drugs often kicks up more problems than it helps in these circumstances. Clearly, the less stress the dog is under the more ‘normal’ his behaviour and therefore he is much more likely to be chosen by someone looking to adopt. It’s not enough just to feed, clean and exercise dogs in rescue, without that one-to-one attention they become institutionalised and more difficult to rehome and have less chance of settling into their new life. Allowing your rescue to become over-stretched with a mounting number of dogs does no favours to the animals in your care; surely it’s better to care for fewer well than struggle with the many and risk damaging the future of all?
I think it’s time to remind you to get your nominations in for the Pooch & Mutt/Dog World Rescue of the Year award. There are two categories, breed rescue and small general rescue. All you have to do is write to me at Dog World or send me an email outlining why you think your rescue or one you support deserves to win. I need the name of the rescue and as much detail as you can about the work that is done on the behalf of dogs.
The competition closes just before LKA in December but I would like to highlight the nominated rescues through the year in this column.
I think it’s wonderful when a rescue is nominated by someone who sincerely thinks that hard work should be rewarded by recognition. I have had a letter from Judy Meads who wanted me to know about the work of Tony and Mary Wolford with Pekingese Rescue. I spoke to Tony about his life surrounded by these fabulous small dogs, he explained that many of the animals coming into their care had just outlived their owners and often when someone had passed on, the family didn’t realise what a commitment a beloved Pekingese was!
He laughed as he told me about the house feeding regime where his responsibility as ‘chef’ was to ensure that all dogs were fed well. He told me that sometimes when a dog had been handed over to rescue the accompanying list of likes and dislikes for the little dog could run into many pages, and on one memorable occasion that one precious bundle’s instructions for diet included freshly laid scrambled eggs for breakfast, with emphasis on the ‘freshly laid’!
Many Pekes have been rehomed over the years but the older dogs often find their autumn home with Mary and Tony, at last they can behave as part of a pack, pottering around the house and gardens enjoying their final years. Attention to detail, as ever, means that very rarely will a dog bounce back from a rehoming, many people have come back to the Wolfords for their second or third Peke. Maintaining contact with the new owners means that Mary and Tony can keep a caring eye on the dogs and offer practical help as well as advice as the years pass. There is an air of steady consistency about the Wolford’s work as well as a dash of dry humour, much like the little dog itself.