WHETHER your collie was traumatised by a hot air balloon landing in her back garden or your bulldog had an embarassing way of attention-seeking, for about 20 years Christine Emerson was the person to call.
Suggest she’s the Dog Whisperer and she’ll laugh modestly, but her remarkable affinity with canines saw her through 15 years as a freelance behaviourist and a later stint heading a specialist team at Drove Veterinary Hospital in Swindon.
Now retired and living in Perth with husband Scott, a black labrador called Fern and a cocker spaniel called Summer, 51-year-old Christine has written a memoir, Making a Difference.
Until the age of 20, the nearest Christine had come to working with animals was a job in a pet shop; she remembers being attacked by a parrot called Michael on her first day. She later became a business relocation consultant.
Christine was set on the road to her vocation after being bitten by her own dog, an unruly German shepherd-collie cross called Sam. He was a stray Christine had adopted from the rescue pound at Drove, where she would work many years later.
She said: “I was just home for my lunch break, and trying to get the dog in after he had a stretch in the garden.”
At the time the prevailing wisdom in training said disobedience should be met with a small corrective smack, and that’s what Christine tried – with disastrous results.
“I raised my hand and he bit me very, very badly. I had an overnight stay in hospital.”
With bites on her hand, arm and torso, Christine could have been forgiven for getting rid of Sam and never having another dog, but instead it was as if a switch had been thrown in her psyche.
“I loved that dog very much, and I thought there had to be another way than putting him to sleep.
“There was no internet then, so I made lots of phone calls and spoke to lots of people. I came across an amazing lady called Gwen Bailey.”
Gwen, author of nine books about animal behaviour and head of an international network of training classes, believes the key to having a well-behaved dog is to fully understand its behaviour rather than to simply dominate the animal. Her guidance to Christine about Sam was simple.
“I stopped frightening him and he stopped biting me,” said Christine.
“It was so amazing that I thought, ‘I’m going to have to learn more,’ because a lot of people were making the same mistakes as me. That was the start of the journey.”
More than 30 cases are detailed in Christine’s book, ranging from the poignant to the peculiar.
One, the case of the ‘haunted’ pub, is both.
“It was in the Wiltshire countryside, and the couple had been there for two years. They’d heard the pub was haunted but had never had any unusual experiences, but then their retriever began turning round and growling at corners.
“They had me out to find out if the dog had picked up something that we don’t have the capacity to see.”
Christine’s job often involved detective work as well as advice on training, and in this case it paid off: the confused dog had a womb condition whose painful twinges made her turn to deal with what she thought was an attacker.
Another case solved by detective work involved two Rottweilers who went from best friends to savage enemies over the course of a few days. Christine tracked down the source of the problem to a change in diet from high quality food to a poorer brand.
Then there was Poppy the collie, who refused to go into her back garden after a hot air balloonist made an emergency landing there. Christine treated her in a way which will be familiar to any human who has sought counselling for a phobia.
“When we opened her front door she would be allowed to glimpse her favourite toys outside – everything she loved in life.”
Over the course of several months, Poppy was encouraged to make excursions closer and closer to the back garden by tempting her with toys.
At the same time the dog was introduced to various balloon-shaped objects, such as footballs, to help her become desensitised.
Sometimes a dog ‘acts up’ because it is bored or deprived of attention, as was the case with an English bulldog which would sit in an armchair and clean itself in a way which left nothing to the imagination when its owner’s friends visited.
Christine’s strategy was simply to have the owner save favourite toys for such occasions, so he’d have something else to do...
Another hound with an embarassing issue was a corgi whose romantic interest in visitors’ legs was the bane of his owner’s life.
In most cases, this is attention seeking and stops if ignored. Christine did just that, but the corgi turned out to be one of the rare cases caused by a simple excess of testosterone.
The incident cost Christine a pair of jeans; it cost the corgi rather more, but he was left calmer and happier.
“One of the things I always challenged,” said Christine, “was indiscriminate castration.
“But this dog needed it...”
- Making a Difference is available from Amazon at £7 in paperback and £4.90 for the Kindle edition.