Merlin, a scared boy labelled as a “dominant border collie”

dominant border collie


Merlin is a very handsome male collie who was 18 months old when I first started working with him.  Merlin’s owners first contacted me just after an incident in which he bit his owner’s hand so badly that he needed hospital treatment.  They had completely lost trust in him and weren’t sure what else they could do without having to make any heart-breaking decisions.

Whenever Merlin didn’t want to do something that they needed him to do, he would growl, lift his lip and then snap or bite.  He would snarl when they tried to put his lead on, when they tried to get him in the car, when they asked him to get off the settee, when they tried to take stolen items from him, and sometimes just when they sat down next to him or went to stroke him.  The family felt like they were walking on eggshells and it was clear that Merlin had lost trust in them as well.

During my first visit, we established that the family were encountering problems with Merlin:

  • Resource guarding stolen items and chews
  • Attempting to break out of his crate so determinedly that it had to be padlocked
  • Trying to snap or bite if they tried to put his lead or harness on
  • Trying to snap or bite if they put any pressure on the lead – he would just stop on walks and not want to move
  • Not wanting to get in the car and trying to snap or bite if they tried to persuade him to jump in
  • Having mad zoomies that would end in over-arousal and aggression
  • Trying to snap and bite during grooming or any other handling
  • Unable to relax and settle, always pacing and trying to find something to do

Merlin had learned that when he didn’t want to do something, snarling and threating to bite meant that he didn’t have to do it.  However, as part of my consultations, I always carry out 2 or 3 personality questionnaires that tell me a bit more about the personality of the dog, and his owners’ descriptions of his behaviour didn’t match my expectations of how he should be behaving.

When I asked how the family had tried to resolve the problem, exactly what had gone wrong became very clear.  They had approached a local trainer with very few recent qualifications, who, after very few questions, had decided that Merlin was “dominant”.  His answer to Merlin’s refusal to walk on lead, get into the car, leave the house for walks was to force him to do these things to “show him who’s boss”.  As part of this behaviour protocol for “dominant dogs” he had advised the family to remove all of Merlin’s toys because, apparently, that helps with “dominance”. They were told not to give him treats if Merlin didn’t want to do something, he was forced to do it.  On the dog trainer’s advice, his growls went unheeded, and were ignored, and Merlin was forced to do all these scary things that terrified him. And when his early warning growls were ignored, he had no option but to escalate to bite to try to stop these scary things from happening.

Merlin border collieThis so-called trainer saw a dog who was “dominant”.  I immediately saw a dog who was worried about EVERYTHING and potentially in pain, needing vet checks.  Merlin didn’t want to leave the house to walk because he was scared of the traffic on the road.  He didn’t want to get into the car because he once slipped and hurt himself so he was scared about not getting it right and hurting himself again.  Eventually he was scared to even have his lead put on because he knew that it meant he was going to be forced to go for a walk or forced into the car.  He had no toys to play with so he was stealing things to try to keep himself entertained and didn’t want to give them back. If only the first dog trainer had taken the time to ask questions and had the qualifications to understand what he was seeing, his advice would have been the opposite of his recommendations that made things so much worse for Merlin and his owners.  The incident when Merlin bit his owners hand had happened when they had been for a long walk, but Merlin didn’t want to go back into the car, possibly due to aches and pains on the day, possibly due to fears he would hurt himself.  His owner tried to pick him up to force him in, as he had been instructed by the trainer, and Merlin panicked and bit him.  The owners called the trainer who came and dragged him into the car, and it was after this that his owners contacted me because they instinctively felt that his approach was very wrong.

It was so sad, and the owners were devastated that they had followed the advice of someone they trusted and had caused so much misery for their dog.  They immediately went and fetched his big box of toys in from the garage and it was so lovely to see Merlin’s face – so many toys.  He ran round with a big smile on his face.

Then we had to start on the road to earning back Merlin’s trust.  This involved:

  • A month of no stress. No walking Merlin, no trying to get him in the car, only playing with his toys with him, letting him do fun things, doing fun training with treats, spending time just fussing him.
  • Setting up the environment so that we could avoid conflict – setting Merlin up to succeed instead of constantly fail (keeping items out of reach, putting crates on settees to keep him off without having to confront him, not walking him anywhere for a while so no lead walks, lots of chews and treat so he didn’t need to steal items etc)
  • Teaching Merlin’s family the details of dog body language. Merlin isn’t a dog that is easy to read, but they learned to spot lip licking, yawning, looking away and panting as signs of stress, and as soon as they noticed these things, they could change their actions or the environment to ensure that Merlin wasn’t experiencing anxiety.  We could then establish that he was worried about going near the road, worried when they went to get his lead or harness and sometimes just worried when they approached him because the trust had gone.
  • Building up trust between Merlin and the family. The incident when he bit his owner’s hand and was then dragged into the car by the dog trainer would have been incredibly traumatic for everyone, including Merlin, so now we had to work back from that, building up his trust gradually using a car ramp and lots of treats or toys around the car to help build his confidence again.
  • Gradual training to get Merlin used to good things happening when his lead was put on, and building up trust by not dragging him out onto the scary road or into the car
  • Changing Merlin’s negative association with lots of other contexts such as being groomed, getting in the bath, taking instructions without seeing them as a threat.
  • A thorough vet check which ruled out medical issues.

Due to Merlin’s fear of the car and walks, due mainly to the traumatic events of the day that he was dragged into the car, the family couldn’t take him on holiday and couldn’t leave him in kennels due to his fear of the lead, so he came to stay with me, which was a great week.  He is such a lovely boy and it still breaks my heart that an already fearful, worried little dog was subject to all that unkindness by someone who is supposedly a professional and who the family felt they could trust.

dominant border collieNow, 6 months on, he is a different dog.  His family have been brilliant and have worked really hard, they watch his body language constantly and completely understand what he is trying to tell them, and absolutely have Merlin’s trust back again.  He is able to stop worrying and relax, and will happily settle next to them calmly and quietly.  He loves fuss, training, and praise.  He will get into the car and travels well and he has no issues with being put on a lead.  He will jump off the settee when asked.  He no longer steals items to play with because he has toys.  He is finally able to stop worrying and enjoy his life. He’s a really sensitive boy, and he is always going to be very worried about some things.  His owners are never going to be able to apply pressure to get him to do something he is worried about, but now they understand that it’s due to his anxiety rather than “dominance”, they can sympathise and work with him to change his emotional reactions to scary things so that he WANTS to do things rather than just forcing him.  The incident when the bite happened was so traumatic for Merlin that if he even senses that someone is getting angry or impatient, he can’t cope and will just switch off, so his owners are brilliantly managing their frustration to keep supporting him and giving him time to cope before asking him to do things he finds difficult.  He still can’t handle leaving the house and crossing the road to walk around the village, but we’ll be working on that over the summer when the road is quiet at 5 am, and I’m confident we can get there with him.

A happy ending but please, everyone, be careful which trainers you choose to work with.  Ask for qualifications and for these sorts of issues you need a behaviourist, not a trainer.  The industry is unregulated so anyone can call themselves a behaviourist, so always check that any behaviourist you work with is a member of the APBC or the FABC or are a fully certified clinical animal behaviourist CCAB or CAB.  If you need the help of a border collie specialist behaviourist, contact me sooner rather than later!

Leave a Comment