Could the Royal's dog whisperer help Rachel Johnson's cockapoo?

Self-centred, dominant and single-minded and that is just the dog: Could the Royal’s dog whisperer help Rachel Johnson’s playful cockapoo puppy?

  • Rachel Johnson had a cockapoo puppy before lockdown and named her Ziggy
  • She has been in lockdown on a family farm in Exmoor with her cockapoo Ziggy
  • Rachel has even set up an Instagram account for her pup to document moments

Yes, I did succumb to some smug self-congratulation about stockpiling an eight-week-old cockapoo just before the world ground to a halt in March.

‘You were sooooo clever to get a puppy for lockdown,’ friends whined when I showed them the fluffy blonde bundle on FaceTime, as if that had been my plan all along when really it was just jolly good timing.

The fact that we’d already been staying at the family farm on Exmoor and are therefore locked down there was equally serendipitous.

The puppy, Ziggy, doesn’t have to worry about traffic, being on a lead or annoying the neighbours, and the house is, when it comes to ‘accidents’, fairly bomb-proof, although I will have in due course to replace all the carpets, rugs, even the concrete floor in the kitchen.

Rachel Johnson with her cockapoo Ziggy. She has been in lockdown on a family farm in Exmoor with the pup 

Having time on my hands, I’ve even set her up an Instagram account in her full name @ZigguratFleur and try to spend a few minutes a day ‘curating’ her feed ie. choosing shots from the zillions of pictures and videos I’ve taken of her, often in adoring slo-mo.

Let’s face it, she has a pretty cushy existence.

Still, there’s no question that at some point in the coming months, lockdown will lift. Something approaching normal life will resume and Ziggy will have not merely to be house-trained, but outside-world trained.

So to get her ready, I place a call to the world-famous dog whisperer to the Royal Family, animal psychologist Dr Roger Mugford.

At some point, you see, I will have to take my perfect lockdown puppy back to our semi-detached house in London, as my sons — who live there with me, in theory, but not in practice — are begging me to do.

And I say ‘perfect puppy’, but as I prepare to discuss this with Dr Mugford, it becomes clear the extent to which I had my doggy goggles on.

Before our first training session, via a Zoom video call, I wrote a list of Ziggy’s main ‘issues’.

At some point, you see, I will have to take my perfect lockdown puppy back to our semi-detached house in London. Pictured: Rachel with Ziggy 

In no particular order, it read: Birdseed fetish (she stalks the bird feeders and yaps incessantly at winged intruders). 

Peeing (she prefers a nice absorbent surface indoors, like a Turkish carpet). 

Not liking walks when it’s raining. Not liking walks, period. (She’s like my Nicorette-addicted, exercise-averse husband Ivo and prefers to lie by the Aga, chewing on a bottle-top. The puppy not hubby). 

Barking at strangers. Barking generally. Biting. Commando table raids during meals to steal food from our plates. Eating sheep poo. Licking cow pats. Destroying chairs and chewing furniture.

My list went on. Clawing. Jumping up. Digging. (She digs for bird seed, digs the lawn and she has even dug a hole in the concrete floor in the kitchen, which I had regarded as indestructible).

Reviewing the list, I saw that Ziggy was not perfect on paper at all. And I can’t imagine what might happen when, for example, we start having to leave her alone in the house for brief periods, or can’t spend every minute of every day attending to her every command.

Could Dr Mugford — who has actually written a book called The Perfect Dog — help me prepare a dog, whose bumbling paws have not yet touched Tarmac, for the lifting of lockdown?

First, he wanted to see my house and my puppy, in that order, so I walked around with my laptop, showing him the set up. Even the hole in the floor.

Then I held Ziggy up to the camera, paws dangling, like Rafiki in the Lion King showing off Simba.

Since the day we brought her home, Ziggy has had the full-time attention of three doting human beings

Next he copied my list of Ziggy’s foibles. After I’d finished, Dr Mugford says Ziggy was lovely and I agree. 

‘You have a delightful but normally intelligent and manipulative puppy, who is very lucky to have a 450-acre garden,’ he assesses. But his main worry takes me by surprise.

Ziggurat Fleur was born on January 19 and ever since she was weaned — this may be hard to believe — she has not met another dog: she has been self-isolating from canine company for most of her short life. 

Lockdown puppies like her are therefore behind their peer group when it comes to socialisation and development. When Dr Mugford says this, alarm bells rang.

My husband already points out that our four-month-old pet’s personality — dominant, single-minded, self-centred — is exactly like mine. 

After our consultation with Dr M, he now sees it as a matter of urgency to introduce her to other dogs so she can be taught to be a puppy, rather than a ‘princess’, which is what our daughter, who is isolating with us, calls her in a crooning, smitten voice while scratching her tummy as Ziggy lolls, legs akimbo, on a sofa.

‘She has to learn how to be at the back of the pack,’ my husband worries. ‘And not top dog!’

Ziggurat Fleur was born on January 19 and ever since she was weaned — this may be hard to believe — she has not met another dog

Since the day we brought her home, Ziggy has had the full-time attention of three doting human beings. She has seen barn owls, lambing, a cow giving birth, deer, cars, mice, bats and, let’s face it, probably rats on the farm, yet she has not met a single member of her own species.

‘The outstanding potential future difficulty that you might be heading for with Ziggy is dog-to-dog social skills. So do meet up with local dog walkers on the farm, and drive to local dog-walking spots where she can meet (but not touch) other dogs,’ says Dr Mugford.

‘Just outside the two-metre rule, have Ziggy “sit!” then receive a treat,’ he explains. ‘The message is: strange dog, approach, sit, then reward.’

Unless she gets used to other dogs, he warns, she could develop an aversion to those who come in unfamiliar shapes and sizes — apparently it’s common for pups to be afraid of brachycephalic (short-nosed) breeds like boxers, Frenchies and bulldogs if they don’t meet any while young.

Lockdown puppies like her are therefore behind their peer group when it comes to socialisation and development. Pictured: Ziggy 

In London, after lockdown, his message is the same: keep her on a lead. Allow her to approach another dog, then put her into a sit, and give her a reward. We’ve also been instructed to prepare her for the shock of life after lockdown by leaving her to chill on her own more often.

Dr Mugford explains that every single time we touch her, every single time we speak to her, we are programming her ‘unique little traits’ both good and bad.

When it comes to nipping and jumping up, Dr Mugford encourages us to take a step back, look away and even leave the room if she does something unwelcome.

‘She’s like my youngest son Oliver used to be,’ I observe. ‘Any attention, even negative attention, is better than none.’ He promises the biting will get better when her ‘deciduous’ teeth, like autumn leaves, fall out.

Then he shows me his magic wand that will make her behavioural tics disappear. ‘I wish I could patent it and make a fortune, but it only costs about 2p,’ he says. It is an empty, soft drink can containing two pebbles.

When Ziggy sinks her razor teeth into my leg, or barks, I have to drop the can, he orders. The noise will distract her, and she will stop. When she’s persistent in jumping up, or interrupting meals, it’s time to drop the can — which he does with a thunderous report. Even though it is over Zoom, Ziggy scuttles to her bed.

As for her other issues? I’m amazed to hear her hatred of rain is because of her fur.

‘You’d dislike rain too, if you inherited that absorbent frizzy hairstyle. It’s not her fault she doesn’t have a thick, double-layered and weather-repelling coat. Now if you’d got a sensible dog, like my Labrador…’

And he advises us not to worry about the sheep poo either.

‘It’s full of good bacteria,’ he says. ‘She looks a bit thin. My prediction is that she scrounges because she is hungry, because you don’t feed her enough.’

As for her ‘whoopsies’, Dr Mugford explains that we have to section off a portion of the house that, like her crate, she will not want to soil.

‘Unfortunately you seem to have quite a large square footage on the ground floor, so it’s hard for her to differentiate between indoors and outdoors,’ he says.

To fix things, we have to keep her to one room and simply set a timer to go off every hour and remember to shoo her outside.

After taking our first steps at putting this system into practise, I am in high hopes that Ziggy will be ready for life after lockdown.

I have just one question left for Dr Mugford: ‘Is social distancing for dogs for ever, or just in the time of coronavirus?’

His advice is that dogs should follow the human guidance. As soon as the social distancing rules are lifted for us, it’s doggy Disneyland again for our pets as well as their owners — and we can all sniff each other’s bottoms on walks again, our tails wagging.

PREP YOUR POOCH FOR LIFE AFTER LOCKDOWN  

  • Start teaching your dog or puppy — canines of all ages will need reminding of the usual rules — to accept separation from humans now, before we all return to work and our old routines. During the day, when you move to a different part of the house, occasionally close doors between you and your dog to get it comfortable with being on its own.
  • When you go out of the house without your dog, leave on a cool note. Leaving on a friendly note raises their emotional response and over-stimulates them. Keep your pets calm by not giving them strokes as you go, but reward them by being fun and loving when you return.

Dr Roger Mugford said when you do leave your dog for long periods, make sure internal doors are open so they have the ‘run’ of the house

  • Discourage your pet from following you all day. But do not be harsh and never physically punish — even if there are mishaps, such as damage to furnishings. Use passive control, by shutting doors or setting up child gates.
  • If your dog has become very well-exercised during lockdown, prepare for your return to work with a long, exhausting but fun-filled walk for the dog each day before you leave for work.
  • Make the initial separation easier for your dog to bear — leave them with your usual radio station playing and leave out old clothes which they can lie or sleep on. Provide safe chew toys such as a rubber Kong (kongcompany.com) stuffed with food.
  • When you do leave your dog for long periods, make sure internal doors are open so they have the ‘run’ of the house. If safe to do so, install a dog flap so they can access the garden.
  • Keep an eye on what your dog gets up to while you are out by investing in a webcam.
  • If your dog is really not accepting the end of lockdown, consider an alliance with neighbours, who may be able to dog share while you’re at work. Otherwise, consider checking them into Dog Daycare, which is a great way for your pet to rebuild canine social skills.

By Dr Roger Mugford

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