Bells and Whistles and Squirrels

It’s the time of year when there are plenty of squirrels around, especially as this autumn is so warm. The little furries are collecting as much food as possible to store up to last them through the winter, as a result they’re on the ground a lot more than at other times of the year.

Willow is half terrier. Terriers are bred to kill small furries, mainly rats and mice but squirrels will do just as well. Unfortunately a couple of weeks ago we think Willow did just that – she disappeared off into some dense vegetation and didn’t come back for a significant time, even when called. When she did eventually re-appear it was with bright red fresh blood all over her muzzle, blood which it became quickly apparent wasn’t hers. We don’t know for sure what she had killed, but we suspect given how much she loves to chase them that it was a squirrel.

Squirrel with nut

This experience, together with others where she has chased but not killed, has shown that when Willow gets on the scent of a squirrel and becomes very excited she also becomes deaf to our calls. However, despite it being her nature, I’d prefer that my dog didn’t become a major killer of wildlife. So, what to do?

The first step was to treat Willow the same way as we do to stop Cat from catching birds in the garden – bell her. I put together a clip with three cat bells on it and for the next little while whenever we let her off her lead we clipped the bells on to her harness as a squirrel early warning system. The jury is still out on how effective this was – the squirrels and everyone in the vicinity could certainly hear Willow coming and she didn’t catch any squirrels while she was using it but that could just be coincidence. To be fair although it bothered her a little bit (it was probably quite loud to her) it was a lot more acceptable to her than I suspect a muzzle would have been. That could be an option for some dogs but, given that she dislikes having a harness put on her, I suspect that a muzzle would never have been acceptable to Willow.

Whilst out with Willow wearing her Squirrel Early Warning System TM we happened to get into conversation with another dog owner, mainly because he wanted to know why our dog was wearing bells. He’d had various behavioural issues with his dog and had consulted a pet behaviourist; one thing that he said struck home with me, which was the fact that when you call your dog they can hear the tone of your voice and if it’s slightly panicked they are more likely to ignore it. Hence it’s better to train your dog to come to a whistle rather than a call.

Armed with this information I went out and bought a silent dog whistle. Only it isn’t because apparently if it’s silent you can’t gauge how effective it is. So it’s sold as a silent dog whistle but it makes a noise. Go figure. For the next day or two at odd times I fed really tasty treats to Willow at the same time as blowing the whistle. I then tested it by blowing it inside the house while Willow was in the garden. A streak of energy charged through the cat flap and sat in front of me looking expectantly up at me. So that seemed to have worked. I also tried it a few times with her off the lead with the same result – she immediately came running up, looking for food. Easiest bit of training I’ve ever done with her!

So for now, the bells are off and the whistle is in; if we need to go back to the bells we will. I’m hoping the squirrels of Berkshire can all go about their foraging a little easier now!

Pavlov’s Dog Likes Ice Cream

Over the summer holidays an ice-cream van has visited our little cul-de-sac once or twice each week. Most times that ‘The Happy Wanderer’ played out in the way that only ice cream vans can one or both children would charge downstairs yelling ‘Mum? Mum? Can we have an ice cream?’ Mostly the answer was yes (“and buy one for me while you’re there”).

I must confess to being partial to a 99, well, most sorts of ice cream actually but if it’s an ice cream van then it has to be a 99. Willow, we have learned, is also partial to soft serve ice cream, either a small dollop on a spoon or squeezed into the bottom little bit of the cone. She eats it very politely though, unlike some dogs. So throughout the holidays we would regularly get an ice-cream from the van and Willow would often get some too.

Today the ice cream man came calling again. Sensibly he waits until after 4pm when most of the children will be home from school. However, Son wasn’t home yet and Daughter has decided she’s on a bit of a health drive at the moment. So as the Happy Wanderer chimed out down the road only one member of the household reacted – Willow. She came charging through the house and up to the front door barking excitedly.

I could put this down to coincidence, however the fact is that it also happened at the weekend. I was out in the garden with Willow and we heard the van’s music. In actual fact he didn’t drive down our road on that occasion but as soon as Willow heard the chimes she rushed back into the house barking.

Looks like Ivan Pavlov was on to something…

A Nocturnal Visitor

Willow isn’t allowed upstairs as a rule. Mostly she’s pretty good about it but occasionally she does push her luck; when she does push her luck she does so extremely quietly – she sneaks upstairs very effectively so you can’t hear her.

Last night I was woken up at about midnight by the sound of Willow coming into our room which is pretty unusual. I assumed she was asking to go out so I got up, put a dressing gown on and went downstairs to let her out into the back garden. As we walked through to the kitchen I noticed Cat on the kitchen table. Except Cat is mostly black, not mostly white. And Cat isn’t that big. Or that fluffy.

We try and keep Cat in at night so we set the cat flap to in only – she can get in if she’s out but can’t get out again. Half of the cat flap was sitting on a kitchen chair; it certainly hadn’t been there when we went to bed. And a strange cat was on our kitchen table, panicking and trying to work out how to get out through a window, none of which were open.

He was gorgeous.

I say ‘he’ – he didn’t have the wide face of an un-neutered tom cat but he did have enormous paws so I’m guessing he was a tom. He had a lovely white coat with light grey markings and when I walked up to the table to make a fuss of him it turned out that he was also incredibly affectionate. Cat’s food is kept on the table to stop Willow eating it and he’d finished off what was in the bowl. Being a softie I topped it up with some more food – he was a bit damp and the weather had been foul all evening and into the night. He didn’t seem hungry though, more interested in getting some affection which I was happy to give, as was Husband once I got him out of bed to see what was going on. We opened the back door wide so he could leave, but he wasn’t in a hurry to go.

I would have kept him. Did I mention how gorgeous and affectionate he was?

Willow wasn’t too happy about all the fuss he was getting but every time she came close to him he growled loudly at her. She growled back but in a tone of voice that clearly said, ‘I don’t really understand what’s going on and why you’re here. I woke my folks up so they’d get rid of you, not make a fuss of you.’ Cat wisely decided to stay upstairs, letting everyone else deal with the intruder.

After about fifteen minutes or so, intruder cat realised it wasn’t raining anymore and decided to leave through the still open back door. I promptly locked the cat flap completely; I wouldn’t have minded if he came back but would have preferred it in daylight hours.

Husband and I went back to bed. Cat and Willow took a while to settle down but eventually the whole household was deeply asleep again.
Sleeping Willow.


Willow had her last check-up at the vet for her re-built knee on Monday. The vet signed her off, gave her the all-clear and said we could keep building up her walks by 10-15 minutes each week and – finally- she was allowed off the lead again when out on walks.

So the last couple of days when we’ve taken her out for a walk, we’ve done just that. The first time we made her sit and unclipped her lead she looked at us as if to say, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’ but after very little encouragement she was off like a shot, tail wagging, tongue out, big grin all over her face. Yes I know I’m anthropomorphising but, I’m sorry, dogs ‘grin’ when they’re happy. What’s more she has been so good with it, running in short bursts but never straying far from us and always coming back when called.

Freedom and long walks, with some of the summer left to enjoy them in. Perfect!

Happy dog

Big grin!

Larks and Owls and Cats and Dogs

“Are you a lark or an owl?” goes the question about sleeping habits. Are you up early like the lark or do you stay awake late into the night like the owl? Apparently it’s genetic but also changes throughout your life.

In this household, however, it would be more appropriate to talk about being a dog or a cat. On a typical day I will let Willow out of her crate around 6.30 whereupon she will bounce on me for a few minutes then run out into the garden and run around in circles. For the first couple of hours she’s constantly on the move until I take her out for a short morning walk after which she will nap for an hour or so and let me get on with some work. Later on in the morning she’ll be burning off energy again, asking to go out, playing and generally trying to get my attention until she gets a lunchtime walk.

Afternoons are usually calmer, at least until the children come home from school and although Willow would never turn down the opportunity for an evening walk, mostly she’s a lot quieter in the evenings. From around 8pm onwards she’s usually flaked out on the rug or quite often will take herself into her crate to doze and is quite happy to be shut up in her crate from around 9pm onwards.

Cat, on the other hand, is a whole different story. She will get up at six when I do but only because she knows that’s one of the two times of the day that I will put food in her bowl. She’ll have a quick snack and then get straight back onto our bed to sleep for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. Mid-afternoon she’ll get more food and then she’ll be out of the door and into the neighbourhood. She doesn’t have a regular routine, sometimes she’ll pop back briefly in the evening but most times she’ll stay out.

Cat asleep on the bed

My personal opinion is that cats should be kept in at night, it’s safer for them and better for the local wildlife. In theory that’s what we try to do but Cat doesn’t always co-operate. If she does happen to come home after about 7pm I will lock the cat flap shut. However, particularly in the summer she often doesn’t come home before we go to bed and rolls in around three or four in the morning. Husband has suggested that her waking him up at this time by patting his face is the equivalent of the drunk coming home to say, “I really really love you…” before crashing out.

So, are my animals typical? Are yours the same? Do you crate your dog and keep your cat in at night? I’d like to know how they compare.

Incidentally, according to the RSPB, both owl and lark populations have decreased over the last few decades. Skylark populations, the UK’s most common breed of lark, have decreased by two-thirds in the last thirty years and consequently have been flagged up as being as high conservational concern.

The Human Walking Programme

I love inventive campaigns that actually work to get rescue dogs adopted, as I said in the post-script to this post.  So here’s another one that I think is fantastic from Australia:

The Human Walking Programme

Before dogs can be rehomed they have to be rescued and I confess to watching a few YouTube videos from Eldad Hagar’s Hope for Paws channel. These show you the other end of the story, in this case rescuing abandoned dogs, often in a pitiful state, from the streets of Los Angeles.

Huge kudos to all those individuals and organisations who work towards helping stray and unwanted dogs (and other animals) find new, loving homes. And from our family particular thanks to Friends of the Animals RCT without whom we wouldn’t have filled our dog-shaped hole.