Dr Danielle Stephens-Lewis
My Life with Animals
Brought up in South Wales UK, I was raised around all sorts of animals. At one point we had 13 dogs, 3 horses, 3 cats, ferrets, rabbits and even a lizard. Animals were very much a big part of our lives. It was guaranteed that each week, either myself or one of my siblings would bring home an unwanted or stray animal.
As I got older, I had my first real experience of dogs with complex needs. My soul boy, DJay, had been born deaf and required a different strategy and approach to what I'd been previously used to. Each day I thank him for all that he taught me about canine communication and body language.
And then came more rescue dogs needing a little extra support. Our first St Bernard, Chubbs, needed a lot of physical support due to a misaligned jaw from previous trauma as well as having noise sensitivities. Jasmine, our girl, was a beautiful soul with some resource guarding tendencies and dog selectiveness. And then came, Bungle, having one of the roughest starts, he arrived with human resource guarding behaviours resulting in a bite history.
Across my life, I've had the pleasure of working with terriers, GSDs, Sighthounds, Rotties as well as the giant breeds. Each bringing something new to my anecdotal education around dog behaviour.
And here comes the more formal part. I'm educated to Doctorate level in Psychology, attaining both a 1st class BSc and PhD. As well as this, I completed my post-doctorate in developing behaviour change interventions (albeit for violent men). I'm in the final stage of the IMDT behaviourist course and am currently pursing pre-certification in aim of becoming a clinical animal behaviourist.
I'm committed to CPD which has led to me completing level 3 certificates around pharmacology and nutrition as well as attending multiple CPD events around aggression related dog behaviour. I have a keen interest in livestock guardian dogs.
Finally, I've worked in academia for around 10 years, being a senior lecturer in Psychology, Ethical Board Chair, as well as an active researcher. Recently, along with colleagues, I founded the Project Dog Research Programme, dedicated to exploring canine behaviour and the human-canine bond.
After losing both our beautiful boy, DJay and girl, Jasmine, to the dreaded C word between September 2019 and April 2020, we received a phone call from a contact at the St Bernard’s Trust (who we had previously adopted with) about a 12-month-old boy who needed a home ASAP. The house had been far too quiet and far too clean, so we spoke with his current owner to get a little more information. His name was Jake and by all accounts he was the perfect boy. It seemed the only reason he needed a new home was due to the owners’ change in circumstances.
We were told Jake was good with dogs and cats, well socialised and behaved but had some separation anxiety. Nothing too severe. He sounded perfect. The owner was in desperate need of rehoming him so we arranged for them to come to our home that weekend, with Jake, so they could get a feel for us and the type of home he’d be going to. So, on a beautiful Saturday morning, they arrived. Jake came tumbling out, all legs, started barking at me and even more at my husband, Gavin. He was clearly very nervous. Fast forward a few hours and after lots of goodies and some gentle introductions, we won him over. We learned that his previous owners were his second home after they purchased him at 5 months old. They had also attempted to rehome him twice before contacting the Trust. The first was to a family with young children, who quite quickly contacted them to ask them to collect him as he was too ‘bouncy’. The second was to a home with other big dogs that, unfortunately, weren’t keen on having a newcomer. Jake was clearly very energetic, very nervous but had the most beautiful nature. We all agreed that he’d stay and, while distracting him with a frozen Kong, his owner left.
Meet Mr. Bungle
We quickly noticed that Jake was pretty unfamiliar with his name so decided to rename him, Mr Bungle. Over the coming days and weeks, we learned a lot about Bungle. Despite being under weight he was extremely strong, hyper-aroused and did not know how to walk on a lead. It would take the two of us, with two leads, to get him out of the gate safely. He was terrified of everything, traffic, bikes, animal noises, window reflections, strange people, everything. We knew we had our work cut out, but he was incredibly intelligent. He wanted to learn constantly and loved to play – it was like having a toddler! As we had been told he was dog friendly, and had even lived with a dog, we decided to introduce him to some friends and their Great Dane, Jet. A beautifully placid girl, so we thought they would be a perfect match. Unfortunately, it became clear that Bungle was dog reactive. On meeting Jet, he charged, barked and snapped at her, attempting to keep her away from us. He was resource guarding. We thought this could have been due to her size, so introduced him to my mother’s lurcher pup a few weeks later. The same. He charged and kept barking and snapping at her even after taking a very slow approach to introductions. Eventually, he nipped her on the back when she came to me for some fuss. Something didn’t add up, so I phoned his previous owner. It was then revealed that Bungle had actually been attacked in the home with the big dogs. This and all the passing around had clearly had an impact on him. I contacted a canine behaviourist and the training began. I was adamant that with a lot of time, consistency and a shed-load of chicken we could make a huge difference to this sweet, anxious boy.
Despite speaking to an array of Behaviourists, I felt many of the suggestions failed to really understand the root of Bungle's behaviour. The trauma from being passed around during his first 12 months as well as the breed characteristic for St Bernard's were often left out of the equation. To say he’s the most intelligent dog we’ve ever had is no exaggeration. He learns in seconds, but his previous experiences had also led to a lot of anxiety. The Psychologist in me could see a number of overlaps between the day-to-day work I was doing and Bungle's behaviour. As well as his fear of strangers and dogs, he had separation anxiety and resource guarding. While perfect with us, he needs to build trust around new people and dogs. But once you’ve earned his trust, he will shower you with utter love and slobbery kisses. So, I started to work in applying some of the behaviour change techniques I work with, to our training sessions. We spent a lot of time working on building a bond, socialisation, and developing more positive emotional responses towards the big wide world. The first time he saw a swan, he froze for what seemed an age. He’s not a fan of being stared at (a bit of an issue when you’re a St Bernard) and, in the early days, he took me flying over a fence after he saw what he thought was a cat – it was an ornament! But thankfully, slowely, I started to see shifts. Through developing trust with us and giving him choices over his exposure and environment, he learnt how to behave more appropriately, even around 'scary triggers'. His recall is amazing and his general manners are 99%. Even with this shift, I wanted to keep findings ways to support him. And so, I decided to train as a behaviourist. The more I saw him benefit, the more I wanted to learn.
When we first adopted Bungle, we decided to create a light-hearted Instagram account to record his journey with us. After a couple of months of sharing his journey, I decided to tell his background story to our followers. Surprisingly, we were contacted by someone who revealed that they had attempted to purchase Bungle when he had been advertised at only 5 months old and then again at 6 months old, by two separate sellers. They had recognised the photos I had uploaded and sent me the messages. It was definitely him. We came to the realisation that it was very likely that by the time Bungle was 12 months old, he had been rehomed a total of 7 or 8 times. It was unsurprising he had all the insecurities he did. If anything, I’m surprised at how loving this boy is. After being abandoned so many times, over and over, it just demonstrates the amazing resilience these beings have. Bungle will never be a happy go lucky pup. But through management, clear behaviour modification taking into account his agency, and adjustments in our expectations, he will be able to live his happiest life in his forever home.
While I say I am the human founder of Agentic Paws, it is Bungle who is its true founder - the inspiration for empowering all pups through supporting guardians in understanding their dogs needs, and the psychology behind their behaviour.