Monday, June 7, 2010

Leader of the Pack


Dr Uwe Gerecke, 44, has a quiet steadiness that animals – and humans - respond to. He came to Britain from Germany 12 years ago, met the lady who is now his wife and moved down to Hayle to be with her. Since then he has combined his work as a veterinary surgeon with that of an animal behaviourist. “It's always so intriguing to get behind the cause of a problem,” he says in his calm voice. “It's like detective work: trying to find what has caused it, what triggers it and how you can go about changing that.”

It was Uwe's interest in animal behaviour that led him to becoming a vet. “A vet practice is set up mostly for small animals and the vet has an average of 15 minutes for a consultation, clinical examination and conclusion, so that's not enough time for behaviour cases,” he says. “Now I work part time as a clinical vet two, three or four days a week and the rest is animal behaviourism.”

Uwe has found that if a dog has a problem, it can often be traced back to how a dog sees his place in the 'pack'. “A pack is a family so you have the parents - the leaders, the 'alphas'. The others are the followers, usually females,” he explains. “Dogs in general are happy followers which makes them well sorted domestic animals if you get it right. But quite often the dog doesn't understand what his place is and that's when the trouble comes in. If a dog has a problem they like to rely on the family to help them.”

Another very important aspect is that dogs regularly check whether the leaders are doing a good job. “If the leaders are too old or ill they can't do the job any more so it is a natural thing for dogs to check them. We might see them as being naughty but that is just how they are.”

This observation of pack behaviour led Uwe to set up pack walks near his home for animals with behavioural problems. “A pack walk is a very natural thing for a dog – it's an activity that the pack does when they migrate, forage for food, or check boundaries,” he says. “The leaders have to keep the order and signal to everyone not to stray too far, especially to the young ones, and there has to be a certain discipline for it all to work.” He smiles. “For us dog owners we have to take on that role. It's always a bit of a balance. The dogs can't just do what they want and think they are the leaders.”

Uwe first noticed the benefits of pack walking when taking out clients' dogs. “I introduced other people with dogs with behaviour issues and I found the clients were very happy to find other people who know about dogs with behaviour problems,” he explains. “A lot of dog owners get very hostile looks from people if their dogs have problems. They get very awkward and embarrassed but here in the pack environment, it doesn't matter because we can talk about it.”

Uwe likes to have a consultation with a dog and its owner in their own home before they come on a pack walk. “I need to assess the dog, and see how it is likely to respond to other dogs,” he says. “For instance, I can't have a very aggressive dog for safety reasons, and if the dog is very anxious then I would keep it in the background during the walk.”

Uwe can take up to 8 dogs on a pack walk including his own two lurchers. “Usually people come for several pack walks, but we have our regulars who just love it. Owners and dogs gain confidence at the same time.”

As my editor had suggested I take part in a pack walk, Uwe first came to my house to visit myself, my husband and Mollie. Mollie is renowned for providing an exuberant welcome, but to my astonishment, she bounced up to him, sat down for a pat and then took herself off for a snooze while I interviewed him. Star quality. I wasn't quite so sure how she'd fare on the pack walk, however. She has a tendency to either be bossy with other small dogs, or go to the other extreme and cower behind my legs.

So we arrived at Uwe's house on a damp and windy Tuesday morning and met the other walkers. Today there were 9 dogs, including Uwe's 2 lurchers, for the benefit of myself and the photographer. We set off with the dogs barking at full volume, but by the time we reached Trencrom Hill, the dogs had calmed down and were let off the lead. Being the smallest, Mollie found all these huge dogs a little intimidating, so we loitered at the back.

One of the walkers was Steve, whose dog Wes, is half Beagle, half Labrador. “We've only been on one pack walk, but we've never had a dog before and we have two small children,” he said. “Wes just had small problems like pulling on the lead. He was starting to bark at us a lot and we didn't want him to get aggressive but Uwe says he's just being playful, so we're doing the right thing.” He smiles down at Wes, cheerfully chasing his new mates. “We came last week and it was good exercise and good discipline and has definitely helped.”

Juliet is a regular on the pack walks with her Jack Russell Hal and Bracken the Border Terrier. “Hal doesn't like other dogs and he can be quite aggressive,” she says. “Hal has a lot of issues but here he's mixing with other dogs and is more relaxed because Uwe's in charge. I think a lot of it's to do with me because if I go out and I'm fearful, he picks up on it whereas here I'm much more relaxed.”
Her sentiments were echoed by many of the pack walkers.

Led by Uwe, we walked round Trencrom Hill until we reached the top, where the dogs had a wonderful chase round the rocks. We then headed back down the hill, nearly losing Bracken in the bracken, and at the bottom, the bigger dogs started scrapping. Instantly Uwe was there, calm and quiet. He parted the trouble makers and order was reinstated – in minutes.

Many of Uwe's cases are rescue dogs, as are several of the dogs present on this day. “Some dogs develop problems if they have to move homes,” explains Uwe, “or they have issues with their first owner and when they can't cope, they pass the animal on so the next owner has to deal with issues dating back to the first owner.”

Thankfully Uwe is on hand to give these dogs and their owners the advice and help they need. Too often we dog lovers treat our animals as children, when of course they're not. “Many people see their pets through human eyes and humanise them,” says Uwe. “When I tell them just a few basic things about how dogs think, that's a real eye opener.”

By this stage of the walk we're in the field outside his house and the dogs are having another play session, bounding through the grass, tails wagging. “This work teaches me to look at both the dog and the owner,” Uwe says. “Not only to look but to talk and to listen. What do they say? What do they think? How do they feel about their dog?” He smiles thoughtfully. “In the process you meet a lot of nice dogs – and people. Oh – and cats!”

Dr Uwe Gerecke
Gonew View, Lelant Downs, Hayle TR27 6NH
01736 337076
07779 035131

Consultations available by appointment via email, by phone or at home.

Cornwall Today June 2010

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