My 3 year old Border Collie Saffie has been developing an increasingly severe fear of kite surfers at the beach, to the point now that it is being triggered by even kids flying a kite - so far not yet transferred to the bird kites which are prevalent here in the Dry Season. Some background, when she was about 4 months old I was walking with her and older BC Oscar off leash at the beach and, to my eternal shame, I failed to recognise the trigger for her fear, nor was I sufficiently educated at that stage to catch on to the recognised wisdom of how crucial fear episodes are at that age.
At that time there were a few kite surfers in close and I noticed her running further up the beach, called her back a few times and she came, but in the end I think she decided I just didn't realise the extreme danger posed by these evil creatures. So suddenly she was off running back the way we'd come and didn't respond to call backs (fair enough at such a tender age, I know, I was clueless about recall and appropriate off leash age). My ute was parked a couple of km away, in one of many different car parks I use, so all I could do was walk back with Oscar and hope she'd found the right one. When I got back to the car she was sitting by the drivers door with a woman in attendance. The woman told me she'd tried to jump into the back of the ute, but failed, so she just waited to make sure someone came for her as she was obviously a much-loved pup (gorgeous....).
Since that time nearly 3 years ago her fear has escalated to the point where I swear she has ESP in regard to kite detection - I can see no evidence of them when I pull up at various beaches, but she always knows they are there. She becomes like a horse in bolt mode, on leash, totally uncontrollable. If I let her off the leash she would probably just bolt for the car, but I've never allowed that since the first time. The other day I pulled up at low tide, barely any wind and she refused to jump out of the ute. I said "look Saffie, there are NO kites here, impossible." Wrong, there were some kids in the distance flying a kite. I continued with her and Oscar (Saffie not happy) as they really needed a walk, and 5 minutes later turned around and saw the kids walking away from the beach with their kite. Within seconds Saffie had snapped out of it and was running around hassling Oscar like normal.
Now the problem, I understand the theory of desensitising dogs to fearful things by bringing them up to just before the point that they start freaking out and super-rewarding them for concentrating on you and the treat, but how do you do that when the issue is so unpredictable and difficult to anticipate in advance? There seem to be no prevailing conditions that ensure kite surfers will be there, or not - and believe me, I am a weather watcher from way back. I have managed to persuade kite surfers with their kite on the beach to have Saffie go up to them and get heaps of pats by a deflated kite and she's fine. But to use the desensitising process with the number of times throughout the year we encounter kite surfers out on the water would take years.
Is this a lost cause? The other thing that I find weird is that Oscar & Saffie have such a close relationship, always looking out for each other and using calming signals in stressful situations, but Oscar totally ignores Saffie's distress over kites (you know, he could help me a little here......). Grateful for any suggestions.