Cocker Spaniel Henry is a gentle and friendly dog, well trained and not overly demanding nor too excitable……..at home.
Outside he’s on a mission. A joint mission of sniffing and looking out for other dogs.
If he picks up the trail of dogs that have recently passed his way, particularly dogs he doesn’t like (and he has a very good memory), he will hop, jump and lunge all over the place, very fired up. He barks on the way to the car and he barks when he gets out.
There are dogs that he likes and dogs that he doesn’t like, particularly when he’s on lead.
I watched the lady leave the house with him. Well trained, he sat nicely at the door. Then, as soon as the door opened the dog launched himself out, towing the lady behind him. He dragged her to the nearest bit of grass.
It’s strange how his indoor persona is so different to how he is outside. This must be because at home he feels safe.
The lady enriches his life in many ways, with plenty of scenting and hunting games both before she goes to work and when she gets home. She dedicates time each day to his training and play.
However, she can do nothing about his noisy reactivity to other dogs when they are out apart from resorting to an aversive gadget to shut him down.
Henry does have plenty of doggy friends, but he also has his enemies. Historically not all his interactions with other dogs have been good ones.
He was taken to training classes for a while. In my mind and, from personal experience before I knew better, ‘traditional’ puppy classes can be where many dogs are introduced to the notion that not all other dogs are friendly. These classes can be noisy with too many dogs in an enclosed place. If a dog barks or ‘misbehaves’, always due to stress, he may be sprayed with water or intimadated in some other way.
One of the worst exercises is, dog on lead, to weave in and out of other owners and dogs and each time two dogs so much as look at each other or touch noses, both owners shout LEAVE IT. What sort of negative associations does that give to the dogs? In modern dog training the dogs would be praised and rewarded when near another dog.
It’s not a big leap from this to using ‘quick fix’ devices like a citronella anti-bark collar (a smell dogs hate) to stop a dog barking at other dogs.
The big attraction of this is that, in the moment, it works. The dog stops barking.
However, the fear or frustration that will be causing the dog to bark at other dogs isn’t addressed at all. The very opposite in fact. The emotion will be getting worse every time the dog associates the other dog with an extremely unpleasant aversive.
Because Henry is fine with certain dogs, the lady will need to vary her own responses according to Henry’s own reactions. If he shows little reactivity she need do nothing apart from calmly feeding him to reinforce him feeling good near a dog.
If he looks like reacting, then she needs to put more distance between them – quickly. Eventually, Henry should see another dog and look immediately at the lady, thinking ‘A Dog? Good. Food!’. To get Henry to this stage will take a long time and hundreds of ‘safe’ encounters backed up with positive reinforcement, and the previous damage needs to be undone. At the end of the day Henry will have positive emotions around other dogs. He won’t feel the need to react. This, unlike suppression, is a real result.
Henry is very much worse on lead, so a longer loose lead on a comfortable harness is essential so he has more of a feeling of freedom.
The people who do best with their dog-reactive dogs are those who take things slowly and over time teach their dogs to associate other dogs with good stuff. Allowing uncontrolled encounters meanwhile will merely set things back.