Training Classes, a Reactive Dog. Compatible?

Bay loves training classes

Ben

I have just come home from seeing three wonderful Border Collies.

They are all rescues and like so many, two are from Ireland.

So often Border Collies I visit, beloved family pets, also live a life of frustration, unable to use their clever brains or fulfill their instinct to herd. The loving hard work the couple has done has paid big dividends. The dogs are given plenty of enrichment in their lives including being regularly taken to training classes. Two of them do agility also.

Their main reason for my visit is for both Ben and Timmy to be less reactive to other dogs – most particularly Ben who will react as soon as he sees another dog in the distance.

Is dog training doing anything for Ben’s reactivity to other dogs?

Ben will soon be nine and has some Australian Shepherd in the Collie mix.

He adores the training itself but takes a while to get used to the other dogs in the class, even those he sees week after week.

Timmy

How can they mix training classes with changing Ben’s reactivity to other dogs?

It’s proven that the way to help a dog with reactivity to other dogs is to work with sufficient distance between them that the dog feels safe and relaxed.

Here is an excerpt from an excellent article by Tobin Foster PhD: ‘Letting another dog approach and greet a fearful (or reactive) dog is too intense!  Quick retreats at the first sight of an approaching dog is too brief!   Letting your dog watch another dog from a distance and for a long time (until he loses interest is best!) will produce the most effective results in most cases.’. Tobin Foster, PhD

Bearing this in mind, how then can Ben manage the classes?

We looked at ways of turning his training classes into a positive.

The lady will see if Ben can now join the final class. He then no longer has to run the gauntlet of other dogs waiting to come in to the next class as he leaves by the only door.

They can arrive very early, watching the other dogs arrive one or two at a time from a distance. Ben can also watch the dogs from the previous class leave – from a distance. The lady can be ready to retreat, putting more distance between them, if he gets agitated.

She can then work at pairing the sight of sufficiently distant dogs with food and happiness.

She can even point them out: ‘Look at that!’.

Now I suggest the lady experiments with walking towards and into the hall, lead loose, being ready to walk out again if Ben ‘tells’ her with his body language that he’s not happy – before he starts to bark if possible.

Fortunately the lady believes that her good, switched-on trainer will be up for this.

Timmy, too, barks at other dogs.

He barks at some dogs, not always and only when they get really close. It’s probable he has caught some of this reactivity from Ben.

Timmy is the most recent to join them and is also two years old.

He adores agility, but gets so fired up that he has nipped several people and gone for another dog. He now has solo lessons.

Just as it’s hard to make indoor training classes compatible with keeping sufficient distance, it’s hard to make agility, particularly when competitive, compatible with lowering arousal levels. Agility requires a dog to become fired up; lower arousal levels are necessary to stop him being so stirred up that he nips. Catch 22.

Tom fixates on the cat, waiting to herd her if she moves.

Tom staring at the cat

Tom staring at the cat

The third dog, Tom, is two years old and is a dream. He is however prone to fixate on the elderly cat, waiting to herd her whenever she moves.

They currently send him to his bed. I prefer to deal with the emotions behind the behaviour rather than simply controlling the behaviour. He goes to his bed willingly enough when asked but doesn’t stay there for long before he’s back staring at the cat.

Instead of simply sending him to his bed with the urge to herd or chase unfulfilled, our plan should help diffuse frustration a little.

They will also interrupt the staring a lot sooner to try to break the habit and before it gets to the stalking stage.

Going back to Ben, he loves his training classes once he’s been there for a while and has stopped barking at the other dogs. They are very keen for him to continue and, being a Border Collie, activity is especially necessary for his brain and breed.

Stopping the training classes and agility for now would be the easy way to work on resolving reactivity and over-arousal problems.

But at what price?

 

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approaches I have worked out for these three dogs. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. Everything depends upon context. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies tailored to your own dog (see my Help page)

Come When Called. The Wider Picture

I have just come home from seeing a wonderful dog – fantastic temperament and beautiful to look at – a cross between a Utonagan and a German Shepherd.

The problem is some reactivity towards other dogs which they want to nip in the bud – he’s fourteen months old – and unreliable recall when it’s really needed.Won'te come when called if chasing a deer

This started me thinking about the wider picture.

If a great number of the dogs I go to won’t come when called – at least, they will come but only if they feel like it, it must apply to a huge number of dogs.

Concern over how your dog will behave with another dog and the matter of spot-on recall go hand in hand. With unquestioning recall, you don’t have to worry that your dog could upset another dog. You effectively have him on a remote control.

A dog that won’t reliably come when called a danger to himself and others. He can also be an embarrassment to his owner. What’s more, the frightened other dog could itself now need a lot of work to build up his or her confidence again.

One incident involving an off-lead dog can change walks from a carefree pleasure to an ordeal.

An out-of-control, off-lead dog running up to your own dog can change future walks into an ordeal of constantly watching out for dogs and searching for dog-free locations.

It’s a vicious circle. The ‘victim’ dog may be infected and could now be potentially yet another dog that, if allowed to run freely off-lead, risks upsetting other dogs himself.

Because most reactive dogs are more confident when off-lead, owners take risks and let them free.

The owner of the stunning young Koda will be working very hard on his recall which she says is good. He understands ‘come’ and he will come back when called… except…..

….except when he rushes off to play or roughhouse with another dog,…… except when he’s chasing a deer. He will then run for miles. He could easily get killed.

But, apart from those occasions, Koda will ‘always’ come when called.

What does ‘come when called’ really mean?

I go to so many dogs that are reactive or scared of other dogs due to having been harrassed or attacked by another dog. I am therefore acutely aware that one dog’s freedom can potentially have a catastrophic effect upon the confidence and freedom of another dog. Upon the owner also. Walks can quite literally be ruined for them owing to a single incident of an out-of-control dog charging over to them and what then ensues.

Koda has never yet hurt a dog but he could easily scare one. He himself may well be scared of the other dog. The lady is worried because he rushes and barks at some. His hackles will go up. With other dogs he happily plays.

Koda makes his own decisions regarding which dogs he goes to and what he does when he gets there.

Koda freelances.

I see the priority one of controlling his freedom – Koda is still a teenager after all – until he can be trusted not to freelance. Changing his feelings about certain other dogs and hence his reactivity is a separate thing but equally important.

When Koda truly reliably comes back when called, his owners then can decide which dogs he goes to. He has many dog friends he plays with daily. He needs and relishes the exercise he gets off lead.

Reliable means reliable, not ‘reliable except when’….

Here is a nice little video from Steve Mann ‘A Recall is a Recall‘.

Every little thing counts, as they say.

There are things to put into place at home: If he’s is walked before his meal instead of after, food will have more power during the walk.

They can avoid getting him over-aroused, so he has more self-control when he goes out.

He barks when the dog next door barks and this can be turned into an opportunity – an opportunity to work on his recall from another dog. An opportunity also to feel better about barking dogs by associating its presence in the garden next door with good things, fun and food.

It is possible that Koda’s diet which contains very low quality protein and additives may not be helping. Poor quality protein can interfere with a dog’s ability to make use of the serotonin that occurs naturally in his system. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.

Starting at home they can work on making coming to a whistle an automatic, conditioned response – something Koda will simply do without thinking. There is only one way to achieve this and it’s to repeat the exercise hundreds of times. He has the lady and her two sons dedicated to making him the best and happiest dog possible, so they will succeed I’m sure given time.

In the case of deer, his prey drive may be such that unless he is whistled before he starts running he simply may not hear them. We have to be realistic. In places where this can happen he may simply need to remain on a long line – fifteen metres of freedom only.

Remember Fenton?

 

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle with maybe a bit of poetic licence. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Koda. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)

Trigger Stacking

Sassy was fetched on Sunday and on Wednesday I was there with her, the couple and their two children.

Forward planning.

They had done some perfect forward planning in advance of getting their rescue dog home from the shelter.

They are not a family that took a dog into their lives upon impulse. Absolutely the opposite. Over a few weeks they had visited the two-year-old mixed breed several times. She particularly bonded with the little girl, aged 8.

They were told that Sassy is a German Shepherd Husky mix but I can’t for the life of me see any Husky. Staffie maybe. She’s smaller than a GSD – much the size and shape of Zara, my mini Labrador.

There is one particular cloud on the horizon and that is her possible ‘aggression’ to other dogs. This is based on one incident. In order to show the family how Sassy was with other dogs, the shelter staff brought three dogs into the area, one at a time.

The first dog she ignored. They tell me she took no notice of it at all. It’s unusual for a dog to truly ignore another dog suddenly entering her immediate environment. I suspect she may deliberately have looked away from it as dogs do when they feel uneasy about something.

The second dog was large and noisy. It was aggressive and scary but Sassy managed well.

The third dog was brought in, a peaceful Staffie. Sassy hurled herself at it and pinned it down – no actual injury.

This to me spells ‘trigger stacking’, where the events add up.

Already she will have been aroused by being with her visitors and probably a couple of shelter staff. Coming out of her kennel in itself will have been exciting.

To quote Sally Hopkins, each time a dog is over excited or is caused stress, the adrenal and thyroid glands, testosterone and hypothalamus begin to increase their production. The output from these glands reach a peak 10-15 minutes after the incident, and takes between 3-5 days to return to the level they were at before the incident.

trigger stacking

This is why certain dogs can become aggressive for no apparent reason when meeting another dog; they are still experiencing the rush of adrenaline etc. from a build up of small things or an incident that happened 10-15 minutes beforehand (thank you Dog Games for the diagram).

 

Trigger stacking

Trigger stacking will also have been happening from the moment Sassy was let out of her kennel to be taken to her new life.

Just imagine how arousing entering a new home must be to a dog, particularly a dog that has had little variety for months.

First the lead is attached and she’s led away from the place she knows well. Then into the car with the new smells and sounds.

Then into the house. A total bombardment of new smells from all quarters. Her new humans hovering about even if consciously trying to leave her alone. Then where should she toilet? She explores but every now and then meets a barrier – a correction of some sort. She is learning.

She’s very reactive to birds in the garden. I wonder how long it has been since she sat and watched birds? She worries when she hears a dog bark – unsurprising when she had been surrounded by so much barking. There are further new people coming into the house.

I will have barely touched upon all the things she will have been experiencing and processing over the past three days, things that will slowly have been adding to her stress levels. Trigger stacking. She responded initially by having a crazy, manic few hours before settling down a bit.

Such was their forward planning that despite being at work all day they had already made arrangements so Sassy wouldn’t be left for more than a couple of hours at a time. They had also spoken to me and booked me well in advance.

I have given them a few suggestions to get them started off on the right foot and will go again in a couple of weeks when she has settled in and may just perhaps be less acquiescent and accepting.

She is quickly getting the idea of not jumping on the sides and they will now be making what they do want her to do -resisting or getting back down – rewarding.

There are a couple of restrictions that she may balk against eventually.

They have a a small white rug in front of the sofa and they don’t want her on this. It keeps her away from sitting beside them while they watch TV but this may be a big missed opportunity for bonding.

The other rule that may be a challenge is they want her to toilet only in a very small patch of stones behind the shed. They always accompany her at the moment and have so far been successful. They will need not to let her out without them for a while if they want this to become a habit and also reward her actually on the ground as she finishes to emphasise the location. I suggested they put the toileting on cue with special words – ‘be clean’ perhaps.

Apart from some pacing and panting, Sassy seems to be settling down brilliantly. I gave her a bone to chew which she worked on enthusiastically – chewing being a great ‘unwinder’.  She was lying stretched out on the floor in no time, oblivious of people walking around her, like she was exhausted.

I am very happy that the family are keeping the dog in the garden and just outside the gate for now while she adjusts – well away from any other dogs – to give her stress levels time to go right down. A new home is a huge adjustment.

They are not over-fussing her. The children are doing their bit.

In a couple of weeks, in a calm and stable state she can start to be gradually re-introduced to the world outside their immediate environment with as little opportunity for ‘trigger stacking’ as possible.

I wonder what will come to the fore in a couple of weeks time when the ‘real dog’ comes out of her shell?

 

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Sassy and I’ve not gone into exact details for that reason. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important. Every dog is different. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)

Family Dog, Consistency is Key

The importance of consistency.

I sat with the family – parents with late-teens son and daughter – and their dear little Tibetan Terrier, Archie.

Tibetan Terrier in need of consistency

My first question was, as always, ‘What would you like to achieve from my help?’  The answer was for Archie to be more relaxed around other dogs and to be trusted to come back when called.

Exactly the same aim as so many people I go to.

This sounds simple and straightforward but it isn’t. It’s unlikely to be just a question of going out on a few walks with someone. For a dog to be relaxed around other dogs he must feel safe and this has a lot to do with his relationship with his humans.

Poor Archie was attacked by two dogs a couple of months which has not only upset Archie but it’s really shaken the lady who had him at the time.

In order to feel safe the dog should not feel trapped and helpless on the end of a tight lead, particularly one attached uncomfortably to a collar, held by someone he may not completely trust to keep him safe (in his mind). In order not to feel trapped he should learn to walk in a more relaxed fashion on a loose lead. In order to walk on a loose lead he should no longer expect to make progress when the lead is tight; in order to walk on a loose lead he shouldn’t be too excited before starting out. In order to trust his humans when out, they themselves need to be confident; they need to show him who protects him and motivates him back at home.

In order for him to come when called when off lead, he must take notice of them at home and reliably come when called around the house and in from the garden etc. etc. Each family member must be consistent.

It’s anything but simple.

It’s great to go to a family where all four members pull together with a walking rota. Archie gets two walks a day.

For a plan to work, each walker must have the same walking system. Each needs to wait for calm before leaving. Each needs to use the same technique for teaching loose lead walking. Each needs to react in exactly the same way when Archie sees a dog – he alerts, he may pull and then he drops down flat. It’s vital none of them use force.

Each should carry food on walks.

Each should give Archie their full attention for that twenty minutes and not be occupied with something else like a phone.

 

A ‘walk’ now mean something different.

Walks will occupy the same amount of time as before but no longer go from A to B. It will be about the journey, not the destination. So what if the dog wants to sniff for five minutes? Whose walk is it? A dog that is pulling with a walker who is in a rush is bound to be reactive to things. A dog having a relaxed sniff walk on a loose lead with someone who is relaxed is much more likely to walk past other dogs without a reaction.

It was fun to see the family begin to see why Archie actually does things – what functions his actions have for him. Why does he jump up? It gets him the attention he wants. Why does he run off with a sock? It starts a game. Why does he pull on lead? It gets him somewhere. Why does he bark at people who walk past? It chases them away. Why does he keep scratching at the door? It makes someone get up.

He can learn that something they prefer will give him the same result. Sitting and not jumping will get attention. Stealing a sock gets ignored but a toy may start a game. Pulling on lead will get him nowhere, but a loose lead will. Scratching the door doesn’t get him let out, but sitting politely may and so on.

Why does Archie sometimes get cross when made to go out at night? Because gentle force is used and there is nothing in it for him. He will happily do as asked when they work on his ‘coming when called’ routine at home, using food.

Getting him to earn some of some of his food (and that doesn’t mean commercial rubbish treats or anything large that fills him up, but tiny bits of real food) is a recipe for a motivated and happy dog.

This brings us back to his mild reactivity to some dogs when out on walks. Whatever he is doing, whether it is dropping down, pulling to the dog or barking at it, he does it because it has a function for him, probably that of keeping the dog at a greater distance – or giving himself some control at the very least, particularly if he’s being held close on a tight lead.

What if he was given something more acceptable to do that provided the same function? Turning to look at the handler for instance? Or perhaps standing still and not lying down? Or looking away from the other dog and down at the ground to forage for food? The handler should be sufficiently on the ball to sense the distance t which Archie has clocked the dog but isn’t yet reacting.

Archie would learn that the alternative behaviour would be grant him his wish, that of increasing distance, whilst associating the other dog with something positive and nice.

Another reason they should be alert is that sometimes Archie, depending upon his mood and upon the dog, may ignore it and walk past. Other times he may want to play. The response has to be appropriate to the occasion and well-timed, and this takes practice.

I would err on the safe side in favour of too much distance rather than too little.

Sadly, when your dog has been attacked and injured by another dog that has just appeared, off-lead, out of the blue, walks may never be quite so enjoyable again.

Two Romanian Street Dogs

Was a Romanian street dog

Roma

The two Romanian Street dogs I have just visited are doing magnificently as are their new custodians, a couple with a large open home, marble floors and furniture!

Everything is different and it’s not surprising that they are on high alert at times. At others they are amazingly chilled. It’s hard to believe they were flown over from Romania only three weeks ago.

Having lived on the streets till eighteen months ago and then all that time since in kennels, it’s little surprise that there are toilet accidents in the house. They have been scared of walking beside traffic which makes sense – freely roaming they would have kept away from a noisy road.

Roma is a Romanian Sheepdog of around five years old and Mocca a Collie mix, a year older. They look surprisingly similar really. The two dogs were best buddies during their time in kennels before coming here, which must have a lot to do with how well they are settling in. That, along with great work which must have been done by kennel staff and now by the couple they live with who have been fielding their issues with great sensitivity and insight.

Out in the garden in particular they are very reactivite to the smallest noise, including sounds inaudible to their humans.

Romanian Street Dog

Mocca

We will be approaching the barking situation from three angles. Firstly to reassure the dogs that they can trust their humans to be responsible for protecting them by how they deal with alarm barking.

Secondly, the best way to see this through is for the couple to call the dogs away from what they are barking at and to themselves, so a lot of recall work is needed until responding to being called is immediate. Thirdly desensitisation, removing the feelings of fear associated with noises.

Paired with the recall work the dogs should eventually accept most of the sounds and learn to go to their humans if they are worried. It needs consistency and persistence which these people certainly have.

Walking is the other area of major concern. Now that they have to walk on lead around the streets, we need to get into the dogs’ heads. How will they be feeling? Are they feeling safe? Comfortable?

Having been free-roaming street dogs, they will have been used to meeting and greeting people and dogs if they so chose and avoiding them if they preferred. They are now physically attached to a human – and by short and rather heavy chain leads. The first thing is the for the dogs to feel as free and relaxed as is possible; then to give them back some sense of choice as to whether they approach people and dogs or not.

They need comfortable equipment – I prefer Perfect Fit harnesses – with lightweight, longish training leads that can be hooked both back and chest. Then both dog and humans will feel safe and be safe.

I suggest they take the dogs back to ‘primary school’ with the walking. Why not start ‘walking school’ near home? Several five or ten minute sessions following the protocols just around the immediate locality, one dog at a time and swapping dogs so the one left behind doesn’t get too anxious. This will advance things a lot quicker than a tense mile-long walk with both dogs together, being forced near other dogs and people, and battling against things they hate like cats!

There is always a legitimate worry about whether the dog gets sufficient exercise, but it has been observed that dogs living free to do their own thing actually cover very little distance. We have to prioritise. Exercise with anxious dogs will do a lot less good than gradually acclimatising them with plenty of manageable and low-stress sessions that are both mental stimulation and fun.

If you are particularly interested in street dogs, why not watch the Living With a Street Dog webinar by Lisa Tenzin-Dolma.

NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Mocca and Roma. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly which it’s hard for someone to do with insufficient experience and living too closely to their own situation. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Helppage)

From Street Dogs to Pets

Rocky and Flossie were born on the streets in a small coastal town in BulgaDogs from streets of Kavanaria around two years ago from mothers also born on the streets. For the past year or so they have lived in a house with a couple who have done remarkably well with them, transforming them from street dogs to settled house dogs.

The one respect in which they are, if anything, getting worse is when out on walks and particularly when encountering other dogs.

Outside the house – more their natural habitat one might think – they are finding things harder.

Initially there were no problems with other dogs. When picked up they had no scars or evidence of fighting and they had lived happily and free around the other street dogs. Now when they encounter a dog, Rocky in particular is scared and Flossie is getting worse. Rocky shrinks and lowers himself and as they get nearer he resorts to lunging and barking, not wanting the other dog to get any closer.

This is where humans need to start thinking ‘dog’. It really doesn’t matter whether a destination is reached, it’s about the journey. What does matter is that they mimic as closely as possible what a free dog would do to feel safe. If the dog wants to increase distance then that’s what must happen. It could mean turning around. For now it could mean avoiding narrow passages and taking different routes. It could in some cases mean starting walks with a car journey to somewhere appropriate and safe.

In his past life, unleashed, Rocky could have chosen to turn and go the other way.  Both dogs would have had free choice as to whether to interact with other dogs or not. Now Flossie and Rocky are, necessarily, trapped on the end of leashes even when away from the roads. If let off lead, Rocky will take himself off for an hour or two and Flossie may well go home.

The lady in particular is finding walking the dogs increasingly nerve-wracking. She is afraid Rocky in particular might harm another dog.

There are three elements we discussed to help these two lovely dogs. The first is, when they are out, for them to feel as free and comfortable as possible. From having no restriction at all they are now on the end of retractable leads which, by the very way they work, always have tension. They thankfully wear harnesses but even these could be more comfortable.

The next thing is that the dogs need to be walked separately for a while because each needs full attention and their ways of reacting aren’t the same so they could well be firing one another up.

Thirdly, their reactivity needs to be worked on – carefully. Avoiding dogs altogether will get them nowhere, but even worse is to push them too close, beyond their comfort threshold so that they feel forced to defend themselves. The human at the end of the lead, watching their own dog carefully and increasing distance the instant there is any sign of discomfort or fear will, over time, build up trust. If Rocky knows he’s being ‘listened to’ then he should gradually dare go a bit closer.

Now desensitisation can begin. The appearance of another dog can start to be associated with good things like scattered food – but from a ‘safe’ distance.

When the dogs are in open places they are currently restricted on the end of just ten feet or so of retractable lead. They could be on 15 metre long, loose training lines, able to run, sniff and explore. If an off-lead dog does happen to run up, whilst escape strategies have been discussed, the dog should feel he has some choice. On the end of long lines their recall can really be worked on.

Both dogs are understandably nervous of new things, certain sudden sounds and people who look ‘different’. The best tool to change this is for every single time either Rocky or Flossie encounters something even slightly scary or anxious-making, something good should happen. This can be food or fun – the more rewarding to the dog the better.

Helping the dogs to feel safe is the priority. It’s the most important thing – more important to them than food even. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t be interested in food. Right from puppyhood these two would have been free to follow their instincts in order to keep themselves safe. In their new life, because trapped in effect, they need total trust in their humans to keep them safe instead.

So much of the stuff I normally advise is already in place for these dogs at home including a perfect diet and kind, positive training techniques from caring and knowledgeable people. It will be great when (and it will take as long as it take), the walks become relaxed and enjoyable too.

Reactive on lead to other dogs

German Shepherd with Pointer mixYesterday I went to another German Shepherd who greeted me like a long-lost friend – the lively twenty-two month-old Gordon. Such a change from the many fearful Shepherds I so often meet. Gordon lives with Lulu, a very attractive older Pointer mix.

The problem is that Gordon is reactive on lead to other dogs. He is absolutely fine with dogs when he’s off lead, if perhaps a little excitable, but becomes very stressed the nearer they get to other dogs when he’s restrained.

The couple have worked hard on training their dogs. In the training environment Gordon’s reactivity to dogs can be controlled. These solutions, however, are hard to translate into the real world when out on walks and where dogs may appear unpredictably or the environment doesn’t give them the flexibility. So, despite their hard work and effort, the problem continues.

Reactivity on lead, along with coming when called, can be as much about a dog’s relationship with the human holding the lead or wanting him to come when called as it is about actual training. A lot of trust is involved. If the human has the dog, effectively, captive on the end of a leash then he/she must be trusted when they encounter a potential hazard like another dog, and he/she must be sufficiently motivating to hold their dog’s attention.

The dog needs to feel he has choice too. Formal training seldom allows choice. Walking on a longish loose lead without any feeling of restriction gives the dog more feeling of choice. If the dog signals that he needs more distance from the other dog, then that, too, is his choice and the human should comply. The more trusting he gets, the nearer to the other dog he will get before he reacts. That reaction point is his threshold, and that is where the best work happens.

It’s not always as easy as it sounds because of life’s unpredictability and because the dog himself can be in a different mental state from day-to-day, depending upon stress levels affected by a build-up of totally different things. We can but chip away at it, building up trust and confidence, teaching the dog coping strategies.

Where also most conventional training falls short is that there are things that need addressing in the home, things that, when put in place, will help build this relationship of trust.

If a dog is rushing off to the fence to bark at passing dogs and people, then he is practising the very skills they don’t want. Away-from-home training won’t be dealing with that. The humans in the family can show their dogs, in a way they understand, that they are responsible for people coming to the house, and when they bark at perceived danger they can reinforce their roles as protectors – the training environment won’t deal with that either. Most subtle communication issues can’t be spotted away from the home either, particularly as they may involve all the family members.

If people work on getting their dogs’ full attention at home, away from distractions, then there is a much better chance they will keep their attention on walks when faced with other dogs. If their dogs are taught to come instantly when called in the home environment, without hesitation, there is a much higher chance that recall work out in the fields will be successful.

Gordon’s family is really switched on, and it will happen, I’m sure.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Gordon, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).

Relaxed Indoors, Reactive Outside

Relaxed German ShepherdAfter a run of German Shepherds I have been to recently who barked frantically when they heard me at the door and continued to bark at me when I entered the house, I was really surprised to ring the doorbell and to hear nothing.

Tia, a very youthful nine-year-old, stood calm and friendly beside the lady as she opened the door, and followed us into the sitting room.

I knew already that the lady would be telling me her problem was her dog’s behaviour when out of the house and on lead, but I wanted to take a holistic approach and get some knowledge of Tia against the background of home life before exploring what was happening outside, why it was happening and what we could do about it.

Tia is the lady’s first dog, and she got her when looking for a puppy some six years ago. Tia was the mother dog and the breeder more or less said she ran a business and Tia was merely a puppy-making machine to her and now expendable. So the lady took her home.

The bond between the two is incredibly close and the lady describes herself as devoted to her. It is just the two of them. I noticed how the dog spent much of the time gazing at the lady, or asking her to do something like fuss her or throw a ball – and she was never disappointed. There are all sorts of human emotions here that the dog will be picking up including adoration and also some guilt that she can never do quite enough for her beloved dog. On balance this must be working very well as Tia is the perfect dog indoors with everyone – visiting young children included.

However…. when she steps out through the front door and anything moves, Tia morphs into a lunging monster! She is ready to have a go at anything and the lady, slight in build, has trouble holding her back. She has been pulled over at least two times. I saw Tia’s transformation for myself. It was amazing to see how a dog who is so relaxed and friendly in the house could change to being so reactive outside, only a few feet from the front door.

The only time Tia does go out of the front door is to go for a walk, so the whole walk process needs looking at. There is a lot of excitement from the moment the lady starts to get ready. She may then run the gauntlet of getting Tia to the car in order to take her to a playing field where the dog can be let off lead. There is no evidence that Tia is anything but friendly when running free.

It seems that, as the behaviour starts immediately outside the house, to Tia this is where her territorial protection duty begins. She is pulling, lunging and barking at anything that may move whether it’s a bird, person, cat or dog. She’s fine with dogs elsewhere and they have a cat themselves. She welcomes people in the house – but not outside when she is on lead.

The lady needs to show Tia, starting at home, that she can look after herself and make her own decisions. She herself describes Tia’s following her about as ‘ushering’ her and that probably says it all.

The desensitisation process needs to be taken step by step, little by little. Every single element is to be worked on individually: The lady picking up her coat.  Lifting the lead. Picking up her keys. Attaching the lead.  She can vary the routine by putting on her outside clothes in different places and attaching the lead first. Next she’s to wait for calm at the door. Open the door – wait for calm again.Take a step out and wait for calm. Stand and look about, then go back in again. No longer will going out of the front door necessarily be a precursor to a walk.

Advancing a step at a time, in very short sessions (whilst being ready to take action as specifically planned as soon as there is any reactivity from Tia) the next goal will be for her to see something a bit distant that is moving without instantly reacting so that the desensitisation/conter-conditioning process can begin.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Tia, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).

Rehomed Older Dog

Oldies Club Border Terrier

Max

As is often the case with a rehomed older dog, it’s impossible to know how that dog will be when he has had time to settle into his new home and a totally different lifestyle. When a dog has probably spent his recent years shut indoors, it is hardly surprising when there are issues around other dogs.

Dear little Max, age eleven, has been rehomed by Oldies Club. Like many older dogs, he has been the loved pet of a person who through age or infirmity has no longer been able to look after him properly. Max now has a new lease of life living with an active couple and their other Border Terrier, thirteen year old Katie.

Elderly Border Terrier

Katie

Because there were dogs that he was fine with, it was assumed he would be okay with all dogs. The new owners got a shock when, soon after they had brought him home, Max and a relative’s small dog, as soon as they clapped eyes on one another, broke into a fight. Since then there have been some other incidents resulting in walks not being enjoyable and the couple now having to curtail some of the previous activities they had enjoyed with the placid and dog-friendly Katie.

Having asked lots of questions to get a good feel for the situation against a background of the great many dogs and people I have been to, I got a clear picture of what needs to be done.

Like so many dogs, the issue may be of other dogs on walks, but there are things to put in place first at home in order to optimise their strategies when out. I likened it to a tripod – three ‘legs’ to hold firm and ‘other dogs out on walks’ to then be placed on top (house built on rock, not sand).

The first thing is to address the barking at dogs from his own home. There is a truly aggressive-sounding dog the other side of the fence so there is a lot of boundary running and barking from the two of them, filling Max with fear and honing his dog-aggression skills. He also is on watch at the front window from the back of the sofa. Not only can the couple take responsibility for danger and lookout duty, they can also do some serious desensitisation and counter-conditioning work in their own garden.

The second thing is that both dogs are overfed with food left down all the time. We preferably want to be able to work with food so Max has to be a bit more hungry and food needs more value – so they have work to do rationing food and making it harder to come by.

Thirdly is to keep his general stress levels as low as possible. They have already noticed that his ‘aggression’ episodes have taken place after a run of minor things has occurred that will have gradually stacked up – loading the gun so to speak.

With these things in place, they can now work on the ‘other dogs’ issue. We have a step-by-step plan.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Max, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).

Was the Change Due to Hormones?

Rhodesian Ridgeback lies in her bedThe lady is looking after her daughter’s gorgeous young Rhodesian Ridgeback, Mara, while the daughter is settling the other side of the world. Mara will follow in a few month’s time.

She has looked after Mara on and off for the past year and she has been working very hard to give the dog the very best life possible whilst in her care, giving her plenty of exercise, the very best food and other behaviour/training help.

Sadly, the very well-socialised and friendly dog suddenly changed about three month’s ago. After her third season she had a false pregnancy. Almost immediately she changed. She become intolerant of certain other dogs. I wouldn’t call it aggression – more a matter of ‘attitude’. If the dog has a ball then that could be an issue. If they get close to another dog and there isn’t sufficient space she could react. She doesn’t like pushy dogs running up to her anymore. She may pin them down but she has never done any damage and their owners haven’t been concerned, but it’s a shock for the lady who now is on edge when meeting other dogs and wary of letting Mara off lead.

She has been given advice to keep Mara away from all dogs and on lead only for several months. I personally feel that as Mara is not significantly fearful or reactive to other dogs in general, this is too extreme. I fear that if she is away for too long from her usual interactions and play with her canine friends along with missing the social dog walks that she used to go on, it could create a far greater problem in the end.

Life for Mara is now very different in other ways too. Where before, when she lived with the daughter, they had a busy social life with people coming and going, noise and action, life now is quiet and peaceful. Against this calm backdrop sounds can be alarmingly out of proportion, encouraging her to be more territorial and protective.

Hormones could have a lot to answer for! Mara has now just been spayed so any hormonal aspect should be dying away, but the behaviour has been rehearsed and may remain or get worse if something isn’t done about it. Rather than avoiding dogs, the lady’s best approach is to have a lot more control over Mara. To make sure that at home she is relevant so Mara takes notice of her (she currently may ignore her), comes to her immediately when called and looks into her eyes when asked ‘watch me’. Established at home, these techniques can then be used outside.Ridgeback is sitting on her tail

I suggest meanwhile that the lady deliberately seeks out the safe old doggy friends so that Mara can continue to play, even if she’s on a long line so the lady has more confidence, and also that she goes back on the social walks, maybe only staying for a while if Mara shows any signs of stress. In confined places the lady can use her new attention-getting skills along with food and in open spaces Mara’s favourite thing – a ball.

With all the conflicting advice, it’s hard for someone to know what is best . Other instructions she has been given and that I don’t agree with is to totally ignore an already calm and polite dog when coming home or to rebuff a friendly dog that comes over and lovingly places her head on your lap or leans against you – labelling this as ‘dominant’. This to me is nonsense from the dinosaur days of old-fashioned dog training and the lady can relax and follow her instincts.

I am sure she will have preserved Mara’s lovely nature and regained her sociability for the time when, in a few months, she is ready to join her young owner the other side of the world.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Mara, which is why I don’t go into exact details here of our plan. Finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dogs can do more harm than good. One size does not fit all. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Get Help page).