Rocco is a young Cocker Spaniel who won’t play. Unusually, he’s not at all interested in chasing something that is thrown for him.
He does, however, get a huge buzz out of charging, barking, at approaching people.
He won’t play tug games either with his humans, though loves to tug something with their other dog.
Why won’t Rocco play?
Rocco is now two years old and they brought him home from another family at six months old. My guess is that the family couldn’t cope.
My other guess is that, with kids’ toys about the place, they had strongly discouraged puppy Rocco from picking up any item – punished him even. A demanding puppy nicking things, young children including a new baby born soon after they got Rocco, could well have been too much for them.
I imagine they will have shut the puppy out of the way for long periods.
Rocco’s play situation is unusual in that whilst he’s not interested in playing tug and won’t hold a toy for a human, if he has a bone or large chew he likes the lady to hold it while he chews. He will share this with someone where he won’t a toy.
His owners give him a life full of enrichment, exercise, training and interest. They are extremely conscientious. The lady offers most of the training and attention – along with attempts at play.
I came to see them because he’s become increasingly grumpy. His issues are in no way extreme but need to be nipped in the bud.
Reactive only off leash.
Another unusual thing is his reactivity to people on walks. It’s unusual because he doesn’t do it at all when on lead. He gets fired up only when off lead and free.
When he sees a person approaching he charges at them barking. It’s the same if he sees horses or cows, even if they are at a distance in another field. This is a recent development.
It seems that the act of charging, barking at them, gives him a buzz that he’s sort of become addicted to. He’s unable to do this when restricted on lead so doesn’t try. He’s simply not bothered by them at all when restricted.
The first part of dealing with this problem is, as soon as a person appears, to teach him to default back to their side. His recall isn’t good. He’s not good at coming when called at home either, so they will work on ‘Come’ when called and motivation. They will work with a whistle too. The whistle isn’t a magic fix and needs practice first, pairing it with food, hundreds of times, in order to build up an automatic response. Only then should they use it for real.
The second part of dealing with the problem is to find a rewarding activity to replace the chasing at people. Something on which he can redirect his chase drive. Unfortunately he won’t play tug or chase anything they throw – yet.
He needs an alternative and incompatible behaviour that gives him the same kind of buzz. They will teach him how he can get similar satisfaction from chasing a ball, toy or a prey dummy. Rocco is also now going to Acer Gundog Training classes so will for sure be working on this there.
When already aroused or stressed, Rocco becomes impatient if physically moved or confronted to do something he doesn’t want to do.
Recently a child grabbed his collar to move him away from a hole he was digging and he nipped her. This was a first. Why did he do it? He was in someone else’s house, there were young children with excitement, he had spent time shut in the car and he had missed his tea. Digging the hole was very likely his way of relieving some of his stress.
Rocco has started to show aggression towards their other dog when the lady is fussing her. He has nipped the man also when he was trying to impose something on Rocco that he didn’t want.
So, they should now keep Rocco’s general stress levels as low as they can. There is good stress and bad stress. Whilst to play a good game of tug or a controlled game of fetch is exciting, it would benefit him I’m sure. Here is a great little video from Steve Mann about inspiring the dog to play with a frisbee and bring it back.
They will apply some management – like using a long line when out while working on Rocco’s recall. In this way they will simply prevent him from further rehearsing the people-chasing whilst teaching him to come running back to them instead whenever he sees someone.
At times when a child might grab him without thinking, they can remove Rocco’s collar so there is nothing to get hold of.
Dealing with signs of aggression
It’s hard for people to know how to react when they see signs of aggression in their dog. Their instinct is to stamp it out immediately. We would never expect a person to put up with something they don’t like being pushed upon them – particularly if they had already given warning. We do expect this of our dog.
If we counter aggression with aggression ourselves, it can only make things worse. Moreover it’s too late anyway when the incident has already happened. We need to be a lot better at reading the signs that the dog is uncomfortable and unhappy – and then help him out.
Punishment can only work while the person who administers it is present because it’s based on intimidation. The only real way to make Rocco trustworthy again is to work on his underlying emotions. What is he feeling? Punishment or scolding can only make them worse. It stands to reason.
Rocco seems uncooperative at times – they call it stubborn. I say they simply don’t motivate him sufficiently. It’s not for lack of trying, but they’ve not yet found the key. As play and fun hasn’t been rewarding, it’s had to be food.
In a weird way they could actually be reinforcing his ‘stubbornness’ when, the more he refuses to move, the more the lady in particular tries and entices! I suggest she calls his bluff. If she wants him to come to have his lead on for instance, she can give him just one chance – one call. Then walk away and go out without him (if briefly).
Teaching Rocco to play will give them an appropriate tactic to use with the chase behaviour. I think then that everything else will begin to fall into place.