Unpredictable Explosions Predictable. Some Detective Work

I met a sweet little 11-month-old working Cocker Spaniel who greeted me at the door and promptly lay on his back. This was the first point where I felt his family may be jumping to conclusions and not quite understanding him.

They said ‘he wants a belly rub’.

I find this hard to believe from a dog that wasn’t over-confident and someone he has never met. It’s more likely to be his way of saying ‘be nice to me, I’m a good boy’. A dog rolling onto his back is not necessarily saying he wants his tummy tickled and sometimes the very opposite.

Unpredictable explosions

Quite a lot of conclusions have been jumped to regarding what they describe as Harvey’s ‘unpredictable explosions’. With some detective work they become much more predictable.

Aggression is predictableHarvey has a lovely life with his family of adult couple and two late-teenagers. He gets long off-lead walks, training, play and love.

The outbursts of aggression started quite recently.

They took him on a family picnic where they met up with another family dog. The dogs played for ages in a very over-excited way with Harvey pushing it. It ended, later, when Harvey was lying still, with his suddenly going for the other dog. Was it sudden, though? Was anyone watching him? What was his body language? Could this have been predictable?

They take him with them to the pub. On a couple of occasions he has shown what seems like sudden aggression, out of the blue, towards another dog. It’s a popular pub and always full and noisy. Harvey will by their table, held back on lead.

At training classes he has shown aggression two or three times, resulting on the last occasion with the lady being bitten on her leg. Was this a random thing that suddenly happened or was it predictable?

Common denominators.

Questions found certain common denominators to the ‘unpredictable aggression’. The main one is the presence of another dog or dogs. The ‘explosions’ are always directed at a dog.

Harvey has mostly been on lead.

On each occasion they have been in an active or noisy group of people.

Back-tracking to what leads up to each explosion we find a build up of arousal or excitement of some sort. From what I saw of Harvey, he’s a sensitive dog and it’s very likely that held tightly on lead he feels unsafe. Attack could be the best form of defence.

Another thing that happens is that when a dog is fired up ‘defending himself’ but held back on a lead, his frustration, fear, arousal etc. can then redirect onto the nearest person if he can’t get to the dog. I’m sure this is what happened when he bit the lady.

Reading his body language.

There is quite a lot that is very predictable when you know what’s happening. With more skill at reading Harvey’s body language they should, in fact, be getting some warning.

I have found it’s quite common for dogs to begin to become reactive to other dogs at around maturity. In Harvey’s case, it seems that he’s reactive due to a mix of things including fear and lack of self-control due to over-arousal.

The more a behaviour like this occurs – the more it’s rehearsed – the more likely it is to happen again. It’s like a door has opened that’s hard to close again.

For this reason, the scenario of excitement beforehand, a busy environment with several other people other dogs in close proximity and with Harvey on lead should be avoided. They can reduce excitement and arousal both immediately before social or training occasions and in life in general.

He should be allowed distance from other dogs, particularly when he’s on lead.

Off-lead Harvey mostly wants to play, though his dog to dog skills could be better. He doesn’t seem to know when to stop.

Work should be done to associate other dogs with good things happening (counter-conditioning) rather than allowing him to feel trapped and too close. At present it’s possible that, instead of other dogs nearby making good things happen, bad things in fact happen. He will be on collar and lead, sometimes a slip lead, because he doesn’t like his harness being put on. When a dog lunges and he’s pulled back or restrained, it will hurt his neck or at least be uncomfortable which is something people often don’t realise. This is the very opposite to what needs to happen.

Predictable? Yes.

They can now see it’s the combination of excitement and arousal; of people, other dogs – particularly if off lead with Harvey himself on lead – that triggers the explosions of aggression. These are all things that can be worked on.

Most important will be to have him in comfortable equipment and, when on he’s on lead, kept at a comfortable distance (for him) from other dogs until he’s ready.

Pootalian Now Goes For Other Dogs

NedAnother first for me. I went to an Italian Greyhound Poodle mix and on looking it up I find this is called a Pootalian!

Ned seems to be much more Italian Greyhound than Poodle. My source said, ‘This breed is best for homes with a fenced yard’. It also says that they are ‘easily trained and fast learners’ and lack of training may be at the route of Ned’s main problem in terms of immediately coming back when called and both trusting and focussing on the person who is walking him when required.

He is now five. He was initially very well socialised indeed, both with other dogs and with people. Then they moved to a quieter area and they let it slip.

A couple of months ago the delicate small dog raced across a field to ‘attack’ another dog that was on lead – for no apparent reason, and although there was no damage done it was a big shock to the gentleman.

After this the very caring and concerned owners tried taking him to a trainer, but he was too frightened to do anything.

The couple have been in their new house for only three weeks and already Ned has ‘gone for’ the dog next door, getting through a hole in the fence. To deal with the barking the lady has used a water spray which seems to have ‘worked’. The trouble with quick fixes is that they work in the present but the fallout comes later. What effect might trying to scare a nervous dog out of barking have on both his existing fear of other dogs and his relationship with his owners?

On walks Ned pulls on a lead attached to a thin collar. He is now increasingly straining, lunging, hackles up and barking to get at any dog he sees. Walks aren’t enjoyable. Like so many people would, the gentleman holds him tightly beside him and continues to walk towards the other dog which unintentionally must cause discomfort if not pain to a delicate neck.

The solution isn’t quick. There is no quick fix. It’s a question of looking at things in a different way. They hadn’t regarded the tactics they are using when Ned is near another dog as punishment (positive punishment if we want to get all technical). Anything that is painful – even just uncomfortable or frightening in any way that is caused by ourselves – amounts to punishment and this includes spray bottles and pain in the dog’s neck.

Punishment usually looks like it works at the time but it’s a patch over a wound that is still festering. The underlying wound itself, the emotion driving the behaviour is what needs to be dealt with otherwise it will just keep getting worse each time it happens. The only way to deal with Ned’s fear of other dogs or of people is to change the emotion and get rid of the fear. Punishing fear can only make it worse – or make the dog quiet because it shuts down.

Because unpleasant things happening when Ned sees another dog is making him worse, it stands to reason that the reverse is the way to go. We need to do the opposite – make sure that when he sees another dog only pleasant things happen.

As I see it, the process starts at home. They first need Ned to feel more secure in them to protect him at home, else how can he do so when they are out? No more open dog flap and boundary barking at the neighbour’s dog or sitting on the bed for a good view of anyone passing by to bark at. Who should be in charge of protection after all – Ned or his humans? He also needs lots of practise in coming immediately when called around the house, else how can they expect him to do so when he sees another dog?

While the home things are being put in place, they will be getting used to much more comfortable walks – loose lead walking with a harness. They won’t be ready to encounter other dogs for a while. There must be no more forcing him to pass them because that will have destroyed a lot of Ned’s trust and that needs to be built up again. They will do anything that is necessary to help their adorable dog.

When the time comes to work on his fear of other dogs, they can start at a distance where Ned can cope and work from there. Over time this distance will reduce if handled properly. His recall needs to be spot-on so that once again he can be free to run and let off steam in a way that a miniature greyhound should.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Ned, 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).

Fighting Females

Bitches fight. Dogue de Bordeaux cross attacks excitable Springer Spaniel.All went very well indeed until one day about six months ago. The two dogs would share the same bed, play and walk together. They fed in the same room and there were absolutely no problems until, seemingly out of the blue, Dolly went for Flossie out in the garden.

The two girls are both two and a half years of age and American Bulldog/Dogue de Bordeaux cross Dolly came to live with Springer Flossie earlier in the year. They had played with each other since they were puppies – Dolly having lived with the daughter. Unfortunately she and one of the daughter’s older dogs became arch-enemies so Dolly went to live with Flossie.

At the time of the first incident the family were there including young children. Dolly suddenly roared and leapt on Flossie, grabbing her by the throat. So much noise and panic ensued that neighbours down the road were asking what happened. Dealing with fighting females can be difficult and upsetting.

Poor Flossie hurt her leg. If Dolly had seriously intended to hurt her there would have been much more damage. Had the dogs been of equal size it may not have been serious at all.

When this happens once it all too often happens a second time, largely generated by the knee-jerk reactions of the humans. The second occasion was once again when family were there.

I believe Dolly,  like many dogs, is intolerant of extreme excitability or instability in another dog. She generally likes to assert herself. She is ‘in charge’ of petting and attention, getting it whenever she demands it, but gets ‘jealous’ when she sees people giving attention to Flossie. At the time of the second attack Flossie was being fussed.

The two fights have each taken place against the background of a stressful or exciting day, with several people about including youngsters. While Flossie gives in to her and is submissive, there is no trouble. When stressed, Flossie is probably sending out subtle signals that are challenging to Dolly – ‘asking for trouble’ if you like.

The other very important feature is that both times Dolly was hormonal – the first she was coming to the end of her season, and the second she had just been spayed with a phantom pregnancy at the same time. She was understandably less tolerant and even more bossy. Often hormones play a part when you have fighting females.

For the past five months the two dogs have been kept separated. They rotate between crates and gated kitchen.

Each dog must now associate the other with good stuff as it will take a while to erase the panic and anger generated by the two encounters. They can earn some of their food. Whenever one dog looks at the other dog, reward one or both dogs. When Dolly walks past Flossie’s crate or Flossie walks past Dolly’s, reward both dogs. This should scotch any growling. If the dogs are nose-to-nose at the gate – reward both of them.

Everything must be done to maintain a calm environment. The dogs must realise that nothing they want to do takes place until they are calm, whether it’s going for a walk or getting their food.  Calming Flossie down will make life a lot easier for Dolly.

Each time two dogs have a set-to it makes another time more likely, so they must simply not get the opportunity for a while. There is a lot of work to be done before very careful short get-togethers can take place at home – when nobody else is about and everything is calm.

Unlike some female dogs that fight I go to where things are past the point of no return and they truly hate one another, I feel that, handled carefully, these two can be friends again. Their crates are beside each other and the dogs are relaxed with that. They can even be together out on a walk.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Flossie, which is why I don’t go into all 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, most particularly where any form of aggression is concerned. 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).

Indoors, Outdoors, Jekyll-Hyde

dogs were scary enemies and traffic terrifying.Rosie, the Border Terrier, is the friendliest, softest, most biddable little dog you can imagine. Below on the right she is lying on her back at my feet. Oh – I love her.

The couple have had four-year-old Rosie for about 7 months. She came from a household with several children and lots of people coming and going….but no dogs. She was seldom taken out anywhere.

Without this vital habituation from an early age, other dogs were scary enemies and traffic terrifying. The couple have worked hard at getting her used to traffic – but the ‘other dog’ situation gets worse.

So, we have a dog that is wonderfully socialized to people – old and young, and used to all household things like vacuum cleaners – completely fearless at home, but a dog that is very reactive and scared of other dogs when out.

Put the lead on and open the front door, and Rosie completely changes.  She is on ‘dog-watch’.  She goes mental if she sees another dog.

Soon after she arrived in her new home, little Rosie rushed out of the front door to attack a Labrador that lives opposite. Undaunted by the dog’s size, she apparently had it by the throat. Not good for neighbourly relations!

Like many modern houses, theirs is surrounded by houses with dogs – statistically there is a dog living in every 3 or 4 houses in the UK.  Every morning ‘before-work’ walk is an adventure, avoiding dogs where possible or dragging a frantic lunging, barking Rosie past one dog after another. The lady holding the lead may as well not exist where Rosie is concerned. The difference between the dog indoors and the dog out on walks is like Jekyll and Hyde

The first point to address is the relevance of Rosie’s humans and the second is the value of the currency that will be used to desensitise Rosie to other dogs – food.  Only then can they use food and attention when they find the distance (threshold) at which Rosie knows there is another dog but can tolerate it.  Then the real work begins – that of holding her attention and associating the dogs with good stuff whether it’s food or fun – not  the usual pain in the neck as the lead tightens and anxiety of owner going down the lead.  Someone had advised spraying water at her – disaster! It may temporarily interrupt the behaviour by intimidating her, but long-term be yet one more negative associated with other dogs and eventually she would become accustomed to it anyway and ignore it.Border Terrier is lying on her back at my feet

Both food and attention need to gain much more value at home. Currently they are constantly seeking to give Rosie the food she likes best for her meals where they could be saving the most tasty stuff for dog encounters. They are lavishing the little dog with attention whenever she asks for it when they should be saving some of it for getting her attention when another dog is about.

This will be long-haul. Every unplanned encounter will set things back, but each controlled, properly managed encounter will advance things.

The magic ingredient is patience. We can’t reverse four years in four weeks.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Rosie, which is why I don’t go into all 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).