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.

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.

Walking Nicely

Having lived in a barn till 5 months old, Duke lacked socialisation

Duke

Previously the GSD had been beaten for destroying things when left alone all day

Princess

The last of German Shepherd Princess’ eight puppies went to a carefully checked home a couple of weeks ago and she has now been spayed.

Duke on he right (the puppies’ father) and Princess, both three years old, had the wrong start in life. Duke was in a barn and then not taken out until five months old which left a big gap in his vital socialisation, and Princess  had been left alone for hours and was beaten for destroying things.

The family have made huge headway with both dogs. Unsurprisingly, their main hurdle is socialisation and reactivity to other dogs when out, particularly Duke.

There are five family members who are all involved and adore the dogs, but they have been missing the vital ingredient to real success – positive reinforcement, particularly food.

Although their sole aim in asking for my help is to be able to enjoy walks, this is where I take a holistic approach.

A dog walking nicely is about much more than ‘dog training’.

The relationship with the human is particularly important when a dog is ‘trapped’ on lead. Firstly, the dog needs to find them relevant so that they can get and hold his attention. Secondly, the dog need to trust the human to whom he’s attached not only protect him and themselves, but also to make the decisions when out. If off lead, this also involves coming straight away when called rather than putting the owner somewhere lower on his list of priorities!

In order for the human to be trusted, they must be confident and this is one big problem here in this case.

Ever since Prince had been attacked by another dog, the lady who does much of the walking has been extremely anxious whenever they see one and admits that her reactions could well be part of the problem. Even discussing it made her tense up.

The business of decision-making, trust in the owner or walker and their being ‘relevant’ in order to get and hold a dog’s attention begins at home. If these things are not in place within the safe and distraction-free home environment, seeing the person on the end of the lead as ‘decision-maker and protector’ will not happen when out in the big world in the face of potential threats.

This is why a holistic approach works best. The process isn’t just about walks and other dogs alone.

Princess and Duke will be learning to respond to a whistle which will be throughly ‘charged’ at home – using food.  To teach them to really listen, they will learn to do their usual training tricks for one quiet request – and food. They will learn to give their humans eye contact and hold it upon request, they will learn to come immediately when called at home and they will learn that although they are the alarm system, their humans are ultimately in charge of protection duty.

Associating other dogs with nice stuff (food) will be part of the solution. Perhaps the lady would like to take a bag of her favourite sweets out on walks also and to pop one into her own mouth instead of reacting in panic!

This all takes time of course, but with these basics in place and calm loose lead walking established, these dogs will eventually be in a very different state of mind when meeting other dogs than they are now – as should their lady owner.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Princess and Duke, which is why I don’t share all the exact details 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).

Friendly Dog Has Changed and Bitten

Bruce

Archie

Archie

Bruce he has now bitten four people.

The 3-year-old Golden Labrador was a friendly and well socialised dog up until about 9 months ago when things started to change.

He lives with a couple and their other dog Archie, an easy-going Chocolate Labrador.

What could have caused such a big change in him? The very first time he showed aggression to anyone was when a man put his hand through the open car window – despite the dog’s warnings he wouldn’t move away. That man asked for that bite.

Could this have been the turning point?

Nothing happened for a few more months though they report he was becoming more growly. Maybe because the growling made them cross he’s learnt not to growl. Growling is good. It gives us a chance to work out why and deal with that, and to save the dog from situations he can’t cope with.

The next three bites were on people in the house or the garden who he didn’t already know. Each incident has happened in the presence of the man, not the lady. One, a lady friend, was apparently just sitting still in a chair talking and the dogs were playing with a toy. As the man remembers it, the next moment, out of nowhere, Bruce had flown at her.

The most recent time, a few days ago, he broke a repair man’s skin.

Any angry reactions towards Bruce after each incident will undoubtedly have helped to push things in the wrong direction. People don’t realise this – they mistakenly think punishment will teach the dog not to do it again.

At first I thought that this was just going to be a case of over-attachment towards the man and territorial protectiveness. We would also work on the dog’s confidence along with the man altering his own behaviour.

Then I very nearly experienced for myself what Bruce had done to that lady and could have been bitten too.

Initially the man had brought Bruce into the room on lead. I sat still and avoided eye contact. Very soon he settled and I got absolutely no vibes of trouble that with my experience I am very tuned in to, so I said to the man to drop the lead.

Bruce seemed fine for a few minutes.

He ate a treat I rolled to him. He came calmly up to me and sniffed me. Then, all of a sudden and out of the blue, with no growling, he flew at me. Fortunately he didn’t use teeth. I gently asked the man to casually come over and pick up the lead. From then on he held onto it.

The very odd thing is that throughout the evening Bruce seemed mostly fine, playing with the other dog even – punctuated by similar outbursts. Each time it was without any warning or provocation that I could see – and I have seen a lot of dogs. The inconsistency and unpredictability are really very puzzling.

We will work on the behaviour issues – his confidence and protectiveness, and they will change his diet.

A visit to the vet is now a priority just to make sure nothing else is going on with his body, something that we can’t see but could be affecting his behaviour.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Bruce, 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 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 dogs (see my Get Help page).

Roaming Free, Now on Lead

Elderly rescue dog

Charlie

Two little dogs were strays on the streets in Romania

Bonnie and Elma

Two of these little dogs had been fending for themselves on the streets of Romania.

The two girls, black and white Bonnie with little terrier Elma (both on the right) were probably abandoned pets.

The lady is an experienced dog owner – particularly with rescue dogs. She took on much older Charlie, left, seven months ago and the other two only three months later.

The three are extraordinarily well-adjusted in the circumstances. The lady has worked hard.

Sometimes it’s hard to see one’s own situation clearly and she needs some help to take things to the next stage.

Bonnie is very reactive to other dogs. With her history of roaming free on the streets and considering how quickly she fitted in with the other two dogs, I strongly suspect her reactivity has been getting worse because she is on lead.

She’s not free any more.

Nor can she be let off lead. Shortly after she arrived she disappeared for two hours.

The solution to this is largely about groundwork. The work doesn’t simply start when out on walks and they meet a dog. Fundamental is getting her full attention at home at the sound of her name along with getting instant recall when she is called around house and garden. These things need to become an automatic response.

She needs to learn how to walk nicely. Only then will the lady be ready to work on other dogs, finding the threshold distance where she still feels safe – and building up her confidence. She can help Bonnie to feel more free by making sure the lead is always slack. This is a time-consuming business and has to be taken slowly.

Over time Bonnie should begin to associate other dogs with nice stuff, instead of fear and feeling trapped on lead with a tense human holding it tight with resulting discomfort to her neck.

Fortunately neither of the other two dogs has these problems, so the lady will work on Bonnie by herself until gradually doubling her up with one of the others and then all three together.

Recall will be worked at for as long as it takes before Bonnie is ever let off lead again.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Charlie, Bonnie and Elma, 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 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 dogs (see my Get Help page).

Hates Dogs When On-Lead, Fine Off-Lead

German Shepherd Holly with her large earsHolly is a German Shepherd with an impressive pedigree of champions – and with very big ears! A beautiful girl. She has been well trained by careful and caring owners.

I was called in to see them because of Holly’s reactivity to other dogs when she is on lead – seemingly changing character, snarling, lunging and acting scary and I saw her react in a similar way when the paper boy put the newspaper through the door. She is also very protective of her home territory which is a breed thing anyway but she is a bit extreme. She patrols the boundary of the property which is surrounded by a footpath, barking frantically if the person has a dog.

The lady feels she no longer is strong enough to walk her so the man is the dog walker. He was already making progress before I came, and being more confident than the lady he lets Holly off lead and has discovered that, off lead, Holly is a different dog. She may be a little wary of a dog and drop down, she may run wanting to play, she investigates and she will come away when called.

Like most people who phone me, they start off by listing their dog’s good qualities, feeling disloyal when they start to list problems. It is very common for me to hear ‘she is no trouble at all at home – it’s only out on walks’. As with Holly, I usually discover that there are relevant issues at home. Her good points indeed far outweigh any negatives. However, she persistently jumps at people whether they are sitting or standing, especially visitors, and she gets in quite a panic at people going past with dogs, the postman and even squirrels.

Holly is a good example of where training alone doesn’t provided the answer. For example, she understands No and Off but she will jump up again if she feels like it. Holly’s recall is usually good and she has been trained to ‘come’, but she will ignore it if she is boundary barking. She could possibly be stopped with a training gadget like an air collar – but this wouldn’t get to the root of the problem. It would be a quick fix and probably make things worse – like a plaster keeping a festering wound out of sight. It is the same when they encounter other dogs. No amount of ‘training’ would stop her feeling as she does. This is a psychological behavioural issue requiring calm, patient and consistent leadership – not commands.

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog.
 

Good With People, Not With Other Dogs

Tasha is the perfect dog at homeGerman Shepherd Tasha was happy to see me when I arrived as she is with all people. When her new owners inherited her about four months ago she would jump up, but no longer.

Tasha is similar to other two dogs I’ve most recently visited in that she is fine at home, good with people, but not so good with other dogs out on walks. When this is the case I can usually bet that before even encountering other dogs things aren’t going as well as they should.  The dog will not be walking on a loose lead, sniffing and doing doggy-walk things. She will be pulling and she will be on the alert. A tight short lead gives no freedom and a retractable/extendable/flexi lead that is never loose will only compound the problem.

The owners had their previous two German Shepherds from puppies but Tasha is five years old. They were taken by surprise when she suddenly lunged and snarled at another dog. It seems likely that in the past Tasha was seldom walked on lead. She lived happily with another Shepherd. A dog on lead she is trapped and can’t freeze or flee, and there is a good chance that if she were free she would be quite OK with other dogs. Naturally they can’t test that yet. From that first lunge the lady owner in particular is scared and won’t walk Tasha alone any more. The gentleman holds the lead short and tight as soon as they spot another dog, irrespective of whether Tasha might be OK. They are in effect telling her that all dogs mean trouble, and Tasha will be reacting accordingly. It is a vicious circle.

Tasha now wears a Halti head collar which she tries to remove. Walks are increasingly stressful for both Tasha and her owners.

Once again we humans need to see things from the dog’s point of view and react appropriately.  Firstly, in all areas of life, in behaving like leaders the will give Tasha the opportunity to make the right decisions because she wants to please, rather than having them imposed upon her. For instance, instead of charging out of the door first at the start of the walk, she will work it out for herself that the door simply won’t open for her until she hangs back so they can go out together. The same rule applies to pulling down the road. She will work it out for herself over the next few days that she will only progress anywhere when the lead is loose (which is easier than it sounds so long as handlers stop all ‘correcting’and ‘training’ ).

Without walking out calmly and nicely and without then walking happily on a loose lead, Tasha is going to be in a stressy state of mind when she is confronted with possible trouble – other dogs. Finally they will work towards being able to trust Tasha to come back when called, so that she can be off lead. I am pretty sure other dogs will then seem far less of a threat to her.

I can help you, too, with these problems or any other that you may be having with your dog.