Quick Fix Not Long-Term

Cocker Spaniel gets very excited and reactive to dogs on walksCocker Spaniel Henry is a gentle and friendly dog, well-trained and not overly demanding nor too excitable……..at home.

Outside he’s on a mission. A joint mission of sniffing and looking out for other dogs.

If he picks up the trail of dogs that have recently passed his way, particularly dogs he doesn’t like (and he has a very good memory), he will hop, jump and lunge all over the place, very fired up. He barks on the way to the car and he barks when he gets out.

There are dogs that he likes and dogs that he doesn’t like, particularly when he’s on lead.

I watched the lady leave the house with him. Well trained, he sat nicely at the door. Then, as soon as the door opened the dog launched himself out, towing the lady behind him. He dragged her to the nearest bit of grass.

It’s strange how his indoor persona is so different to how he is outside. This must be because at home he feels safe.

The lady enriches his life in many ways, with plenty of scenting and hunting games both before she goes to work and when she gets home. She dedicates time each day to his training and play.

However, she can do nothing about his noisy reactivity to other dogs when they are out apart from resorting to an aversive gadget to shut him down.

Henry does have plenty of doggy friends, but he also has his enemies. Historically not all his interactions with other dogs have been good ones.

He was taken to training classes for a while. In my mind and, from personal experience before I knew better, ‘traditional’ puppy classes can be where many dogs are introduced to the notion that not all other dogs are friendly. These classes can be noisy with too many dogs in an enclosed place.  If a dog barks or ‘misbehaves’, always due to stress, he may be sprayed with water or intimidated in some other way.

One of the worst exercises is, dog on lead, to weave in and out of other owners and dogs and each time two dogs so much as look at each other or touch noses, both owners shout LEAVE IT.  What sort of negative associations does that give to the dogs? In modern dog training the dogs would be praised and rewarded when near another dog.

It’s not a big leap from this to using ‘quick fix’ devices like a citronella anti-bark collar (a smell dogs hate) to stop a dog barking at other dogs.

The big attraction of this is that, in the moment, it works. The dog stops barking.

However, the fear or frustration that will be causing the dog to bark at other dogs isn’t addressed at all. The very opposite in fact. The emotion will be getting worse every time the dog associates the other dog with an extremely unpleasant aversive.

Because Henry is fine with certain dogs, the lady will need to vary her own responses according to Henry’s own reactions.  If he shows little reactivity she need do nothing apart from calmly feeding him to reinforce him feeling good near a dog.

If he looks like reacting, then she needs to put more distance between them – quickly.  Eventually, Henry should see another dog and look immediately at the lady, thinking ‘A Dog? Good. Food!’. To get Henry to this stage will take a long time and hundreds of ‘safe’ encounters backed up with positive reinforcement, and the previous damage needs to be undone.  At the end of the day Henry will have positive emotions around other dogs. He won’t feel the need to react.  This, unlike suppression, is a real result.

Henry is very much worse on lead, so a longer loose lead on a comfortable harness is essential so he has more of a feeling of freedom.

The people who do best with their dog-reactive dogs are those who take things slowly and over time teach their dogs to associate other dogs with good stuff.  Allowing uncontrolled encounters meanwhile will merely set things back.

Four weeks later: ‘Thank you so much for your help and support. I really feel that we are making some headway now in this short time and I’m more confident. Henry’s dog walker has seen an improvement too, so that is also encouraging!’

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

Why is Colin growling?

Understandably we don’t like our dogs to growl and it can be embarrassing, but growling is GOOD.

Collie Cross growls when approached by Barney or a person

Colin

Growling tells us what our dog is feeling. Growling gives us the key to open the door to the dog’s emotions. When we know what he is feeling, we then know what to do about it.

Shi tzu Barney is old, blind and deaf

Barney

Colin is a four-year-old Collie-Terrier cross looking like a very small Border Collie. He lives with his lady owner and Shitzu age sixteen called Barney who is very slow-moving, blind and deaf.

Whenever Barney approaches Colin, he growls. The lady assumes he growls because he himself doesn’t want to be approached by Barney. As a trained observer one sometimes sees different things. Because Colin is near the lady all the time, he growls because Barney is approaching her. I would be willing to bet he never growls at Barney if she’s not there.

In my photo on the right Barney had just come in the door which meant walking past the lady. Quickly Colin was under her chair, growling at him (something he couldn’t hear anyway!).

Colin is hiding under the lady's chair

Colin

Colin also sometimes growls when touched. The lady, like most people, then scolds him. I would say it’s only a matter of time before he abandons growling as a waste of time and nips instead. He is merely saying ‘please don’t touch me’.

The lady is going to keep a note of where on his body she is touching him when he growls to see if it may be local discomfort and need for a vet visit, or whether he simply doesn’t want to be touched anywhere just now thank you. Because he then lies on his back the lady believes he wants a belly rub. When Colin growls then, the lady think he is just ‘talking’. He is! He’s saying ‘please stop’ or perhaps ‘go away’.

I experimented. I briefly tickled his chest and he moved in to me for more, indicating he quite liked that. Then he threw himself onto his back. The lady said ‘see, he now wants a belly rub’. I thought a demonstration would help her better understand him and, watching him carefully, I moved my hand gently towards his lovely inviting little soft tummy and he growled. He was saying ‘no thanks’, so of course I backed off immediately.

This little dog has never bitten but I believe it’s only a matter of time. His restraint is amazing really.

The lady has two main angles of approach. First is to teach Colin by her own behaviour that she isn’t merely a large unruly resource belonging to him that he must follow, guard and protect – and stop anyone else getting too near (he also reacts badly when she welcomes friends with a hug).

Second is for him to associate the approach of Barney (or the lady’s friends) with good stuff (food) and not scolding.

The protectiveness and nervousness has been spilling out onto walks where he will rush at dogs he doesn’t know for no apparent reason than to drive them away. He’s not actually bitten yet, but it has been a near thing. Most recently Colin was off lead and he charged – barking, growling and snapping, at an approaching young on-lead Spaniel.

It’s embarrassing for the lady and distressing for the other owner and dog. People feel they must be seen to be taking a firm hand so they react by scolding. But scolding doesn’t work.  If it did, Colin would be getting better, not worse.

It’s also vital that the opportunity for this off-lead behaviour is prevented from happening again while work is done, starting with a bomb-proof recall or loss of freedom.

A friend had suggested spraying him with water and shaking a bottle of stones at him when he barks and growls at approaching dogs when on lead. Two bottles were waiting on the hall table. Fortunately I arrived before she actually started to use them.

‘A friend told me to do so and so’ is a very common theme with people I go to, with different people saying different things. There is all sorts of conflicting advice online also. ‘What people say’ (“you need to get a grip on your dog”) is invariably misguided and along the ‘quick fix’ lines that may work in the moment but end up by making things far worse, with a confused dog becoming more fearful and aggressive.

In desperation people often end up doing things they feel very uneasy about, believing it’s the only way.

It’s not the only way. The lady is dedicated to doing her best for her little rescue dog.

NB. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Colin, 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 if any aggression is involved. 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).