The first few weeks of a dog’s life can have lifelong impact.
Sally and Pepper are two adorable and friendly Shih Tzus, ages five and eighteen months respectively.
They came from different breeders and this is reflected in their general confidence and sociability to other dogs. Sally is quite happy carrying her ball and playing games when out. Pepper, on the other hand, is on permanent alert to sounds….and to dogs.
Sally and Pepper
Pepper left his mother and litter a bit early and hadn’t been well cared for, very different to Sally’s start in life.
Walks can be difficult for the young lady in particular. She’s actually scared now when walking little Pepper. When held back from attacking another dog, he has redirected his frustration onto her three times now, resulting in bites.
It’s easy to assume that this is just something to do with ‘training’ out on walks.
I see it as part of a much bigger picture that if they first get all the groundwork in place at home and understand how to approach the ‘other dog’ problem by seeing things through Pepper’s eyes, things should dramatically improve.
Pepper will then have no need for frustration.
Frustration constantly rehearsed by Pepper even within his own home
There are two dogs living next door with just a wall between the houses, one dog in particular is very noisy.
Their barking is heard intermittently throughout the day, upon which the younger Shih Tzu, Pepper, will immediately react and run around the house barking ineffectually, trying to get to the barking dog the other side of the wall.
Imagine his frustration at failing every time. This may happen many times a day.
Cheeky Sally, too, may give one bark to set him off!
Worse, a while ago these two male dogs would regularly ‘fence-fight’ the Shih Tzus with much snarling and leaping at the fence from both sides. The larger dog had knocked down the old fence and his leaping at the new fence has already exposed gaps at the bottom.
Whenever Pepper is out in his garden he’s on high alert. Even from the kitchen French window he can hear the dogs the other side of the fence; this is the room is where they leave Sally and Pepper when they go out.
Bouts of frustration will be recurring throughout the day.
So, it’s against this background at home that makes Pepper’s behaviour out on walks all the more understandable.
Helping him needs to be approached from three angles.
The first is management in order to make Pepper’s environment as helpful as possible – like gating him away from the back window and only letting him out on a lead.
The second is to get Pepper to feel differently so that he no longer feels he needs to bark through the wall and protect himself outside in his garden. This can only be done by desensitising and counter-conditioning.
We made a start, as you can see from the picture. I took the photo when both dogs were sitting in front of me while barking went on from next door.
Changing the emotions that drive him to being so reactive to other dogs also involves reducing Pepper’s stress levels in general so that he becomes a calmer dog.
When he’s no longer reacting to the barking through the wall, they can move on to working in the garden. With time and effort they should have him ignoring the dog behind the fence. Without Pepper retaliating, the next door dog will be quieter.
What about encountering dogs on walks, though?
How his humans behave when out on walks and another dog appears is crucial.
At present they hold Pepper tight as they advance on the dog – they may pick him up – and all he wants to do is to get at it. He lunges, snarls and, to quote, ‘barks ballistically’.
At proximity he will never learn to feel differently. It’s how he’s feeling that is driving how he’s behaving.
Avoiding dogs altogether will get them nowhere, though I do suggest a couple of dog-free weeks to build upon. Why?
Then, as with the dogs next door, it’s slow, patient work that is required so he is never pushed beyond his comfort threshold and eventually comes to feel differently about them.
Thirdly, after management and working on changing how Pepper feels, comes teaching him actions that are incompatible with the unwanted behaviour (like ‘sit’, ‘come’, ‘stay’ and so on) or removing himself from trouble if the neighbour’s dog is in their garden.
Within a few minutes yesterday, using appropriate harness and lead, they were walking a much calmer dog on a loose lead down the road. Pulling against a tight lead causing discomfort to the neck from a collar is not conducive of a relaxed walk. When he lunges at a dog it will hurt his delicate little neck.
He will be taken to what he considers is a safe distance. If they watch him he, he will let them know where this distance is.
At this distance the work they will have been doing with the dog next door can be replicated out on the walk.
In all areas of Pepper’s life they will do their best to keep his arousal levels down. Stress and frustration go hand in hand. Being on constant alert also means he could well be sleep-deprived, which will not be helping his stress levels either.
The ‘stress circle’: barking creates stress and stress creates barking! Stress creates more reactivity to other dogs and reactivity to other dogs creates more stress…. and so on.
5 weeks later: “I feel my relationship with Pepper is more positive….He seems happier in many ways and people keep saying he seems calmer”.
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 Pepper. I don’t go into detail. 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, particularly where aggression or fearfulness is concerned. 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 Get Help page)