What Part of “Aggressive” Don’t You Understand?

June 21, 2011

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, I’ve been working like crazy with both Bodhi and Sierra on their reactivity issues with unfamiliar dogs. Because we practice at the local park and you never know what the other dogs will be like, I’m careful to maintain a distance where no one will explode. I’m also very selective as to which dogs we’ll move closer to in order to work our protocol.

Things have been going fairly well lately, particularly when I’ve only got one of the dogs with me. However, the improved behavior has led to an unforseen problem. Early on, if someone saw Bodhi lunging and snarling at the end of the leash, they’d move their dog away, or at least not allow the dog to approach. Now that Bodhi’s able to keep his cool the majority of the time, people aren’t aware that he has an issue. Sure, they might be wondering why I’m keeping his attention and feeding treats, but he’s not overtly displaying any type of reactivity. So now I find myself in the position of having to warn people and, strangely, some of them just don’t seem to believe me.

The latest episode from the Are You Serious? files involves a Pomeranian-Chihuahua mix. The owner was walking the little dog on a Flexi lead, and I was walking Bodhi past at a distance that allowed him to remain calm. He was doing great until the dog started prancing toward him.
I called out to the owner, “He’s not friendly with other dogs.”
“Oh, it’s alright,” she said, unconcerned.
Perhaps she hadn’t heard me correctly. Or, maybe being more blunt was necessary.
“He’ll bite your dog,” I pronounced loudly and clearly.
“That’s okay,” she said with a smile, “He’s lion-hearted.”
Huh? I wanted to say, “Uh, he might be lion-hearted, but I’ll bet he’s chicken-boned.” Instead, I moved Bodhi away before he had a chance to grab the moving fillet—-I mean little lion.

And what about leash laws? At least the Pom/Chi/Lion was on leash, but others are not. I get that it’s nice to allow your dog some freedom. But when you see me walking my dog down the main asphalt path along the parking lot, and your Dogue de Bordeaux is off-leash and I’m shouting at you to please leash your dog, is it really necessary to walk at the speed of a snail on valium toward your dog, flash me a look of disgust as you begrudgingly leash him, and then unleash him again when you’re two feet past us?

Every now and then, I think how wonderful it must be to be completely oblivious, to walk along with your dog and your Starbucks without a care in the world. Then I come back to reality. I’ve got to be continuously hyperaware with my dogs, and even if they weren’t reactive, I’d be monitoring the behavior of other dogs we pass. I don’t expect everyone to view dogs the way a trainer would. But if I tell you flat out that my dog is apt to bite your dog? Just move away, and do it now.


The Power of Prey-er

June 7, 2011

I’ve heard some trainers talk about prey drive as though it’s something you can condition out of a dog. But a dog’s prey instinct is installed at the factory, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. All we can do is find creative ways to work with it.

Sierra has a prey drive like no dog I’ve ever seen. Granted, I’ve never had Border Collies, but still; she has infinite patience, and is a super-efficient hunter. The back of our house is littered with dead mice, lizards…you name it. I’m just glad she has a natural fear of rattlesnakes. Her backyard twilight hunting adventures are not a problem, but her instantly flashing into prey drive mode at the sight of other dogs when we’re out for a walk at the park is an issue. That, and the fact that if Bodhi is near her when it happens, she’ll turn on him and snap repeatedly in an attempt to guard the prey from him, even if it’s at a distance. Her behavior has the bonus effect of sending Bodhi over the edge into reactivity. Nice, eh?

Once Sierra has morphed into Prey Drive Girl (can’t you just see the red cape and the big P on her chest?), it’s as though the outside world doesn’t exist. She’ll go from walking happily along to suddenly focusing intently on something in the distance. She’ll then lower her head and slide into her Stalk Walk, body slinking along gracefully as she remains zoned in on the object of interest. In those cases where I don’t let her get close enough to greet the other dog (which is most of the time), the sequence sometimes ends with her exploding at the end of the leash in frustration. At other times, especially if the dog-owner team is moving toward us, she lies on the ground in wait for the other dog to come closer. On the few-and-far-between occasions when I allow her to greet, she’ll quickly shed the prey pose like a cloak, and walk or run up to the dog. This often ends with her play-bowing.

Sierra’s behavior appears to be identical to the traditional search, eye-stalk, chase sequence. But because she’s never attempted to grab and shake a small dog, and because she does this to large dogs a well as smaller ones, some people might say it’s not true prey drive. (It is.) Of course, that’s probably not much comfort to the nice, unsuspecting dog owner who comes walking up the dirt path with her little Cocker Spaniel and spies Sierra lying on the ground, head low, staring intently at her dog. Let’s just say a lot of owners give us a wide berth.

When I used to let Sierra play with other dogs in the park, she would stalk them before they’d even entered. She’d be wandering around having a good ol’ sniff-fest when suddenly I’d see her lying in the middle of the park, stock-still, staring intently at something outside the park. Most often, this was because she’d spotted a dog and owner in the distance, headed toward the park. That was fine with her…she could wait. And wait. And wait… finally, the dog would enter (although some, upon spying Sierra, tried their best not to come in), and Sierra would spring up and rush at them. She never, ever attacked a dog, regardless of how small it might be. It was always more of an obnoxious, greeting ritual. Once she’d reached the dog, she’d either jump on them to encourage play (did I mention obnoxious?), or trigger a mutual sniff-fest, or, as she did in a few cases, suddenly put on the breaks just as she reached the dog as if to say, “Oops, sorry, you’re obviously not a fan of the prey-and-play style of greeting. My bad.”

So how do you deal with a dog who’s not at all interested in your treats, toys, or anything else once she’s in prey drive mode? What I’ve done is to go back to basics and condition a super-rock-solid attention response. When I say her name, no matter the distraction, I expect Sierra to look at me. We started doing this on walks when no one was around, and then when people were off in the distance that she was midly interested in, working our way up to other dogs at a distance, and then closer. Naturally, she is rewarded with a super-yummy treat for complying. I keep the treats rotating so she never knows what she’s going to get, and they retain their novel appeal.

Being attentive to Sierra’s body language is another part of the solution. I can tell, even from the back with her walking out ahead of me (walks are not taken with her by my side the entire time—the dog’s gotta sniff), when she’s first spotted a dog in the distance. At that split second, I call her name. Then I’ll usually say, “With me,” which is our version of a loose leash heel. We’ll either turn and walk in another direction, or, if I think she can handle it, we’ll pass the dog at a distance. Sometimes I’ll just ask her to sit and stay. So far it’s been working well. Early this morning as we were crossing the field from the parking lot to a dirt path, we encountered a man taking his white husky mix out of the dog park. I was able to have both dogs sit, and kept Sierra’s attention as well as Bodhi’s, thereby keeping her calm and also helping Bodhi to remain calm, watching me rather than erupting at the other dog.

I won’t pretend this issue is “solved”—it’s not, by a long shot. But we’re working on it. I’d suggest to anyone working with this challenge to not only train attention, loose leash walking, and sit-stays (first at home and then gradually around stronger and stronger distractions), but also to use impulse control exercises such as tossing a ball but asking the dog to wait until released to go and chase it. “Leave it” can come in handy as well.

The other part of the solution is to give the dog legal outlets for that drive. Chasing a ball is great, as is chasing a furry, squeaky mouse (stuffed!) on a long rope, lure coursing, and other things of that nature. I’ll even let Sierra chase birds and bunnies that are safely behind fences at the park. You can’t take the prey drive out of the dog, but you can certainly attempt to live in harmony with it.

My Latest, Greatest, Slightly Unorthodox Approach to Leash Reactivity

June 2, 2011

Disclaimer: I am NOT recommending that anyone try the method I describe in this blog. In fact, please DON’T!

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I’ve been up to my hackles in reactivity issues. When we first got Bodhi, he would lunge and bark on leash like a madman at other dogs. Actually, he behaved like an adolescent dog who hadn’t had much socialization or training and was rescued from a shelter at a year of age, which is exactly what he was. Off leash, he was a bit reactive—hackles raised, some barking—but it was more of that insecure adolescent thing rather than aggression.

Then there’s Sierra. Off-leash, she’s got an obnoxious play style (hence my decision to stop allowing her to play with unfamiliar dogs), but she’s most definitely not aggressive. On leash, however, she gets frustrated if she’s not allowed to go up and greet the other dog, which sometimes results in a flurry of agitation. Complicating matters is her preternaturally strong prey drive. She will spy another dog way off in the distance and go into prey drive mode, upon which I could dangle sardines in her face and she wouldn’t notice. If Bodhi is unfortunate enough to be walking alongside her at the time, she will turn and snarl and snap at him repeatedly. It’s almost as though she’s guarding the dog at a distance from him. (She does guard things from him that are at a distance—but that’s another blog.)

Because Bodhi’s issue had been the more obvious one (actually, Sierra’s behavior hadn’t become troublesome until we got Bodhi), I’d been concentrating on classical conditioning with him on our walks around the park. Because my husband was in the habit of taking one dog hiking while I park-walked the other, this afforded me ample opportunity to work with Bodhi alone. After a few months, we got to the point where he could walk fairly calmly past other dogs at semi-close range. Well, it worked most of the time; some days we’d have to give the dogs a wider berth, but still, definite progress had been made. But it’s now the season where foxtails and rattlesnakes are everywhere, and hiking is out until the winter. Some days my husband goes hiking without the dogs, which is great for maintaining his health—but it also leaves me with both dogs together about half the time. And so Sierra, Bodhi and I have been walking around the park in the early mornings. Can you imagine how difficult it is to prevent reactive behavior when it’s triggered by your dog spotting something a mile away? Because of Sierra’s redirecting on Bodhi, which amps him up, too, his behavior had begun to backslide. This called for desperate measures.

In my blog entry “The Off-Leash Crowd: An Alternate Universe” I mentioned the group of owners who walk their dogs off-leash around the park in the early morning hours. These are nice folks whose dogs are fairly calm, and are non-reactive with other dogs. Two weeks ago, I got to the park early and parked in a lot that’s set way back from the street. As I hopped Bodhi out of the car, I spied the group coming toward us. Here’s the unorthodox part—I let Bodhi off the leash. Yeah, yeah, I know. But he has a decent recall, plus he’s pretty much a Velcro dog. I knew he wouldn’t take off. He ran a few steps toward the other dogs, all bluster and woofing as usual…and then realized he wasn’t on leash anymore. He turned back toward me, a big exclamation point over his head, and then turned back toward the dogs. He ran up to them and barked. The dogs were not impressed. When Bodhi got too close to Moe, the Vizsla, Moe showed Bodhi his teeth—good for him. Young whippersnappers need to learn manners! We walked along with the group for a short stretch, with Bodhi still barking and bristling here and there along the way.

In the last two weeks, we’ve walked with the group a few more times. Bodhi’s behavior quickly improved, as long as treats didn’t enter the picture. If someone went to give their dog treats, the dogs would crowd around them and Bodhi would try to nose his way in, which could have led to skirmishes. But we’re all careful about that now. Besides, my plan was not for Bodhi to keep walking off leash; I only wanted him to remain free long enough to get comfortable with the other dogs without the leash restraint complicating things. Once that happened, he went back on leash, which is how we spent the last few sessions walking with the group, and Bodhi’s been fine. Yesterday was the second time I brought Sierra along. Because I could allow Bodhi to go right up to the dogs, I was able to allow Sierra to do so as well, thereby avoiding her erupting in lunging and barking. I was able to walk them both calmly on leash next to the other dogs together. This is huge! Here’s a video. If you didn’t know how much work went into getting Bodhi and Sierra to that point, you’d think it was just a bunch of calm, friendly dogs out for a nice, pack walk.

My overall plan had been to use a sort of backchaining to address Bodhi’s behavior issue, with the goal behavior of encountering other dogs while on leash and remaining calm. If Bodhi walking with the dogs off-leash was Phase I and his walking on-leash with them was Phase II, today was Phase III: encountering the other dogs at a distance while he was on leash. Fortunately, we arrived at the park when the group was still winding their way toward us on the dirt track. Bodhi, Sierra and I started walking toward them. Both dogs were pulling, but there was no vocalizing. (I did bribe Bodhi with two treats along the way to help him maintain his composure.) We were able to join the group and keep walking along with them without incident.

Despite what’s shown on television, simply tossing a dog in with a well-behaved pack of dogs doesn’t translate to the dog behaving well on leash in real-life circumstances. My hope is that by using this unorthodox method to get Bodhi and Sierra walking with other dogs on leash, their behavior will generalize to behaving better around new dogs while on leash. I am continuing to use classical conditioning as well, and after we walked with the off-leash group today, Bodhi and Sierra were able to sit 25-50 yards away from two beagles they’d never met before—and they kept it together. Our plan now is to just keep putting one paw in front of the other and keep working on it.

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