The other day I accidentally reblogged “Yes, I have a reactive dog. No, it is not my fault!”
I thought I would have the option to make this post visible only to myself, but I suppose this defies the purpose of reblogging, it is meant for spreading great content, after all.
So how do you do it, blogger friends? When you see a post you want to keep, or bookmark? Is there a bookmark feature in WordPress or anything similar? If so, I haven’t found it yet. On fb and g+ I often share posts with myself, that way I know where to look when I want to find them again. I would like to have such an option on WordPress.
But anyway, onwards to reactive dogs.
I don’t think that in the long run, we will have a problem, but at the moment Maia has issues with other dogs. We knew that from the start, so that’s not the kind of unpleasant surprise you have when the salesperson or breeder (or shelter) keeps information from you. We had an idea what we were getting into, and we now are trying to manage the problem.
Maia seems easily excitable.That doesn’t mean she is an aggressive dog. We still try to figure her out, but we’ve had some success in these past six weeks since she moved in with us.
- She doesn’t get along well with other dogs. When she sees a dog somewhere, she barks and jumps and, if you’re unprepared, can rip your arm out of its sockets.
- She has a strong hunting drive. When she sees deer or rabbits, she jumps, dances on her hind legs, barks and, again, tries to pull your arms out of their sockets.
- When separated through a fence, she runs towards the neighbours’ dogs like a steam engine, barking and whining. If she doesn’t recognize the dog behind the fence, she reacts aggressively and barks and sometimes snarls (as many dogs do when a strange dog walks by the fence)
#2 and #3 are more or less ‘normal’ doggie behaviours which can be changed over time, but that’s not something I’d call a problem.
#1 needs to be analyzed. From what I could see so far, it does not look like rage or anger towards strange dogs, but she is very excited and insecure. And she is on leash when we walk, which may add to her insecurities. She makes quite the racket, though. Barking loudly in a high, excited voice, but only seldom snarling. It doesn’t sound like friendly play-barking either. The longer you let her act out, the worse it gets.
I don’t know enough about canine body language (I’m learning…) but what I see on her face is more excitement, leading to frustration, but not really aggression.
The good thing is that Maia reacts well to training (although it bores her after a while). She’s learned a lot in the six weeks we had her now. She can sit, sit stay under mild distraction for a short time, down is still debatable, but down stay works reasonably well, too. Walking in heel position is something we haven’t started in earnest yet. What we try to do is give her structure and make her calmer, in general. One thing to do that, as suggested by Patricia McConnell in ‘Feisty Fido’ is to teach the dog ‘Watch me,’ ‘turn around,’ and a good sit. With the ‘watch me’ you get the attention away from the thing that is so exciting, ‘turn around’ can be used when someone with a dog comes towards you and there is not enough room to go out of the way, and the sit is in general good for getting calm.
We’ve been practicing this a lot, and although we are far from perfect yet, we can see progress. We do avoid meeting people with other dogs, for now. I’ve learned that with my first dog, after having made too many mistakes in training and having a fearful-aggressive dog as a consequence. In the dog club we were taught that the dog must pass the other dog quietly, in heel position, no matter what. They were of the old school and used choke and prong collars, although they also worked with positive reinforcement. Only later, we learned that is is much better (for dog and people) to avoid confrontation. This got us all more relaxed.
We didn’t know better at the time and did what people ‘who knew’ told us to do. In the beginning all was well with only toys ans reinforcers, but then the club got more ambitious about me and Spot than I was myself, and they wanted us to do the companion dog exam, and then training methods became rougher. I had a bad feeling about this and eventually stopped going there when I noticed the fear-aggression in Spot. I consider myself a mediocre to poor trainer and would never have written this if I hadn’t read in more than one of the newer dog training books that many a professional trainer went through similar experiences and wrote about it. They turned to positive reinforcement, with or without clicker, and never looked back. And so did we.
I found Patricia McConnell’s books especially helpful, since she points out the discrepancy in behaviour between us: the apes, the primates, and our dogs: the canines. We like to hug, to look into each others’ eyes. For a dog, hugging can be threatening, as can be a stare. They can perceive this as aggressive and react fearful or aggressive, according to the self-confidence and status of the dog. Misunderstandings occur often.
So what do you do when you walk your dog, try to avoid trouble and slowly try to desensitize her towards stimuli that set her off, and a friendly dog owner with a dog off leash comes your way, shouting: “He’s friendly, he just wants to play”? A “Mine isn’t friendly, get yours back, please,” usually is too late, Strange Dog has approached, hops in circles, you hold on to the leash and try to keep the spitting and jumping dervish that is supposed to be your dog in check. What McConnell suggests, and what even worked for us once, is to grab a handful of kibble or treats and throw them towards Strange Dog. While he is busy eating, you can make your escape (if the dervish permits it), and all is well. Yelling ‘Sit’ at the strange dog sometimes helps, too.
In the first week, I tried that. Naïve as I am, I went to places where other dogs usually hang out to get a clearer idea how Maia reacts. Walking away from other dogs who listen to their owners or are on-leash: little to no problem.
Enter Doberman girl who is a lovely dog, very friendly, but doesn’t listen a bit. She runs off-leash towards us. I throw kibble. She eats, we leave.
Second encounter with Doberman girl. I shout sit, she just grins and comes closer. Owner calls. Maia starts to bark and jump. I hold on to the leash, Dobergirl has arrived and jumps in circles around us, friendly play-bowing. I stand in a muddy field. Maia jumps, lunges, I fall into the mud, leash is torn out of my hands, and the two dogs run together towards Dobergirl’s owner. As I pick myself up from the mud, I hear a yelp. Oh dear! Who was that? While I run towards the scene, Owner shouts: “no problem, I got her.” I see Dobergirl with Owner, but Maia runs in circles, leash in her mouth, in a graceful dance and with a grin on her face I only can describe as triumphant. She nipped at Dobergirl. Dobergirl now avoids us. Which is sad, in a way, but less stressful for us.
Maia grew up in a shelter in Spain. I have no idea, and won’t be able to find out, how she was kept as a pup, how much opportunity she had to play with other dogs and to socialize well. I have the suspicion that she was alone most of the time. When she was brought to Germany, the shelter that took her couldn’t let her play with other dogs in a group. She approaches the dogs too forcefully, she doesn’t seem to know the signals for play, or maybe she wants to establish that she is boss… If the other dog is her size, that could be OK, but if he is bigger and stronger she has a problem. She has several scars on her nose, and on her body. She got bitten more than once. Then she got transferred to the shelter where we found her. There she lived and played with shy dogs, and they got along quite well.
By now she stops her racket after one sharp, short ‘Aus’ (which would be ‘out’ or maybe ‘off’ in English). When she is insecure, she is sometimes looking at me, which is a cause for triumph. If she looks at me or SO while walking past a situation she can’t handle, we’re on our way to winning. She does quite well with the turn-around, too. Overall, she is calmer, more content. I think in a few months, she’ll be even better. We’ll continue the training and over time will introduce her to other dogs, maybe at a doggie school nearby that uses positive training methods. We’ll see, but so far, things are looking promising.
Needless to say that she has sneaked into our hearts and settled there firmly.