I received an email from a woman named Aimee inquiring if I knew any local behavioral trainers for her dog. I found that the issues she’s having really hit home as they’re some of the same issues we’ve dealt with at our house and for which I too had sought out help from various trainers and different training methods.
All of the things Aimee mentioned can be pretty darn scary to deal with. Dogs are very strong and lightning fast. The bigger the dog the stronger the dog and the harder they can be to control. Even if you outweigh your dog by twice or more it’s size you may have trouble controlling them in some circumstances. The rate of speed in which a dog reacts is why people often say things like “It all happened so fast I don’t know what happened!” Believe me, they’re not exaggerating! I’ve had my eyes bug out more than once at what I was suddenly faced with in what seems like as little time as the blink of my eyes.
So let me first share her email with you. I’ve edited it to remove any additional identifying information but that’s all the editing I’ve done. I’ve probably taken this beyond what Aimee was looking for but feel it’s important information to share and some of it may be helpful to Aimee and others in her position. I’d like to thank Aimee and her family for adopting!
About 7 months ago we adopted a GSD from a rescue – she’s a great pup and we love her dearly. We would like to find somebody locally (we live in ***) to help us work with her on some mild aggression issues. She has issues with people entering our home and other dogs while out walking. Occasionally she also tries to lunge at passing vehicles while out walking. Any suggestions? The rescue suggested a trainer (name removed) from *** but I am looking for someone more local.
I can’t recommend a local trainer or behaviorist for Aimee but I can try to help by passing along things that work for me and my dogs. I’m certainly not trying to dissuade Aimee from seeking out and finding a professional. If she feels that’s what she needs to do then by all means please move forward with this but I urge caution because I’d hate to have her go through what we went through. What works for us and our dogs isn’t necessarily the answer for someone else and their dogs.
I find it first absolutely necessary to determine if what’s going on is a training issue or a behavior issue. Teaching a dog things like no, ok, sit, down, stay, come, catch a frisbee or a ball and bring it back … that’s training to me and is totally different than dog behavior which is more instinctual based than anything else.
One thing that’s huge for me is that dogs perceive things differently than humans and that humans really need to understand this. Behavior issues include me learning how a dog’s mind thinks, determining a dog’s triggers when there are issues and then acting accordingly to positively redirect the problems from negative to positive through positive methods. I ask myself “Why is the dog behaving this way?” or “What’s setting off this behavior?” I feel that I need to determine the dog’s triggers so that I can find a way to calm the dog when a trigger presents itself and redirect the negative reaction in a positive way to help desensitize the dog to it’s trigger. In order to do this, I need to try to perceive things more like a dog than to think like a human or I’ll never get it. I talk a lot more about behavior in my Understanding Dog Bite Behavior article and throughout all of the subsequent comments and responses.
Aimee doesn’t live far from us but I’m not familiar with the trainer that her rescue recommended so can’t comment specifically on this trainer. As a rule I don’t make recommendations because I’ve never found one in either category that I would recommend. We literally spent thousands of dollars on trainers and behaviorists only to have been burned too many times by those that were been recommended to us. We found that they’re not people we want handling our dogs nor do we want to practice their methods because we’re far from agreeing with how they do things. Not that there aren’t good trainers and dog behaviorists out there because there are, we just weren’t able to find what we needed and our experiences with them were more negative than positive. I can’t say I didn’t learn anything from them, I did take with me some good things, but in the big picture they just weren’t for us. I won’t go into the why’s and why-nots because that would take just too long. I’m of the mind now that I can do this better for my own dogs than strangers can do for them.
Even with all we went through I’m still not an expert. Several years ago I found out the hard way that even though I’d had dogs all my life I truly was a real dog-know-nothing. I could teach things like sit, stay, come, down, you know, the basic stuff. Back then I was of the mind that simple obedience was all you needed to teach a dog. Then German Shepherds entered our lives and my beliefs were not only turned upside down but inside out as well and I was left at a loss for how to handle some of the things I was now faced with — just like Aimee.
In my own state of desperation to fix issues here, I made the mistake of trying one trainer or behaviorist after another. When one didn’t work I’d move on to the next and the next and the next and in these trainer-frenzy days I didn’t realize that all I was doing was to confuse my dogs which did more harm than good. I don’t plan to make that mistake again. I do things my way now by practicing the “Take what you like and leave the rest.” philosophy that the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) organization members are supposed to live by. I’m not a member, I’m just familiar with this phrase and found it really works for me. My methods now involve taking bits and pieces from dog behaviorists and trainers like Victoria Stillwell, Cesar Millan and about a year ago I learned of Robert Cabral who founded Bound Angels. I urge you to check out Robert’s Resource links. I’m not a junkie for any of these people because to me there is no one way that’s right or wrong for every dog or family. Years ago I was a Cesar junkie and I even called our dogs “Cesar dogs” but that’s changed now. I like some of the things that each of these people teach and don’t like other things so I don’t use what I don’t like. You can drop a little clicker training in the mix and with all of this we do pretty well now.
Most dogs are right there at the door hip-hopping all around, barking, some are jumping up on and sniffing anyone walking through the door – if they can even get past the overly excited dog and into the house that is. At best the dogs aren’t real polite about it, like when it comes to where they sniff our guests for example. Dog lovers know exactly what I mean by that. Dogs can make it very difficult to usher our guests into the house gracefully. So, for this issue rather than repeating myself I’m going to suggest that Aimee read my article Ding Dong Knock’n’Jump Dogs which should help your dog(s) learn to be more polite when greeting guests.
It sounds like Aimee’s dog is probably other-dog reactive. This could be an on-leash only issue but to determine that, she’d have to find out if her dog displays the same behaviors with other dogs when off-leash. There are many many dogs who are on-leash reactive and some also suffer from what’s called fence or barrier aggression. In other words they’re fine when off-leash or not confined within a fenced area or enclosure, but put a leash on them or stick them inside a fence or a crate for example and that all changes in a heartbeat. Some dogs are also naturally territorial which means they consider their yard as their territory and like other territorial animals (wolves and lions for example) will protect what they perceive as their territory from intruders.
Our Riley has both these issues but I’ve worked with him and he’s gotten much better. Just like an alcoholic is never cured, they can learn that they can live a much better life without alcohol — I will never say a dog is cured of unwanted behaviors, they’re still inside the dog no matter what you do — but that’s my opinion. Some behaviors come with the dog’s breed, some are learned from other dogs for example. Riley has a very intense personality which is not only part of his personality it’s also just being a German Shepherd. In fact I have a t-shirt with a photo of a German Shepherd on it which says “Intensity Defined” which is just soooo him! The fact there are t-shirts out there like this tells you that intensity is strong characteristic in the German Shepherd breed.
Originally not other-dog reactive when on-leash several episodes of being charged by loose dogs changed all this and so now he takes the “I’ll get you before you get me!” attitude. He’s protecting himself and us when a loose dog charges us. I should blame him for this? I don’t think so. That would be like blaming a kid who’s got another kid beating up on him and telling him to just stand there and take it. Not too many parents want their child to fight with another kid but would you want your child to not do something to protect himself? He also will not allow people to approach us, we have to approach them but that’s the way it’s supposed to be anyway. You should never approach a dog, the dog should approach you. I talk about this in my How to Meet a Dog article.
Because of these episodes Riley’s on-leash reactivity grew to include dogs walking across the street, dogs in yards as we pass by — dogs anywhere when we’re out walking. This was not acceptable. It’s one thing to have your dog stand his ground and take the “Bring it on, let’s rumble!” attitude when charged but it’s quite another to have your dog go out of control just because Fido’s walking on the other side of the street. What I did to desensitize him from this too-intense behavior was when other dogs are walking across the street or we’d see one in a yard that was more than likely going bonkers on their tether or in their kennel, I’d make him sit calmly and just watch the other dogs for a little while. I would calmly talk to him in a calm, quiet reassuring voice and say things like “Puppy just walking.” or “It’s ok, just watch.” I wasn’t telling him it was ok when he was displaying out of control behavior, I would do this after he was sitting and calmed down. After a few moments I’d tell him “Let’s walk.” and we’d walk away. If he was still too intense, I’d just keep walking calmly and within a few steps he forgot about the other dog and we were on our way. It’s amazing how much better he got after practicing these techniques for awhile. Is this a quick fix? Not for us, it took a long time but patience and consistency paid off.
I also practice some management/avoidance techniques which I believe also helped him. If I see another dog in a yard or walking nearby for example, I’ll take my dogs across the street to put distance between us and the other dog. One of the things that’s important when you know your dog’s triggers is to keep them at a distance whereby his trigger is not triggered. Think of it like a comfort zone and keep your dog within their comfort zone. I don’t intentionally put my dog in the position that he feels uncomfortable, feels threatened nor do I invite protection mode. You can Google for more ways to practice these techniques.
As an additional safeguard, I carry pepper spray (see my Don’t Make Me Spray Your Dog article) and I wear a whistle whenever we walk. I We have too many loose dogs in our area and that’s a trigger. If one of them approaches us — being 8 years old and at a disadvantage without real hips isn’t going to deter him — Riley’s going into protection mode. I know this, I can’t prevent stray charging dogs but I do my best to keep it from happening through the use of avoidance and management techniques. Being alone with three on-leash dogs and a loose dog coming at us is a recipe for tragedy in my book. I can’t just stand there and let this happen, I could wind up with severely injured or dead dogs and I’ll do whatever I can to prevent this from happening. Even if someone with another dog on-leash is nearby, for safety reasons I don’t allow meet & greets. Dog-free people can meet us, but no other dogs no matter how docile they seem to be.
One more management technique I utilize is choosing the safest walk times I can. When kids are in school we wait until after school starts so that not only are they in school but parents have gone to work and most dogs are then inside their houses. In the summer when kids are out of school we not only try to avoid high heat times we walk early before they’re up for the day. We find less dogs out in the yard with them or have simply opened the door to let them out because parents have gone to work and left the kids in charge of the dogs and may not be monitored as well without adult supervision. We used to walk in the overnight hours, it was our favorite time to walk but I decided a couple years ago that I would prefer to see these loose dogs coming to the best of my ability and darkness is a disadvantage to that.
This is our Gracie. It doesn’t happen often but every once in awhile she will do this. I don’t know why but it’s usually a garbage truck or a step-van that she reacts to like this. I remain calm, tell her “No, keep walking.” and we continue on our way. It’s momentary and then it’s over. Riley did this a few times after his hip surgery and I’m fairly sure it’s because he had a lot of pent up energy from not having been able to walk much. It threw me for a bit of a loop at first because this was not like him but I just applied what we’d been doing for the other-dog reactivity and he stopped. He never did it before his surgeries and hasn’t done it since then unless it’s a vehicle with a dog in it hanging out the window barking at us. For the most part now, he really doesn’t even go off anymore, he takes an intense pose and watches but for the most part he’s not reacting beyond that. In our case, lunging at traffic is minor because it’s not a severe every day issue and so for us is nothing to be overly concerned about. Now maybe Aimee’s dog is more intense than Gracie with this, I don’t know and of course what’s minor to me may be major to someone else.
We're sorry but Riley's Place is Not Accepting Help Requests or Blog Comments at This Time. Help Can be Found by Reading Existing Posts and Comments.