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Lunging Dogs and Politely Greeting Guests

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.

Determine the Need

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.

Recommending a Trainer or Behaviorist

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.

Greeting Guests More Politely

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.

Lunging at Other Dogs

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.

Desensitization and Management

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.

Lunging at Traffic

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.



  1. Beverley says:

    Interesting article. You’re so right when you talk about distance! Distance is super-important to dogs, and they have a much bigger personal space than we do – probably, as you point out, because of their speed at covering the ground.

    If everyone understood that distance solves a lot of problems – even those who call out “It’s ok, he’s friendly!” as their dog thunders towards yours, dogwalking would be less hazardous.

    • Mom says:

      Hi Beverly,

      Thanks for your input. Distance is important, but I think some of that at least depends on the dog, who’s breaching the distance and how they’re doing it. I think just about anyone who has a dog running towards them is going to be afraid no matter how emphatic the dog’s owner is when they’re hollering “It’s ok, he’s friendly.” That person’s fear could change everything to a bad conclusion, even tragic.

      This is one just reason why it’s important for dog owners to be responsible and not let their dogs off-leash even in their own yards. If that person is walking their own dog(s) and even one of them isn’t always other-dog friendly things could go south in a heartbeat. Riley sees a dog charging us and he morphs into protection mode before you can blink your eyes and in my opinion, rightly so. People think that just because their dog is friendly everything’s ok but they don’t stop to think that the other dog may not be. It’s not always people that breach that personal space.

      One example is let’s say you’re out & about and someone starts walking quickly towards you. You have no idea their intentions. Are you not going to immediately become anxious, protective of yourself and maybe looking for an “out” ??? Why is that such a hard concept for people to grasp when it comes to dogs? It makes perfect sense to me person or dog!

  2. Quinn's dad says:

    Starting off by adding to the “props” for your website. Those of us at the “deep-end” with dogs can see you swim there too. That you are also GCD owners brings your content even closer for me. I NEVER do this kind of thing but I could not help but reply and add a question to this blog/topic. Our big guy, Quinn, is an enormous German born shep from the show lines but with very big shutzhund pedigree (dad was a 3, Mom was 1). He is by far biggest in his litter and tops out right now around 125 lbs (assured by our vet that he is healthy there). He is a very calm and of course highly intelligent dog like the vast majority of GSDs. He is a little bit alpha but never in a dangerous way. Very respectful outdoors to people and other dogs. Only protective at home as would be expected. VERY big prey drive with anything that flees, and I phrase it that way because of what I’ve noticed about country vs city squirrels. He chases them whenever he sees them where we live in the burbs and of course they flee immediately. But when we go to NYC and central park, they don’t flee but rather come closer as they see you are paying attention to them and they think (hope?) you might feed them. Quinn then goes into staring contest mode where squirrel and dog become statues. Now to the reason for the reply. His only bad habit for us is that he lunges and barks like crazy at approaching cars. This happens almost exclusively in our own neighborhood where there are no sidewalks and of course when he is on a leash. We do most of the walking with him in woods on trails off leash. He actually looks like he is “on the hunt” for cars at a certain stretch of our normal leashed street walk and looks like he quite enjoys this “game”. Some cars come to a complete stop (maybe a neighbor to stop and talk) and this is when he immediately loses interest and moves on. The motionless squirrel thing combined with the stopped car thing tells me he clearly does not want to attack but rather subdue. Now, I want to greatly emphasize that this is the ONLY behavior that he exhibits that is in any way annoying and that is all that it is, annoying. It prevents my wife or daughters from ever walking him on leash on the streets without me or my son. Quinn is in every other way fully integrated into our lives and an incredibly well mannered and respectful dog. We even bring him to our local nursing home as an amatuer therapy dog. My personal opinion is that he is in some sort of protection mode against cars but I would love to hear any insight you may have about what may be going through his head at these times.

    • Mom says:

      Hi Quinn and Quinn’s Dad,

      Wow! 125 pounds of German Shepherd! That’s a lotta dog! Our Nissa’s Dad was a very healthy 130 pounds and looked like a big black bear because he’s a long coat so very fluffy. I’m glad she took after her Mom size-wise. I can see where it would be difficult to control a dog this large. Quinn sounds like a delightful dog minus this one behavior issue.

      I can certainly relate to this, our Gracie does this with trucks and buses. She’s a rescue and so of course we don’t know her life before us nor where she got this behavior from but it’s not fun to deal with that’s for sure. She’s only 60 pounds but she’s all muscle and unbelievably strong for her size. Littlest of the pack but with the biggest attitude. Anyway, her problem is with garbage trucks, step van (delivery) type trucks and school buses. Not only does she lunge and want to chase, she also jumps up on me in her excitement. Not fun.

      Since Quinn stops his behavior when the vehicle stops, I tend to think prey drive is at least part of it and don’t forget he’s a shepherd so herding also may be contributing. In stop mode, the vehicle is under control, he doesn’t have to herd it to where he thinks it should be nor chase it because there’s nothing to chase.

      I tried putting a no-pull harness on all our dogs, actually tried several different ones. Finally found one that works for Riley & Nissa but none work for Gracie. I do have to put a prong collar on her to walk the three of them or she’s dragging me all over the place. I use a very small 3/4 inch prong and with that on she’s easier to walk. Walks are the only time I put a prong on her and the other two dogs never have one on. With any other type collar (nylon, leather … whatever) she choked herself when walking. You could hear her gasping to breathe but it didn’t so much as slow her down. The prong collar slows her down some and she no longer chokes herself. I still have to hold on and she does pull yet but I’m no longer being dragged around.

      Your question reminded me of something I haven’t tried with her bad vehicle behavior and going to give it a shot myself. When I was working with Riley and his other-dog reactivity on a walk what I’d do is when there was another dog in view close enough for him to see (across the street – down the block etc) but not close enough for any contact is that I’d get him to sit and just watch the other dog. I would keep him in a sit until he calmed down and while he was sitting I talked to him in a gentle voice saying things that I feel he understands. For example we call our dogs puppies at certain times like meal times is one. They all have to sit and wait before eating. When I say it’s ok for them to eat it’s “Ok, puppies.” and they eat. Another is “Puppies wanna go for a walk.” I feel they know what “puppies” are. So, I’d say things like “Puppy go potty.” or “Puppy just walkin’.” To me that was telling him that puppy was doing some of the same things he himself does and seemed to have given him some level of comprehension. By telling him what the other dog was doing (a non-threatening act) he seemed to get it after awhile.

      It’s few and far between that he gets reactive with other dogs at a distance now. I still do not allow other-dog meet & greets and still avoid getting close because I’m always alone with them walking and I’m not about to put me or them in the position of trying to control what could and likely would get out of control and way beyond my physical capabilities in a heartbeat.

      So, perhaps you might try this with vehicles. Vehicle approaches and you make Quinn sit and watch the vehicle drive by, feed him tiny bits of the best treats you can during calm seconds. Boiled chicken is quite a tasty high value treat that won’t get you or your clothing greasy. You want the treat to be more interesting than what bugs him and will keep his attention more than the cars. You can use phrases such as “Car coming. Just watch. It’s ok.” unless of course he’s already in a mood that’s not ok don’t use the “ok” part because you don’t want to reinforce the bad behavior. Then as the car passes and is continuing on change to something like “Car go bye bye.” Our dogs know the concept of bye bye that’s why I use it. When people leave our house I let him watch and tell him “(Name of person) go bye bye.” and he sees them and/or their vehicle leave the immediate area.

      I also taught him to “keep walking.” When he got so much better with the dogs at a distance thing, I don’t make him sit anymore unless he’s REAL wound up but that hasn’t happened in a few years. Instead I just tell him to keep walking and make him do this because I keep walking. He’s always quite interested in the other dogs but he’s he’s no longer going off on them anymore.

      Anyway, you might want to give this a shot with Quinn. It may take awhile but it worked for Riley and now that I’ve remembered it, I’m gonna try it with Gracie. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. Marie says:

    First of all I have to say thank you for providing such a robust blog as a resource. I stumbled upon it completely by accident in trying to figure out what’s going on with one of my dog’s nails. The symptoms you described for Riley are ridiculously similar to what seems to be going on with my latest “foster failure” addition to my crew. I will be doing a lot more research and having some discussions with my vet as well. And the funniest part about it all is that we live in the same neck of the woods in WI.

    Which brings me to your comments here on training. I have to say I am typically very skeptical of information people share on blogs regarding dog training and behavior as there are soooo many ideas and schools of thought out there on dog training. Some are harmless and many are not. I’m certified as a professional dog trainer with APDT and work for a dog training company in Hartland. We use force free, positive reinforcement techniques in our classes and private consults. Anyway, my whole point was to say you are pretty spot on when saying what works for one dog doesn’t necessarily work for another dog. You made some excellent points about practice, patience, and preparedness in situations which I believe makes for a great dog owner regardless of whether you might make a mistake every now and then. The more you learn, the more you know, and the better prepared you are to do better. So, thank you for doing such an awesome job on your blog and for providing solid information to your followers on the topic of dog training/behavior as well.

    • Mom says:

      Hi Marie,

      You’re quite welcome, I’m glad you like our blog and very grateful for your kind compliments! I hope we’ve helped you with your foster failure (gotta love that phrase!) and hope that you are able to get help for your furbaby. I’ve had several people tell me they’ve printed out our SLO post to take with them to their vets and found that their vets didn’t know what it was until they read what these folks brought to them from our blog.

      I’m honored to read your comments on my work here, it means a lot that a trainer would say these things, thank you! Actually, Nissa and I attended the basic obedience class at your company when she was a pup. I don’t remember the name of the lady trainer we had so I don’t know if it was you or not but it was a good experience for us especially in comparison to some of the nut-cases we’ve tried. There’s a good chance you know my sister as well, her dog (Takoda) is into agility and is a service dog.

      So thanks again for your comments! I hope you’ll stay in touch and let us know how it goes in our SLO post with your baby.


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