When your dog doesn’t mix well with other dogs life can get complicated. Shout out to all the dog owners who know exactly what I mean.
I’ve been there. I completely understand the emotional stress and humiliation a reactive dog can cause. Taking an enjoyable walk with your dog is tainted by their dislike of other canines. You’ll hide behind cars or around corners, even change your route to avoid that dog in the distance. That feeling that you can’t fully relax and enjoy your furry companion because your constantly on the look out to avoid the next confrontation.
Don’t accept defeat! “Sorry, my dog hates other dogs” needn’t be your daily quote to excuse your dogs attitude. How many times do you repeat those exact words? You are not alone. In fact, dog-on- dog aggression is one of the most common behavioural problems. It can manifest in all shapes and forms and it’s the behaviour I deal with the most as a professional trainer.
Nero was the definition of dog aggressive when I adopted him. Upon spotting another dog, his hackles would raise, his fur would go on end and he would lunge and bark continuously until that dog disappeared from sight. Then there was me at the other end of the leash trying to calm a fifty kilo power-house that wouldn’t listen. I remember the looks of disproval from passers-by as they silently judged me because of my dogs behaviour. Oh, how I hated it. They didn’t know he was adopted from the shelter and that I was just getting to grips with our training. I couldn’t help but feel that their perception was amplified due to the stereo-typing that surrounds power breeds. Being a bigger than average German Shepherd, Nero had the ability to keep people at bay simply by looking them.
During my interview for Nero’s adoption at the shelter, I was informed this was the main reason that his previous owners had given him up. Being slightly older themselves, they could no longer handle the aggression and strength that he portrayed. I was told that as a puppy, he had been part of a dog attack in which both he and his partner were hurt. Since that day Nero had never been comfortable in the company of other dogs. He had become ‘fear’ aggressive. The shelter workers stressed that he would never be a ‘social’ dog but this fell on deaf ears as I had already imagined him and Daisy (my family’s Cavoodle) becoming best friends and knew that I would be the one to alter his reactivity. I understood the responsibility I was taking on when I signed the papers. Admittedly, I did not understand the level of commitment it required at that point in time. I knew it would take time, patience and a lot of hard work to rehabilitate Nero and I learnt to enjoy the process.
1) Knowing the tells.
I began our training by learning Nero’s body language. If I could spot his tells of aggression before he acted, I stood a better chance of redirecting his focus. I started to understand Nero’s ‘safety zone’ and at what distance he would begin to show aggression. I learnt to tell the difference in the pitches of his bark. His ears and posture spoke volumes when I knew what to look for. The position of his head and movement of his tail helped me to know exactly what he was thinking and when he was going to react. You know your dog better than anyone, so educate yourself in how to read them. Canine conversations are crucial!
2) Confidence is key.
I’ve mentioned it before and I will again. YOU have to feel comfortable and confident when walking an aggressive dog. Human fear is portrayed in various forms and dogs sense everything. If your heart misses a beat every time you spot a dog, your woofer will know and alert mode will automatically be triggered. I’ve received many messages from owners around the world asking how to do this. The trick is to remember to breathe, stay calm, don’t tense up or focus on the other dog approaching. Keep that lead loose and free of any tightening that usually happens when you see a dog. Remain prepared but not scared. Imagine the situation going perfectly.You’ll be amazed at the effects positive thinking can reveal!
3) Embrace every opportunity.
Shying away from a dog encounter (even if it’s on opposite sides of the street) will only keep your dogs behaviour the way it is. Trust yourself and show your dog you are not afraid. Try not to care what others may think. Practice makes perfect and the more scenarios you face with your dog at your side the better. Once I had the confidence that I could calm Nero, I went searching the streets for other dogs, just so we could reinforce and practice the acceptable behaviour I knew he was capable of. I was active in taking him to new environments and exposing him to fresh situations. Each outing built that trust that little bit more. This is the mission I propose to my clients. Behaviours that are allowed to be practiced become reinforced. Teaching an alternative behaviour sure takes time but my motto is ‘train don’t complain, work your dog not your excuses!’
Ultimately, every dog is unique. The reasons why one dog may be showing aggression could be rooted in something totally different to the next one. Look at the breed, health, history etc. Did your dog have a traumatic experience? Could this be fuelling the fire? Perhaps your dog is only on-leash reactive? Is that stemming from true aggression or simple frustration? If you’re struggling, drop me an email! I’m confident I can help you and put you on the path to success.