Is My Dog Aggressive?

Good morning K9K friends!  So, this morning I thought I’d write a bit about “reactivity”, more commonly called “aggression”.

A lot of folks tell me their dog is aggressive to other dogs when walking and why does that happen and can that be “fixed” and how long will it take and how much will it cost.  Every time I hear the questions, I think about my own experience with my boy Doc, now 14 1/2 years young.  As I was walking him this morning and he calmly passed dog after dog, on and off leash, I remembered his humble beginnings.  We adopted Doc when he was 8 years old.  We were his 4th home.  He came to us from a rescue group with:  1)  1 toe missing from a snake bite, 2) an extreme dislike of other dogs, and 3)  an even more extreme dislike of anyone that got too close to him, especially to his head.  I’ll say right now that I’ll take a senior dog with a few issues over a puppy any day!  But, that’s a topic for a different post!  Back to the questions!

▪ Is my dog “aggressive”?
Let’s start by not labeling our dogs “aggressive”.  Your dog is likely not aggressive in totality.  It’s a rare dog that aggresses to everything.  However, dogs can aggress to a specific trigger or triggers.  For many dogs, that trigger is another dog.  Why does that happen?  Could be lots of reasons – fear, the other dog may have instigated a response in your dog, frustration because he wants to greet the dog, just to name a few.  The intent of your dog is hardly the issue in terms of how we’d work through the issue.  BUT, it’s a huge issue for humans.  It’s certainly more comforting to know that your dog just wants to go play and is barking out of frustration versus the idea that your dog just wants to go over to another dog and hurt him.

▪ Can your dog be “fixed”?
Dogs are not machines.  Cars, furnaces, refrigerators, etc.  can all be be fixed.  Training and behavior modification doesn’t “fix” your dog.  It simply increases the probability of your dog offering more acceptable behaviors.  The real question I think people are asking is can my dog get past another dog without carrying on?  The answer is yes, but it depends.  It depends on you and your dog.  Remember, what you allow will happen.  If you are truly committed to your goal, then yes, I believe virtually any dog can be taught to respond appropriately.

docky on the beach2I think about my Doc.  First of all, he was absolutely fine with Sophie, who was 5 years old at the time Doc came to live with us, so that meant he was fine with some dogs.  That was encouraging.  His response to most other dogs though was atrocious – barking, growling, snarling, lunging, backing up to get out of his collar – all this when the other dog was a full football field away!  Black dogs were the worst – we did find out that he was attacked by a black dog.  Nonetheless, I was committed to modifying this behavior because, well, frankly it was embarrassing!  Why did he act this way?  I don’t know, but I can tell you that if he got off leash or another dog approached, he would fight.  In fact, he fought with 3 dogs the first 3 months I had him.  All 3 instances were handler error – yep, folks, that handler was me.  Fortunate for the other dogs Doc was more “spit and drool” than bite so there were no injuries.  Still, the behavior was unacceptable.

▪ How long will it take?
This is the hardest question I have to answer since most times the answer is “a long time”.  Now, that doesn’t mean your dog is in formal training forever, but you’ll always be watching your dog for the signals that he’s feeling stressed/concerned/unsafe/frustrated.  You’ll understand all the triggers and what to do when they are in your dog’s environment.  I’m not going to lie, once you have a reactive dog, there’s a lot of work to be done.  Depending upon the dog and the severity of the issues and his/her owner’s commitment, it could take months or even years.    But as time goes by, your dog’s behavior improves and your training evolves from a formal protocol to a more casual approach.  Trust me, after a couple of months, it becomes a very natural part of your life and doesn’t even feel like training.

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For Doc (front), it was 18 months before he could calmly walk past a dog 20 yards away, before he would tolerate close petting, and before we could get near his head with him being calm.  He even started being introduced to other dogs!  BIG caveat here folks, we didn’t introduce him to just ANY dog.  Each dog was thoroughly “interviewed”!  I would select only calm, neutral dogs – small females were best.  I avoided black dogs given his background.  Each introduction was done carefully with full knowledge of a dog’s body language to make sure we didn’t push either dog into a situation that was uncomfortable.

Today, Doc is happy to meet dogs like this.  The big breakthrough was when he met my best friend’s black lab mix, Tinky.  Tinky, believe or not, is reactive, but to people.  She doesn’t trust most people, but she’s happy to be around dogs.  So my dear friend brought Tinky to my house and we went outside.  Tinky met Sophie (my 11 year old Vizsla and lover of everything), Ruby (my 2 year old boxer who loves playing with other dogs!) and those greetings went expectedly well.  Then it was Doc’s turn.  To say I wasn’t nervous would be an understatement.  So, I took a deep breath, shook off the nerves and said “let’s do this”.  My husband brought Doc out. Tinky was about 40 yards away.  Then I saw it – Doc’s “fight” stance.  Gulp.  BUT, we stuck to our training plan and as he got closer he calmed down.  Then the greeting – nose to nose, nose to butt, 5 seconds and walk away.  Then softer bodies.  Then drop the leash.  Then more sniffing.  Then both dogs walk away from one another.  VICTORY!  Then we brought Tinky inside.  It was as if she was a member of our family!  Truth be told, it was an emotional session for me.  My sweet Doc actually met and hung out with a black dog!  Wow.

How old was he you ask?  He was around 11 or 12.  I worked with him for a long time, but our sessions were more formal for the first year.  After 2 years of working with him and acclimating him to everything, Doc would 1) seek out attention and petting and hugs 2) let anyone lean over and kiss his sweet face and would ask for more and 3) walk past any dog calmly 99.0% of the time (there were still dogs out there that would hard stare him and that would set him off if I didn’t catch it in time!).  Oh, and I should mention that I modified Doc’s behavior solely with force-free training methods – no choke chains, prong collars, leash pops, shock collars, kicking or rolling him on his back – just a scientifically-proven behavior modification plan, consistency in implementation of that plan, positive reinforcement, a ton of love and endless patience.

▪ How much will it cost?
Most times, I’ll work with reactive dogs privately which is more costly than group class.  I feel it’s necessary.  We need to start with set ups so we can begin to modify a dog’s response in a controlled environment and show our dogs how to succeed. Then, we need to take it on the road – the dog’s neighborhood, a park, the beach, a hike, etc.  I’ll always first evaluate a dog free of charge.  That’s the only way I can make a recommendation on how to proceed. Many of the early sessions will be at my training center so we can truly control the environment.  I have clients that want a couple of sessions, learn what they need to do and go out and do it.  They come back when they need help.  I have other clients that want me there weekly to coach them and to continue getting progress with their dogs.  So, this is a tough question to answer because it’s not the same for everyone.  We do discuss cost at the initial evaluation so folks fully understand the financial commitment.

All I can say is I wouldn’t trade my Doc for the world – issues and all.  Through our journey I felt frustration, defeat, anger, elation, amazement, awe, happiness, just about any and every emotion known to humankind!  Who was it that said “I didn’t say it would be easy; I said it would be worth it”?  So, if your dog is reactive, you are not alone!  Just know there’s a bunch of us out here that fully understand what you’re going through.  Embrace your journey.  It will be worth it!