“My dog is driving me crazy!”

I have certainly had this thought more than once, be it based on our well-trained, well-socialized golden retrievers or collies, or our wild-child German shepherd rescue, Vera.  The thing is, dogs are a different species from us. They perceive the world based on senses far more acute than ours, and respond to genetic impulses that are ingrained in their DNA and their beings–to chase, to sniff, to guard, to herd are a few we are all familiar with. They have different ways of coping with the stressors of daily life–loneliness, boredom, overstimulation, fear, frustration. They find pleasure in behaviors we label destructive. When we  are unhappy or stressed, we might chew our fingernails or call a friend to vent. Our dogs, however, may lick  their wrists until they bleed, relieve themselves on the living-room carpet, jump on us and tear our clothes with their teeth or claws in desperation–or execute any one of a multitude of other behaviors we don’t understand.  Dogs can also garner great satisfaction from barking, digging, dissecting toys and beds, jumping up to greet us, scratching holes in the carpet, playing “keep away” with our favorite shoes, or eating excrement–things that make us tear out our hair.
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My godson, Ceddie, plays keep-away with slipper. Photo by Motoko Lewis
When we make the commitment to live with a dog, we need to understand on a very deep level that dogs are not TRYING to drive us crazy.  They don’t scheme to make us angry.  There is always a reason that they act the way they do. Dogs are much more than furry balls of behavior. They are thoughtful, aware, emotional beings who go through life trying to cope in the best way possible with a very complex environment. And they are dependent on humans,  a species far different from themselves–a species that might stare at them, reach out to them, scream or shout, or approach them directly–all things that are simple human behaviors but at odds with polite canine social interaction. It can sometimes get to be a bit much for even the best of dogs! That said, even though I understand all this, even though I’m quite fluent in canine body language and have a good grasp on canine behavior, my dogs can still, at times, drive me crazy! They may be acting out just because it feels good and is therefore self-rewarding. Or they may want to play with me as I’ve ignored them for the past hour or have been gone all day–and still don’t want to interact with them, not just yet. They may be frustrated, or need to go out. They may be responding to the dog barking down the street or the chronic, irritating, or scary sounds of construction next door. Or they may just be anxious because my behavior is unusual as I pack to go on a trip. They are always trying, just as we are, to get the things they need and want, to understand and have some control in their environment, and to communicate with us in the best way possible. It is up to us as their closest companions to figure out what is going on.

How do I make him stop?

The premise that drives all the behavior training I do is this: I analyze the situation carefully to figure out what is causing the dog to behave the way he does, and then manipulate the environment or change the dog’s focus or position in a way that will make the behavior, even the earliest evidence of the behavior, stop–before it happens. This can take a lot of mental energy and creativity on the part of the trainer, but if a plan is well thought out and applied consistently, this will solve, or at least significantly improve the problem. The complexity and effectiveness of the plan and the time it takes to actually change the behavior depends on the behavior in question, the genetics and background of the dog, and the consistency of training. This is where hiring a talented, skilled, experienced trainer comes in–someone who can help you to figure out what is causing the problem and work out effective steps to modify it.
Ceddie pulls Dob-dob's tail
Ceddie harasses his older sister, Dob-dob. Photo by Eric Lewis. Rarely, it will be a quick fix as it was with Annie tearing up her sister’s bed (see below), but it may take months or longer to change as with reactivity. In all cases, though, it is a compromise between the dog and the human, paying close attention to the needs and limitations of what’s fair to the dog and acceptable to the human. Remember, the dog is an individual too, and he comes with some very strong, hard-wired instincts.

Training Tips and examples of how to apply this concept:

Annie looking down meadow
We chose to buy a cover for our new couch for Annie after Vera died. She is much easier on the furniture.
Example: getting on the couch: Vera, our German shepherd, loved to jump on the couch to look out at the meadow behind our house. She eventually shredded the back of the couch with her long nails, and we replaced it with a new, more expensive couch. But how could we change this highly rewarding behavior and keep her off it? Although it was emotionally hard to to deprive her of her beloved perch, we blocked her access to it with ex-pens and baby gates for six months so that she NEVER had the opportunity to jump up. When the six months were up, we removed the barriers, only when we were there to watch her. She  tried to get up on the couch once the first day. We firmly ordered her to stop just as she approached it, then enthusiastically rewarded her with treats and praise when she backed off. After that she never tried it again, even when there were deer in the meadow. Training Tip: Behaviors that are intermittently reinforced will be much harder to break than those that are consistently reinforced. So by ALWAYS allowing Vera up on the couch for the first few years we had her, then NEVER letting her up on the new couch, the outcome was much more successful than if we had let her up on the couch sometimes and not at other times throughout the process–both before and after we made the change.
Example of a more complicated problem–dog barking non-stop in car:  The barking started the moment one of my clients picked up the car keys, and it continued until they arrived at their destination, sometimes hours later. I had the
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Dog unhappy about being in car.
couple start by randomly picking up the car keys.  As soon as the man touched the keys, his wife would feed the dog a number of high-value treats and vice versa until the dog relaxed and looked at his person with expectation when the keys were touched, then picked up, then held.  I had them continue this desensitization procedure, step-by-step, until the dog could jump quietly into the car for a few seconds, eat one treat after another, and then jump out again without uttering a sound.Next, I had them sit in the car with him, and feed and stroke and praise him. When he was relaxed with that, I had them drive the length of the driveway and back. Eventually, they were able to drive with a quiet, happy dog.  Done slowly and correctly, the dog never barks throughout this type of training.  It took about eight weeks for this particular dog to become comfortable with short car rides. The dog could not go out in the car (unless he was being trained) for the entire program of desensitization, or the process would not have worked. You would not want to compromise your hard work by taking your dog to a distasteful destination such as the vet or groomers until he felt rock-solid in the car and had had many, many positive experiences. As you can see, the process was complicated and had many steps.  This is where the support and expertise of a good trainer can help tremendously.
  • Training Tip: When desensitizing a dog to something they find scary, they must not be exposed to the trigger without careful planning, or their progress will be set back. This can take a lot of mental effort on the trainer’s part.  It takes a long time to change a dog’s emotional response to things that scare him. Obedience training can help to give him skills that can be used during desensitization, but they don’t work on the dog’s emotional response to the things that scare him. If you have a reactive dog, hire a trainer to help you.Annie in V's crate
  • Example–destroying a dog bed: When Annie went into her sister’s crate and tore up Vera’s foam bed, we decided to close the crate door and prevent Annie from accessing the bed–except that then Vera didn’t have access to her sacred space. We also kept leaving the kennel door open accidentally, thereby intermittently reinforcing Annie by sometimes allowing her to tear up the foam, and sometimes not. It was an easy fix in the end. By wrapping the foam in a sheet, the texture of the bed was changed enough that Annie left it alone and lost interest in V’s crate. It would not have been this easy for all puppies. We never gave Annie this type of bed. Vera was very particular in what beds she’d accept, and foam with a mat on top was what she wanted. Period.
  • Training tip: Dogs barking outside: Dogs can bark outside in response to many things.  Read Turid Ruggas’s book “Barking, the Sound of a Language” to help you decide the type of bark your dog is using.
    • Your dog might want to come inside.  Honor this request.  If you’d rather he didn’t bark to ask to come in, teach him to sit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH4NcodzEAo), and reward him by opening the door for him. If you choose to have him sit, you need to understand that unless there’s a window in the door and you’re actually in the room, you won’t know when he’s asking to come in unless he makes a noise. Be fair.  It’s all about communication.
    • He may be bored. Ask yourself if he’s been exercised that day–and how much. Has he had any quality time with you? Is there anything for him to do out there by himself.
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      Over aroused dog, barking.
    • Dogs shouldn’t be left outside unattended any time–especially while you’re at work. They can feel vulnerable, exposed, over-stimulated by traffic, pedestrians, or dogs in the neighborhood, or bored. They may find it hard to relax and sleep. Being inside in a safe place with lots of chew toys to enjoy after a good morning walk will help them to have a quiet day.
    • Are his physical needs being met? He may need water or shade or he may be cold. Listen to what he’s telling you.
    • He may be talking to the other dogs in the neighborhood. If you want him to stop barking, bring him inside.
    • Remember, barking dogs are hard on the neighbors, especially at night and can cause major conflicts.  Barking for prolonged periods may be against the law in your area.
    • Bark shock collars are not a fair option for dogs. They shut down normal, healthy communication and leave your dog feeling helpless. Your dog’s barking may be replaced by a worse behavior that’s more difficult to change and more destructive than what you’re already dealing with.
  • There are hundreds of behaviors that dogs can exhibit triggered by different situations and emotions. If you have any that you’d like me to discuss, please contact me and I’ll try to address it on my blog.
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Kids and small dogs at dog parks

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The ideal time to socialize a dog to children is under the age of 16 weeks. These two look happy and relaxed together.

We have a fantasy from “Lassie” and other movies that kids and dogs go together. Small kids, babies, big kids…they are all depicted as being special companions to dogs.

Kids and dogs can get along well:

  • IF the dog has been raised with kids through the first 16 weeks of life or has at least been socialized intensively with kids during that period. If not, dogs are often scared of kids, or at least wary of them. There are hundreds of “funny” or “adorable” photos and videos on the internet of kids interacting with dogs that make my stomach roil–the dog’s body language is filled with distress–the next second could erupt with a bite to the child and consequent punishment, isolation, or euthanasia for the dog. Dogs usually communicate when they are being pushed too far, but unless the parent can direct the child to respect their signals, we can predict that the dog will be forced to react physically i.e. a growl, snap, or bite.
boy and dog
The boy is having a great time, but the dog isn’t–his mouth is closed, face tense, eyes wide,  and brow furrowed.

IF the socialized dog and child are carefully monitored while together and the guardians know what stress signs to watch for in the dog. A dog that is just tolerant of children is not the same as a dog who loves children, and should not be forced to spend with them. How do you tell if your dog is happy with kids or not? Eileen Anderson has a fabulous website with excellent photos of canine body language you can view.

Children at dog parks

So, if you consider the above information, think about kids at a dog park:

  • You don’t know the dogs at the park.
  • You don’t know how much socialization they’ve had with children.
  • One dog may be anxious about the way your child runs, jumps, waves his arms, shouts, or plays with his toy.  Children’s movements are erratic and unpredictable. Kids smell different, they are small, their voices are high.
  • Another dog may be outright afraid of children and express this fear through aggression to which a child might scream and run, further terrifying the dog and triggering prey drive in other dogs.
  • Small children can get injured easily if dogs in full play bump into them.
  • If a child were to get in the middle of a squabble between dogs, he could be bitten inadvertently.

Even if your child has successfully gone to dog parks many times, it is always a big risk. Children do get bitten by dogs.

Small dogs at dog parks

Below you see two dogs–Annie~50 lbs and Lucy~25 lbs.  They have different play styles and although they are figuring things out, there are behaviors present that bear watching.

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Lucy (small dog) is pestering Annie (collie). You can see Annie licking, her mouth is closed, and in the video she turns away again and again. She isn’t happy with this style of play.
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Annie wants to chase Lucy, and finally sees her chance. Lucy runs away at full speed. Annie chases with an intensity I haven’t seen with larger dogs–no bouncing, just a low, fast, charge, hackles up. Lucy is intimidated. Her tail comes down and she tries to hide, then takes off again.
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Lucy wheels around and stops Annie in her tracks and control is back with Lucy. They pause, sniff the ground.
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Then they play bow to each other in a shared communication of “it’s all in play”.  For part of the play, however, they were very aroused and intense. There were behaviors present I hadn’t seen with Annie when she played with larger dogs. Think about how things could evolve with dogs who didn’t know each other and where their size differential was much greater.

Small dogs love to play, just like big dogs. However, small dogs risk injury at dog parks with big dogs:

  • They can be seen as prey to the larger dog (a 25 pound differential between dogs is seen as the vague cut off point wherein a dog may view a smaller, running dog as prey).
  • Have you seen dogs playing with a stuffed toy or rope toy?  How they shake their heads and growl, toss their toy, grab it and shake, and toss again?  Our wonderful Vera LOVED to do this with toys, but when she charged and grabbed a juvenile raccoon and treated it the same way, I realized she was just practicing her prey sequence with her toys. It gave me a chill. Small dogs can be treated in the same way by larger dogs, who are not being aggressive in the general sense of the word, they are just following a survival sequence in their genetic makeup.
  • The high, anxious sounds that a small dog makes when stressed or frightened can trigger prey-drive in larger dogs which, depending on the pursuing dog, could end with the smaller dog being run over, or badly mauled.
  • The small dog could be run over, or stepped on inadvertently.

Tips

  • Leave children at home if you decide to take the risk of going to the dog park. See my blog on “Dog Parks? Why not?”
  • Learn canine body language.  It will help immensely with your understanding of your dog and how he’s feeling.
  • Find a “small dog” dog park for your little dog.  Some dog parks have fenced areas marked specifically for small dogs.
  • Find other people with small dogs who would like to play together in a safe place.  Check with your vet, pet stores, and local trainers for ways to get involved in small-dog play groups.  Talk to people on trails.  I’ve met many people on trails who were overjoyed to share contact information to get Annie together with their dogs to play.

Dog parks: Why not?

In a perfect world…

In a perfect world, dog parks would be the most wonderful places in the world to pass time—well-socialized dogs cavorting with each other, the rough and tumble and chase of all different breeds and sizes, peaceful pauses peppering play.  No one would fight over toys, no one would feel overwhelmed or get overstimulated, and guardians would be alert to their dogs at every moment, astutely watching and understanding the fluid body language of their own animal, ready to stop conflicts before they even got started. 

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Three dogs at a dog park take a break from play…an appropriate way to calm arousal levels. Communal sniffing is a wonderful way for them to bond.

However, the reality is often much different. Dog parks are typically places where guardians bring their dogs to exercise and play, but they are often not well supervised. The dogs are free to romp and play on their own with little regard for their safety, while guardians chat and socialize with each other, or engage with their smart phones.

“Yes,” you may say, “so what?”  The problem is that dogs, like people, have different needs, different play styles, different degrees of socialization, and different levels of tolerance. And they need to be socialized with other dogs (and children of all ages, men, women, goats, cats, horses etc.) before the age of sixteen weeks in order to be entirely comfortable with whomever it is they are interacting.  If a dog feels threatened, he needs to make a split-second decision to either run away, calm the other dog through appropriate body language, or aggress. The decision-making process is complicated and depends on multiple factors—the current situation, the dog’s past experience in similar circumstances, what challenges the dog has encountered in the past twenty-four hours, and his history of socialization, to name a few.

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Annie studies white dog–he’s playful, but BIG and boisterous. She is confident: her stance is solid, her tail  up, her mouth open, ears back but not pinned.
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Annie is overwhelmed even though the white dog is not being aggressive. She copes by slipping out from under him and running away.  Her run, though, is playful and confident, not fearful.
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Annie recovers nicely and when she finishes her run, greets the white dog at a 30 degree angle. No hard feelings.

Dogs who are not socialized with other dogs as puppies are often fearful around others of their species and will do whatever they can to protect themselves if they feel threatened. They also have teeth—lots of them. If, in addition, they did not learn how to inhibit their bite as puppies, they can cause a severe amount of damage in seconds. Dog fights often erupt in a blink of an eye, and unless we understand canine body language, we will miss the warning signs. Dogs are not the only ones who can be badly injured in dog fights—humans can also sustain significant injuries from redirected bites—sometimes by their own dog—when attempting to break up the fight. Dogs who start fights are not bad dogs—they are just dogs who are unfairly put in situations they can’t handle.

You have two things to think about when you consider visiting a dog park:

1.) “How well do I know my own dog?”

2.) “How well do I know the other dogs and their people in the park?”

The answer to the second question is usually, if not always: “Not very well.” Even if you go to the park with a group of friends, you can never predict who will show up. An under-socialized dog with a distracted, unconcerned owner is a recipe for trouble. 

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Annie is surrounded. She only knows 1 of the 3 dogs. Her style is to find an escape, run away, then rejoin the group.  But what if she needed to protect herself? Dogs have to think fast and react appropriately.

Here are some things to think about: 

  • If your dog is “OK most of the time”, he does not belong at the dogs park. Why? Because you already know there are situations that make him feel overwhelmed and insecure, forcing him to protect himself. Don’t place him back into those situations where he could injure or be injured by another dog. Also, in that environment, he is most likely too stressed to enjoy himself, so why even consider it?
  • If you take your dog to the dog park because you’ve been told he “needs more socialization”, the dog park is a bad place to do it. At some point, often sooner rather than later, he will encounter a situation that frightens him and he will be forced to act. If he gets into a tussle, one bad experience could be enough to cause ongoing dog-directed aggression. Once aggression has worked for him, he’s more likely to depend on it in future encounters.
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Annie is bumped from behind, fairly hard, by this puppy. She is startled, and not happy about it. She whips around, faces him, then dances off.

If you have just adopted your dog and want to take him to the dog park for fun, don’t do it. First of all, you have no idea how your dog will respond in that environment. And even if your new dog has reasonable socialization skills, he’ll be stressed from the recent changes in his life and will be more likely to be defensive. And again, dogs at the dog park are often poorly supervised, and may or may not have good socialization skills. Even if your dog joins in play initially, he could feel threatened or get overstimulated as play escalates, and a fight could be triggered when he panics.  If your dog guards his toys, he should definitely not go to the dog park. He may steal toys and aggress at anyone who tries to reclaim them—humans included. And if you take toys with you for him to play with, he will most likely challenge any dog trying to play with him.

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The puppy grabs a stick.  Annie also likes sticks–a lot. But she leaves him to play with it. If she took it away from the puppy, that would probably be okay.  But what if it was a mature, resource-guarding dog?

Do not even consider taking your small dog to dog parks unless there is a small-dog enclosure. The prey drive of larger dogs can turn your dog into a very vulnerable target.  Muzzles have no place in a dog park.  Muzzles will make your dog feel even more vulnerable, and if/when a dog aggresses at him due to his defensive body language, he will have no way to defend himself.  Leashing your dog at a dog park will prevent him from running away from situations he’s uncomfortable with and will inhibit his ability to express himself, making him more vulnerable and fearful. Also, off-leash dogs will recognize his vulnerability and may take advantage of him, exacerbating the situation even more. If you know you have a well-socialized dog, I would still think long and hard about the wisdom of going to a dog park for the reasons I have discussed above: you don’t know the other dogs who frequent the park or their people.

If you still think that dog parks are an option for you, here are some safety tips to consider: 

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  • Check the park carefully before you unload your dog from the car. Avoid groups of rough-playing dogs, dogs who look stiff or uncomfortable, and dogs whose owners are uninvolved. You want to see dogs who have loose, bouncy, easy body movement, dogs who play in a give and take fashion, and dogs who pause often in their play. The owners should be present, but relaxed. Avoid dogs whose owners hover and say things like “Be nice, Fido”.
  • Look for dogs that have a play style similar to your dog’s. 
  • Be sure your dog has a very strong recall and will come back to you reliably, even in play. 
  • Be sure you understand canine body language. Dogs have a language that is fluid, complicated and ongoing. By learning to read dogs at the park and understanding what they are saying, you can often intervene by calling your dog back to you if play starts to escalate. 
  • Consider other options for dog play that are safer: get together with friends and their dogs, dogs you know have been well socialized as puppies or who have a history of positive, safe interactions with other dogs. Scuffles may still erupt, but if everyone is paying attention and has a good recall on their dog, and if the dogs are well socialized, the chance of injury is extremely low. Well-socialized dogs with good bite inhibition will be careful not to injure each other, even in excited play.

Reactive dogs and Neighbors

Trouble with the neighbors

We live in a planned community where there are strict dog-leash rules…except for those who don’t believe it applies to them. Fences are also an issue here–one needs authorization to build them, so for the past twenty-six years, we have walked our dogs on the curving, twisting, wooded roads of this community. Unless one lives with a dog-reactive dog, or is terrified of dogs, or has an old or infirm dog or fearful dog, the off-leash issue isn’t a problem (except for the loose dogs themselves who get hit by cars, get into garbage, slug bait, and other toxins). But having lived with a fearful, dog-reactive dog for the past twelve years, who over the past year became old and infirm at the age of thirteen, we have many, many stories to tell.

I have come to the conclusion that most people don’t believe in aggression in dogs.  They don’t believe that a dog’s natural weapon, jaws with teeth, can actually be functional. That they can bite six times per second, puncture, and much worse. For years I talked to neighbors until I was blue in the face, politely explaining Vera’s shortcomings, pleading with them to at least call and hold onto their dog while we passed.  We walked her on two points of contact–a head collar and front-attachment harness.  We did u-turns to avoid dogs, hid up driveways behind cars, took alternate routes, split between her and any potential threat. But time and time again, I would find myself wedged between two raging dogs, Vera straining to attack a dog who was circling to get her. She was easy prey to them–insecure, threatened, rude, and bound to two points of contact and a controlling handler. When this happened, the owners would shout at the dog to come back, suddenly aware that their dog could get hurt.  The dog might return to them, but often would not.

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Loose, friendly dogs running toward you leads to instant panic!

As we slunk through the safest parts of the neighborhood (we knew where every dog lived, the hours they were out, the risks we took by walking V in that direction), we have been jeered at for being cowards, and physically threatened for asking (maybe at this point, demanding) for the hundredth time that one man put his dog on leash. Testosterone-fueled aggression in male humans is rampant when his dog’s leash status is questioned, and one man actually sat in the middle of the road, holding his dog by the collar, effectively blocking our passage by his house when asked to put his dog on leash. As we edged past, blocking Vera with our bodies and feeding her a river of treats, the man actually said “Bite me!”. This man knew about Vera, had owned a reactive dog, had hired me as a reactive-dog trainer, was soft-spoken and articulate, and still could not say “Sorry, I didn’t see you coming–I’m on it!” and leash his dog.

I don’t know what the answer is. My husband learned to be calm and polite no matter how verbally abusive people were.  I tended to be silent, and focused on Vera which was perceived as being rude.  We stayed away from everyone–the pariahs of the neighborhood. I’m not sure how many people realized on a real level that we were just protecting a very fearful dog who saved herself in a very scary way. That we were protecting their dogs from an emotional assault and possible puncture wounds. Until one lives with a reactive dog, I don’t think it’s possible for others to understand the reactive-dog owner’s plight–the isolation, the dedication it takes to give a reactive dog a rich and rewarding life, the love it takes to share one’s life with such a dog. I’ve tried to give this perspective in Finding Vera, and I hope that it educates at least a few people on reactive dogs, and ultimately works towards earning reactive-dog owners the respect they deserve.

Training Tips

  1. Talk to new neighbors about your reactive dog and his/her limitations.
  2. Let neighbors know all that you are doing to keep your dog safe.
  3. Be assertive, but always polite.
  4. Avoid areas where you know neighbors let their dogs off leash.  Vera’s “safe” area became smaller and smaller over the years.
  5. Don’t call out to people to put their dogs on leash if they are a distance away–in my experience, the humans won’t hear you, but the dogs will, and they will charge over to you to investigate. It was always better to just change direction.
  6. Teach your dog an emergency “sit behind” and practice it over and over. If, as in Vera’s case, your dog is too large and reactive to stay behind you, you will need to face your dog, keep him on a short leash, and pivot between your dog and the loose dog. There is the risk of being bitten with this maneuver, though it never happened to me. Once dogs are fighting, the risk of getting a redirected bite from one of the dogs is much greater.
  7. Carry an air horn in case a dog starts to charge up to you from a distance away. The neighbors won’t like it, and it will scare some dogs, but the vast majority of dogs will stop, think about it, and choose to return to their owners or proceed very cautiously, giving you the chance to escape. Follow the air horn link to read more about it.

Denial and reactive dogs

My dog’s not aggressive!  (Though he is clearly reactive.)

Denial is pandemic when one first realizes that aggression might be an issue with one’s dog.  And what is aggression, anyway?  The definitions are pulled and twisted and analyzed by the experts.  To me, as a past reactive-dog trainer, aggression is any behavior that is meant to threaten or intimidate another creature.  It is also any defensive behavior that injures another dog intentionally.  Well-socialized dogs will posture and correct as part of a canine interaction.  They are controlled and bite-inhibited. They are not acting out of fear or intimidation.

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 When a dog acts in an aggressive manner out of fear (95% of aggression is due to fear), it is an uncontrolled response, thought processes are restricted, and they make bad decisions. It is up to the guardian to learn the dog’s limitations and not push him, to keep him feeling safe, and the world around him safe–and, with time, love, confidence building, and work to desensitize him to his triggers, he will improve.A

But time and time again I see just the opposite–blatant denial in the human partner of the team.  I have been there too.  The desperate hope that THIS time, my dog will be calm, listen to me, stay by my side, and leave the person, dog, deer, squirrel, bird alone.  The stress kept me awake at night, and finally I decided to act. To take control.

Based on experience and hundreds of hours of study, I will say that dogs will not change without work.  Not quickly, not spontaneously. Letting a reactive dog who has confrontations off leash, will not make the dog safe to others. Allowing a scared dog who expresses his fear through reactivity or aggression, or a dog who has a strong prey drive to the point of bite/kill to run free, will risk a lost dog, an injured opponent, or a dead deer, squirrel, rabbit, or smaller dog.

barking dog for blog

In the past few days I have seen a German shepherd with a known bite history running off leash with his human. I dealt with a loose dog who lunged, barked circled and snapped at my collie while she looked on in confusion while the owner muttered platitudes under his breath.  In another incident, my husband intervened as a terrier, who lives down the street, charged our collie–a terrier who had almost lost his life doing the same to a Rottweiler a few years ago when the rottie retaliated.

Denial is a potent coping device, but it doesn’t save us.  It just allows the situation to progress, to worsen in front of us while we sit back and hope.

Training Tips: If you have a reactive dog:

  1. You are not alone.
  2. Read about it: Books that might help you: The Midnight Dog Walkers by Annie Phenix, The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell.
  3. Find a trainer who specializes in aggression work.
  4. Medications may help. Talk to your vet.
  5. Finding Vera by Kerry Claire (me) is not instructional, but is filled with canine perspective and behavior and shows how one family coped with a reactive German shepherd in a novel format. It is both educational and supportive to those making their way through the maze of reactivity.

Protecting Vera: A reactive German shepherd

Protecting Vera

In the very beginning, Vera pulled.  She pulled on the leash so hard that she could drag a person into the ditch, and did so with volunteers at the shelter.  She pulled because she needed to be first, because she was scared, or because she wanted to run.  She pulled because she wanted to see another dog or because she needed to keep him away.  Her legs were sturdy and powerful, well-muscled, her body whip-like and athletic. And she was single-minded. And strong. Incredibly strong. 

Vera was polite and smart by nature…

Because she was so polite and smart, she soon learned to walk on a loose leash—even on a flat collar—without tension. Unless there was a squirrel or a cat or a deer or a dog.  Then her reactions were dramatic, her bark frantic and cannon-loud, her body tense as steel, her eyes wild. 

With such distractions and Vera in a flat collar, we, as her handlers, were doomed. I was dragged; Joel was tripped by the whip and spin of her body. And if we had Tessie or Lola, they would join in with dedicated excitement.

I was overpowered, her attention swallowed by her victim, such that even cheese and steak couldn’t distract her. She would choke, and with her trachea damaged from the chain that bound her in her first year and a half of life, we moved to the gentle leader where we could at least turn her head away from the distraction and maintain some control.  

Two points of contact
Kane working on two points of contact with Vera

After working with a reactive dog trainer, we changed to two points of contactwonder walker harness coupled with the head collar to take pressure off her muzzle and transfer it to the harness. Each end of the leash was clipped to one piece of equipment. For a long time, V shied away from the harness. The one she’d worn at the shelter had been too small, and rubbed behind her front legs, causing a raw, painful sore. Not realizing it was there, we had continued to walk her with it. It took years for her to get past this.

She was easier to handle with two points of contact. Sometimes we walked her on the narrow, winding roads of Sudden Valley.  At 100 feet from a dog she would tense, alert, her eyes riveted, tail high over her back. We would treat her with cheese, hot dogs, do “look at that”, and walk her away. But still, she would look back, scared, tense, and ready to take on the world. 

Two dogs bark at us from a deck high above.  A crash, and in slow motion, the barrier shifts, gives way, smashes onto the steps below.  The dogs leap the rubble, the drum of their paws thunderous on the wooden steps, their barks insane. I am quick, but V is quicker.  She lunges, barks, her voice frantic, teeth exposed. I turn and run, my throat closed in panic. But V is like an anchor and in seconds the dogs are upon us. 

“V, behind!” I shout. It is more of a scream. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.  The road rises steeply above us, drops off below us, the hillside a 45 degree slope.

But V is intent on facing them off. She stands her ground in front of me. And attacks. 

They fall back, their faces shocked, and in that moment, I swing my body between them. I face Vera. She is too strong to hold behind me. I pivot between Vera and the dogs, blocking their access to each other. If they connect, there will be blood and punctures, possibly slashes and tears. I can’t bear for Vera to be hurt. I can’t bear for her to injure another dog. I pivot between them and shout for help while the dogs bark and snarl and lunge around me. I am wearing shorts and my legs bleed and throb from Vera’s claws. The moments stretch, and I feel I have been there for eternity. 

There is a honk, people shouting. The loose dogs falter, whirl, and they are gone, loping up the road away from us. The people in the car shout curses up at the house on the hill above me. And we leave. 

Vera is unruffled. She struts beside me, calm, her mouth open, back straight, her eyes soft.  There are no wrinkles on her head, and her ears are neutral. I have protected her. But I am fried. My body trembles like I’ve survived a battle. Every muscle aches, and I am chilled to the core in spite of the warm day. 

Back home, we sit in the garden on the bench next to her digger-dog hole. She hops up beside me, allows my arm to circle her shoulders, allows my hand to caress her face, to rub her chest.  She is not a demonstrative dog, and sitting there beside her, peaceful and safe, I am honored. I sink into her courage, am lost in her grace. 

Training Tips

  • Loving and living with a reactive dog takes on a whole new meaning if you are only used to lovely, sweet, good natured dogs.
  • Your goal is always to keep your dog safe.  For me it was at any cost and for years, blocking Vera from loose dogs with my body was my last-ditch diversion. Ironically, I  was never bitten by V or by any of the loose dogs who tried to approach her.  But I was lucky.
  • Watch for open garages, invisible fences that dogs can blow through, insecure fences and barriers.
  • Turn away from approaching dog walkers, always keeping in mind an escape route.
  • Carry high value treats.  Dogs cannot respond to you when stressed in the same way they would  when they are relaxed. But sometimes they will follow the odor of food.
  • As V aged, we learned that a small air horn, blasted at an approaching dog, even from 50-100 feet away, would keep approaching dogs at bay. They never seemed frightened, just confused and not interested in approaching–much better than having a human rage at them to stay away thus triggering a fear of humans.
  • You do need to desensitize your dog to the sound of the horn–best done by having someone help you. When you blast the horn, move your dog behind you.
    • To desensitize: Give a short blast a distance from your dog (up to 100 feet depending on your dog’s sensitivity) with the sound focused in the opposite direction from your dog. Play with or feed your dog after the blast.  Repeat twice more.  If your dog is afraid after the first blast, stop play with your dog. A few days later increase your dog’s distance by at least 50 feet  from the horn and increase the reinforcement after the blast. Play with your dog.

The Loss of a dog

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Beautiful V

Losing Vera

I need to take a break from puppies for a few weeks to talk about our beautiful German shepherd, Vera. We lost Vera a few weeks ago, and those of you who have read my novel, Finding Vera, will understand the depth of our loss. She was three weeks from her fourteenth birthday and had only one day of real discomfort. That was a blessing.

Vera was an exceptional dog. She was poised, polite, and intelligent.  She had the body of an athlete and a soul as delicate as crystal. She could be sweet, gentle, even affectionate on her own terms, but she had a fuse that could send her into a fierce and protective explosion if she were challenged. She protected herself mostly, but sometimes she protected us.

3 girls
Vera, Tess, and Lola (clockwise)

I wrote about Vera for four years, imagined every moment of every day from her point of view, strained my brain to see the world through her eyes and the eyes of her sisters, Tess and Lola. We watched her grow from a rowdy, confused youngster into a strong and confident matriarch, helped her navigate and fashion her world until she was the queen of what she knew.

And then, finally, we were with her when she left, wherever she went–hopefully to join her sisters, Tess and Lola in some sunlit field by a river.

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Vera and her new sister, Annie

Losing a pet is losing a family member. There is no doubt about that. The grief is deep and real. We grieve in a way that is unique to us. We grieve for days, weeks, years. I still grieve for Sascha from twenty years ago and will grieve for Vera for the rest of my life. They are closer than parents, distant siblings, lost lovers. They share each day, our beds, our hearts and minds and souls.  They know us better than just about anyone and so when they go, they take part of us with them.