THE DOG’S POINT OF VIEW: Some dogs love to dig. It’s in their genes (some more than others) and in their hearts. Imagine, for a moment, the feel of the earth between your pads as it yields to the strength of your shoulders and the scrape of your nails…the feel of the dirt flying and thumping behind you, the all-consuming smell of the fresh soil, the clay, the roots as you dig deeper. Perhaps you even feel a sense of gratification as the hole widens or disappears into the depths. In the summer, the hole is cool and possibly damp. It wraps your body in comfort, protects you from the heat. In cooler days, it may just be a place to play and pass the time.
Most dogs don’t have a sense of where the garden begins and ends. They don’t know that the lawn is all theirs, and the flower or vegetable beds are out of bounds, or that the decorative water feature you.’ve spent hours rejuvenating after winter is absolutely verboten. They just play or wander happily within the boundaries of their space.
THE HUMAN’S POINT OF VIEW: We love to gaze upon the green sweep of lawn yielding to masses of flowers and shrubs. We have spent hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars on our gardens, countless hours, weeks, years accomplishing this remarkable feat. We are sometimes passionate about the outcome, but sometimes, like our dogs, we just love the feel of the soil on our skin and beneath our fingernails. Whatever our motivation in creating our personal landscaping and gardening fantasy, most of us don’t like dogs digging in our sacred place, or even wandering through our flowerbeds.
Realize that your dog has no intention of ruining your garden. He is simply out there following his genetic impulses (terriers, for example, dig to reach their prey) or because he finds great pleasure in the work of it. If you can look at this objectively, it will help you to solve the problem.
Be sure your garden is fully fenced before you let your dog run free. Being outside with your dog does not prevent him from chasing a deer, cat, raccoon, or squirrel across the road in front of a car. I’ve had several clients over the years who have had dogs injured or killed due to the misconception that they could control their off-leash dog in an unfenced yard while they were distracted by gardening.
Dogs mimic our behaviors. As much as you love to have your dog’s company while you dig and plant, having him with you will encourage him to dig too. Leave him inside the house or on the deck while you work.
Provide pathways and unobtrusive fences to keep your dog out of areas you want to protect. Introduce him to the fence when he is leashed, and reward him with praise and small treats for staying on the correct side of the fence. Don’t allow him in the yard unattended until he is fully trained. Otherwise, he will practice the behavior you want him to avoid..
Provide chew toys and play toys to entertain your dog when you are outside with him. Show him what he’s ALLOWED to do.
Provide shade and water.
Give your dog a place to dig. He may have indicated where he wants to excavate, and if you can integrate this into your garden, do it! We were lucky in that three generations of our dogs have been digging under a rhododendron in our back garden. Each generation has taught the next where to dig. We have a 27 year old digger-dog hole there now. Vera especially loved her digger-dog hole.
Encourage your dog to dig in the spot you have chosen: bury treats, bones, toys–things your dog loves–in the spot. Make a game of it. Cheer him on, praise him, get excited for him as he spreads his claws, sets his shoulders, and gets into it.
Don’t leave your dog outside unattended–even if you’re home. Dogs have to be taught what is sanctioned by their people and what isn’t. They need to be praised for behaviors we want and directed away from behaviors we don’t like.
In my last blog, “Dog Attacks”, I promised to share some ideas that might help you protect your dog from potential dog attacks. First, however, I want to give you some information about why any dog might want to attack a perfectly happy, well-socialized dog.
Fear drives aggression in dogs 95% of the time. Genetics, lack of socialization before the age of 12-16 weeks, or an attack or scare from another dog (particularly if the injured dog was between 7 and 9, or 18 and 24 months when the attack occurred) could be at the core of the problem. However, it is important to realize that any dog will bite if put in the right situation.
If a dog is already fearful, the approach of a happy, well-socialized dog can be terrifying. These fearful dogs have the choice of freezing, attacking, or running away, and dogs who are on leash don’t have the option of escape–they can only freeze, attack, or hide behind their owners. Even if they are off leash, fearful dogs might feel that offense is more effective than defense, offense being a strategy that dogs learn quickly. It makes the scary thing back off, and they are rewarded by this.
Another thing that owners of happy, healthy, well socialized dogs should realize is that no one (with the exception of the rare trainer out looking for a challenge), purposefully adopts a dog who is aggressive. They fall in love, then the behaviors unfold or develop, often between the ages of two and three years as the dog matures socially. This certainly happened with our girl, Vera.
The owners of the dog with dog-aggressive behaviors are then saddled with a choice: to work with the dog continuously for years, re-home the dog (and who would willingly adopt a dog with a bite history) or take the dog to a shelter where he would risk euthanasia. If the owners lie about the dog’s history when they relinquish the dog (which certainly happens), the dog will end up injuring another dog (or human if the bite is redirected).
Having an aggressive dog is like living with a loaded gun. At first, owners are in full-blown denial and make extensive excuses for the dog. Then it slowly dawns on them that they need help and they start the slow process of discovering the dog’s triggers and how to keep him safe.
The process is long and arduous as the dog’s freedoms are slowly relinquished to a point where the dog feels safe enough to live a relaxed life, and the owners feel safe enough to comfortably live with the dog. These owners are often stressed for years as they struggle through this quagmire–they want to give their dog a quality of life that makes life worth living, but are challenged to keep their dog feeling protected from friendly dogs, (remember, the aggression is fear-driven), and keeping other dogs safe as well.
My novel, “Finding Vera” tells the story of our experience with our wonderful reactive German shepherd, Vera (with a few embellishments to make it a better novel).
Tips and suggestions to protect your dog from potential attacks:
When walking your dog on leash, don’t allow your dog to greet other dogs. As I mentioned above, dogs are limited in their responses when on leash and tend to be more likely to aggress or act out. Check out the video on how to pass another dog on leash safely. I have been lax about this with Annie, but since Milo’s attack have decided to adhere to this advice unless Annie has already established a friendship with the other dog.
Follow leash laws. People walk their dogs in on-leash areas for a reason. There is nothing more upsetting than to have your on-leash, anxious, reactive, rambunctious, or injured dog approached by an energetic, friendly dog (or to be accosted by a loose dog if you don’t like dogs or are unable or unwilling to deal with their exuberance). At the very least, the leashed dog will feel threatened, out of control, or overstimulated because he is handcuffed in his response to the loose dog. If the leashed dog is under-socialized, he may feel the need to attack because he is confined. Also, even a well-behaved off-leash dog will often take advantage of his freedom to harass the tethered dog.
If you walk your dog off leash in on-leash areas when no one is around, realize that you could could be ticketed. Be sure your dog has a strong recall (will return to you at least 80% when you call him), and leash him up as soon as you see a person or dog in the distance.
Keep your dog on leash and under control in your neighborhood. Over the years, I’ve had clients whose dogs were killed by cars because they were loose in an unfenced yard, even while under supervision. Also, many of my reactive dog clients have been accosted by loose dogs in their neighborhoods. A fight between your loose, friendly dog and a leashed aggressive dog can end badly, both for the dogs and the handler. Redirected bites onto the handler are not uncommon when trying to separate dogs in a fight.
Watch people and dogs carefully in off-leash areas and read their body language. If the dog looks tense and is not giving out calming signals as he approaches (such as looking away, sniffing the ground, licking his lips, yawning, or doing a play bow), or if the human looks tense and worried, take your dog off the trail, stand in front of him, and block him. You can feed your dog treats, talk to him, or hook a finger through his collar or harness to maintain control while the dog passes.
Don’t walk your dog on leash in an off-leash area. As I said above, off-leash dogs might take advantage of his vulnerability. Likewise, if you see a leashed dog approaching in an off leash area, leash your dog and steer clear–there is probably a reason the dog is leashed. It isn’t a good time to get into an argument with the owner.
Practice “check backs” with your dog so that he doesn’t run off when on the trail. Mark any eye contact with a word such as “yes” (or click) and treat him when he returns to you. You will find that your dog starts to check back often and will be more responsive when you call him back.
Carry a small air horn to keep loose dogs at bay. One small blast will often stop loose dogs in their tracks. A second short blast has always worked for us. The air horn works at a great distance to keep both well-socialized dogs and reactive dogs safe without sensitizing them to shouting (yelling at the dog, or shouting at the owner to call their dog rarely works anyway). Don and I wouldn’t go out of the house without one when we had Vera. The dog the horn was aimed at would stop, eye us with curiosity, then choose to change direction. They never looked scared.
To desensitize your dog to the sound of the horn:
Have a second person beep the horn at a distance of 50-100 feet, pointing the horn away from your dog, then feed him several high-value treats.
Always be careful to point the horn AWAY from your dog.
Repeat no more than 3 times in a day, decreasing the distance the horn is from your dog by no more than 5 feet at a time.
Only decrease the distance between the horn and your dog if the dog is relaxed and anticipating the treats.
If your dog is scared, stop using the horn that day, and follow the session with treats and a favorite game.
The next day, double the distance between the horn and your dog and try again.
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.
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.
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.
Finding Veraby 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.