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.

barking dog 2

 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.