Does your sweet, lovable best friend turn into to "CUJO" when he/she sees another dog, a stranger, or knock on the door? If so, you are not alone. The good news is that in most cases these behaviors are fairly easy to fix with the proper behavior modification protocols. The protocols are quite easy to implement, but it does take time and a committed owner. Some patience may also be required.
The reasons for your dog's reactions could be several, including fear, defense of territory, a learned behavior due to inappropriate response on part of the owner or previous abuse, or even a health issue. The good news is that, unless its a health issue, application of proper behavior modification protocols can change your dog's behvaior for the better regardless of the reasons.
Fear Issues: Dogs have but three ways to defend themselves. 1) warn: bark, growl, etc.; 2) if (1) doesn't work, then RUN away; if they can't escape, then option number 3) FIGHT! Dogs do not like to fight, they avoid it at all costs, as do all canines (wolves, coyotes). So, when a dog is on leash, tied out, in a fenced yard, or a crate, etc. and they see another dog, or even a person, they exaggerate option number (1). They warn big-time to keep the scary other dog away.
Learned Behaviors: In many, many cases of reactions to other dogs or strangers, it is the case that the dog has been on a choke, pinch, or worse, a shock collar. If you've used these devices, even for just a short period, you may have taught your dog that other dogs make really bad things happen to him. Eventually he becomes more and more reactive because your dog has made an association to being choked, pinched, or shocked when it sees another dog (or person, or whatever). This is known, technically, as a conditioned emotional response...meaning it is a LEARNED behavior, usually taught unwittingly by owners. For instance, putting a shock collar on a dog that barks at people just teaches him that people are dangerous. The dog may stop barking, giving the impression that its barking behavior has been corrected, but what has really happened is the barking behavior has only been SUPPRESSED. Unfortunately the dog's underlying emotion, FEAR, has been increased dramatically and eventually to the point where the dog may feel it needs to attack in order to defend itself.
Yes, the barking decreases...but the barking and growling are only symptoms of the real problem behavior, which is the EMOTION. Its like treating a cold...we can only treat the symptoms, the cold virus just runs it course. The choke, pinch, or shock collars only address the symptoms, but they can make the underlying emotions far, far WORSE, and finally the dog is considered aggressive toward people. It is a very sad situation for dogs.
The good news is that learned behavior can be "un-learned" or we can teach an alternate behavior. Your dog may never be a social butterfly, but he/she definitely can learn to tolerate other dogs or people and learn to look to you for guidance when another dog or person is in his presence instead of taking matters into his own paws.
How long will it take...only your dog knows. The behavior may have been going on for awhile so it won't disappear overnight. You should start to see improvement within 30 days or less if you are consistent and spend the time to work with your dog.
1) First, ensure your dog has a complete physical check up by your vet, to include a complete blood analysis that includes a thyroid panel. If the problem is a health problem, no amount of behavior modification will change your dog's behavior.
2) Second, manage your dog's environment so he doesn't engage in the unwanted behavior. This means strict control so he doesn't have access to other dogs or whatever it is that triggers his response. He cannot be off leash or left unsupervised. If he is able to engage in the unwanted behavior while you are teaching him a new behavior, it'll take a very long time to change, if it happens at all. Management is sometimes the hardest part.
3) Nothing around the dogs neck when on a leash. I recommend an Easy Walk Harness. They stop the pulling and there's no choking. I sell them at my classroom ($20.00) and will fit it for you. It immediately takes the stress out of walking for both you and your dog. Another option is the Gentle Leader. These work like a halter on a horse but must be properly fitted and slowly acclimated to the dog in many cases.
4) Teach your dog to walk on a loose leash. This is imperative. Your dog probably has been taught that a loose leash means he gets to go forward...another learned behavior. Change the rules: if the leash is tight, NO forward movement...PERIOD! Also anchor your hands with the leash against your body so he doesn't have leverage. Be consistent with this. Yes, it'll take a while at first, but he'll learn that a LOOSE LEASH means go forward, a tight leash means STOP.
5) Counter-conditioning and desensitization: Set up situations where you can encounter another dog (or whatever your dog reacts to) at a distance and your dog can see the other dog, but doesn't loose his composure. Have some very, very good food with you. And I mean good stuff: I use stuff like ROAST BEEF pieces, TURKEY or CHICKEN breast cut in small pieces, Cheez-Whiz in a spray can or peanut butter. Whatever your dog responsds with an "OH WOW!!!" to. Also, practice BEFORE meals and you may consider reducing your dog's meals. He know needs to work for his dinner and the "job" is being calm in situations where he wasn't before.
As soon as he sees the other dog, start feeding him the good stuff. Continue feeding until the other dog is out of sight, then the food STOPS. REPEAT. Work in 10 - 15 minute sessions only at first. If he won't eat, the food is not good enough OR you are too close.
Try and do a session with him twice or three times a day. Sitting in the parking lot of your vet's office might work if there is enough distance. When a dog comes: GOOD STUFF. When the dog goes away, good stuff ENDS.
What you are doing, essentially, is re-wiring his little brain. Now, really good stuff happens when he sees a scary doggie. Instead of getting choked, wonderful stuff happens.
5) STOP all the bad stuff happening. No more scolding, saying NO, or anything thing else you may have previously been doing that was confirming for him that other dogs, or people, are BAD! Instead, be happy, praise him, tell him what a wonderful doggie he is. Dogs mirror our emotions. If we are happy, so are they. If we are angry, so are they. More than likely he's interpreted your response to his behavior as another negative association between him and dogs. Your reactions appear to him as anger directed toward HIM and CAUSED by the presence of the other dogs. This just reinforces his belief that other dogs (or people) are dangerous because they make YOU angry, and worse, the anger is directed at HIM.
Steve Benjamin, KPA CTP
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Karen Pryor Academy Faculty Member
P.O. Box 5715
Endicott, New York 13763
PLEASE...SPAY and NEUTER