by Amy Robinson
Sniff & Barkens’ Dog Expert
The picture drew me in. The canine face looking back at me featured reddish- silver markings highlighting expressive eyes and a pointed foxlike nose. I looked forward to working with Belle, a seven month old Australian cattle dog, despite the words of warning coming from her owner.
“She is really aggressive with other dogs” Kathy told me. “Really aggressive. You’ll see.”
I asked for the whole story, so I could learn how Belle came to be so anti-social that she was a danger to other dogs. Kathy sighed, and then began.
“Belle’s formative months – almost all of her puppyhood – were spent in semi-isolation. I think my husband and I may have created her problems,” she told me. “Our old dog was getting wobbly and infirm, so we kept Belle on a leash in the house that whole time and anytime she showed interest in the older dog, we just pulled her away and said ‘No’.”
Upon hearing this, I cringed just a little. This was conditioning at its most insidious. Kathy went on.
“Our older dog had to be put down recently, and we thought we would introduce Belle to another neighbor’s dog”, she continued. “Belle leaned into the leash toward the other dog – pulling frantically, hackles raised and barking non-stop. My instinct was to pull her away as quickly as possible. This scenario was repeated a few more times, with various dogs, to see if we could make some progress, but it just got worse. Now when I see another dog out on walks, I just pull her away.”
Conditioning is a powerful training tool. Unfortunately for Belle and her owner, Belle had been conditioned to associate other dogs with frustration (months of being inhibited from a normal greeting with the older dog) and scolding (told “NO!” and then pulled abruptly away). I began to formulate a plan. To change Belle’s negative association with other dogs, we needed to start a program of counter-conditioning, which is the opposite of conditioning. . This is a behavior modification technique that helps the dog associate response-triggering stimuli (in Belle’s case, another dog) to an entirely different, more pleasant response. For example, the handler can teach the dog to look away from the other dog and back at her using a redirecting command, such as ‘Heel’, which turns the dog physically away. Praise and treats follow to mark the good behavior. The dog is effectively led to react in a new way when she is presented with stimuli that formerly provoked an undesirable response, such as fear or aggression.
I told Kathy to meet me at the park. I brought my ‘tester’ dog Winnie, a mild-mannered Wheaton terrier. I walked Winnie on the sidewalk and instructed Kathy to walk Belle on the other side of the split rail fence just eight feet away. The fence was more decorative than functional, but represented a visual barrier that would keep them apart, or so I hoped. Belle had other ideas.
Kathy exited her car, but was in trouble right away. She was nearly water-skiing on dry land behind a determined and very angry Belle, who tried to duck under the fence to get at my dog. Belle had that laser-focused look that intense herding dogs have. As a cattle dog, Belle naturally had all those traits, but was putting them to use in a very undesirable way.
I immediately gave Winnie a hard “Stay” command and crossed to Belle and Kathy. I grabbed the leash and asked Kathy if we could switch handling duties. She gladly agreed and took up Winnie’s leash. I concentrated on a command Belle had learned early on: ‘Heel’, which requires matching pace with the handler, making turns smoothly, and otherwise ignore other temptations while strutting smartly next to the person holding the leash.
I also incorporate “Watch” with dogs like Belle. This command asks for and receives the dog’s full attention in exchange for praise and a possible reward.
Belle and I went to work with those commands, which helped pull Belle’s focus back to me. The chicken treats I carried played a part, too. Soon she was able to walk parallel to Winnie with my body between them and Kathy in control of her own dog. Shared pleasant experiences like walks in the park allow dog-aggressive tendencies to be subjugated while the dog processes all the new smells, sounds and sights. It also takes the pressure off; there is no forced, face-to-face greeting involved, just walking at the owner’s side in the company of a like-minded dog.
Feeling pretty proud of ourselves, we made a date for the Farmer’s market on Saturday. I assured Kathy that I would not let her dog endanger another dog or embarrass her with bad behavior. I was sure that all the stimulation of the Farmer’s market would push her aggressive tendencies to the bottom of Belle’s to-do list. Since there would be plenty of other dogs present on leash with owners, I knew we had to be tactical in our approach.
The sun was just coming through the tops of the palm trees as I took Belle’s leash and walked her at Heel on the outskirts of all the activity. The goal was to set Belle up for success. This meant keeping an eye out for situations that could trigger an outburst and redirecting her before she could react. At the market, even dogs that might act out on their own street have less of a tendency to behave badly in this zone of shared space. Just like a diner selecting the right fork at a dinner party, most dogs will try to fit in.
I scanned Belle’s face for stress signals, such as repeated yawning or turning away from friendly people, but she was taking it all in with a smile. We were tested when two matching Pomeranians strained at their harnesses to get closer to us, but I issued a “Watch” command and popped a tasty treat into Belle’s waiting mouth when she looked up at me instead of firing out at the little dogs. I turned the leash over to Kathy and she gives me the thumbs-up as she took control, stopping at stalls to sample wares and chatting with the sellers.
After a water break, Kathy suggested that she head down to an outdoor café without me to try her newfound confidence there. She called me an hour later. “Belle handled herself with great aplomb,” she exclaimed, “ending the morning lying calmly next to a dog she had just met outside the restaurant. I am over the moon with pride and joy!”
Our intensive program was about to be put to the test, though. Kathy was traveling to Colorado to visit her mother, who owned a dog that had not been socialized on a leash. I suggested a game plan to have the dogs meet off of her mother’s property, perhaps in a park or on a trail walk where they could mimic the work we did early on with Belle and Winnie. I held my breath and waited for the email update.
Kathy sent this along after she and Belle had been in Colorado for a week:
“We did as you suggested, introducing the two dogs away from my mom’s place,” Kathy told me, “and it worked out so well that once we got back to the house, we let them off leashes and my mom’s dog showed Belle all her favorite spots on the ranch! They were in the lake together, out near the barn, and we found them lying in a cool dirt hole together that they dug together. I feel that Belle seemed to know all along what we expected of her, and wanted to be a good girl, it just took some guidance and practice to get our communication skills on the same wave length. It makes me so happy to see how much her confidence has grown, and along with it, how much fun she’s having. We’re now beginning to introduce selective play dates with new dogs and Belle now has three wonderful doggie friends. I used to get so tense when we’d see another dog out on walks, but now I just smile and relax, and Belle does the same thing!”
Kathy had accidentally conditioned Belle to dislike or even fear other dogs from the early influence of “No!” and pulling her away. Through counter-conditioning, we helped Belle associate the presence of other dogs with fun, shared adventures, and praise and treats. Dogs are good at putting the past behind them, and Belle has embraced her newfound social skills.