Like some other trainers specializing in canine behavior, I teach a popular class for reactive/aggressive dogs called the Growly Dog class. Even though it might seem risky to put five dogs exhibiting fear or aggression in a tight space, I hold this popular class year in and year out. I never worry about the dogs’ progress. It’s the humans on the other end of the leash who prove harder and take longer to reach. If we could move past our fears and worries as quickly as dogs do, our lives would be so much easier.
The dogs in this class can be any age. The youngest we’ve had was twelve weeks old and the oldest was fourteen years old. We often have dogs in this class that have been in serious altercations or that have bite histories. Some have been mistreated or never socialized by former owners.
The dogs enter the room one by one and stay behind a visual barrier for the first two classes. Depending on the make-up of the class, some dogs stay behind the barrier for all four weeks, although that’s rare. Even though each dog is a few feet away from another dog or new person, and even though every dog knows that there are other dogs present, we hardly ever hear barking or see lunging. This always shocks the owners, but it doesn’t surprise my assistant trainers or me. We’ve seen this marvelous turn of events in every class.
How is this possible? We’ve prepped the owners on what to expect. Being able to predict what will happen soothes humans and canines alike. Having some sense of control of the environment does the same.
We ask the owners for loose leash walking when they and their dogs enter the room and go to their stations. A tight leash ruins the calm atmosphere and can create a tense dog. We ask the humans to remember to breathe. The trainers are relaxed and smiling, with loose body postures. We are playing music that was created just to soothe dogs (Through a Dog’s Ear). We remind the owners: “What’s the worst that can happen in this classroom? So your dog barks or growls? That’s the experience that the other owners will use to help their dogs through hearing that commotion in a safe environment.”
Annie was told that this shelter dog was too old to save, but she rescued him anyway and he made a remarkable recovery.
All the dogs are leashed twice for safety, once by a flat collar and again on a harness. In the classroom, they are attached to secure tethers, and the owners continue to loosely hold onto the double leashes. We use the tethers for safety but also to free the owners from clamping down on leashes. We’ve never had a dog fight, not even a close call.
We move through the weeks slowly, desensitizing the dogs and owners to having other dogs so close by. We teach the dogs to “take a breath,” part of the Relaxation Protocol created by Dr. Karen Overall (see more later in this chapter). I love teaching dogs to take a deep breath because it is awfully hard to be anxious while breathing deeply. It’s also impossible to bark or growl while doing this. It helps relax the dog from the inside out and— importantly—it teaches the owners to focus like lasers on their dogs. So many problems happen with dogs when their owners stop focusing on them.
We spend a lot of time working classical counterconditioning, first with my handy fake Rottweiler and eventually with other dogs in the class or one of my own dogs. The owners tend to relax by the fourth class, while the dogs are way ahead of them and are usually quite calm by the second class. These classes are the trainers’ favorites to teach because of the enormous emotional progress we see in the dogs and their humans. We often take advantage of all of those boxes of Kleenex that I keep handy.
There comes a sticking point in every class, however. I know that it’s coming. I ask the owners to please refrain from walking their dogs for at least ten days or, preferably, for the duration of the entire Growly Dog session, which is four classes over a four-week period. Then, the outcries from the humans begin! I hear things such as:
• My dog is so hyper and will destroy my house without two long walks a day!
• My dog will be bored!
• It’s cruel to not walk the dog!
• But my dog gets so excited to go on walks!
• But that’s how I get my own daily exercise!
Why do I make such a heretical suggestion? I swear that I’m not trying to frustrate the class participants. Of course, dogs need proper and productive exercise. There is an old expression in dog training that goes: “A tired dog is a good dog.” There is a big difference between a tired dog and an overwhelmed, flooded dog, and that difference is critical. Most often, I am on the other side of the coin as a trainer, begging owners to please get their dogs outside more. Not the dogs in my Growly Dog class. Not any dog that is showing fear or aggression.
This is one of the stuffed dogs that Annie uses in the Growly Dog class and for assessments.
If I could enforce a signed pledge that the owners won’t expose their dogs to the outside while they’re enrolled in the Growly Dog class, I would surely do it. I can’t make owners do anything, though; I can only coach, encourage, and keep on reaching out to them through what I write and teach. I ask for no walks during this time because it is critical to keep the dog under threshold (don’t put him a position where he barks, lunges, growls, etc.) while we are reframing what an oncoming dog or person means to your dog. We are rebuilding trust and communication between owner and dog as well. It’s a whole lot like a bank account built of trust. We spend four weeks building up that all-important account, and one scary incident can wipe out your savings, particularly in these beginning stages.
The more positive experiences your dog has around his triggers, the less charge those triggers hold for the dog. Additionally, remember that a dog’s cortisol levels can stay elevated for weeks after an episode that frightens him. If a dog experiences several scary triggers/incidents back-to-back in a short time frame, that dog is capable of exploding quickly and with more emotion. This is called “trigger stacking.” If a dog is concerned by certain stimuli, such as a bad thunderstorm, a stranger at the door, a crying human baby, and dogs scaring him on his afternoon walk, those things can add up and can increase the dog’s anxiety and, thus, his reactions. When owners call me, distraught, after a bite incident, I will have them give me a full report of what happened in the dog’s environment over the previous three to four days, and, quite often, a multitude of triggers happened one after the other (or at the same time), and the dog “snapped.”
Let’s go back to my fear of black widow spiders. After a month of your presenting the black widow to me—first from a faraway distance and then getting closer little by little—and after a month of your depositing $1 million every time I gather my courage and simply look at that spider, my bank account is quite full, thank you very much! I have moved toward the idea of getting a little bit happy inside whenever I see a black widow because they bring me $1 million. Then you decide that enough time has passed, and I should be over my fear of black widows. Besides, you are going broke! You take me outside, and, right there on the front steps, a black widow zooms down from its web, lands on me, and crawls on me. In a millisecond, I return to my previous fear of them, and, furthermore, my faith in you is gone. I will keep all of the money that you previously gave me, but I will return to my hypervigilant scanning and fear of that spider. The threat of death by spider outranks your money. What good is your money to me if I am dead?
Annie’s Border Collie Radar and some of his fake friends.
Perhaps you didn’t get greedy with your need for me to hurry up and get over my spider-phobia. Perhaps for six months you paid me so much that I had $60 million dollars in my bank account. Then, one day, I see a black widow in the window of the house across the street. Does it bother me? No! I turn to look at you and hold out my hand and thank you for upping my account to $61 million. Through all of that practice and payload, my trust that you will keep me safe from the spiders and my big fat bank account have emboldened me and have changed the way I think of spiders. I will never want them crawling all over me, but I can handle seeing them without screaming and running from the room. I might even feel a little joy deep within when I see an eight-legged creature scurry across the room. My faith in you to protect me from spiders has also grown immensely. When I see any spider, I look to you for guidance.
Later on, you can change the pay rate and scale. You could give me just verbal praise as I pass spiders to the left and the right of me while on walks, and then randomize the big reinforcer. It is important to begin randomizing delivery of reinforcers once the emotion behind the behavior has calmed down.
I have seen this bank account of canine–human trust pay off with my own dogs. My dogs have never been in a dog fight because I protect them everywhere I take them. A dog would have to first go through me to get to one to one of them. Besides that, my dogs are my working partners, and they can help a scared dog quickly, so I depend on them a great deal. Their safety and well-being is paramount.
Easy Cheese solves a lot of canine problems!
Nonetheless, two of my dogs—a big-mixed breed mutt named Monster and my small Border Collie, Echo—were attacked once in public by off leash-dogs. I was happily walking along the city River Trail in Durango, minding my own dogs’ business, when for some stupid reason, the owner of a parked car opened her back door and let out her two unleashed dogs. They rushed at my two leashed dogs—growling, barking, and hackles up. My dogs had only two choices because they were leashed: stand and fight or duck behind me. They chose to get behind me. I did my best to stop the oncoming attack by kicking the incoming dogs—a good way to get a puncture in the leg. It did nothing to stop them, and they were on top of my beloved dogs. I went for their hind legs and hauled one of the dogs off mine. My dogs never fought back; instead, they sank to the ground and did their best to throw calming signals to their attackers. The owner of the attacking dogs did nothing and said nothing. Nothing! I turned on my heels and got out of there quickly, and once I was far enough away for my dogs’ safety, she got an earful of colorful human curse words from me.
Did that one fight change my dogs’ ability to work with reactive dogs? It could have, but it didn’t. They went right back to work, calmly ignoring the other dogs week in and week out as they did their best to lunge, bark, and growl my dogs into a retreat. I guess you can say that I have a very hefty bank account of trust built up with my dogs.
Another interesting thing happens when I have reactive/aggressive dogs boarding with me. Each owner worries a great deal that her “hyper” dog will in all likelihood destroy my house because the dog is used to getting two long walks a day. Walking is an option for some dogs, but I don’t walk those dogs that cannot handle being outside—the hypervigilant ones that seem to think that an attacker is behind every bush. Walking them in that state is not productive. It strengthens the scanning and lunging behaviors.
Annie’s dogs can run and play off leash (where it’s legal to do so) because they are under voice control. They like coming back to Annie and do so on a dime.
Would you like to know how these dogs behave while with me? Without fail, they sleep. They sleep like they are dead. It may be the first time in their lives that they were given several days in a row where they weren’t taken on walks through their neighborhoods of threatening dogs or people. Some owners are stressing their dog out on these walks every single day, and the dog’s internal state never has a chance to reset or calm down. And, yes, it may still be true that your dog appears to be excited to go on that walk, even though it stresses him out. He is very likely conflicted about it. If you have a fearful, reactive, or aggressive dog, you have to first teach the dog how to relax his body in a controlled environment, such as inside your home. This is why I beg owners to not walk their dogs while they are enrolled in the Growly Dog classes.
Alternatives to Walking
So, how do you keep your dog entertained if you are not walking him? You might find that there is no need to go overboard with in-home entertainment because your dog might just start getting some of the most restful sleep of his life. In case you don’t believe me and want to have things to do with your dog, here are some ideas.
Nosework is so addicting to any dog and any owner!
Dogs go through their lives nose first. Their noses are like our eyes. If we could see what they smell, we would be overwhelmed with stimuli. Nosework games are simple! One idea is to tether your dog in a room (or have someone else hang on to his leash) and have him watch you hide tasty treats around the room. Then unhook the dog, tell him to “find it!,” and watch him zoom happily around the room, nose first. If he looks confused, walk him over to a few of the finds.
You progress in this game to having the dog not see you hide the treats. You can also use several cardboard boxes and hide the treats under just one of the boxes, or do the same with overturned bowls.
When I teach nosework sessions, we rarely go longer than thirty minutes because all of that sniffing wears a dog out! It taps into those all-important seeking and play emotional systems that Dr. Jaak Panksepp discovered.
If your dog is unable to focus on you in the backyard, this nosework game is a great one to play outside with truly high-value treats after the dog has mastered the game in the house. And guess what happens? Your dog cannot be fearful and having fun at the same time. Play is incompatible with fear. Wouldn’t you rather have your dog concentrating nose-first, looking for hidden treasures, than scanning the environment for a trigger?
A toy—such as a Kong—frozen overnight with yummo treats inside keep dogs busy for quite awhile.
Play with Your Dog
Most dogs love to play, although they have to be relaxed enough in the given space to play. Play and fear are generally incompatible. If your dog enjoys chasing balls outside but won’t do it inside your home, this is an opportunity to ask yourself some hard questions about why that might be.
Once, in a Growly Dog class, we had four nervous dogs that were not all that interested in eating the training treats near each other. I asked the owners how many of their dogs loved to chase balls, and they all said at once, “My dog loves balls!” So we put the food away, gave each dog a lot more space, and had the owners keep the dogs on the double leashes while they all played fetch with their dogs. All of the dogs changed from being stiff and uncertain to, well, having a ball! While it is true that arousal can sometimes tip over to aggression, we took a lot of breaks to prevent that from happening. That class ended up having the most success in performing obedience skills with just a few feet between each dog and without any visual barriers.
See how much fun you can create for your dog at home. We say that our homes are our castles, and they should be castles of fun and joy for our dogs as well!
Do you watch TV? Sure, you do! While watching your favorite shows in the evenings, work with your dog during commercials. I love teaching a dog to take a deep breath. Briefly, here’s how to do it: get a mat and ask the dog to sit or down on the mat (lure him with a treat if needed). Have your clicker in one hand and your bait bag tied to your waist but out of sight. Put your finger up to your nose and look at your dog’s nose. You can see the dog breathing in and out via its nostrils flaring. You can also often hear a dog take a breath when he closes his mouth.
When you see a nostril flare or the dog shuts his mouth, click and treat. You may have to hold either the treat or your finger up to the dog’s nose a few times to get him to investigate that object so close to his nose by inhaling through his nose.
I love doing this exercise with the most hyper dogs because it is so rewarding to watch them learn to settle and breathe deeply. The more you do this, the more your dog gets accustomed to having a calm body and a calm mind.
Utilize Mind Puzzles
I love giving a dog a mind puzzle that requires him to figure out how to get treats out of a tricky toy or object. It is fascinating to see how each dog attacks the problem at hand. Some dogs will work these puzzles for hours, while others seem to get frustrated easily. For those that do get frustrated, I help them by making the first couple of tries a bit easier by using my handy thumbs to open some of the pieces of the puzzle for them. Be sure to mix up these puzzles; do not give the same one every day to your dog. Dogs get bored just like you do.
On the final day of our Growly Class, we take down the barriers and have the dogs move from mat to mat in the classroom. The dogs find either a toy or a mind puzzle awaiting them at each station, and the dogs and owners soon forget to be worried about the other dogs working their puzzles a few feet away.
It’s crucial that dog owners allow dogs to get as much mental stimulation as physical exercise. This dog is exploring a mind puzzle.
Teach Fun Obedience Skills
No matter the dog in front of me, I make learning fun for him. Gone forever (I hope!) are the old and boring days where we shouted commands to our dogs and insisted on perfect and immediate compliance. I prefer that my dogs learn to love learning with me as their guide. I keep the sessions short and generally only work on one or two skills per session. You could easily do this during your television commercials as well.
Some skills that are critical for reactive dogs to learn include making eye contact with owner, head turn when name called, touch or hand targeting, sit, down, recall, and leave it. In fact, those are terrific skills for any dog to have, not just reactive dogs! Training these skills really can help you help your dog once you are back in public again. You can find countless free YouTube videos on how to teach these essential skills to your dog—just make sure that you are watching videos created by force-free trainers.
My favorite maker of quality mind puzzles is Nina Ottosson (www.nina-ottosson.com). Nina has created a wide variety of mind puzzles for dogs and cats that range from easy to complicated.
Have a Front-Yard Sniff-a-Thon
Because sniffing/seeking is vital to your dog, after you have done at least five days in a row (ten days would be better) of the fun stuff previously mentioned, try a “front yard sniff-a-thon.” What is that? You prepare by putting your dog in a harness—double leash on a flat collar if you wish for added safety—and having super-delicious training treats with you. This is a great game to play before you feed your dog breakfast or dinner because he will be hungry and eager to work for treats. One of my secret training tools is Easy Cheese, which is always a big hit in our Growly Dog classes. Easy Cheese and hot dogs have truly saved many dogs and helped them grow past their fears.
You might want to do your first sniff-a-thon in a secure backyard. You simply follow your dog around on leash, and every time he looks back at you on his own accord (without you calling his name or saying anything), you mark it with a yes! or click and a squirt of the mighty Easy Cheese.
Off you go, again and again and again. When the dog has either gotten all of his sniffing out in that session or, better yet, stops moving around and sits and looks at you for a little more cheese, then try this in the front yard. Be sure to give yourself a safe spot to do an emergency U-turn and put a barrier between you and other dogs/triggers, which can mean working close to your front door or putting your car in the driveway. You want that visual block just in case you need it.
All of these games serve the very important functions of strengthening your bond and adding much-needed deposits into your bank account of trust. The more your dog is focused on you, the less time he has to scan the environment, looking for potential threats. Even with nonreactive dogs, I always start out in a calm, controlled, quiet space, and I perfect the skills there before venturing outside and asking for the skills in the wide open world, full of scents and other distractions.
In case you might still question whether the “don’t walk the dog” (until you’ve changed his emotions around his triggers) applies to you, please do this for me: take a three-day challenge. Keep a journal to see if your dog can stay content inside his home (backyard included) without going over threshold for three days in a row. The results may serve as a big wake-up call. To really do these protocols justice, it would be best to refrain from walking your dog in the scary outside world for four weeks while you reframe your dog’s reactions.
A client’s dog named Toby, relaxing after nosework. If the owners don’t have a problem with dogs on the furniture, then it is OK to allow them on it.