Is this dog compatible with our family?
July 22, 2009 1:52 PM   Subscribe

Our recently-acquired dog has been having some major behavior problems and showing some aggression that worries us because we also have a 6-month old child. We've been taking the dog to training classes but so far it hasn't been fruitful. Should we give him back? (TLDR details inside)

My wife and I adopted Flip, an Australian shepherd mix, off Craigslist at the end of March. (At least, we were told that was his breed, here's his picture if anyone cares to weigh in.) Our last dog had just died after a battle with lymphoma. We really, really missed him and found our house empty without a dog, so two weeks later we got Flip. I guess you could say he was a rebound.

We started having problems with him immediately. The biggest concern was barking ... he's 5 years old and didn't prove to be easy to train out of the habit, unlike our last dog. He clearly considers the house his domain and barks when anything gets within a 200 foot radius. He'll acknowledge me when I correct him but if the stimulus is still out there he'll then continue to bark. That's not a huge problem, though ... I'm a dog person and I love playing with him in the backyard, like his companionship and find his personality really amusing.

The bigger problem is his aggression. He's one of those dogs that whenever he sees another dog he instantly goes all aggro on it. He inspires aggression in other dogs, too. Snarling, rip-your-throat-out aggression. We quickly trained Flip out of nipping habits towards us when we got him (the cattle-dog traits of nipping at your hand or hip if you're going an unexpected direction, etc), but if he's running after another dog and I correct him with the choke collar, he will transfer the aggression and attempt to snap at me if I'm in his way. I immediately discipline him when this happens (pull him down by the scruff of the neck and pin him until he stops fighting it) but this trait worries me.

Last night at dog training was awful. He barked at the other dogs the entire hour, he refused to sit down with his back to other dogs, and when the instructor took him to demonstrate a particular heeling technique, he nipped at the instructor's hands and crotch as he was led around. The instructor has suggested we get a pinch collar, which we will certainly do, but my wife and I are worried that these behaviors are going to end up with our son being bitten once he's old enough to start annoying the dog. We never leave the two alone together but we don't want to keep Flip if there's not a good chance that we can train this behavior out of him.

What would you suggest?
posted by Happydaz to Pets & Animals (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have three herding dogs, and all of them behave this way to a degree. We've trained them to obey our commands, and we keep them away from other dogs whose aggression they might inspire, but we've accepted that there's no way to train this sort of behavior out of them. I'd take Flip back and get a lab mutt, if I were in your shoes.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 1:57 PM on July 22, 2009

I wouldn't take the risk. What if the child decides to walk the wrong way one day?
posted by Solomon at 1:59 PM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm with Solomon and MCLC on this, and it sounds to me like you've already sort of made your mind up. He's a nice looking dog who might be better off elsewhere.
posted by jquinby at 2:05 PM on July 22, 2009

There are many many dogs out there that are very safe with small children. As a mom and a long-time dog lover, I wouldn't take the chance with a dog like Flip around my toddler. "Never leave the two alone together" gets much harder to monitor when they both are mobile, and I personally would err on the side of pessimism about training Flip out of these behaviors enough that he would become a safe-around-small-kids dog.
posted by not that girl at 2:08 PM on July 22, 2009

You sound like awesome dog owners!
I'd just like to add some unsolicited advice. As someone with a daughter who developed allergies at age 5, if you're going to expand your family with a dog now, you might want to consider a non-shedding breed or mix, just to lessen the possiblity of having to give your dog away for that reason later. Unfortunately, for reasons that are not the fault of our animal pals, asthma is becoming more and more common in children.
posted by Toto_tot at 2:09 PM on July 22, 2009

Does he have a "job?" Herding dogs need jobs. They really, really do. His job could be as simple as playing fetch with someone until he drops from exhaustion, but he needs a job.

My friend adopted an Australian shepherd (and Flip looks remarkably like Molly) who used to display the behaviors you're describing, and my friend has four young children. She was at her wits end until she found a trainer who really understood herding dogs. Once the trainer found out what Molly's job was (agility trials; they have a small course set up in the backyard that they take her through every day. It's changeable and she just loves it), they were able to train the undesirable behaviors out.

It sounds like you really want to make this work. Try a little bit more and at least you'll feel like you did everything you could.
posted by cooker girl at 2:12 PM on July 22, 2009

I really think you should find him another home. Your child is too young, and Flip (who is very cute, btw) is unpredictable. There's no shame in this relationship not working out.
posted by WyoWhy at 2:16 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Honestly, an Australian shepherd sounds like a bad choice of breed for your living situation. They're working dogs and they'll become dangerously neurotic when they don't have enough outlets for burning off energy. It's possible he could be re-trained, but it doesn't sound like you're in a good situation to retrain him or to provide the kind of home he needs.

Take him back. When you do, be honest about the problems you've been having with him.

Utility breeds in general are high energy dogs and they don't cope well with not having outlets for that energy. When you get a new dog, don't just look at the time and energy you'll have available to invest in the dog when you acquire it, but whether you'll still have that time and energy available taking into account your anticipated lifestyle changes over the next 5-10 years.

FWIW, make sure that you also take into account known health issues within any breed of dog you're considering getting - they're common in utility breeds and can be extremely expensive to treat.
posted by Lolie at 2:17 PM on July 22, 2009

Someday I'm going to 1) read the question three times before posting an answer and 2) preview.

I missed this: Snarling, rip-your-throat-out aggression.

Flip probably isn't the right dog for your family. Is there a breed rescue he could go to?
posted by cooker girl at 2:20 PM on July 22, 2009

I think that you should definitely find him another home. As soon as your child is crawling and learning to walk, he'll try to pull himself up on the dog, or move towards the dog, or pull the dog's tail. These things are bound to happen, even if you are extremely vigilant. And it's only going to take a second for the dog to react.

I have a four-year-old daughter and a lab, and she was rough on him when she was younger. Not because she was trying to be mean, but because we had to educate her on the appropriate ways to act around animals as well. "Don't ride the dog!" was commonly heard in our house for a while. The dog would put his ears back and his tail between his legs, and then look to us for help. He never ever nipped or growled. They are the best of buddies now.

Your dog would probably be a great dog for a family with older kids, but I would not want him around a baby/toddler.

You sound like wonderful dog owners, by the way. It's really difficult to re-train a dog that perhaps was not properly socialized with kids at a young age. You're doing what you can, but maybe the investment of your time and energy would be better spent training a puppy or a dog that was more naturally inclined to be patient and safe around kids.
posted by Ostara at 2:24 PM on July 22, 2009

Best answer: IANAdog trainer or behaviorist, just a schmoe who's had dogs for a long time.

Flip looks more like a border collie mix than an Aussie mix to me, but that means nothing, especially since the herding and bossy-bossy issues are going to be pretty much the same in both breeds. At five years, these personality traits and behaviors are undoubtedly strongly ingrained, as M.C. Lo-Carb! intimates, you're probably looking at reducing and controlling rather than eliminating them.

Dog-aggressive dogs are often perfectly fine with humans, BUT, you've suggested that he's also exhibiting territoriality and that redirected aggression where the if the dog can't get to the initial trigger, it redirects the aggression to an adjacent dog or person. That last one is what makes me most nervous about your kid, the possibility that Flip will see a stray dog in your yard, go ballistic, and deflect that onto Babydaz.

Anecdotally, I've found and heard that dogs with significant behavior problems and dog-dislike issues are sometimes better off with individual training, working with a professional trainer and you one-on-one, than in a group training class surrounded by other dogs. He needs to learn gradually how to cope with nearby dogs rather than being tossed headfirst into a yard full of them. And all these dogs are in the class because they're not yet all that trained, which means they're probably a bit unruly and keyed up. That's just a whole lot of distraction for a dog who is at square one and not fully socialized. Also, I personally wouldn't be pinning down a dog who had already demonstrated some aggression. Yes, you need to correct him and teach him not to challenge you, but that physically dominating "alpha dog" stuff can backfire in scary ways.

The other key thing if you do decide to stick with Flip is to attempt to exercise the hell out of him every single day, and I say "attempt" because herding breeds are notoriously difficult to tire out since they're bred to work long and hard. The tireder he is, the better and more trainable.

Overall, though, observe Flip carefully and listen to your gut. When I've had aggression problems with dogs, I've always had a "bad feeling in my bones" sensation early on, and after stupidly disregarding that and telling myself, "oh, you're overreacting, we'll work it out" a time or two, I've learned that if I get that "I don't like the look of where this dynamic is heading" sensation, I should trust it.

So if you have a sincerely uneasy feeling about Flip, rehome him. I wish we could all take in and care for every troubled dog, but we can't, and there are lots and lots of good-natured dogs without dangerous issues who need homes too.
posted by FelliniBlank at 2:26 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you looked in your area to see if there is a trainer who specializes in working stock dogs? A lot of Australian Shepherd owners find relief in sending their pooch "to the farm" once or twice a week. The dogs calm down quite a bit when they can find a constructive outlet for the herding instinct.

Also, run him. Run, run, run. You may be doing this already, but strap on a pair of rollerblades or running shoes and take him with you for a few miles. Aussies are a very high energy breed and need this kind of exercise on a regular basis. Remember that on the farm, they're following their owner around ALL day and chasing livestock for much of it.

You say that you're disciplining him, but if you're grabbing him by the scruff when he's already worked up, you may be intensifying the aggression rather than quelling it. Pulling up/back when a dog is focused forward won't stop the aggression, it will make it worse. Try kicking his hindquarters, if he's focused on what is ahead (not with a lot of force, just enough to tap/startle him out of it--like if you were intently tapping on someone's shoulder when they're not paying attention to you). If that doesn't work, try pulling to the side.

Make him respect personal space at all times--he should be keeping a bubble around humans unless he is welcomed in. If he gets to close, discipline; square off your shoulders and summon your best inner boss--project dominance. Not anger or frustration, but "boss-ness". (I always think to myself, "My way or the highway, bucko.")

I know it sounds trite, but try to catch an episode or two of The Dog Whisperer and see if you're following similar rules at your house.

The good news is that if you are able to take back the role of pack leader you will have a very loyal protector for your son. Our Aussie passed away this last winter--he was a working farm dog at my husband's parent's. We gave him "his retirement" when one too many horse kicks caught up with him. (Arthritis) He was never trained--he just instinctively took to herding whatever was around him and seemed to have an uncanny ability to suss out property borders. In his younger days, he was a trustworthy "babysitter" on the farm--on numerous occasions he would nudge children away from the road and back towards the house. In his later years, we became his herd. He couldn't rest until both my husband and I were in the same room.

Bottom line--I suspect he sees you and the family (and the trainer too) as *flock* and not as *boss*. Try to work on this social dynamic as hard as it sounds like you are working on the training and see if things work out. Otherwise, you may be better suited for a lower energy breed like a Newfoundland. (Perfectly happy to function as a furry mountain for child climbers.)
posted by muirne81 at 2:30 PM on July 22, 2009

I have a cousin, now 30, with scars on his face, one fairly significant in front of his ear and along his jaw line, that he received from dog bites as a child, from a dog his mom owned.

I know what I would choose to do if I had a human-aggressive dog and a small child.
posted by 6550 at 2:34 PM on July 22, 2009

I should correct myself--Newfies are not neccessarily lower energy, but are typically mellower dogs.
posted by muirne81 at 2:35 PM on July 22, 2009

Newfies are not neccessarily lower energy, but are typically mellower dogs.

Agree 100%. The males can be a bit on the, er, drooly side though. They're awesome dogs, though. Big furry mountains of love for sure. For mellow, it can also be hard to beat a retired greyhound (as I've mentioned here before). You don't get much more couch-potato-ish.
posted by jquinby at 2:42 PM on July 22, 2009

I should correct myself--Newfies are not neccessarily lower energy, but are typically mellower dogs.

My favourite of all the utility breeds and excellent with children, but they do blow their coats and the breed can have health issues which are expensive (and potentially lethal). Great family dogs, if you can afford emergency veterinary care (as with all the giant, deep-chested breeds, gastric torsion is a very real possibility) and don't mind the shedding (they're double coated, and it's amazing how much fur you find on the floor when they're blowing their coats).
posted by Lolie at 2:43 PM on July 22, 2009

it's amazing how much fur you find on the floor when they're blowing their coats

Believe it or not, you can actually card and spin that fur... Don't ask how I know this. :-P
posted by muirne81 at 2:44 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers so far. As a way of clarification, here's my basic question: How feasible is it (and how much effort would it take) to train the aggression out of this dog? So while it certainly may sound like our minds are already made up, we keep on going through this cycle where I'm like "honey, we're getting rid of this terrible dog" and then during the course of the next week or two I'll warm up to him again and he'll be great and I'll say "you know, I really like this dog" and then he demonstrates a behavior problem again. So yeah, while our current feelings on the dog are "kick him to the curb", I'm sure in a week or two I'll love him again. Which is why the real question we want answered is the feasibility of training. Sorry if that was unclear in the intial question!
posted by Happydaz at 2:50 PM on July 22, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, and when he was placed on Craigslist, his owners told us they got at least 20 responses. So I don't think it would be hard to give him up. They even indicated they'd want to know if we gave him up so they could ensure he went to a good home. So I'm not worried him ending up at the pound, I just don't want to admit defeat if training is feasible.
posted by Happydaz at 2:52 PM on July 22, 2009

My granddad adopted a young border collie who sounds just like your pup. The dog was designed for something which wasn't being a family pet. Fortunately my uncle had a farm at the time so the dog moved there and turned into the best dog ever, great around people and totally trouble free. The difference was that it had the space to run about a hundred miles a day which is what it was built for. Not all dogs follow their breed characteristics but those that do? No good in a family home and no amount of training is likely to change that... Do the right thing for the family and the dog and try to find it somewhere to be itself.
posted by merocet at 2:58 PM on July 22, 2009

Which is why the real question we want answered is the feasibility of training.

He can probably be retrained. The question is whether you would be willing and able to invest the time and money this would entail and afterwards provide an environment in which he won't go nuts. It doesn't sound like you're in a position to create that environment.
posted by Lolie at 3:08 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How feasible is it (and how much effort would it take) to train the aggression out of this dog?

Objectively, it is feasible. It can be done.


Is it feasible for you? That depends on your location/access to resources and most importantly, personalities.

Resources: with an Aussie, particularly a "strong" Aussie like Flip, you need to find a trainer who specializes in working stock dogs, or a trainer who can work one-on-one with your family on the social dynamic in addition to the behavior training. Aggression issues will not be solved in a group dog training class. They may make it worse. Those classes are for teaching commands, not for teaching dog psychology. Forgive me for the bad metaphor, but you need to treat the cause of the tooth ache, not the ache itself.

Personalities: here's the hard part to hear... You & your wife need to be willing to be the BossMan 24-7 and to teach your children how to be as well. That means 110% consistency in the application of rules--everything from not walking out the front door before you to not getting on the furniture to not eating until you allow him to, etc. ad nauseum. And if you're not on a farm, you must Exercise daily with a capital E. If this sounds like a lot of work to you, listen to your gut and do what is best for your family and for Flip.

Only you can judge what amount of effort you are comfortable with. With what I would consider some focused and consistent work, you might be excellent companions. Just know that this isn't a fix it and then forget about it situation; you will need to be the BossMan until Flip crosses Rainbow Bridge. For some animal lovers, this is an exhausting prospect. Only you can know if you're one of them.
posted by muirne81 at 3:21 PM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think it's feasible, but you might want to look into a) one-on-one training with a trainer experienced with this sort of thing (and his breed), and b) positive reinforcement-based training. (Really though, you won't know for sure 'til you try.)

Your current methods of corrections/training could actually be escalating the aggression. Punitive methods like leash corrections, grabbing by the scruff, (and using equipment such as pinch collars) etc. can be ineffective when dealing with leash and dog aggression, which often has its roots in fear. Basically, the corrections serve to reinforce the unwanted behavior — in your dog's view, it goes "I see a dog, I'm scared and react, I get yanked/scruffed, so other dogs=REALLY bad. Must react more next time." I learned this the hard way, and have had to work long and hard to correct my mistakes with my now much-improved dog-aggressive dog.

If you do decide to keep your dog, IMHO, I think you'll see better results with positive reinforcement and desensitization. (I commented on leash aggression here if you want to see an example of how the process of desensitization works. And FWIW, I'm definitely more partial to the methods used by Victoria Stilwell of the program "It's Me or the Dog" than those of Cesar Millan. YMMV.)
posted by lovermont at 3:28 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I urge you to consult a qualified animal behaviorist. It looks like you are in Oregon. Contact the Academy for Dog Trainers at the San Francisco SPCA and ask for a certified behaviorist working in your area. They have graduates working all over North America. A behaviorist will evaluate Flip, recommend what to do, either training or re-homing.

If you decide to re-home, Flip should be evaluated by an expert and placed in an appropriate home. He has an aggression problem that can probably be addressed. But if he winds up in a family that is not prepared for his special qualities, he will not get the help he needs. Ultimately he could hurt someone and come to a bad end. Flip doesn't deserve that.

IMHO, He looks and sounds like a good dog who needs expert help.
posted by valannc at 3:39 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Here are the referral lists of graduates of the SFSPCA Academy for Dog Trainers. There are many in Oregon.
Good luck with Flip. Congrats on your enlightened attitude in wanting to address his problem.
posted by valannc at 3:48 PM on July 22, 2009

I'm gonna follow the letter of the law here and answer the actual, above-the-fold item that had the question mark:

Should we give him back?

posted by tristeza at 5:27 PM on July 22, 2009

Best answer: You cannot train out aggression, you can just control it (and you ALWAYS have to control the environment with an aggressive dog). The training methods you are using, collar corrections and pinning and all that stuff, are exactly the opposite of what you should be doing with a dog who is already aroused, they are in all likelihood making the problem worse, and making it much more likely that you will be bitten. If you intend to work on this, you need an actual dog behaviourist, and one-on-one sessions out in the real world, and you need a behaviourist who uses modern, science-based methods. That said, this question is likely beyond the scope of AskMe, and I honestly think that this dog sounds like a bad fit for your family, managing a dog like this is pretty much a permanent project, it is never "finished". I would return this dog in your situation.
posted by biscotti at 6:24 PM on July 22, 2009

I think even the hopeful answers here, OP, are not so hopeful for your situation, with a baby that will be crawling within a couple of months and pulling herself up within 4 months. Because of the timing here, your attention is divided, and your ability to control the situation will decrease swiftly in the next couple months. I guess, from your update, that your question is more whether it's possible to train these behaviors out at all, but I think people are quite rightly adding "in the context of a household with a soon-to-be-mobile baby," and that's where it seems like a good idea to rehome the dog.
posted by palliser at 7:25 PM on July 22, 2009

With your baby in the picture, I would say reach out to your local Aussie rescue group and see if they would rehome a dog with Flip's issues. If they won't, ask if they know who will. It might also help to see a couple of trainers and see if you can get a handle on what's going on with Flip.

You could try reaching these folks, but I don't get the sense from your post that Flip is what they're looking for or how you would get him across the country, but they may have some thoughts.

If the craigslist owner didn't tell you that a five-year old dog had known issues, the next person will be in the same stew you are - or worse.

The training time for a truly aggressive dog is significant - both in the length of time required and the daily work required.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:56 PM on July 22, 2009

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