How can I re-socialize my dog-agressive dog?
October 6, 2009 8:24 AM   Subscribe

My dog slowly went from loveable goofball to dog park bully. He's been on probation for about 6 months, and I'd like to start the process of re-socializing him and (hopefully) someday return to the dog park. How do I do this without putting any other dogs in danger -- especially considering that I don't currently know any other dog owners, and I don't have a good private space for doggie playdates?

My dog is a 3-year-old 50-lb. boxer mix. He might have some pittie-type genes in him, but it's debatable. Once upon a time, he was a happy-go-lucky pup who went to doggie daycare twice a week and never had any problems with other dogs. I took him to dog parks all the time, he chased his ball, he romped with other dogs and had a great time. Life was good.

When he was a little less than 2 years, he started to get into scuffles with other dogs -- quick explosions that were over as soon as they had begun. At that point, it never seemed like he was instigating, just defending himself from more dominant dogs that tried to bully him. No one was ever hurt, and most owners recognized it as normal dog behavior and weren't bothered.

It slowly got worse. He started getting into serious fights, always with intact males (he's neutered). He would instigate fights. He'd trot over to a dog, put his head over their shoulder, and if they moved their head toward him, BAM -- snarling, yelping, biting, owners screaming, dogs being pulled apart and me walking my bully home in humiliation. He seems like a pretty clear case of a socially insecure beta-male trying to prove himself. He hasn't seriously injured any dogs, but he's scared the bejesus out of me.

After 3 of those and a few other close calls, I finally admitted to myself that I couldn't trust him around other dogs. Some dogs he is totally fine with, but it got so unpredictable that it didn't seem worth the risk.

It has been about 6 months since he's been to a dog park. We walk every day, I'm starting to go running with him every day, we train at home, and through training he's showing definite improvements in his general behavior. We still don't have much contact with other dogs, and when he meets other dogs on his leash he's usually happy and does play-bows or jumps around and whines and wags his tail -- all great signs -- but I still get really tense. I try to breathe and calm down but it's so hard to quell that fear that he's going to hurt another dog. It might even be an instinctual response for me now -- he gets close to a dog and my lizard brain floods my body with adrenaline to prepare for the possibility of an attack.

OK, so here's what I need your help with:

I've read practically every dog book ever written. Patricia McConnell is my hero. So I know I need to relax, and I'll only be able to do that by getting practice seeing him play well with other dogs. I think my first step needs to be to set up a private playdate with a dog he gets along with, but I'm not even sure how to realistically make that happen. I don't have any friends with dogs, and I'm too shy to set up a playdate with other dog owners I see on the street.

Also, I live in Boston and don't have a good private space to host a playdate. I have a tiny yard but it's not big enough for 2 dogs to really run around. There are fenced dog parks but they're always crammed with dogs. There are fenced non-dog parks, but when I step foot in them with my dog I get yelled at by passers-by for having the audacity to bring a dog into a completely empty park.

I'm so frustrated, and so sad for my little guy, but I'm not ready to give up and doom him to a life of no contact with other dogs. Hive, do you have any suggestions or tips for me? How can I get him back to that happy, well-adjusted pup he used to be?
posted by roscopcoletrane to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Have you thought about putting a muzzle on the little guy until you're happy with his public behaviour?
posted by Static Vagabond at 8:30 AM on October 6, 2009

Response by poster: I haven't seriously considered a muzzle, and it might be an option. I'm curious to hear peoples' experiences with basket muzzles.

Based on how he reacted when I put a Halti on him, I suspect he would behave very differently with the muzzle on, to the point of not wanting to interact with other dogs and just staring at me like "Can we go home now? I hate this thing." But I could also see him getting used to it and after a few weeks of daily dog-parking with a muzzle maybe it could come off and he'd be ok.

I also just worry about other people's reaction to seeing a dog enter a park with a muzzle. I worry that everyone else would leave when I show up, because a muzzle pretty clearly labels a dog as "dangerous." Although, then we would have the park to ourselves and could play in peace...
posted by roscopcoletrane at 8:55 AM on October 6, 2009

I can't help with the rest of it, but I think a muzzle would be terrifying to a dog who was already insecure--you'd be taking away a defense that he clearly feels he really needs.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:02 AM on October 6, 2009

Do you ever take him to the dog park and keep the leash on him? It limits his play, but you're right there if he gets in another dog's face and can quickly pull him away (even pre-emptively).

My dog actually gets more aggressive when she's on the leash, behavior which does not happen in the leash-free area (she's a peacemaker there).

But if your dog is friendlier on the leash, maybe that's what he needs even in the leash-free area.
posted by aabbbiee at 9:10 AM on October 6, 2009

Where do you live? Maybe we can connect you with some nice doggie folks for playdates.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:40 AM on October 6, 2009

You might check out Canine University which has a site in Malden - I've heard good things about them, and that's where we plan to take our dog for obedience (they use clicker and positive reinforcement) training. I think that (or some other trainer-based resource) might be a way to address the problem directly. Absent some retraining, the muzzle may backfire or provide only temporary respite.

We've just started bringing our new greyhound to the local dog park and since he's fine with big dogs but skittish about little dogs if they're barky - he was bitten in a prior home. So until we have a good read on his body language, we use the turn-out muzzle provided by the rescue agency we adopted him from.
posted by canine epigram at 9:45 AM on October 6, 2009

Just a comment on the muzzle: I have a 20 lb dog, so when we go to the park I try to be aware of dogs that might be interested in eating my dog for lunch...there's a dog with a muzzle that is a regular at the park we go, and I don't worry about it at all....I figure it has a muzzle for a reason, but that dog physically can't make my dog a snack very easily. I don't have any problem with my dog playing with that dog and I appreciate that the owner is being responsible. If your dog can handle the muzzle, I think its an ok way to start.

Also, do some research and see if there is a dog training class around that focuses on feisty dogs. Usually there is a "safe socialization" component to those classes that might be a good way to find dogs to work on this with. And for the places to let your dog run around without dogs...try tennis courts. Once they take the nets down for the winter, that's usually a really big fenced in area that is dead empty.
posted by mjcon at 10:28 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Call/email Patrica McConnell. I have personally known dogs she's worked with and I expect she can recommend a trainer in your neck of the woods. She's good people.

Also, her methodology is spot on. I've dealt w/ non-positive-reinforcement trainers and I haven't seen one that can match my lazy, amateur, positive-reinforcement results with my dog. Fuck Cesar Milan, he's doing it wrong.
posted by stet at 11:58 AM on October 6, 2009

Well good for you for being a responsible dog owner - realizing that you have a situation and deciding to work on it are a great first step!

IMHO, it sounds like you need some professional intervention via a trainer who has experience dealing with dogs who exhibit aggressive tendencies.
posted by radioamy at 12:05 PM on October 6, 2009

Can you put a Gentle Leader on him? For some reason, that back of the head pressure does wonders for our borderline bully--it seems to calm him and it gives you greater control when you need to correct bad behavior.
posted by AuntieRuth at 12:20 PM on October 6, 2009

We've been working on the unneutered male problem with our neutered lab for close to ten years without much success. I doubt if it's even something you could work out with a friend since I strongly suspect the problem is unneutered stranger dogs.

Honestly, a lot of urban dog parks or doggie day cares are pretty high stress environments for many dogs. Some dogs can just roll with it and some can't. I'd recommend doing your doggie socializing in more controlled situations.
posted by timeistight at 12:27 PM on October 6, 2009

P.S. One thing we've gotten really good at is spotting unneutered males, sometimes even before Joey does, depending on the prevailing winds. When we do, we leash him up and move away.
posted by timeistight at 12:30 PM on October 6, 2009

If you honestly believe that your dog might have some pitbull genes, then you should recognize that many pit bull owners actively avoid dog parks. They are genetically predisposed to dog aggression, and dog aggression + strange dogs + a sea of inattentive owners (important!) just won't work for some dogs.

Also, I don't know about muzzling. I mean, muzzling is fine as a protective measure for any reason, but do you really want to take the dog somewhere where it feels anxiety and can't do anything about it? Also, you can't play ball with it on, so what's the point in going?
posted by fujiko at 12:38 PM on October 6, 2009

Dog parks are generally a bad place to socialize your dog.

You cannot count on everyone at a dog park having a well-socialized dog, or keeping an eye or their dog, or expecting the correct behavior from their dog.

Try to find a small group of responsible dog owners, perhaps a group training class, to work on your dog's social skills.

When he was a little less than 2 years, he started to get into scuffles with other dogs

This makes sense. Anywhere between 6 months and 2 years, dogs go through their adolescence and early adulthood. They often display unexpected changes in aggression during this time. They also can be fearful and suspicious of new experiences.

This is a time where you need to be patient with your dog. You need to build confidence. This is best accomplished through training. Please look into having your dog visit with a behaviorist or consider enrolling in a group obedience class.
posted by Seppaku at 12:40 PM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you honestly believe that your dog might have some pitbull genes, then you should recognize that many pit bull owners actively avoid dog parks.

What fujiko said.

I would never, ever take my American Staffordshire Terrier ('pit bull*') to a dog park. Even if he wasn't dog aggressive, which he is.

If your boxer, which some people cannot even distinguish from a 'pit bull,' gets into a fight, your dog will be blamed. He's got that 'look.'

* there is no such thing as a 'pit bull.' There are American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, American Bullies, American Bulldogs, and Bull Terriers. 'Pit bull' is a catch-all term for these breeds in general, but each has a different temperament, structure, etc.
posted by Seppaku at 12:46 PM on October 6, 2009

Also, if you got your dog from a rescue or a shelter, there's a chance he is a bully-breed mix that was "re-branded" as a boxer. Happens all the time, because people are more likely to adopt a boxer mix than a 'pit bull ' mix.
posted by Seppaku at 12:51 PM on October 6, 2009

My dog bit a couple people 2 months ago. Since then we've begun a training program and she has to wear a muzzle when out in public. It's a basket muzzle and despite not liking it (she tries to rub it off) she has done quite well with it. One of Cesar Millan's tricks is to put a little treat inside the basket before putting it on to create a positive association. I haven't had to use it as my dog is pretty good about letting us put it on.

Benefits of the muzzle: She won't bite anyone, and I stay relaxed and don't tense up from having to worry about her biting anyone (and thus she won't feel any tension and react to that). All in all, I would say it's working for us. She'll probably be wearing it for a couple more months until training is over.
posted by choochoo at 1:08 PM on October 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I've been reading your responses with great interest. I will respond to several of you later when I have some more time, but I want to jump in quickly and try to redirect this away from becoming a pit bull flame war. My question is about dog-aggression, regardless of breed. I have no way of proving his breed at the moment, so it really shouldn't be part of this discussion. For now I'm looking for strategies for how to cautiously go about figuring out if this behavior pattern is reversible.

Many of us (including me) have very strong opinions about the "pit bull" debate and I'm worried that bringing them into this will derail the thread completely. I'm sorry I even mentioned it. Thanks for understanding.
posted by roscopcoletrane at 1:22 PM on October 6, 2009

Another thing Cesar Milan recommends re: dog parks is take your dog ofr a walk before going to the park. Give the dog some exercise and work off a bunch of it's energy. That way, when you get to the park, the dog is in a more mellow headspace.

Very much nthing the Cesar Milan recommendation.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:44 PM on October 6, 2009

I don't think this is a breed-specific problem. As I said my dog is a famously lovable Labrador Retriever and he does this.

I think it's really more of a symptom of the modern, urban dog-owning environment.
posted by timeistight at 2:08 PM on October 6, 2009

We still don't have much contact with other dogs, and when he meets other dogs on his leash he's usually happy and does play-bows or jumps around and whines and wags his tail -- all great signs -- but I still get really tense.

It sounds like Cesar would say that you're a big part of the problem, since your dog is looking to you for leadership when you meet strange dogs, and you get nervous.

And with regards to his breed, I don't think anyone was starting a pit bull flame war. As someone who has worked with all kinds of dogs, I will assert that pit bulls and other 'bully' breeds are different than other breeds*, especially when it comes to dog aggression. All dog breeds have the capacity to be dog aggressive, but only a few breeds were bred specifically to be dog aggressive.

When training a dog, it is always helpful to consider the breed if that information is known. So don't do yourself a disservice by dismissing your dog's breed because you want to avoid controversy.

And, as I said above, even if you don't think or know that your dog is a 'pit bull,' if he acts aggressively towards other dogs he may be charged with being a 'pit bull.' That additional liability should keep you away from the dog park indefinitely. Unfortunately, while few people confuse poodles with cocker spaniels, plenty of people confuse boxers or boxer mixes with 'pit bulls.'

Not only that, but try to keep your dog away from dog parks where patrons bring their intact male or female dogs to play.

* I will only ever have 'pit bulls' from now on. Such awesome dogs.
posted by Seppaku at 3:16 PM on October 6, 2009

I don't know about the park you go to, but at ours there are signs ALL OVER saying to make sure your leash is off your dog before getting into the park. Many dogs get skiddish when they see a dog on a leash.
posted by 6:1 at 5:38 PM on October 6, 2009

If your boxer, which some people cannot even distinguish from a 'pit bull,' gets into a fight, your dog will be blamed. He's got that 'look.'

Can't emphasize this enough. My dog doesn't have a whisper of dog aggression, but we don't go to dog parks -- if anything happened, regardless of the facts, it would immediately be his fault on accounta his ancestry.
posted by tangerine at 4:22 PM on October 7, 2009

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