Help for a Growly Doggy
May 10, 2010 1:50 AM   Subscribe

Have you successfully curbed/managed/retrained the aggression out of your dog? Please tell me your success stories! What did you do? How long did it take?

I have a rescue dog here (a mutt, possibly 3 years old?), not sure about past history. Gets along fine with other dogs in the household, but on walks, barks and growls at strange dogs that are bigger than he is.

(Also will bark and growl occasionally at passing people, though after having them meet him and give him treats, he seems to have stopped this behavior in the last week or so, after a dozen or so treat-related encounters.)

I guess I'm concerned about his dog aggression getting any worse. He hasn't bitten anyone or any dog, but am concerned about this possibility. (He is also submissive, gentle and totally non-growly to me and my family, if that means anything. I and other humans can easily and safely grab a treat from his mouth though he'll growl at the other household dog if it tries to do the same.)

I hear so many stories of aggressive dogs whose dog aggression could not be altered...I feel like I need some hope that this isn't true. Maybe it's too much to ask for a dog that loves other dogs, but I hope one day I can have a well-adjusted dog that I can bring to an off-leash area who will not bark, chase and growl at other dogs who playfully or calmly get too close.

Right now I am telling him to sit and giving him treats when another dog appears in view. Unless I continually feed him treats as a distraction, it seems once he sees the other dog, and if it's a large size, he'll freeze, wait a couple of seconds, then start barking, lunge on his leash, and throw in a growl or two. He doesn't seem crazy-out-of-control, but he does seem protective and possibly afraid/intimidated.

Have you ever had to work with this? Whatever happened to the dog? Is the dog able to meet other dogs now calmly and happily? Is there hope for Mr. Growly?

If you have any tips for us, I'd also appreciate it. Thanks!

Note: yes, he's fixed.
posted by The ____ of Justice to Pets & Animals (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and if anyone is wondering, I *think* the dog is part Corgi.

Ugh...I just looked up male Corgi aggression issues...prognosis does not seem to be good! :-/
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:47 AM on May 10, 2010

If you're a fan of Cesar Milan's philosophy, this could be helpful.

It seems like if you already can get your dog to sit and behave to some extent, this is fixable.
posted by dzaz at 2:49 AM on May 10, 2010

My husband's dog was pretty poorly behaved, and was aggressive toward me and towards dogs. We got an in-home trainer who comes over and has sessions with them. They've spent the last six months or so working with the dog to decrease his aggression. We're not at 100% yet, but he is definitely a better behaved dog. The last time they had a session, the trainer brought her dog and they went out on a walk together, all four of them, and it was fine!

Look at my previous question (which turned into a bit of a dogpile, but anyway), particularly this comment. I think it's possible, but the advice I would give would be to get a trainer. Don't think you can necessarily solve this by yourself.
posted by emkelley at 5:16 AM on May 10, 2010

My dog was a rescue, is a mutt (westie and basset mix), and you could be describing him to a tee when I first got him.

I took him to a one-on-one training class, where it was just us, and the trainer who brought one dog.

It really seemed to help to be introduced to a strange dog in that controlled environment - at first my dog barked his fool head off, making all kinds of rucus. After about 5 minutes, he started to calm down. The treats came out at that point, and the big breakthrough seems to come when we fed both dogs at the same time, the same treats, kinda alternating...showing my dog that the other dog was not someone to be wary of, but instead the whole "hey, when other dogs are around, I get a surfeit of treats!"

It sounds silly, but from that point forward, it was like a light switch was flipped. The barking ceased, and now most of the time I have to hold him back because HEY! THERE'S A DOG OVER THERE AND I WANT TO GO SAY HI! (though even this has gotten much better in the past 6 months, where most of the time I simply have to say "no" and he doesn't pull on the leash to go say hi).

In short, after the class I felt more confident that his behavior wasn't aggression so much as exuberance. Whereas before I would tense whenever I would spot another dog, and I'm sure he picked up on that, now I can act nonchalant, confident that he'll cue on that too.

So don't give up hope.
posted by namewithoutwords at 5:35 AM on May 10, 2010

My mom's dog was awful. Whenever provoked, she would attack mom's other dog. Mom got bitten badly once, too, when trying to rescue the other dog from her. They tried one on one training, even prozac! Nothing worked, and she was put to sleep. Sorry to have to tell you that.
posted by wwartorff at 8:58 AM on May 10, 2010

There is absolutely hope for Mr. Growly! Your pup sounds like a great dog who just has some leash aggression. In my opinion and experience, you are doing the right thing by offering positive reinforcement for good (non-growly behavior).

My rescue pup has aggression issues (she's a little dog who thinks the best defense is a good offense), but I have been working with her using methods from How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong and Feisty Fido. The emphasis on positive reinforcement has not only helped with her aggression, but made us a tight-knit team. My dog did not do well with Dog Whisperer type methods of asserting dominance (it really intensified her reactions to other dogs), but you will find the style that's best for you. Your vet and/or local animal resources can help with recommendations on books, methods, trainers, etc.

One thing that really helped me during training, was to make sure I practiced what I should do when my dog starts growling or barking in public. Sometimes you feel like you need to scold or physically punish (leash jerking, angry NO!s, etc), to show people that you find the behavior unacceptable. You need to relax about what other people think and focus on the reaction you should use based on your training (staying calm, quickly moving away from the other dog, rewarding good behavior, etc). Then you know you'll be making a teaching opportunity out of a frustrating situation.

Good luck! Feel free to memail me if you have any questions.
posted by annaramma at 10:28 AM on May 10, 2010

Please take a look at this thread . I wrote a longish answer there about what we did to get my Australian Shepherd past his aggressiveness to other dogs.

Please also try to steer clear of the whole "alpha dog" mythology, which is a timewaster, and zero in on positive reinforcement techniques. That is, annaramma is right.
posted by bearwife at 11:23 AM on May 10, 2010

I think as annaramma pointed out, the handler's reaction is a huge part of the overall picture. I dogsit a leash-aggressive rescue dog whose owners would tend to get very nervous about taking her on walks, because she'd gotten really bad about what we call "flipping out" (barking/lunging at other dogs). She's otherwise well obedience trained, and is friendly with other dogs in the home setting.

I made a lot of rapid progress with her on the leash aggressive thing within 2-3 days on random walk encounters by just stopping where I was, nicely explaining to the other dog owner "sorry, she's leash aggressive", thus cluing them to steer clear, and then calmly repeating "sit" "leave it" and keeping her in sit/stay as much as possible without rough handling her or getting freaked out in any way. The instant she calmed down and relaxed, I'd treat and praise her effusively. That really is the key; defuse / distract and reward positive behaviour.

Also, rather than nervously avoid the situation like her owners had tended to do (they had taken to walking her at insane 'o clock AM and/or creating complex elaborate "let's drive to this remote trail" schemes in order to avoid the neighbourhood dogs entirely, which was kind of WTF in my book) I deliberately took her to some quiet local walking trails where there would be a few strange dogs, but not somewhere like the dog park or the park next to their house and 4 other huge condo complexes where she would be completely overstimulated by canine excess. This gave us plenty of "teaching moments" but not so much confusing interaction that she'd be completely overwhelmed by it.

Her owners also happen to be triathletes, and tended to always take her on their runs, rather than really just walking her for a walk's sake. I dunno, if I were a dog craving to sensory-check my surroundings, the whole "let's just go tearing along past all this awesome sensory input" might get a little frustrating to me. So when I walked her, I WALKED her, and let her do her doggy thing, meaning if she wanted to sniff around in a bush for a bit, I'd let her, and also, reciprocally, she had to sit and mind me rather than "flipping out" when I'd see she would begin to get fixated on a strange dog. Body language was the key here; most dogs don't just randomly lunge at a stranger; they usually telegraph their hostility well in advance, which gives you time to defuse with a "sit/stay" or "leave it" and distract/reward them with the clicker and/or treat when they stand down hostilities.

Within 3 dogsitting visits of 2-3 days apiece, I was able to walk her for several miles without so much as a growl. She's a smart dog though, and a very fast learner. I think what clicked with her was that when she was calm and well behaved, she'd get treats and we would go happily strolling along exploring OMG COOL SMELLS!!, and when she wigged out, she'd have these really boring intervals when all she could do was sit there in "sit/stay".

This can of course vary with the size, stubbornness and aggressive characteristics of the dog in question. The dog I'm referencing is a smallish, slender 40-lb border collie/hound mix; the worst she would do was lunge and bark. I'm sure a 120-lb Rottie mix who's fully intent on aggression would be way more of a risky handful in a random park setting, so in that case I'd absolutely recommend soliciting the sort of professional help that both emkelley and namewithoutwords referred to above.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:20 PM on May 10, 2010

Most of what I would say has already been said; positive reinforcement etc, but I do have one thing to add:
Sitting, in that situation, can be very stressful for a dog. No matter who the aggressor is, all dogs involved are ready to be attacked. Sitting leaves them open to that attack, and while they may be obedient enough to sit when you tell them, it raises their stress level and may encourage them to be more loud/aggressive/whatever until the moment you tell them to sit.
What I recommend is basically the same technique, but focusing on distracting tasks rather than sitting. Teaching a dog "find it" (dropping treats, when you say find it they learn to start searching the ground) and "touch" (the dog needs to touch your open palm to get the treat) not only give the dog a reward for not freaking out but also keep him actively engaged with you.
Touch in particular is a great one because if you choose to only give them treats when they do something for you, then it's something very quick and easy, but reinforces the obey-reward behavior.
posted by gally99 at 7:49 AM on May 11, 2010

Most everything has been said already, but figured I'd give my two cents. Our dog has similar problems, which we've been working on for 2 years or so. Cesar Milan's practice works somewhat. What is really important is (1) repetition (2) consistency (3) "snapping him out of it" the second you see him react to another dog (ears up, or eyes focused, whatever his first sign is, you need to be very in tune w/ these little signals) and (4) remain calm (our dog is much better behaved w/ me on the street than with my boyfriend, because the second he (the bf) sees another dog, he gets stressed out -- dogs can sense these things.).

This is my strategy: see another dog down the street, if dog reacts even a bit, you tug the leash slightly, then distract w/ a command and a treat.

We had a professional trainer for about 5 hrs total, and while helpful in getting him to listen to someone other than me, she didn't tell me anything I didn't already know.

Also, try to socialize him in a dog park or something similar -- my dog is great off leash, but is still a big aggressive on-leash.

Overall, the biggest factor I've noticed is my own reaction. When I'm calm and picture the situation that I want to happen, it goes much smoother. If it will help you relax, walk him with a muzzle on (that way, even if he does get aggressive against another dog, he can't do much harm). It has more to do with the handler than you'd think.
posted by melissasaurus at 7:18 PM on May 12, 2010

Response by poster: I'm late getting back to you folks, but thanks for the answers. What seems to be working in his case is what several of you mentioned, as well as some advice I got from "The Other End of the Leash" by Patricia McConnell. I distract him, wait for eye contact/have him sit, and give him a treat as soon as he focuses on me. Before my problem was that I'd just have him sit and maaaaaybe give him a treat, but I think a) the treats weren't yummy/smelly enough and b) the focus on eye contact really seems to help and c) I needed a stronger way to distract him instead of waving the treat in his face...which in the case was poking him in the butt and making a "shhh" sound. Very gently I might add, and it seems to be the only thing that turns him around.

It seems very important, as McConnell suggests, that the dog have an alternative behavior to whatever the problem behavior is. Meaning, saying "no" and expecting them to stop is a lot harder than saying "no", helping them stop by distracting them, and then giving them an alternative behavior. (In which case, it's "look at me! In the eye!")

He watched some dogs nearby today with a couple of barks. I didn't want to tug his leash and he wasn't listening to his name being called. Maybe we should have walked away at this point, but he didn't seem CRAZY, so I just poked quickly but softly near his butt with my hand, and he looked at me, startled. As soon as he was focused on me I gave him some beef, and now he was torn between the beef and looking at the dogs...but now at least I had gotten some of his attention. Every time he looked up at them in his "alert mode", I gave him another little poke, got his eye contact and handed him another treat. After about three repetitions, he suddenly, and surprisingly, lay sprawled across the sidewalk looking at me, waiting for more treats with his hopeful "you're going to give me more, right?" face on.

So, we're working on it. This is already positive improvement over his lunging/barking/growling reaction.

He seems to have gotten over his fear of strange passing humans as well, as most of them having been shoving a lot of food in his face (food I gave to them, to in turn give to him.) I haven't heard a growl in two weeks, so I'm going to keep up this practice.

Thanks for all your help, guys.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 3:39 PM on May 15, 2010

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