Hope for a reactive dog?
August 16, 2011 5:04 PM   Subscribe

The adorable puppy our family adopted last year has matured into a reactive, resource guarding adult dog. Has anyone been able to rehabilitate this type of dog? What helped for you?

Our dog started out shy with strangers (human and canine alike). We took him to obedience classes and over the course of the 8 weeks he got so comfortable with people and dogs that we could finally take him to a dog park. He would have a great time during these visits and would play with both dogs and their owners. Outside of the dog park he was still nervous with new people but the gains we made in class made us think he was well on the road to recovery.

A month after the class ended we moved - an event that was stressful for all of us - but most stressful it seems for our dog. The move ramped up what was previously moderate resource agression to the point that I am the only person he is comfortable around with treats (kibble he is fine with people, bones not okay at all). In addition he started lunging, barking and growling at bikes, runners, and cars and regained his fear of strangers to a point that we don't feel comfortable having people over unless he is crated. At our new location we have been working with a trainer who specializes in reactive dogs. Some of these behaviors have gotten better (he lunges less) but now he is completely unpredictable. We will go on a walk and he will pass by bikes, cars and people without a problem and then all of the sudden something will pass by and he turns into cujo. In addition to training we have him wearing a thundershirt throughout the day, classical music playing and a DAP diffuser going in the area he spends most of his time in. These things seem to give him some relief from his fear and anxiety but do not even get close to getting him into a stable mental state. Currently we are looking into drug therapy to see if that helps.

At this point I am exhausted and worried that no matter how much effort I put in that he will not get to a point where it feels like we own a dog rather than feeling like we have been given a sentence. I've searched the internet and have found many articles about reactive dogs but I haven't any stories about reactive dogs recovering. Has anyone ever successfully rehabilitated a dog with these types of problems? Is there anything that worked that we aren't trying?

It is safe to assume the dog is physically healthy, I am an experienced dog owner and that even with all of the greif owning him has brought we love him very much.
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You don't say what breed the dog is, do you? That matters.
posted by nogero at 5:15 PM on August 16, 2011

You need a professional trainer, a really good one, to work with you one on one and evaluate the dog. Our dog has been rehabilitated, but it took a professional to evaluate the dog in comparison to other cases, to noticed scenarios that set the dog off, and to teach us
how to fix it. I am on my second dog, and this second one is just very different than the expectations I had set by the first dog. Lots
of training and work and our dog is not perfect but she's a lot more
comfortable. And we stopped putting her in situations where she gets upset while managing the idea that we run our lives not her.
posted by about_time at 5:27 PM on August 16, 2011

When I posted a question about my reactive dog on the Dogster forums, behaviorist Casey Lomonaco had some useful suggestions and resources. While I can't say I've made a lot of effective changes and that Lyle has recovered from being reactive, I feel like it's mostly manageable at this point.
posted by judith at 5:27 PM on August 16, 2011

I should add, the dog park is just not for every dog. It probably taught your dog that you sometimes bring her to unsafe places where she has to defend herself.
posted by about_time at 5:28 PM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I dunno. I understand that you have an investment in this dog, in terms of time, money, and emotional commitment, and that you're probably trying to be a top line pet owner, all of which are generally Good Things. But the practical part of me says that there are about 500,000 sweet, eager, well mannered dogs sleeping in shelters tonight, some of whom have a pretty short time horizon for adoption, and that if your current dog is a snapping, resource guarding, unpredictable mess that makes you afraid to have people around him, and that makes you feel "exhausted and worried that no matter how much effort I put in that he will not get to a point where it feels like we own a dog rather than feeling like we have been given a sentence", that it's my job to remind you that your bad dog is just a bad dog. If he can't be a contributing, enjoyable part of your household, do the right thing, put him down as humanely as possible with a good vet, and move on, to provide a needed home for a genuinely good dog.
posted by paulsc at 5:43 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you considered going all out and getting your dog enrolled and (re)trained in a canine behavior rehabilitation center? I don't know where you are located... here's one in California and here's one in Colorado and here's one in South Carolina that accepts dogs from all over the US. These aren't recommendations, mind - just the results of a quick google.

Most seem to start by boarding the dog on site for a period of intensive (re)training and then following up with house calls for another period. I imagine it's expensive - very expensive. But if you have the resources, it would be good to know you have tried everything before making an irrevocable decision.
posted by likeso at 6:13 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

As someone who also owns a fearful/reactive dog, I sympathize with you. It is frustrating and sometimes exhausting to own a dog whose behavior is unpredictable, especially when it doesn't seem to be getting better. It sounds like you have seen a bit of improvement, though -- before, every bike, car, and stranger was triggering and now it's just some strangers, bikes, and cars, right? The key is going to be finding out what your dog is reacting to and, most importantly, learning to read his body language for clues that he is about to explode so that you can redirect him (or just change directions on your walk) to avoid whatever is causing him such distress. Eventually, you would try to change his association with whatever he is reacting to, through counter-conditioning. I would highly suggest reading anything by Patricia McConnell (you might start with The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears). She has a strong academic and applied background in working with aggressive and/or fearful dogs and their people. Her books have helped me understand things from my dog's perspective better than anything else I've come across. Another book of hers, For the Love of a Dog, presents a more detailed look at emotion in dogs by recounting some cases Dr. McConnell has worked through. There are some happy outcomes there that might instill some hope in you.

Good luck. It's a lot of work to help a dog with issues, but your dog is extremely lucky to have someone who is willing to try.
posted by jespresso at 8:07 PM on August 16, 2011

What kind of training are you doing? Is the trainer a trained behaviorist?

Is it positive reinforcement based? Counter conditioning? Clicker training?

Or is it Cesar the Dog Whisperer type training? (Alpha rolls, you're the leader, trying to show your dominance or take his dominance down a notch.)

Say your dog is on the floor with a bone. Someone approaches him. He growls. Do you:
a) Sternly say NO! try to take the bone away, then leave.
b) You realize you've gone too quick in your training, and he shouldn't be growling, so you back up, give him a treat, click, take a step forward, click, treat. Another, click ten treats. You go away and come back, repeat the above until you get closer and closer.

Basically, your training could be working in the wrong direction. If you can respond with more about this training, we might be able to help more.

You should also talk to a GOOD vet who is equipped with some good training and behavior knowledge. To find one, ask around your area, google, look on yelp, write to a few dog rescue places.

The Sophia Yin videos are really excellent and easy to follow. The Cautious Canine (as recommended above) is good. Definitely start with "Don't Shoot the Dog." It sounds crazy but it's an excellent read and will provide a foundational knowledge for this kind of training.
posted by barnone at 10:51 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Most seem to start by boarding the dog on site for a period of intensive (re)training and then following up with house calls for another period. I imagine it's expensive - very expensive. But if you have the resources, it would be good to know you have tried everything before making an irrevocable decision.

These sorts of training programs don't really work, or if they do, the results don't last very long. The problem is that the PEOPLE have not been trained, and the dog is almost always responding to his people (not just random stimulus, but how people react to that stimulus). A few short training sessions with his owners won't undo years of different kinds of reactions. By training YOUR dog, YOU start to read his signs better, he reads yours better, you develop trust and communication skills. None of which can be farmed out to a boarding school.
posted by barnone at 10:54 PM on August 16, 2011

paulsc, you have got to be kidding. What kind of person suggests throwing away a pet because of problems?

We have had a reactive dog for five years now. She's smart, and sweet with us, but everyone else freaks her out. But her aggression is totally a front for fear, and she's never come close to hurting anyone. So it's not ideal, but she's ours, and we deal.

You don't dump a troubled dog if you're a decent person.
posted by Lizzle at 5:52 AM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

What kind of person suggests throwing away a pet because of problems?
The kind of person who understands that a pet is property and not a human being.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:23 AM on August 17, 2011

From my dog experience, I think you need to work on this sooner rather than later. Every time you react to his reaction, it’s a re-enforcement of his original reaction.

Example: There is this lady who walks her small pug around my neighborhood. If I see her walking on the other side of the street when I walk my dog, her dog usually starts barking like crazy. What does she do? Well instead of ignoring or correcting the dog’s behavior, she picks the pug up and starts petting it until I pass with my dog. Result for dog: Barking like crazy = getting cuddled with attention. And so the cycle will continue by her reaction to the dogs reaction.

A more personal experience is my dog. When we first got him, and we gave him a rawhide treat, he would suddenly turn into this wild resource guarding dog. It was as if the rawhide triggered a sleeping wild animal instinct and he would growl anytime me or my wife would go near him with his treat to the point where he would snarl and show his teeth in lunge stance. This was pretty scary for us because we never saw our dog growl or be aggressive before. He was calm as a button 99% of the time.

Well, we knew this was unacceptable. We eventually got him to calm down significantly about rawhides by doing the following. Before giving him a rawhide, I would lay the treat at my feet about 1 foot in front of me and about 2 feet in front of the dog while he was sitting. We would just stand there and if he tried to move or get the treat, I would immediately snap my fingers and say no. It would be a few minutes and then I would tell him to lay down and I would sit. Still, with the treat out of reach for him, I would start playing with the rawhide. Picking it up and moving it, basically showing the dog that it’s my treat. I did this for several more minutes. I would then let the dog sniff the rawhide before taking it back and playing with it some more. Eventually, I would let the dog have it. While he was chewing it I would pet him and make sure he was calm and show that it was ok for humans to be around while he ate the rawhide. If he growled at all, I would immediately take the treat away and put it in front of me for a minute or two before giving it back to him, trying to show that there was no need to guard it and if he was calm, then he would get the treat back.

This took several attempts by both myself and my wife, but he no longer is aggressive about rawhides. They do still seem to bring about the animal within (as raw bones and such), but if he gets out of line and even hints at growling, we take the treat away and do the same thing as before.

You can always change a dogs behavior. Remember that by being worried all the time will only feed into his reactive state. He needs you to be calm and show him the way. My dog used to be shy and timid and was so nervous he wouldn't even sit down when we first got him. Now hes loves people and will lay at your feet if you pet him in the right spot.

Take him for walks around the neighborhood at a brisk pace. Any time he reacts, just say "keep walking boy" and pay no attention. The bigger deal you make of his reaction, the more incentive for him to keep doing it. Get him nice and tired. Any time he walks by a bike, person, car, dog and does not react - give him a treat and say "good boy". Do this on small walks first, increasing as he gets better and better. Have family members and neighbors give him treats if they see him and he does not react. Let him associate that people are good things and are not to be feared. Remember that you need to visualize his better behavior. If you start worrying that he will act negatively when you see a car coming down the road, he will sense your worry and react accordingly.

In short, don't be reactive! Be a leader!
posted by amazingstill at 6:28 AM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have a very reactive Rat Terrier, or I should say we did have a very reactive Rat Terrier. What has helped us a surprising amount was going to Agility classes and buying a water pistol.

Our dog had bitten 2 people, luckily it was just a nip in both cases and in one case because an old man kept poking at him with a walking stick he also freaked out as passing cars, bikes, rollerbladers you name it and liked to greet new dogs by biting them on the nose. we knew we had to do something fast so we enrolled him in private training classes. Strangely what helped most was agility classes not obedience classes. It got him used to listening to us and got his confidence up. When we started we assumed he would always have to be in solo classes but after just a few weeks he moved up to group classes and is not even the most reactive dog in class.

When meeting strangers, or when people come to the house we put him on his lead we toss them a bag of his favourite treats and have them ignore him. And then slowly just drop a treat or 2 in front of him, no looking at him no acknowledgement nothing, just a stead stream of treats He now loves visitors and sits and tries to lean against every new person he meets.

We use the water pistol in a very simple manner, basically when he goes crazy at say a passing bike we squirt him until we have his attention and then tell him to sit. Then as soon as he sits he gets heaps of praise and we move on. We have did this for only 4 weeks or so and our dog has gone from one we are terrified to take out in public to one, that while not perfect is getting along much better.

Sorry if this sounds rushed just heading out the door but wanted you to know there is hope as your dog sounds just like ours did. Please me mail me if you have any questions and I will try to give you more coherent in depth answers. If nothing else get to a dog trainer recommended by your vet and invest in private lessons, they aren't that expensive and they can give you a lot of tools to help you. Also knowing you are not alone in dealing with the problem was a big boost for my husband and me.
posted by wwax at 3:10 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Whatever training method you are using is not working. Either that or the dog has a medical issue nobody knows about yet.

Your dog is going to need a muzzle in public and yes, see someone about anti-anxiety meds. A dog that can't be trusted around people is going to need both physical(muzzle and crating) and chemical (meds) restraints if it is going to live among them.

Sorry you are going through this. Reactivity is a lot of work for the owner (I speak from experience!). Sometimes it never really goes away (though it can be lessened to a degree).

Does the dog respect you as an owner? What happens when you tell it "no"? Most dogs don't require/need corrective training, but there are some special cases that I feel DO merit very sharp corrections a few times initially so the dog snaps out of it's crazy cujo mindset when the owner gives a command.
I would look towards your trainer/another trainer for this. I don't normally recommend corrwctive training unless all other avenues have been pursued.

Good luck. I feel for you.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 7:48 AM on August 18, 2011

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